Operation Red Sea (Hong hai xing dong)


The Sea Dragons are here to kick ass and slurp noodles and they’re all out of noodles.

(2018) War (Well Go USA) Yi Zhang, Johnny Huang, Hai-Quing, Jiang Du, Luxia Xiang, Sanâa Alaoui, Fang Yin, Yutian Wang, Guo Yubin, Henry Mai, Yu Dawei, Fenfen Huang, Nisrine Adam, Faical Elkihel, Ren Dahua, Hanyu Zhang, Noureddine Aberdine, Cai Jie, Qiang Wang, Bing Bai, Siyan Huo. Directed by Dante Lam

For awhile there it felt like the good ol’ US of A had the market cornered on chest-thumping military action films. Well, move over Uncle Sam; China has earned themselves a seat at that particular table with this big budget modern day warfare look at an elite squad (not unlike Seal Team 6) in the Chinese Navy.

The movie starts out with them rescuing a Chinese merchant vessel from Somali pirates. Captain Phillips much? In any case, no sooner have they mopped up that operation when they are urgently diverted to the North African (fictional) country of Yewaire which is suffering through a revolution being orchestrated by a terrorist organization called Zaka. Sure they want to set up their own intolerant theocracy there but there is a much more sinister motive; they’re trying to get at a supply of yellowcake, a type of weapons-grade Uranium. With that, they would be able to make a terrifying number of dirty bombs that could potentially wipe dozens of cities from the face of the map.

But then they take some Chinese civilians hostage and anyone will tell you that’s a really bad idea. The squad – called Sea Dragons – is sent in and put to work rescuing their citizens, preventing the terrorists from getting the yellowcake and in general saving the day while looking pretty dang good at it.

Like Hollywood hits 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, American Sniper and Lone Survivor, Operation Red Sea is as much entertainment as it is recruitment video – some might say propaganda (and they wouldn’t be far wrong). The military, in this case the Chinese military, is portrayed in a totally badass light with plenty of macho testosterone-laden one-liners meant to portray just how badass they are although the dialogue “Tom Yi: Give ‘em Hell!” is as cringe-inducing as a similar line from a World War II war flick is today. Kind of makes you want to slap a dame on the butt and give the Krauts what for although the Krauts here are the 21st all-purpose villain Arab terrorists.

There is a significant difference between this film and American versions however; for one thing, the Sea Dragons aren’t really given much individual character. For them and apparently the Chinese military in general as well, it’s all about the team and not the individual. The snipers here aren’t getting into one-on-one battles with their opposites pretty much although there is a little bit of that; the whole “Army of One” campaign that the US Army ran a few years back would have never played in China. Individualism is Western weakness; sacrificing for the good of society is much more desirable and that really sums up our societies in a nutshell.

Consequently there really aren’t a lot of standout performances here although the Chinese actors on display here are much more restrained than we normally see from Chinese films. One place they’ve definitely improved are on the battle sequences; utilizing Korean effects houses (the best at these kinds of effects in the business) the battles look realistic and terrifying. There’s a boatload of gore and I’m talking about an aircraft carrier, not a dinghy. Fingers are blown off, jaws are unhinged, people are perforated, stabbed, shot, burned and eviscerated and from time to time, heads are lopped off. The carnage can be pretty intense so be mindful of that if you are sensitive to such things.

This is going to feel a lot like movies you’ve seen before if you’re an American although if you’re Chinese chances are this will be much more unfamiliar ground. If the flag-waving and chest-thumping may be a little bit too bizarre for you coming from a Chinese film, it might be understandable. Not that long ago a movie like this would never have been picked up for American distribution; the Chinese military would not carry much of a resonant rooting interest for American audiences – the fact that not one Chinese civilian gets killed in this film is no accident. The message is that Chinese citizens are perfectly safe while the military is around which is some powerful stuff if you’re a citizen of the People’s Republic.

The entertainment value is pretty strong though and even though it is a bit of a different attitude than similarly themed American films there’s still the visceral enjoyment. To quote the legendary Big Jim McBob and Billy Sol Hurok, a good many things get blowed up real good. This film, playing this week at the New York Asian Film Festival, had a limited theatrical release this past February and will be available on various streaming services as well as on home video effective July 24th. If you like your war movies with all the gore and none of the angst, this one is for you.

