The East (De Oost)


Take me to the river.

(2020) War (Magnet) Martijn Lakemeier, Marwan Kenzari, Jonas Smulders, Abel van Gijlswijk, Coen Bril, Reinout Scholten van Aschat, Jim Deddes, Jeroen Perceval, Mike Reus, Joenoes Polnaija, Denise Aznam, Peter Paul Muller, Huub Smit, Putri Ayudya, Lukman Sardi, David Wristers, Robert de Hoog, Reinout Bussemaker, Joes Brauers, Nanette Edens. Directed by Jim Taihuttu

 

Before the United States sank into the quagmire that was Vietnam, the Netherlands had Indonesia, or the Dutch East Indies as it was then known. It was 1945 and World War II had just ended. The Netherlands had been occupied for the bulk of the war by the Nazis and her East Asian colonies had been occupied by Japan. Now the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army was in the process of booting the Japanese out.

But the inhabitants of the many islands that make up Indonesia were fed up with colonialism. They wanted to rule themselves, to determine their own future. But they were divided by hundreds of islands and so there was fighting sprouting up all over the place and the army was sent in to quell these pockets of unrest that could turn into a full-blown rebellion if the various factions were to unite.

Into this atmosphere comes Johan de Vries (Lakemeier), a young man with redemption on his mind. His father had disgraced the family name – the name Johan had been born with – and when others in the company get wind of who Johan is – or rather, who his father is – things get a little dicey for him. He finds a role model in Raymond Westerling (Kenzari), known to the enlisted men as “The Turk” whose very simple black and white assessment of the situation has won the admiration of the men, and his non-nonsense results-oriented approach has many thinking that he should be in charge.

In fact, Westerling is soon given his own elite team of men in black uniforms that are eerily reminiscent of the Gestapo and they are sent to fight terror with some of their own. Westerling’s methods are brutal and final. At first, Johan is fine with those methods – he doesn’t exactly have a moral compass that points true north – but as he sees that their efforts are giving the Indonesians someone to unify against, he begins to reconsider his allegiance – and that the Turk cannot tolerate.

The depiction here of the Dutch army would prompt a lawsuit from a veteran’s group in the Netherlands who objected to the way the Dutch soldiers are portrayed, but director Jim Taihuttu sourced much of his material from the diaries of men who actually served in the conflict. The lawsuit eventually made its way through the Dutch courts where the defense was eventually successful in winning the case.

The depiction of the fighting men and the steamy jungle warfare harkens back to classic Vietnam war films like Apocalypse Now, Casualties of War and Platoon, and while some of the plot elements appear to have been at least inspired by those films (one could draw a direct line from Colonel Kurtz to the Turk and not be wrong), the movie has a sensibility all its own – perhaps because the war is largely unknown today, even in the Netherlands.

Both Lakemeier and Kenzari play morally compromised characters and do a fine job of making them both reasonably relatable, although Westerling eventually goes right off the rails at the very end. The fact that both men are so flawed makes them so compelling.

As war movies go, there is not nearly as much action in this film as you might expect, which in a nearly 2 ½ hour film may make attention-challenged Americans squirm a bit in their chairs. The middle third of the movie is a bit ponderous, and I could have done without the subplot about Johan’s relationship with an Indonesian prostitute. It’s that last third, however, that is where The East really shines. Truth be told though, I must admit I was a little bit disappointed by the ending, but it is telegraphed a little bit by the opening scenes.

All in all, this is a fairly densely packed movie that gives the audience a whole lot to think about, especially considering the morality of nations and of the soldiers. The Dutch soldiers feel nothing but disdain for the Indonesians, who they call “brown monkeys” (and worse) and essentially assert that the whole idea of independence is ludicrous because they couldn’t possibly govern themselves. Of course, time proved those soldiers wrong as Indonesia has one of the most vibrant economies on Earth currently.

I really liked the movie, but I can see how it won’t be for everyone. The run time might give some pause and the lack of spectacle even more so. However, it does bring to light a conflict that evidently we haven’t learned from nearly 80 years after the fact. If we had, we never would have stayed in Afghanistan as long as we did.

REASONS TO SEE: Gritty and dark. Some strong performances from the leads.
REASONS TO AVOID: Drags a bit in the middle and I’m not a fan of the ending.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, racial slurs, war violence, sex and nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Taihuttu’s grandfather fought and died in the conflict as a member of the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Alamo On-Demand, Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/17/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Platoon
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Not Going Quietly

Recon (2019)


Walking in the woods on a snowy evening.

