Archive for the War Category

Dunkirk

Posted in Action, Drama, History, War on July 23, 2017 by Mark Hobin

dunkirk_ver2STARS3.5Dunkirk celebrates a wartime retreat. As such, it may seem like an odd moment in the history of WWII to dramatize. To Americans whose familiarity with WWII begins with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, it’s an event with which most U.S. citizens are unaware. Yet the battle holds a special uplifting significance to British and French troops. It concerns the evacuation of Allied soldiers that were under fire from German troops. The locale was the beaches and harbor of Dunkirk, a city in the north of France. Hundreds of civilian boats carrying survivors were able to make it across the English Channel, under German fire, and back again.  The evacuation was such an amazing defense of life that it’s often referred to as the Miracle at Dunkirk. Its importance is best summarized in an eleventh-hour exchange here in the film:  When one well wisher offers a sincere “Well done,” the soldier’s response is “All we did was survive.” “That’s enough,” offers the passersby. The encounter was a testament to the perseverance of the human spirit.

As a work of art, Dunkirk is a sensory composition. Christopher Nolan creates an intense optical and auditory experience that feels like the real thing. Sound and visuals combine to give the viewer a wartime understanding unlike any other. The director’s preference for practical effects at the expense of CGI is well documented. The manifestation never once seems like anything less than the real thing.  The cinematography and  the music combine to fabricate a wartime experience like none other. Much of Dunkirk has been shot using IMAX cameras and makes use of the widescreen format. If you’re lucky enough to live in one of the 31 cities equipped with such a screen, then I’d strongly advise you to seek out one of these showings as the presentation is much improved. I saw the film twice, in both 35mm and 70mm IMAX and the difference is enough to recommend the latter and condemn the former. The graphics are awe inspiring in both, but the impact is significantly marginalized in the non-70mm format.

Director Christopher Nolan is solely credited with the screenplay. He has fashioned the chronicle as a somewhat confusing muddle of action. Three separate stories that each take place by land, sea and air, transpiring over three different time frames. Title cards in the beginning give the viewer an assist in grasping what will transpire. The auteur is well known for playing with time, but here it works to the detriment of the narrative. Nolan takes risky liberties in telling a linear story. These different timelines are confusingly edited with flashbacks that revisit previous scenes sometimes from a new perspective.  When a character leaves one account and pops up in another tale, interpreting the timelime can get a bit dicey.   Nolan’s technique hinders our ability to comprehend what is happening when.

“The Mole” is a somewhat puzzling title card that refers to the land story. I wonder how many people will realize that a mole is a massive structure used as a pier. Its double meaning as a spy is probably intentional, but I wish I had known that bit of information beforehand. This drama takes place over a week and concerns a young British soldier (Fionn Whitehead) stranded on the beach, who must find a way off this ill-fated stretch of land. The area has filled up with thousands of British Expeditionary Force fighting men. The Germans are closing in. Kenneth Branagh plays a naval commander and James D’Arcy is an army colonel.  They search the skies for the enemy Germans and await an air rescue effort that does not materialize.

“The Sea” is one day in the life of Mr. Dawson, as portrayed by Mark Rylance, the only actor allowed to actually give a “performance”. He is a civilian sailor throwing himself into the rescue effort by steering his tiny wooden yacht called Moonstone, along with his son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and a local boy (Barry Keoghan) eager to take part in something bigger than himself.  Actor Cillian Murphy plays a stranded survivor they pick up along the way.

“The Air” is the third tale and takes place over an hour.  Jack Lowden and Tom Hardy are pilots for the Royal Air Force Spitfire.  Fans of Hardy’s handsome features will surely be disappointed. His face is obscured by a mask for almost the entire duration of the picture. Additionally, it’s impossible to understand anything he says. But oh those dogfight sequences!  They are some of the most impressive demonstrations in the entire picture.