REASONS TO GO: The action sequences are well-plotted. The movie is entertaining throughout.
REASONS TO STAY: It may be a little too long for some American audiences. It feels like a fairly standard American military action B-movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as strong and often bloody violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is loosely based on the evacuation of Chinese citizens from the port town of Aden during the Yemen Civil War of March 2015.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/2/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Navy SEALs
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Respeto

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Gods and Generals


The Civil War: the greatest American tragedy of them all.

The Civil War: the greatest American tragedy of them all.

(2003) True Life War (Warner Brothers) Stephen Lang, Robert Duvall, Jeff Daniels, Bruce Boxleitner, C. Thomas Howell, Kali Rocha, Frankie Faison, William Sanderson, Mira Sorvino, Alex Hyde-White, Matt Letscher, Joseph Fuqua, Jeremy London and a cast of thousands. Directed by Ronald F. Maxwell

The American Experience

When Gods and Generals came out in 2003, it was made by pretty much the same team that made the very successful Gettysburg in 1993 and certainly there had to have been high hopes that this would follow suit. However, while Gettysburg had Ken Burns’ highly personal and riveting PBS miniseries The Civil War to leapfrog from, it’s prequel would have no such assistance.

Based on a book by Jeffrey Shaara (whose father Michael wrote the book that Gettysburg was based on), the movie follows Confederate Lt. General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (Lang) who was one of the most brilliant and fearless military minds of his time. He worked well with General Robert E. Lee (Duvall), who considered him his best field general. Jackson, a devout man who prayed to God even as he set out to kill as many Northern invaders as he could, resigned from his post as an instructor at the Virginia Military Institute to take a post in the Confederate Army. He was responsible for some of the most important victories the Confederacy would have in the war and died senselessly, shot by his own men who mistook him and his escort for Union scouts.

I’ve always had a soft spot for the movie, even though critics at the time lambasted it for being florid, long on dialogue and riddled with too many subplots and characters. Some even criticized it for depicting Southerners as being more concerned with States rights than with Slavery. Nobody ever accused movie critics of being knowledgeable about history however. For the South, Slavery drove their economic engine and the feeling was that the abolition of Slavery would be an economic catastrophe. They didn’t want Northern politicians to tell them how to run their affairs. There is a tendency with some to depict the South as sadistic twisted slave owners who wanted the institution of Slavery to continue because of a cruel streak. What it really was about, as it usually is, was money.

So how does this film depict the American Experience? It captures a period in time when America stood at a crossroads and would in four bloody years come to define itself and its future. Certainly the movie tends to lean a little bit towards the Southern point of view, but to tar the South with a single brush is both inaccurate and a disservice. Quite frankly, I think it’s a good thing to see things from the other side – history is written by the winners and while Slavery was an abhorrent practice, to see what the South really thought they were fighting for is certainly worth considering. Gods and Generals definitely captures the period, not only in the sense of how the armies operated but the civilians as well. One thing that has been praised about this movie was their attention to detail when it came to accuracy; in fact this may be one of the most historically accurate films ever made.

Lang’s performance brings Jackson to life. While the style of speech has been heavily criticized, this is how the people of the time spoke. Clearly there is an element of history lesson here and it might be argued that the length and pacing of the movie is akin to one of those history professors who talks on and on and on and on. However, the sumptuous visuals and the attention to detail make this a history lesson that if one is willing to sit through will inform and amaze, and that’s the kind of history professor that always got my attention.

WHY RENT THIS: Unusual historical accuracy. Terrific performance by Lang. A crackerjack reproduction of the era.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Slow and ponderous. Too much speechifyin’. Overly long.

FAMILY VALUES:  While the battle sequences are tamer than some, there is still enough material here that might disturb the very sensitive.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Duvall, who played Robert E. Lee, is actually descended from the great general.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is an introduction by Ted Turner who put up the production budget of the film himself (nearly $60 million) as well as music videos from Mary Fahl and Bob Dylan and  a look at the life of Stonewall Jackson.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $12.9M on a $56M production budget; unfortunately the movie has to be considered a financial failure.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gettysburg

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The American Experience concludes!

Red Tails


Red Tails

The Tuskegee Airmen, circa 2012.