(2019) War (Brainstorm) Alexander Ludwig, RJ Featherstonhaugh, Franco Nero, Chris Brochu, Mitch Ainley, Christopher Crema, Julian Domingues, Sam Keeley, Lochlyn Munro, Tyler Hynes, Blake Williams, Robert Stratford, Nathan Jean, Chase Sander, Luigi Platania, Justin Derrickson, Kevin McPherson Eckhoff, Christie Burke. Directed by Robert David Port

 

It is World War II and the fighting in Italy is coming to a close. The Nazis are on the run, and the fascist government in Rome has collapsed. An American officer, Captain Rogers (Munro) – not Steve – has tasked one of his units with going into the Italian mountains to find reliable intelligence as to where the Germans are and whether they are massing for a counter-attack.

This particular unit is a bit traumatized. They had witnessed their commanding officer (Hynes) execute an innocent and are being sent on a dangerous mission with very little idea of what they are getting themselves into. The sergeant splits his team into two units; we are following the one led by Corporal Marson (Ludwig), along with Privates Asch (Brochu), Heisman (Featherstonehaugh), and Joyner (Keeley). They run into an aged Italian man named Angelo (Nero) who is willing to lead them into the mountains – even though his English is dicey at best – and point out where the Germans are, but can they trust him, or is he really a German spy, who is leading them to their death?

It wouldn’t take much to get them there. They are being stalked by a German sniper (Jean) and the mountains are bitter cold and full of wolves. They must traverse rickety rope bridges and the stress becomes palpable as the men bicker among themselves, much to the disgust of Angelo who, as it turns out, has some military experience.

The movie is surprisingly strong, but then again, Port was an Oscar winner for his documentary short Twin Towers. He builds a sense of dread that is gripping, and while the characters are a bit war-movie cliché – the loud-mouthed city boy, the aw-shucks football player, the conflicted leader, they’re all here. Cinematographer Edd Lukas does a great job of capturing the stark winter landscape, making it both forbidding and beautiful.

The movie is a bit slow-moving as we follow this remarkably talkative unit into dangerous territory where snipers could be anywhere; even when they are under fire by a hidden gunman, they still insist on talking as if their pursuer can’t hear them. It’s a bit unrealistic and it does take the logically-minded out of the movie a bit.

The performances, though, are strong – in particular Ludwig, who most know from the recently-completed Vikings TV series, and Nero, who is worth seeing even in a fairly small but pivotal role. Brochu is also sufficiently entertaining as the team’s wiseacre. Apparently based on an actual incident (as chronicled in a book by Richard Bausch entitled Peace which was the original title of the film), the movie could have used some trimming but be that as it may, it’s a surprisingly strong, surprisingly taut war movie that should be on the radar of war movie buffs.

REASONS TO SEE: Does a decent job of setting a tense, suspenseful atmosphere.
REASONS TO AVOID: Takes a while to get where it wants to go.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and war violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed in British Columbia.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/4/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Saving Private Ryan
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Dear Santa

A Call to Spy


Virginia Hill wonders how come James Bond got a sports car and she got a bicycle?

(2019) War (IFCSarah Megan Thomas, Stana Katic, Radhika Apte, Linus Roache, Rossif Sutherland, Samuel Roukin, Andrew Richardson, Laila Robins, Marc Rissmann, Mathilde Olivier, Lola Pashalinski, David Schaal, Rob Heaps, Matt Salinger, Marceline Hugot, Cynthia Mace, Joe Doyle, Alistair Brammer, Helen Kennedy, Juliana Sass, Sigrid Owen, Gemma Massot. Directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher

V

When we think of the heroes of the Second World War, we often think of lantern-jawed white men, aw-shucks farm boys, daring partisans and clever Englishmen, often played by such as Gary Cooper, Clint Eastwood and Tom Hanks. There were, however, many different kinds of heroes.

After France fell, there was a feeling of desperation in England, knowing that they were likely the next to feel the brunt of the Nazi war machine (America hadn’t entered the war at that time). Finding out what the Nazis were up to was paramount, and there were no reliable ways to get that information; spies were being discovered and executed by the SS almost as soon as the Strategic Operations Executive – the office of British intelligence during the early days of the war – could send them.

In desperation, Winston Churchill ordered that women be sent over to Occupied France. He reasoned that women might be able to move about more freely and attract less suspicion. Vera Atkins (Katic), a Jewish-Romanian immigrant and a secretary in the SOE office was tasked with recruiting women for the job by her boss, Maurice Buckmaster (Roche).

Atkins took the job seriously and went after women that the Nazis might not suspect of being spies. One of her recruits was Virginia Hall (Thomas), a secretary in the American embassy with aspirations to becoming a diplomat, although her wooden leg (she lost her leg in a hunting accident) seemed to be keeping her from achieving her goal. Another was Noor Inayat Khan (Apte), a Muslim-Pakistani of royal lineage who wanted to make a difference in the war for her adopted country.

