5 Days of War


5 Days of War

Another New York City marathon gets underway!

(2011) War (Anchor Bay) Rupert Friend, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Heather Graham, Jonathan Schaech, Andy Garcia, Val Kilmer, Richard Coyle, Rade Serbedzija, Dean Cain, Ken Cranham, Mikko Nousiainen, Mikheil Gomiashvili, Antje Traue. Directed by Renny Harlin

 

There is nothing good or noble about war. Men have waxed poetic about war and its virtues, but the truth of war is that it is savage and horrible, appealing only to the base instincts of men in reality – the need to take by force that which isn’t given freely. There is nothing noble about war.

War correspondent Thomas Anders (Friend) knows that better than most. The girl he loved (Graham) was caught in the crossfire during one of his assignments and left him alone and bitter. Then, a colleague, a cheerfully debauched Dutchman (Kilmer) points Anders in the direction of Georgia – not the state, the Russian republic – which was on the brink of war with Russia. The Georgian president, Mikheil Saakshvili (Garcia) frets and wonders why the West isn’t helping his tiny Republic take on the Russian juggernaut but the West is mostly focusing on the Beijing Olympics. Priorities.

Anders brings along his trusty cameraman Sebastian Ganz (Coyle) and manage to get in the thick of a wedding that winds up being scattered to the four winds when shelling interrupts the ceremony. They wind up hooking up with Tattia (Chriqui) whose sister’s wedding it was. She agrees to serve as their interpreter in exchange for them helping her locate and reunite with her family.

They witness the Russian army committing some atrocities and get it on film. The Russian commander Aleksandr Demidov (Serbedzija) gets wind of this and sends his brutal mercenary commando Danlil (Nousiainen) after them. Anders and Ganz get their footage onto a flash drive and try to escape to a place of safety where they can get their footage to the authorities. The trouble is, the authorities are corrupt and the major networks disinterested. Somehow Anders is going to have to find a way to make the world listen.

Harlin has directed some pretty nifty action films in his day including Speed but has hit a dry patch of late. This isn’t going to help him get back into the game to be honest. I understand that the film was at least partially financed by Georgia and the country allowed some of their military equipment to be used in the film and quite frankly part of the film’s highlights are the very realistically staged battle sequences.

However in a very real way that’s a deal with the devil; the film is certainly from the Georgian point of view with the Russians being loathsome monsters and the Georgians martyrs. The real war – and it was a real war – wasn’t like that. Like most conflicts, there wasn’t one villain and one hero although as with most conflicts both sides saw it that way.

Anyone who’s seen films like The Year of Living Dangerously will recognize most of the clichés about war correspondents in war situations. Whether or not they’re true (and for the most part they’re based in truth but like most Hollywood clichés made extreme) they still ring hollow here; it feels like a movie we’ve seen before only not as well made. Sure it’s not completely without value but it just feels more like propaganda.

When a film quotes “The first casualty in war is the truth” and then goes on to show only an aspect of it, two things happen – first, we are reminded that truth is often a matter of perspective. What one side considers unshakable fact the other usually considers to be an outright lie. Second, the filmmakers lose their credibility amid the further hypocrisy of trotting out Georgian survivors of war atrocities to tell their stories. At no point is any Russian allowed to refute any of this.

I’m not saying that the Russians didn’t do some of the things you see here – I have no doubt that they did. I’m certainly not excusing the behavior; it’s just that I don’t believe one side was made up of saints and the others sinners. The Georgians have their own culpability to bear here and we don’t get to see it, leaving the proceedings uncomfortably one-sided. A little more honesty would have made for a better movie.

WHY RENT THIS: Realistic war action.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: One-sided to the point of ridiculousness. Overwrought and cliché.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of war violence and bad language but there are also some scenes of war atrocities that might be a bit too intense for younger and more sensitive viewers.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Early on President Saakshvili can be seen chewing on his tie; this was based on an actual incident in which the real President Saakshvili was accidentally caught on-camera when he didn’t think that it was filming munching on his tie. The footage can still be found on the Internet if you Google it.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $17,479 on a $12M production budget; even those without math skills know this was a box office dud.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bang Bang Club

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Meet the Parents

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Miracle at St. Anna


Miracle at St. Anna

If you mess with these guys, they'll sic the kid on ya!