(2012) War (20th Century Fox) Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Bryan Cranston, Nate Parker, David Oyelowo, Tristan Wilds, Cliff Smith, Rick Phillips, Ne-Yo, Lee Tergesen, Daniela Ruah, Elijah Kelly, Marcus T. Paulk, Andre Royo, Gerald McRaney, Michael B. Jordan. Directed by Anthony Hemingway

 

The story of the Tuskegee Airmen is one of the most inspiring ones to come out of the Second World War. An all-black Air Squadron in the U.S. Army Air Corps (kind of a precursor to the Air Force which didn’t exist at the time), the group encountered prejudice and the prevailing attitude that African-Americans were incapable of learning the complex workings of the fighter planes and were cowardly in nature, certain to turn tail and run in combat. Spurious studies done by the U.S. Army War College apparently supported that myth.

Most people who saw the brilliant HBO movie The Tuskegee Airmen will know that the Airmen shattered that myth, posting one of the proudest records of any squadron in the war. They protected the bombers that were dropping the smackdown on Hitler and saved uncountable lives; not just the men in the bombers but the soldiers on the ground as well for whom the war was shortened because the bombers were able to do their work.

It’s high time that the Tuskegee Airmen got a proper treatment on the big screen and George Lucas, creator of the Star Wars saga, has been trying to do just that since the 1980s. However, studios were reluctant to approve a big-budget movie with an all African-American cast – it seems some battles remain un-won in the struggle.

Unfortunately, the movie that Lucas placed in the hands of first-time feature director Hemingway (who has helmed the justly acclaimed “Treme” series for HBO) falls way short of the mark. I’m not even sure where to begin with it. The script I guess for starters; it’s cliché and full of cut-out characters taken from war movies of bygone times. It’s predictable in the extreme, lacking in either vision or creativity. For whatever reason, Lucas opted to go with a fictional version of the Airmen and these Airmen lack depth and are even worse, uninteresting.

Howard fares best as Maj. Bullard, the squadron commander. He at least has some life in what he does and commands screen attention. Gooding, who was in the HBO version of the story, uses a pipe to distraction, substituting props for creating a genuine character. He sleepwalks through the part, lacking his usual energy.

Lucas is well-known for his dogfight sequences in the Star Wars movies and has said in interviews that the fights in this movie are as close as we’re going to ever come to an Episode VII in that series. If that’s the case, it’s a good thing they cut it off after six. The CGI is not just bad, it’s embarrassing. It never looks very realistic at all; it looks like a ten-year-old videogame.

For some odd reason, it appears that Terence Blanchard, who composed the score, went for a beat-heavy synthesized score rather than something more period-friendly. It’s distracting which is not what you want from a score; it should enhance the film experience, not be noticed for all the wrong reasons.

I can understand wishing to make an action movie based on the exploits of the Airmen; that would expose the squadron to a wider audience, theoretically. That’s admirable, but at least if you’re going to do that, give that wider audience a movie they’re going to want to not only see in theaters but recommend to friends.

There is an elephant in the room about this movie that I guess I’m going to address here. I’m a white critic criticizing a nearly all-African American film. To say that I don’t like the movie doesn’t mean I don’t like the subject, or that I don’t like African-Americans. I have nothing but respect for the accomplishments of the Tuskegee Airmen; I just wish they had a better film that honors those accomplishments.

REASONS TO GO: Howard lends some dignity and restraint.

REASONS TO STAY: Where to begin? Poorly acted, amateurish CGI, one of the most annoying film scores ever, a movie-of-the-week plot…the story of the Tuskegee Airmen deserved a better movie.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of war violence, some of it gruesome and there’s also some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: George Lucas has been developing the story since 1988; since studios have not been willing to finance the project, he has put his own money into making the film, almost $100 million for production and marketing.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/29/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic: 46/100. The reviews are bad to mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Miracle at St. Anna

AERIAL COMBAT LOVERS: There are a few scenes in which you get an idea of the chaotic nature of WW2 dogfights.

FINAL RATING: 2/10

TOMORROW: El Bulli: Cooking in Progress

300


300

Gerard Butler wonders why with the budget the film had they couldn't afford more than underwear and capes.