It was obviously dangerous work; most of the women sent overseas never made it back home, but the work they did was invaluable. Buckmaster characterized it as “ungentlemanly warfare,” recruiting members of the resistance, relaying information back to England via wireless operators (like Khan) and committing acts of sabotage. They were surrounded by collaborators and counterspies, and many of the women were betrayed to the Nazis.

The movie, which was written by Thomas who also co-produced it, is largely the work of women behind the camera, which is to be celebrated. A story about women by women is something that cinema needs more of, particularly those about women whose accomplishments were largely lost to history. Thomas and director Lydia Dean Pilcher concentrate on the stories of Hill, Atkins and Khan. All three women were facing death at any moment – for Atkins, her citizenship was held up and she lived with the constant threat of being deported back to Romania, which was part of the Axis back then and almost certainly she would have been promptly executed had that happened. All three women were fighting against the preconceptions of men – Hill because of her disability, Khan because of her diminutive stature and nationality – as well as the Nazis.

The story is one worth telling, but that doesn’t mean that it is told particularly well here. The dialogue has a tendency to be eye-rolling and the movie takes on a Girl Power tone which, although understandable, was completely unnecessary; the accomplishments of all three women were impressive enough that they don’t need further “see what women can accomplish” hagiography. The movie would have benefitted from a simpler storytelling style.

The film is a bit muddled in terms of going back and forth between the three women, particularly in the second half of the film. It felt that there was so much to tell about these women’s lives that we got only the barest minimum to keep our interest; they would have been better served with a longer format which would have gotten us more insight to who they were, which would have allowed the audience to get more deeply invested in their stories.

That said, it isn’t often that a movie gets reamed for not being thorough enough, but that is the case here. I think the hearts of the filmmakers were in the right place, but taking on the project left them with a quandary; whose story do we tell, and how much of it? They chose three worthy women, but in the end, they should have concentrated on one or gone the miniseries route. I think the subjects deserved one or the other.

REASONS TO SEE: A rare look at some of the unsung heroes of the war.
REASONS TO AVOID: Probably should have been a miniseries.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of period smoking, some graphic violence and scenes of torture, and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During shooting, Thomas ruptured her Achilles tendon that required surgery once filming had been completed.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/3/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Catcher Was a Spy
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
American Murder: The Family Next Door

Behind the Line: Escape to Dunkirk


A horse as a matter of course.

(2020) War/Sports (Picture Perfect) Sam Gittins, Joe Egan, Jennifer Martin, Chris Simmons, Joel Phillimore, Michael Elkin, Tim Berrington, Jake J. Menlani, Ryan Winsley, Toby Kearton, Antonio Bustorff, Guy Faulkner, Sam Newman, Chris Shipton, Mirsad Solakovic, Sammy Measom, Patrick Capaloff-Fowler, Leo Wherrett, Geir Madland, Adam Braddock, James Haynes, Neale Ricotti. Directed by Ben Mole

From time to time, we’ll watch an old movie and sigh to ourselves “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore.” On extremely rare occasions, we see a new movie that puts lie to that cliché.

It is 1940 and the British army is being pushed back into the channel, seeking to escape at Dunkirk and facing complete annihilation. A group of soldiers are captured in the countryside of France, including Danny Finnegan (Gittins), who happens to be a world champion boxer. The German commandant, who fancies himself a sportsman, recognizes Danny at once at determines to stage an exhibition match between Danny and one of his men, mainly using the bout as an opportunity to impress his superior officer who also happens to be a boxing fan. Danny is loathe to take part, but eventually relents when one of his buddies is brutally beaten by the man he’ll face in the ring.

In the meantime, the soldiers are aware that the clock is ticking. Soon, they’ll be transported to Germany and where escape will be extremely unlikely. The time to get away is now, with Danny’s bout providing a distraction that will allow them to get to Dunkirk before the entire British army is evacuated, but getting away won’t be so easy. They’ll need help, and there a pretty French farmgirl (Martin) with a grudge against the German commander is their only hope – but it will all be for naught if Danny is unable to stretch the fight out long enough for his mates to get away.

This is an interesting genre mash-up between a war movie that harkens back to some of the contemporaneous “stay calm and fight on” films of the postwar era, and the sports movie that could easily be called Rocky vs. the Nazis. Reading this on paper, I admit it sounds a bit ludicrous but writer-director Ben Mole makes it work.

Gittens, who is best known for a recurring role on the British series EastEnders, has an easy screen presence and carries this low-budget affair on his back, largely. Not all of the supporting cast fares as well, sadly; some accents are known to slip in and out of French and German accents, and a few give some fairly stiff line readings. Given the budget constraints, it’s unlikely there was much time for rehearsal and a likelihood that there is a fairly inexperienced cast behind Gittens.