Dunkirk is a film about spectacle. It soars with gorgeous cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema that is breathtakingly expansive even when it’s detailing claustrophobic conditions of a ship in battle. Seas of young, white British soldiers huddled in the bow of a ship. An unknown assailant begins firing upon their vessel. The scene is indeed intense. Yet these men become almost indistinguishable from each other. We cannot connect to these people individually.  I suppose that’s not the point. Nolan’s study is a film about a war effort that forces us into a mass of anonymity. The profusion of humanity is a wash of gray-brown uniforms. The absence of color is a common motif that comes up over and over. Indeed the only red we see is not blood but the jam on the bread the soldiers eat in the bow of a ship. This makes Dunkirk a saga that’s emotionally distant.  Yet what it lacks in compelling stories it makes up for in bombast. Hans Zimmer’s score is loud and blaring and cacophonous as it emphasizes the visual display being witnessed. It’s rousing to be sure even when it drowns out the dialogue.

Conversation is held to a bare minimum. Dunkirk is a feature built upon the very exhibition of war, not upon the chatty developments that usually compel an adventure forward. The bits of talking here and there are rendered unintelligible by thick British accents that I assume only people familiar with regional dialects will recognize. I couldn’t understand most of what was being said. It’s not a deal breaker though. The script is conversationally sparse. Dunkirk is not reliant on discourse It extracts passion out of a circumstance.

Dunkirk’s greatest attribute is how it sidesteps all of the cliches of the “war movie”. This is not a traditional war epic. It’s a film that features very little in the way of exposition. If you’re waiting for a scene where the soldier talks about his girl back home, you’re watching the wrong account. Don’t expect to find a declaration from a disillusioned character outwardly expressing the horrors of war.  Other than distant planes flying overhead, we never even see the enemy. Dunkirk isn’t about dialogue, or performances, or a sentimental bond to people, or even one to emphasize the bloody viscera of war.  Although the action is most definitively a visceral experience. It’s the narrative as a sequence of “you-are-there” action setpieces that begin almost immediately and never let up until the end of the production. First, you’re on the beach, then in the cockpit, now you’re aboard Rylance’s ship. The thrill is so immediate it’s practically physical. It’s explosions and aerial photography and gray masses of huddled individuals trying to survive. You will understand the suspense, fear, and dread of what it would be like to endure war, but without that emotional connection to the actual people.

07-20-17

The Wall

Posted in Drama, Thriller, War with tags on May 16, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo wall_zps3dqmhke6.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgU.S. Army Sergeant Allen “Ize” Issac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and his spotter Staff Sergeant Shane Matthews (John Cena) are on a mission. They’re in Iraq to retaliate after U.S. contractors building a pipeline, are killed.  Matthews is shot by a sniper and when Ize attempts to rescue him, he too is injured by the unseen assailant. He seeks a safe area. The title refers to the long barrier of crumbling stones that Isaac quickly hides behind as he communicates with the adversary who is trying to take his life.

The Wall is a movie of words. The story by aspiring screenwriter Dwain Worrell actually made the Black List, a compilation of the most liked unproduced screenplays, in 2014. The Wall was ultimately purchased and produced by Amazon studios, their very first spec script. Worrell’s compact drama details a single conversation between the U.S.Issac and a heard but not seen Iraqi sniper (Laith Nakli). Director Doug Liman, known for action extravaganzas like Edge of Tomorrow, Mr. & Mrs. Smith and The Bourne Identity, scales his action aesthetic way back for this lean-and-mean war tale. And the chronicle is indeed mean. The situation is tense and the futility of war is highlighted with deft precision. It is particularly significant that we learn at the start that the Iraq war is supposedly over. Yet for these combatants, that designation is meaningless.

The Wall has a lot going for it. It has a tightly concentrated script by Dwain Worrell. There is an engaging performance from Aaron Taylor-Johnson in what is essentially a one-man show and it has a brisk running time. The screenplay is particularly clever as the sniper draws information from his opponent. Ize is clearly at a disadvantage and actor Taylor-Johnson makes this soldier immediately affecting.  It’s easy for the audience to feel empathy for this character. I was reminded of Rodrigo Cortés’ 2010 single location set Buried starring Ryan Reynolds. That also had a unique take on the Iraq war through a conversation. The Wall isn’t quite as claustrophobic as that picture, but it’s close. Their interaction plays out like a chess match as the unrelenting stress of the conditions escalates. The dusty bleak landscape only adds to the tension. The account ends in a manner over which I still have mixed emotions. It’s either smug or smart.  I’m on the fence…or more appropriately, “the wall”.  Either way, if brevity is the soul of wit, then this artfully focused drama is well worth your 80 minutes.