(2006) Swords and Sandals (Warner Brothers) Gerard Butler, David Wenham, Lena Headey, Dominic West, Vincent Regan, Rodrigo Santoro, Michael Fassbender, Stephen McHattie, Tom Wisdom, Andrew Pleavin, Andrew Tiernan, Giovani Antonio Cimmino, Kelly Craig.  Directed by Zack Snyder

This is not like anything you’ve ever seen or are likely to see ever again. Based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley that is a fanciful, highly stylized account of the legendary stand of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, the movie starts with a narrator (whose identity isn’t revealed until the very end of the movie) who explains the rigors of life in Sparta. Starting from birth, where babies that are considered weak, inferior or deformed are killed, the children are born to a life of cruel discipline, constant fighting, strength, honor and respect.

Leonidas (Butler) is born to this world and he takes to it like a politician to a photo-op. Now the King of Sparta, he is visited by an emissary from Persia demanding Sparta’s submission to their rule. Persia, a vast sprawling empire that encompasses hundreds of nations and a slave-driven army of more than a million, is ruled by Xerxes (Santoro from TV’s “Lost”), a decadent, corrupt ruler who believes himself to be a God. Leonidas, enraged by the implied threats, executes the Persian contingent.

Knowing that this will provoke Persia into attacking Greece, he seeks the blessing of the Ephors, grotesque inbred priests who select the most beautiful young women in Sparta to act as Oracles (Craig), which involves a lot of writhing around while semi-nude and speaking in tongues. Leonidas is aware that the Persians will arrive during one of the most sacred religious festivals on the Spartan calendar, and he wants to be able to make an exception to the law and march his army to a narrow chasm called the Hot Portals, or Thermopylae. There, the overwhelming numeric advantage of the Persians will be rendered useless. The word from On High is that the Gods will protect the Spartans as long as they honor their religious commitments. That’s not the answer that Leonidas wanted to hear.

Powerless to bring the entire Spartan army to defend his people, he must settle for his own personal guard, which includes his Captain (Regan), the Captain’s son Astinos (Wisdom), the affable Stelios (Fassbender) and the taciturn Dilios (Wenham). They march off to battle, while members of the council, led by the politically savvy Theron (West) debate whether to send aid at all which boils the blood of their fierce Queen (Headey).

The Spartans are met by a vast host of the multi-cultural Persian Army and the over-the-top King Xerxes himself. No matter what the Persians throw at them, the hard-edged Spartans repel every attempt to defeat them. They are doing the impossible – holding the pass against an overwhelming force. However, those who know the story of the 300 know that the status quo will change and the stuff of legends will be born.

This is a gritty, ultraviolent movie that director Snyder (the Dawn of the Dead remake) keeps remarkably faithful to Miller’s graphic novel vision. The movie is largely filmed with green screen, rendering epic vistas and impossible sights, while allowing them to mute the lighting so that the movie seems to be filmed entirely at dusk in a kind of sepia-toned veneer. He brings the grotesque creatures of the graphic novel to life in a way that makes them seem realistic while keeping with Miller’s vision, a very difficult line to walk (if you’ve seen any of Lynn Varley’s artwork, you’ll know what I mean). The visuals are spectacular throughout.

Butler, who had theretofore hinted at stardom with impressive turns in Phantom of the Opera and Lara Croft: The Cradle of Life here does a star turn. His dialogue is delivered at full volume, and his face much of the time is contorted into a primal snarl (and for the ladies, he spends most of the movie wearing a black leather speedo), but he carries himself with a presence that commands your attention every moment he’s onscreen. Leonidas is king, yes, but he is also a man and his interactions with his wife and son give the movie it’s very few quiet moments. This is a starmaking turn and propelled Butler into the upper echelon of the Hollywood star hierarchy.

Headey makes a great foil for Butler, as strong and charismatic as he himself is. Her Queen Gorgo takes on Dominic West’s Theron without blinking an eyelash and shows herself to be as admirable a Spartan as any man. Santoro’s Xerxes is decadent, corrupt and a little bit fey. Regan, Wisdom, Fassbinder and Wenham do fine jobs as Leonidas’ inner circle – they’re Spartans all through and through. They go full bore and hold nothing back. In fact there are very few things that are anything less than the very highest volume. There are a few moments that are about the three quarter mark, particularly early on.