At times the budget limitations are detrimental – the sound effects of guns firing sound like little pops rather than the bangs we’re used to in the movies, for example, but for the most part, Mole makes good use of what budget he has. I wish he’d taken the time to choreograph the boxing sequences a bit better; they are often unconvincing and one gets the sense that the actors are winging it a bit.

But don’t let that bother you, particularly if you like movies that appeal to the male of the species. This hits two sets of feels for the movie guy, who sometimes gets underserved these days in our zeal to make filmmaking more inclusive – which is a good thing, by the way, but still there’s a need for these types of movies as well. Keep an eye out for it on your favorite streaming service if your favorite guy is moping about the house and is in need of an infusion of testosterone, or if you’re someone’s favorite guy and you need it. In that case, treat yourself, by all means.

REASONS TO SEE: An interesting mash-up of genres.
REASONS TO AVOID: The boxing sequences occasionally are unconvincing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is both war and boxing violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The battle of Dunkirk took place between May 26 and June 4, 1940.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/16/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews, Metacritic: 69/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Victory
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Pretending I’m a Superman: The Tony Hawk Videogame Story

Lancaster Skies


Bombers fill the night of Lancaster skies.

(2019) War (Shout! FactoryJeffrey Mundell, David Dobson, Kris Saddler, Joanne Gale, Vin Hawke, Steve Hooper, Josh Collins, Callum Burn, Steven Hooper, Tom Gordon, Henry Collie, Tony Gordon, Leila Sykes, Eric Flynn, Roger Wentworth, Oria Sanders, Fiona Kimberley, Matt Davies, Bridgette Burn, Elliott Strother, Bryony James, Robert Francis, Tina Hodgson. Directed by Callum Burn

 

I take no joy out of writing a negative review. I know that most people go into making a movie with the best intentions, but things happen – sometimes there’s studio interference, sometimes the cast and crew are inexperienced, other times things just don’t click for whatever reason. I understand that there are human beings behind every movie, some having put all their passion into a project that for whatever reason just didn’t click with me; and that’s not on them so much as it is on me.

Once in a while, though, it is clear that a filmmaker’s reach exceeded his grasp. He or she perhaps had a good story and a decent cast, but budget limitations kept him/her from making the movie they wanted to make. I suspect that’s the problem here.

Lancaster Skies is meant to be a World War II epic about an English bomber crew dealing with the loss of their skipper (Tom Gordon). They are having to cope with the death of a comrade-in-arms, but also the arrival of their new captain, Douglas Miller (Mundell), who is dealing with a tragedy of his own and has become closed-off, stand-offish and generally a bit of a pill. At first, he is oil and water with the veteran crew. Only co-pilot Georgie Williams (Dobson) seems to be friendly towards him at all – well, there’s always comely WAAF Kate Hedges (Gale) who has taken a shine to the handsome but taciturn Miller.

Miller, a former Spitfire pilot, is chomping at the bit to take the fight to the Germans. With the survival rate of bomber crews right around 50% (Williams illustrates that in a bar brawl by flipping a coin a la Harvey Dent), this would seem to be on the surface a little crazy, but slowly Douglas begins to warm up to his crew and they to him. But, at last, they’ve finally gotten a mission to fly. With a tail gunner (Saddler) prone to freezing up at the worst possible moment, and a co-pilot with a devastating secret of his own, this crew will need to pull together if they are to survive their next mission.

I don’t really know how to begin to sort this all out. It is simply poorly done on every level. On a technical level, the color fades into almost black and white but I believe is just washed out color. It does so without warning and goes from color to washed out within even the same screen. I’m not technically proficient enough to identify whether it was a camera thing, a processing thing or a digital thing, but I can say for certain that it was an annoying thing.

The only thing stiffer than the dialogue is the actors saying it; if their upper lips were any stiffer, they would have been shot up full of Novocain. There are a lot of characters in the film and I couldn’t always differentiate between them. At length, I just gave up.

I could go on, but I think that for now, that’s enough. I do give director Callum Burn props for having the moxie to try and make a movie of this scope on a budget that was right around £80,000 – a microscopic amount compared to even most independent films. The movie wasn’t completely without merit and it is a story that deserves to be told, but perhaps Burn should have waited until he could get himself a budget to tell the story properly.

REASONS TO SEE: The title is evocative.
REASONS TO AVOID: Stiff characters and even stiffer dialogue. Inexplicably drops in and out of color.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some war violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was shot in five different shooting blocks over a two-year period.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/9/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Memphis Belle
FINAL RATING: 3/10
NEXT:
Jinn (2018)

The Kill Team (2019)


In battle there is brotherhood.