(Touchstone) Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonso, Omar Benson Miller, Pierfrancesco Favino, Valentina Cervi, Matteo Sciabordi, Walton Goggins. Directed by Spike Lee

It all begins with a post office and an old man trying to buy some stamps. This leads to a senseless murder, a nearly-retired postal worker pulling a gun on the old man and shooting him dead in cold blood. Further investigation turns up something startling; hidden in the apartment of the postal worker is the head of an ancient Italian statue, worth a ridiculous amount of money. What was it doing in the home of a postal worker and why did he kill that old man apparently at random?

See, it all really begins with World War II, and the 92nd Infantry Buffalo Soldiers during the invasion of Italy. Four servicemen – straight-arrow SSgt. Stamps (Luke), huge child-like PFC Train (Miller), steady Cpl. Negron (Alonso) and skirt-chasing asshole Sgt. Cummings (Ealy) – survive the brutal crossfire of a Nazi ambush coupled with the artillery barrage from their own commanders who didn’t believe black soldiers could have advanced that far that quickly. They flee across a river to relative safety where Train befriends an injured Italian orphan boy (Sciabordi) who refers to the lumbering Train as his “chocolate giant.”  

Train carries around the head of a statue he picked up in Florence, which he believes makes him invisible or invulnerable when he rubs it (Run, Forrest, RUN) which fascinates the boy. The four soldiers and the boy make their way to a small Italian village which has suffered cruelly under the yoke of the Nazis and the Fascists. They welcome the soldiers in, and nurse the injured boy back to health.

The soldiers feel at ease here, as Stamps comments “I feel freer here than I do at home.” The bond between the soldiers is tested when both Stamps and Miller chase after the same white Italian woman, while an Italian partisan shows up trying to find out why a small Italian town nearby was massacred by the Nazis. The interlude allows the men to talk about why they’re fighting. However, it becomes clear that it isn’t a matter of if the Germans are going to come back to town but when, and getting the four soldiers back to their unit is going to take a miracle.

I’m deliberately withholding a good deal of plot points here, mainly so that they don’t get spoiled, although to be honest it makes the plot sound like a bit of a mess. It all winds up making sense, even though it takes nearly two and a half hours to get there. Lee hasn’t directed a war movie before, but he does a credible job. Some of the battle scenes are brutal indeed, with limbs flying everywhere and blood spattering everywhere else. It might even be argued that the battle scenes are too brutal, although I found them to be no less visceral than Saving Private Ryan, I can see where sensitive sorts might feel a little queasy.

The problem here is that the movie tells a story that is about an hour and a half long in two and a half hours. The bookending sequence of the post office murder and its aftermath seems a bit unnecessary and there are places where the plot gets bogged down. I think it might have been a mistake to let novelist James McBride adapt his own novel; it is difficult for writers to edit their own work and the script could have benefitted from someone less emotionally invested in it cutting some of the fat.

The battle sequences, while gory, are really well done, particularly the final Nazi assault on the town. There is a bit of a mystical background that I won’t get into that plays a role nicely here; the movie could have easily ended at this point, although it goes on for some time after that.

This is an ensemble piece in the truest sense of the word, with none of the actors really standing out, but here that’s actually a compliment. Luke, Ealy, Miller and Alonso work off of each other to make a good movie rather than a star turn; it shows professionalism and sacrifice on the part of each man and they should be applauded for that if nothing else. However, you can also applaud them for bringing some humanity to their roles which could have easily descended into one-note caricatures.

I have always blown hot and cold about Spike Lee. When he is at his best, as in Malcolm X and She’s Gotta Have It, he is one of the best directors of this generation. When he’s at his worst, as in She Hate Me and School Daze, his work can be mind-numbing. Miracle at St. Anna falls somewhere in between; while it raises the conversational bar about racism in the military and the motivations of African-American fighting for freedoms that they didn’t enjoy at home, it fills so much space with soap opera and extraneous material that the film’s message gets lost in the noise. Still, when you have a director as technically proficient as Lee is, even the noise is entertaining.  

WHY RENT THIS: A sometimes brutal look at World War II from a different angle than the more mainstream films we’ve seen lately like Saving Private Ryan and A Flag for Our Fathers.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie runs overly long and some of the combat sequences seem to be carnage for their own sake.

FAMILY VALUES: As this is a war movie, there is some battle carnage, also a good deal of salty language. There’s also some nudity and sexual situations; rent this for viewing after the kids are in bed.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Wesley Snipes was originally cast in the film, but had to drop out due to his tax evasion trial.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Exclusively on the Blu-Ray edition there is a roundtable discussion between Lee, McBride and veterans of the Buffalo Soldiers and the Tuskegee Airmen regarding racial prejudice in the armed forces, and a featurette on the history of the Buffalo Soldiers.  

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Yes Man