Otherwise this is a movie that was filmed at 11, and is meant to be played back at 11 (to use a Spinal Tap analogy). It is an overwhelming sensory experience that will release a surge of testosterone in all but the most non-masculine sorts and give women their opportunity to access their inner man. This isn’t the most historically accurate epic you’ll ever see, but think of it as a surreal dream version of history and that might salve the conscience of sticklers a little bit. So go, see the movie, and then go out and beat somebody up, preferably with a sword. If you’re wearing a leather speedo, so much the better. 

WHY RENT THIS: Stunning, innovative visuals and a star-making performance by Butler. Takes a graphic novel and cranks it up to “11.”

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The amount of testosterone flowing through this movie might be off-putting to someone who doesn’t like their movies quite so over-bearing.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is some really graphic battleground violence, a bit of nudity and a little sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The quote attributed to Stelios here “Then we shall fight in the shade” when warned that the rain of Persian arrows will blot out the sun was actually spoken historically by a Spartan soldier named Dionekes.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There is a feature examining the historical license taken by Miller and by the filmmakers, comparing the events of the movie to what actually happened at Thermopylae. There is also a featurette on Miller, his early years and the writing of the original graphic novel. On the Blu-Ray edition is the original test footage Snyder used to sell the Warners executives on the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $456M on a $65M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

TOMORROW: Bridesmaids

Tropic Thunder


Tropic Thunder

Stiller and Downey share a tender moment in Tropic Thunder.

(2008) Comedy (DreamWorks) Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Nick Nolte, Steve Coogan, Tom Cruise, Jay Baruchel, Bill Hader, Matthew McConaughey, Danny McBride, Brandon Jackson, Matt Levin, Reggie Lee.  Directed by Ben Stiller

Hollywood is indeed a dream factory, a place in which fantasies are packaged and sold. In making these fantasies however, sometimes real life becomes blurred and the line between the two disappears completely.

Tugg Speedman (Stiller) is an action star who yearned to branch out and do serious drama, but his one attempt (“Simple Jack”) ended up in disaster, with Tugg playing a mentally challenged farmer who thought he could communicate with animals. It was a naked Oscar play and everyone knew it and now Tugg’s career is in the dumpster. He’s making a big-budget star-studded war film to do a little career resuscitation.

The movie he’s doing is based on the memoirs of a Vietnam vet named Four Leaf Tayback (Nolte), a tough as nails soldier who lost limbs in the war. Joining Tugg in the cast is Kirk Lazarus (Downey), a five-time Oscar winner and method actor who gets so into the role he has his skin surgically dyed so he is able to convincingly play a black Sergeant. Comedian Jeff Portnoy (Black) has made a career out of fart jokes and self-indulgence. A heroin addict, he is on the raggedy edge of falling apart.

This is enough to give any director cardiac arrest, and director Damien Cockburn (Coogan) is close to it himself. The massive budget is spiraling out of control, with the prima donna actors causing numerous delays while technical issues drive the production further into the red and behind schedule. The studio head, Les Grossman (Cruise) is placing enough pressure on Cockburn to make the Dali Lama pick up an AK-47 and start firing randomly.

So, taking a cue from the crusty Tayback, Cockburn decides to send the cast into the real jungle, with cameras set up in various places. No trailers, no personal assistants, no Blackberries – just acting in the jungle. Speedman is gung ho for the idea, even after things begin to go south. As in, they fall afoul of an actual crew of drug runners who are shooting at them with real bullets. The actors, not knowing any better, are merely waiting for someone to yell “cut”!

This is a nice little satire on Hollywood and its denizens, from the unctuous agent (McConaughey) to the harried studio assistant (Hader). Stiller turns this into a cross between Airplane and Rambo with a number of homages in between. In fact there are so many you have to keep a sharp eye open to catch them all.

With a cast like this you’d expect there to be some hilarity but very often in these kind of all-star romps it descends into a series of bits that ultimately don’t make much of a cohesive whole. That’s not the problem here. This isn’t a bunch of stars doing their thing – it’s a movie in which everyone contributes their bit, from Jackson as rapper Alpa Chino who as the only actor who is genuinely of African descent is annoyed at the antics of Lazarus who in his method haze genuinely believes he’s black to McBride as an explosives expert who is in above his head.