(2019) War (A24Alexander Skarsgǻrd, Nat Wolff, Adam Long, Jonathan Whitesell, Brian Marc, Osy Ikhile, Rob Morrow, Anna Francolini, Oliver Ritchie, Edd Campbell Bird, Adam James, Elham Ehsas, Tunji Kasim, Ian Attard, Taz Skylar, Zackary Momoh, Luka Schardan, Julio Perillan, Edward J. Bentley, Andreas Karraas, Amani Zafdoe. Directed by Dan Krauss

 

War is far from simple, although it is sometimes characterized that way. There are those who see it as the ultimate expression of masculinity, the place where young men go to prove themselves men. Others see it as institutionalized murder. It does require those who go to war to kill or be killed, putting them in a constant state of high stress. It also asks of them to violate some of the most sacred precepts both from a societal standpoint as well as a moral one – thou shalt not kill.

18-year-old Andrew Briggman (Wolff) has enlisted following high school. He wants to make a difference, to protect his country from terrorists and perhaps to some extent, be all he can be. Earning the pride of his father (Morrow), he goes to Afghanistan with a young man’s expectations. He quickly learns that Afghanistan is nothing like what he expected. Fortunately, he has a sergeant (Ikhile) who is a hearts and minds kind of guy, trying to win over the Afghan people with kindness. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work out too well for him.

Enter Sergeant Deeks (Skarsgǻrd) who is of the “speak softly and carry a big gun” persuasion. He is far more interested in winning over the hearts and minds of his command than in those of the locals. To Deeks, everyone is a potential enemy and he has no trouble sorting out the good from the bad – they’re all bad in his view and treats them accordingly. He appeals to the machismo of his men, rewarding them for their more bloodthirsty tendencies.

At first, Briggman buys into it but as he sees his platoon fall further and further from decency to the point where they are executing locals for sport, he is horrified. When he tries to report what he’s seen, he discovers Deeks has friends in all sorts of places and with Deeks falsifying reports, it boils down to the word of a three-tour decorated veteran versus a young wet-behind-the-ears rookie.

Briggman realizes that out in the field he is at the mercy of his comrades who are all trained killers. Soldiers survive because they know their brothers-in-arms have their backs; when you go out into the field not only uncertain whether your platoon has your back or might just shoot you in yours, it is not a place to be, to say the least. Briggman finds himself at odds with his conscience as well as his survival instinct.

Krauss based this loosely on a documentary that he directed back in 2013 (Florida Film Festival attendees may recall it and for those whose memory needs a jog, you can read my review here). That was a bit more of a morality play, chronicling a family’s encounter with the military justice system as the young soldier fights for the truth with his supportive family behind him. This version is fictionalized and the names are all changed, and the focus here is more on what the soldier endured and how it affected him. None of the film depicts the fall-out from the soldier’s accusations.

The role of Deeks is tailor-made for Skarsgǻrd and he responds with an intense performance. The actor underplays the role, giving the character a whole lot of menace. He certainly holds our attention on-screen. Wolff gives his character the right amount of naivete and gung-ho machismo to make him very relatable. Unfortunately, none of the other characters get much development.

Krauss also proves himself to be adept at building suspense and creating an on-screen tension that will keep audience members on the edge of their seats (or couches, as the case may be). The action sequences are a bit on the low-key side but they are adequate – in a lot of ways, the movie has the feel of a lot of recent war movies dealing with the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some of the moments in the film are truly terrifying and really hit you in the gut. There are enough of these to give the film a solid recommendation, but be warned that not all of the movie is like that and there is an awful lot of SSDD when it comes to modern war films. The Kill Team has been available on DirecTV for about a month and is just now hitting a limited theatrical release as well as being available on most streaming platforms. It’s not a must-see but then again you won’t go too far wrong if you do take a chance on it.

REASONS TO SEE: Truly harrowing in places, building the tension up nicely. Skarsgǻrd is absolutely amazing.
REASONS TO AVOID: The violence is curiously understated.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a cornucopia of profanity, war violence and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Skarsgǻrd and Ikhile were both in The Legend of Tarzan.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/24/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews: Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Few Good Men
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness kicks off!

Point Man


Two soldiers who don’t see eye to eye.

(2018) War (Vision) Christopher Long, Jacob Keohane, Chase Gutzmore, Marcus Bailey, Matthew Ewald, William Shannon Williams, Jeff Williams, Paul de Havilland, Joe W. Nowland, Acorye’ White, Jimmy Ace Lewis, Bryan Bachman, Cody Howard, Triston Dye, Jason Alan Cook, John Charles Harnett, James Roseman, Jason Damico, Marianne del Gallego. Directed by Phil Blattenberger

 

Once upon a time, war movies depicted American soldiers as brave, heroic and honorable and why not? The wars we were involved in were for the most part clearly defined from a moral standpoint. Then came Vietnam and everything changed.