Downey in fact proves to be a terrific comic actor who isn’t above poking fun at himself. Downey is himself a method actor and stays in character onscreen and off until, as Lazarus puts it, the DVD commentary is done. Stiller bulked up to play the somewhat clueless Speedman. It’s a bit like shooting fish in a barrel but still his character has a bit of Hollywood diva in it to make it more interesting than the average action star send-up.

Black is actually a little bit toned down here, although he has moments in which he indulges his usual manic persona a little bit. I think it works even in the context of Portnoy the heroin addict, although towards the end of the movie the character is wearing a bit thin on me.

For my money it is Cruise who makes the biggest impact here, completely going out on a limb as the foul-mouthed bastard of a studio head. His performance was so indelible that plans are afoot to make a movie based on his character when Cruise finishes his next film. There are those who think that Cruise restored a lot of bad karma to the good side with his performance here. I’m not such a big believer in that kind of thing, but I do believe you’ll remember Cruise long after the movie’s over.

There are times that the movie tries a bit too hard to be funny and becomes rather silly instead (which is usually what happens when you try too hard to be funny) but fortunately that doesn’t happen often enough to be of consequence. As comedies go, this one should be near the top of your list when searching the DVD racks for something funny to watch.

WHY RENT THIS: A terrific cast that works well together to make a great ensemble film, rather than a bunch of bits strung together. Cruise is classic as the foul-mouthed studio mogul.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Descends into silliness upon occasion.  

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a lot of bad words, a lot of sexual innuendo, a bit of drug usage and a whole mess o’ violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: According to Stiller, Jack Black filmed most of the movie with bruised ribs.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s an excellent Mockumentary on the making of the film that is supposedly being made with a nod to Heart of Darkness and Werner Herzog. There’s a bit of raw footage showing how the actor’s improvised on set plus a piece from the MTV Movie Awards showing how a trio of the leads tried to promote the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $188.1M on a $92M production budget; the movie broke even.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Everything Must Go

The Messenger


The Messenger

Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster prepare to deliver devastating news.

(Oscilloscope Laboratories) Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, Samantha Morton, Jena Malone, Eamonn Walker, Steve Buscemi, Yaya DaCosta. Directed by Oren Moverman

It is a fact of war that soldiers die, and it is a part of the Army’s responsibility to notify the next of kin that their loved one has died. That is perhaps the most difficult assignment any soldier could ever receive. You have to wonder what it does to the people delivering the bad news to family after family.

SSgt. Will Montgomery (Foster) is just back from a tour in Iraq, having been injured in battle. He has three months left on his tour and the Army, rather than sending him back overseas, decides to assign him to the Casualty Notification Service. These are the men who show up at the door in dress uniforms to inform the next of kin that their loved one is dead.

Will is assigned to Capt. Tony Stone (Harrelson), a veteran of the service who has written the book on how to do the job properly; use the prepared verbiage, never hug or touch the NOK (next of kin – the Army is inordinately fond of acronyms) and never, EVER get involved with them. The touch feely stuff is handled by professionals. Their job is to deliver the news nobody wants to hear. Period.

Each assignment is different. Some react with anger and resentment; others with wailing and sobbing. Some, like Olivia (Morton), a new widow hanging out the washing in her front yard, handle it with a strange kind of calm and politeness.

That particular reaction is like catnip to Will, who can’t really figure it out. He finds himself drawn to her, running into her at the mall (accidentally on purpose), fixing her car, helping her get ready to move and so on. That puts some strain on the relationship between Will and Tony, which has deepened into a strange kind of friendship. Both men have deep-seated issues; Tony with alcoholism, Will with the men he left behind. As Will encounters more and more grief, it soon becomes clear that he will need to deal with his own.

This is the first feature for Moverman, who is himself a veteran of the Israeli army. The movie isn’t a technical achievement by any means; he wisely keeps it simple and allows the powerful story and strong performances to captivate the viewer.

The performances are strong indeed. Harrelson was quite justifiably nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar and this is one of the best performances of his career. His Tony Stone is a ramrod-straight by-the-book military officer who, if you rub some of the spit and polish off, is terribly wounded and weak in his own way. His last scene is pivotal and one of the highlights of the film.

Morton is not an actress I’m enamored of, but she does solid work here. While I found the relationship between Olivia and Will unlikely, it wasn’t because of Morton. Rather, I thought the situation didn’t ring true; while the grieving process can cause people to act in ways they wouldn’t ordinarily (and certainly in ways that defy logic), it didn’t seem to me that Olivia would lose her heart so quickly. It seemed at odds with the character, although again I acknowledge that grief makes people do funny things.

The movie rests on Foster’s shoulders; it is his performance that will carry or ruin the film. Fortunately, it is the former. Foster has mostly played twitchy villains in his career, but here he plays a twitchy lead. It’s a nuanced performance that really allows us to look at how war can wound in ways that aren’t always visible.

This isn’t an easy movie to watch. It deals with some of the most raw, terrible emotions that humans are capable of feeling. Particularly moving is Buscemi’s performance as a grieving dad, who screams at the soldiers’ departing backs “Why aren’t YOU over there? Why aren’t YOU dead?” It’s compelling stuff, but watching movies this emotionally charged can be very hard on the psyche – which in my opinion is a good thing.

I like that we get to see a part of the armed forces that is overlooked; when our brave warriors make the ultimate sacrifice, it is up to these professionals to deliver the worst news possible to those left behind. It takes the kind of bravery that is equal to that of facing enemy fire on the battlefield.

WHY RENT THIS: The performances of Foster and the Oscar-nominated Harrelson make this memorable. The subject looks into a little-seen aspect of the Army.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little too much pathos and the relationship between Will and Olivia seemed a trifle forced to me.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sexuality and a smattering of foul language, but it is the subject matter that makes this a bit too difficult for the younger set.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sgt. Brian Scott, who served as a technical consultant on the film, was subsequently deployed to Iraq where he was injured by an IED in Baghdad.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Strangely, the DVD contains an interesting documentary on the Casualty Notification and Casualty Assistance offices of the Army that is not present on the Blu-Ray.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage

Flags of Our Fathers


Flags of Our Fathers

An iconic photo that has left an indelible impression on the American psyche.

(DreamWorks) Ryan Phillippe, Adam Beach, Jesse Bradford, Paul Walker, Robert Patrick, Neal McDonough, John Benjamin Hickey, John Slattery, Barry Pepper, Jamie Bell, Joseph Cross, George Grizzard, Harve Presnell, Len Cariou, Judith Ivey, Jon Polito, Tom McCarthy, Benjamin Walker.  Directed by Clint Eastwood

World War II was a turning point for our country, one in which we made the transition to greatness. One of the defining moments in that conflict was the Battle of Iwo Jima. Who can forget the iconic photograph of the marines raising the flag on Mt. Suribachi, or of John Wayne dying on its sands. Still, the battle has been given short shrift by Hollywood over the years. Director Clint Eastwood looks to rectify it with not just one, but two movies on the subject. The second, told from the Japanese point of view, is called Letters From Iwo Jima. This is the first, based on the book of the same name by James Bradley.

The movie opens with John “Doc” Bradley (Phillippe) in mid-battle, leaving his buddy Ralph “Iggy” Ignatowsky (Bell) in a neighboring foxhole to attempt to save a fallen marine; he is forced to kill a charging Japanese soldier who appears out of the night like a wraith. When he returns to his foxhole, a different man is there. Alarmed, Bradley calls for his friend, earning a sharp rebuke from the man in the foxhole (“What are you doing? You want to give them something to shoot at?”).

Then we discover this is a dream of a much older man (Grizzard) who is remembering a battle long since fought. Now in the twilight of his life, the elder Doc lives with his son James (McCarthy) who discovers his father fallen on the floor, confused and calling out for someone who he can’t seem to find.

From there, we are taken to the beach of Iwo Jima, one of the bloodiest battles to be fought in the Second World War. Executive producer Steven Spielberg, who had his own war epic in Saving Private Ryan, may have helped Eastwood stage the amphibious invasion of the tiny island. It is an awe-inspiring sight and must have looked terrifying to the 22,000 Japanese soldiers stationed on the island.

At first, the Marines advance on the beach with no resistance, but when the fight comes, it is terrible in its ferocity and carnage. Eastwood pulls no punches in showing just how terrible conditions were during the battle and just how high a price the victors paid for that victory.