Andre “Casper” Allen (Long) is “in country” and he’s not thrilled about it. Martin Luther King has just been assassinated back home and the civil rights movement is reaching a crescendo. Meanwhile he’s risking his life for a country where his people are hated, discriminated against, lynched and in general treated like second hand citizens. Even in Vietnam he’s called “Soul Man” by the locals who while they seem to be more accepting of him than his fellow Americans, are too busy trying to kill him for him to make friends.

He’s outspoken and opinionated which doesn’t endear him to his commanding officer, Lt. Sutton (Ewald) and he has to endure the racist taunts of Mississippi redneck Pvt. Meeks (Keohane) in the barracks. His platoon is being sent out into a largely hostile territory where unit 29 Bravo has disappeared and with whom all communication has been lost. They are being sent to sweep the area of Viet Cong and find the missing company, or their remains.

When his platoon gets into a firefight, four of the soldiers are pinned down – Casper, Meeks, and African-Americans Joe (Gutzmore) and Felix (Bailey) when Sutton bugs out to save his own neck, leaving the other four there to die. They fight their way out and go looking for Sutton – and it’s not to buy him an ice cream as Casper puts it. In the meantime, the four cut-off soldiers find the missing 29 Bravo and discover that their mission has devolved into killing every Vietnamese civilian possible whether they have any ties to the Viet Cong or not. Casper, who has become the quartet’s de facto leader, decides to take matters into his own hands which leads the group further and further down the rabbit hole.

=The morality of the Vietnam war is something America has been trying to come to grips with ever since we pulled out of Saigon, an act that is still hotly debated today. The soldiers who fought there are often caught in the middle; they were spat upon and despised by the left for even going to war and they were looked down upon and despised by the right for not winning it. Even today there’s a stigma associated with those who fought in the war, despite our rush to “support our troops” in the present day. The soldiers who served in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos don’t get the respect today that their peers who fought in other wars received and continue to receive.

We have to remember that a very large percentage of the soldiers who fought in Vietnam were basically teenage boys from poorer environments. This is a fact of the war that the movie fails to capture – most of the soldiers here seem to be older. The movie does capture the chaos of having leadership that was often self-contradictory and often did senseless things without explanation.

This is a very low budget indie. Do not expect to see battle sequences loaded with explosions and DolbyTM bullets whizzing through the air. Most of this is done with practical effects and it appears that the budget for fake blood was pretty low as well. Some war film buffs might find that disconcerting. The actors here are largely unknown and while they mostly acquit themselves well, some of the dialogue that they’re required to speak doesn’t sound much like how soldiers actually talk.

This isn’t a home run but it isn’t bad. There are a lot of good things going on here, not the least of which that we get a chance to examine our moral evaluations of the war – everyone above a certain age has one. I’m not going to say this is the war as soldiers experienced it but I think that it gets some of the confusion, the moral dilemmas and the chaos of the war. High kudos to the filmmakers for at least trying something different and succeeding enough of the time to make this a recommended rental.

REASONS TO SEE: The film gives a sense of the conflict that African-American soldiers went through.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the dialogue is a bit on the clunky side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of salty language, racial epithets and war violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although this was the first American narrative production to shoot in Vietnam for a movie about the Vietnam War, some of the combat scenes were shot at Lee Ranch here in Orlando.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/20/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Platoon
FINAL RATINGS: 6/10
NEXT:
Arctic

Avengers: Infinity War


The latest Avengers movie, starring…everyone. Heck, you’re probably in it too!

(2018) Superhero (Disney/Marvel) Robert Downey Jr., Chris Pratt, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Zoe Saldana, Chadwick Boseman, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Josh Brolin, Karen Gillan, Tom Hiddleston, Tom Holland, Don Cheadle, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Idris Elba, Danai Gurira, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Peter Dinklage, Benedict Wong, Pom Klementieff and a cast of thousands. Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo

 

This is to date the biggest and most epic Marvel movie ever – until the next untitled Avengers movie, filmed concurrently with this one and scheduled for release in May 2019.

The mad Titan Thanos, seeing that the Universe is dreadfully out of balance, believes that he has a solution that will restore balance: to kill half of the entire population of the universe at random. There’s no practical way to do that so he has to do something that has never been done – he must retrieve all six of the Infinity Stones, gems created by the Big Bang and each with control of a different aspect of the universe – space, time, the mind, the soul, and so on.

Of course, the superheroes all oppose this plan and they come from all over – nearly every Marvel movie preceding this one is represented here from the spacefaring Guardians of the Galaxy to the high tech Black Panther and of course the various and sundry Avengers films. It’s a colossal undertaking and quite frankly I didn’t expect them to pull it off. There are an awful lot of characters here and a lot of them really don’t get much screen time.

Thanos (Brolin) gets a ton of screen time and it’s no joke the best portrayal of a comic book villain since Heath Ledger won an Oscar for playing one. Thanos is truly the Big Bad of the Marvel Universe and while the heroes valiantly take him on, things don’t look too good. It’s an epic tale that is taking two movies to tell.

The action is as you’d expect spectacular and the effects seamless. There are even some poignant moments, most of them occurring in the last twenty minutes of the film. Who knew that Marvel knows pathos? In any case, this is an emotional rollercoaster that every Marvel fan is going to be overjoyed to take – even the usually hard-to-impress fanboys have been singing the praises of this one.

Yes, I realize you’ve probably already seen it and if you haven’t you likely aren’t going to and frankly you’re probably not reading this review in that case. So you’ve seen it. Maybe you’ve already purchased a digital copy (the Blu-Ray and DVD editions were just released) and likely you’ll be getting one of those. This isn’t the best Marvel movie yet but it’s damn close.

REASONS TO GO: Brolin gives a game-changing performance as Thanos. The action is non-stop and without peer. There are some very poignant moments.
REASONS TO STAY: There are too many characters to keep track of.
FAMILY VALUES: There is nearly non-stop sci-fi/superhero action and violence, some crude references and some scenes with disturbing content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At the beginning of the film, the distress call from the Asgardian ship is the voice of Kenneth Branagh, the director of the first Thor film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/15/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Captain America: Civil War
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
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Songwriter

Dunkirk (2017)


Waiting to evacuate, a British soldier nervously scans the sky for Nazi planes in Dunkirk.

(2017) War (Warner Brothers) Fionn Whitehead, Barry Keoghan, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy, Tom Glynn-Carney, James D’Arcy, Harry Styles, Will Attenborough, Aneurin Barnard, Jack Lowden, Billy Howle, Matthew Marsh, Richard Sanderson, Bobby Lockwood, Mikey Collins, Dean Ridge, Adam Long, Bradley Hall, Miranda Nolan. Directed by Christopher Nolan

 

Dunkirk remains one of the seminal moments in the Second World War. Churchill’s stirring speech “We shall never surrender!” was written about the event. For those whose history is rusty, when the Nazis overran France some 400,000 soldiers were stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk. With Hitler’s troops drawing the noose tight, the English were staring at the obliteration of most of their army and essentially the complete loss of Western Europe.

Nolan aims to capture the desperation and chaos of those few days using three time-dilated stories each centered around a single element; a week following soldiers waiting to die or be rescued on the jetty and on the beach, a day aboard one of the civilian rescue vessels desperately trying to ferry as many soldiers back to safety as possible, this one captained by the noble Mr. Dawson (Rylance) and an hour in the air with a pair of daring RAF pilots (Hardy, Lowden) trying to take out the Luftwaffe planes trying to bomb and strafe the beaches and the British naval vessels trying to evacuate the troops.

Like Memento, Nolan uses time differently than most linear storytelling techniques in order to….well, I’m not quite sure. It is confusing at times to follow the goings on when you are jumping ahead and back in time depending on whether you’re in a boat, plane or beach. It also leads to a curious difficulty in telling the different characters apart for the most part; the soldiers and sailors are all fresh faced and largely unknown with a few exceptions and those exceptions tend to stand out, particularly Rylance and to a lesser extent, Branagh as a stolid Naval commander and Murphy as a shell-shocked soldier pulled out of the ocean by Rylance.

The technical achievement here is impressive, maybe even mind-blowing. I’m not just talking about the special effects but on all the elements of the film, from the lighting (often utilizing a washed out pastel color palate that gives a visual accounting of the hopelessness of the waiting soldiers) to the way the shots are lined up to the sound design to the way there’s virtually no let-up in the tension from the opening shot to the closing credits.

Some of the few remaining Dunkirk survivors who viewed the film at its London premiere observed that the sound wasn’t quite as loud during the real bombing and strafing which apparently Nolan found amusing and when you think about it, has a ring of the “Turn down that music ya whippersnappers” to it. Not that I’m an expert but this may be the most authentic war movie since the D-day scene in Saving Private Ryan raised the bar on war movies in general.

There was talk this was going to be an Oscar contender way back in July when this was released and to that end Warner Brothers is planning a re-release to remind Academy voters not to forget about this film among all the year-end prestige releases. And, for those wondering, that is also why it hasn’t been released to home video just yet. If you haven’t seen it in a theater, by all means make a point to do so when the re-release occurs. You won’t be sorry.

REASONS TO GO: This may be the most realistic depiction of war since Saving Private Ryan. The tension generated here is absolutely relentless. Rylance has become one of the most reliable actors working today.
REASONS TO STAY: Those sensitive to loud noises may have issues with this.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some very intense war violence as well as occasional profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie directed by Nolan to portray real events.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 94/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Longest Day
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Diana: Our Mother, Her Life and Her Legacy

Mine (2016)


Armie Hammer considers his options.