Early on, the United States captures Mt. Suribachi, the highest point on the island. A group of six marines is sent up to hoist the American flag on a pole at the top of the mountain. The sight of Old Glory waving in the breeze gives quite a lift to the men below on the beach. This isn’t lost on a politician who has arrived on the island, and who determines that he wants that flag in his office.

Angered at the gall of the civilian, the company commander sends a much bigger flag up the hill with a group of Marines who had been assigned to string telephone wire to the top of the hill. Led by Sgt. Mike Strank (Pepper), corpsman Bradley (the only non-Marine on the mountain that day), Ira Hayes (Beach), Rene Gagnon (Bradford), Franklin Sousley (Cross) and Harland Block (Benjamin Walker) the men take down the smaller flag and raise the larger one. Civilian photographer Joe Rosenthal (Ned Eisenberg) happens to be there to capture the moment. Nobody thinks anything of it at the time; Rosenthal himself thinks that the picture isn’t all that good, since the faces of the men aren’t easily made out.

That moment, however, would provide a turning point. The war-weary American public aren’t aware that the country is nearly broke and in a month or two, will no longer be able to continue the fight. Bonds must be raised, and that picture has captivated the imagination of the American people. The Pentagon, realizing the worth of these Marines would be incalculable back home, pull them from the fight still raging on Iwo Jima and send them back to raise cash. By the time the summons comes through, three of them are already dead.

Although the movie is ostensibly about the battle (and it is shown in flashbacks regularly), it is actually about the men. Moreover, it is about how heroism is really the manufacture of the perceptions of the public. The Marines are puzzled that they are receiving the adoration that they do; to their viewpoint, their heroism involved sticking a flag on a pole and setting it into the earth. In point of fact, Gagnon had been employed as a runner during the battle and saw little or no actual fighting. This leads to some friction between him and Hayes, who feels a tremendous guilt over those left behind, particularly Strank who was a mentor to him and something of a role model.

They are accompanied on a war bonds fundraising tour by Bud Gerber (Slattery), a military publicist and a liaison (Hickey) whose job is to make sure the men make it from one appearance to the next. This takes its toll on the heroes, particularly Hayes who as an American Indian sees considerable prejudice leveled against him and begins to lean heavily on the crutch of alcohol, and on Gagnon who hopes to turn his notoriety to his advantage.

Yes, there are some tremendous battle scenes, some of the most graphic and disturbing I’ve seen, but Eastwood wisely concentrates his efforts on the story of the flag raisers, the effect that this unwanted fame had on them and on the brotherhood forged in the fires of war. He has a very solid cast of terrific character actors, particularly Pepper and McDonough who play commanding officers with the kind of charisma you’d expect from a combat marine in command.

Cinematographer Tom Stern keeps the focus a little bit on the soft side, which further identifies this as a period piece. Eastwood, who composed the score, uses period music and subdued guitars to enhance the mood nicely as well as set the time and place.

As a sidebar, we were fortunate enough to catch the showing we went to in the company of someone who actually survived the battle; when asked if what was onscreen was accurate, he smiled, said “Pretty much,” and walked off, no doubt lost in his own memories.

Those looking for a more detailed account on the battle should be directed to the documentary To the Shores of Iwo Jima which was produced by the War Department shortly after the battle was won, and contains contemporary footage of the actual surviving flag raisers. Those who want more of a depiction of the tremendous guilt that comes with surviving a terrible battle should see this. What I found most interesting about Flags of Our Fathers is the governmental hero manufacture that goes on even today.

WHY RENT THIS: Terrifying battle footage is offset nicely by the story of the toll that is taken on the heroic Marines. Beach gives a career-making performance as an alcoholic Native American.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Battle footage may be too intense for some.

FAMILY VALUES: Graphic battle scenes as well as some wrenching emotional scenes mark this as one best left for mommy and daddy.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The scenes on Iwo Jima were actually filmed in Iceland; Iwo Jima is considered sacred to the Japanese people and permission to film all but some establishing shots at the memorial on the Island were denied by the Japanese government.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There are several on the 2-Disc Special Edition DVD. “Six Brave Men” chronicles the lives of the six real-life soldiers who raised the flag. “Looking Into the Past” uses color newsreel footage of the battle, the flag-raising and the bond drive depicted in the movie. “Words On the Page” details the writing of the original novel and translating it into a screenplay.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Choke