(2016) War (Well Go USA) Armie Hammer, Annabelle Wallis, Tom Cullen, Clint Dyer, Geoff Bell, Juliet Aubrey, Inés Piñar Mille, Luka Peros, Daniel Sandoval, Agustin Rodriguez, Yesarela Arzumendi, Manuel Medero, David Kirk Taylor (voice), Edoardo Purgatori (voice). Directed by Fabio Guaglione and Fabio Resinaro

 

Our adventures in the Middle East have put the United States in a Gordian knot of a predicament. We cannot withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan without creating chaos and yet if we stay we seem to become more tightly ensnared. We cannot stay put and yet we cannot step away.

Mike (Hammer) is a U.S. Marine sniper on a mission to take out a high-ranking terrorist. Intel has put him in a remote part of the desert far from anywhere, accompanied by his spotter Tommy (Cullen). Mike has the suspect in his sights but it turns out that he is there not to plan mayhem with his fellow terrorists but to see his son married. Mike hesitates and inadvertently gives away their position. The mission is officially FUBAR.

He and Tommy are forced to flee across the unforgiving desert. Sand storms have grounded the helicopters that would normally pick them up so they’re going to have to hoof it to a village six kilometers across the desert. With limited supplies, it will not be an easy journey but given their military training they should be able to make it. That is, until they walk dead into a minefield.

Mike ends up stepping on a mine but is able to stop himself from lifting his foot and detonating it. Tommy isn’t so lucky. He blows himself in half and leaves Mike to fend for himself. Using a little bit of improvising, he is able to contact his handlers and tell them of his predicament; they still can’t get their helicopters off the ground and with their assets deployed elsewhere it will be 52 long hours before someone can get to a lone Marine standing on a land mine.

As Mike is baked in the desert sun and runs out of water, he meets a friendly Berber (Dyer) who urges him to take a chance, step off the mine and free himself but Mike can’t do it. He begins to hallucinate and flashes back to a beautiful girlfriend (Wallis) he can’t quite commit to (but definitely should), an abusive alcoholic father (Bell) who called Mike’s spine into question and a mother (Aubrey) whose recent bout with cancer has left Mike shaken to the core and running away rather than facing what has befallen him at home.

With thirst, wild dogs, vengeful terrorists and sand storms besetting him, it is a test of Mike’s will in order to survive. Can he survive with one foot planted on the mine or will he take a leap of faith and free himself from his situation?

The movie is very much a metaphor for the American involvement in the Middle East, but that’s not really what drew me to this film. It isn’t easy to make a movie about a man locked in place in the middle of nowhere interesting and engaging and I wasn’t sure if the Italian duo known as Fabio and Fabio could pull it off but pull it off they did.

Much of the reason they did is that Hammer delivers a performance that improves and grows as the movie goes on. Initially he’s a ramrod-straight Marine with not just a stick up his butt but a dang Redwood up there, but as he starts to face his past so close to death, he becomes much more relatable. Hammer is extremely likable as an actor but the Lone Ranger debacle effectively derailed his career for big budget franchise films. This is the kind of movie that can put him back in the running for those sorts of roles.

There are some lapses in logic here; for one thing, a Marine sniper team never sets out into the desert all by their lonesome. There is going to be a support crew and a backup plan in case the sniper can’t get a shot at his target – and anyway a drone strike would have been far more effective in that situation. Also, standing with your weight on one foot for more than two days would have physiological effects on his muscles; there should have been some sort of reference to that in the movie. Even a Marine can’t prevent his body from doing what it is meant to do. Finally, a sand storm the size and magnitude of what was depicted in the film is not going to just leave a few cupfuls of sand on someone caught in it; it’s going to just about bury him and likely either suffocate him or at the very least blow him off of the land mine. The winds in one of those things are not that far from hurricane force.

All those unwelcome plot points aside, the movie still worked for me although I can understand why there was some eye-rolling in critical circles. I found that Hammer’s performance made up for the writing deficiencies and while the broken home-abusive father-commitment phobia subplots were a bit clichéd Hammer gave his character enough depth and dignity to put some real bite into those old tropes. I might have wished that Wallis had been given more than a generic “awesome girlfriend” character to work with – I would have liked to see what made Mike fall in love with her in the first place – and I might have wished that the Berber hadn’t been so much the “Magic Negro” trope of the sort that made The Legend of Bagger Vance so annoying. But as far as gripping premises go, I certainly got more than I wished.

REASONS TO GO: An intriguing concept that is pulled off nicely. Hammer gives a performance that gets stronger as the movie goes on.
REASONS TO STAY: Loses points for logical lapses and plot holes.. .
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and profanity as well as some gruesome images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although set in the Middle East, the movie was filmed in the Canary Island substituting for the desert. The sandstorms were added digitally.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/7/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 19% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Buried
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Get Out