05-11-17

Hacksaw Ridge

Posted in Drama, History, War with tags on November 14, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo hacksaw_ridge_ver2_zpshuwhy55u.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgIt certainly is an amusing irony that one of the most graphically violent war films ever made is in fact about a man who refused to pick up a gun. The subject of Mel Gibson’s heartfelt biography is Desmond Doss, an American pacifist who served in the U.S. Army during World War II . After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Desmond believed deeply in the cause. However, as a devout Seventh-day Adventist, he had also vowed not to take a human life.  Consequently, he decides to become a combat medic. In this manner , he could serve in a unique way. It was during the battle at Hacksaw Ridge, on the island of Okinawa in 1945, that he would be put to the test. This was one of the bloodiest battles of World War II. By the end, Desmond would save 75 soldiers all without using a gun. He later would become the first conscientious objector to be awarded the U.S. Medal of Honor. To be fair, he didn’t refuse to wear the uniform. He was a different kind of “conscientious objector”. Desmond Ross was an unlikely hero. That makes him a powerful focus at the center of Mel Gibson’s drama.

Thou shalt not kill. Desmond Doss took the commandment seriously. His conviction was formed as a young boy growing up in Lynchburg, Virginia. In the prelude, we see the events that lead to his enlisting. While play wrestling with his sibling one day, the young lad nearly kills his brother Hal with a brick. The incident had a profound effect on him. His upbringing was one of contrasts. A religious mother (Rachel Griffiths) paired with an abusive, alcoholic father (Hugo Weaving) who also happened to be a veteran of World War I.  They both molded his personality.  As a young man, he meets a nurse named Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) and she becomes his sweetheart. They get married.

The movie is skillfully split into three parts. In part two he goes off to boot camp. It is there that he is chastised and ridiculed as a coward for refusing to carry a weapon. The ensemble highlights several soldiers that manage to stand out in brief vignettes. He faces verbal and physical attacks. Not just from his fellow soldiers, but also from his commanding officers, Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) and Captain Glover (Sam Worthington). They clearly try to break him. Vaughn is particularly memorable in a small part. He brands the men with nicknames like “Tex,” “Hollywood,” and “Ghoul”. Although his relentless drill sergeant is a stock character (Full Metal Jacket anyone?) Vaughn unquestionably galvanizes the narrative. It’s been years since the actor had a part this invigorating. In the final third, Desmond goes into the combat zone. Here is where the picture presents the battlefield like hell on earth – the deluge of wounded men evokes, for lack of a better word, hamburger meat. When/if you see the film you’ll understand why that description is pretty apt.

Mel Gibson isn’t one for subtlety. He paints with broad strokes, but his simplicity has an emotional component. Gibson has always been moved by blood and viscera. Whether Braveheart or Passion of the Christ or Apocalypto, he uses violence like a gut punch to the psyche. And yet here the gore feels earned, almost necessary. The narrative certainly succumbs to exploitative tendencies, but only in the tertiary act. The director’s fervor is so credible the viewer is persuaded by his faith. Andrew Garfield plays the man with an aw-shucks southern mentality that makes him easy to embrace. I understood what made Desmond Doss tick. That’s a major success for any biography.

Hacksaw Ridge is unexpected. I was anticipating another “war is hell” melodrama. Yes ok, it is that. I likewise got a surprising tale of faith as well. A man whose unconventional beliefs made him a social outcast. An inspirational account of heroism presented without qualification, as simply “a true story.” Not based on. In keeping with the nature of the subject, that’s an audacious label. Over time, his determination forced people to accommodate to his eccentricities until he ultimately won them over through sheer ability. The saga of Desmond Doss is a passion project through which director Mel Gibson undoubtedly identifies with the man. The chronicle is pretty inspiring and Gibson extracts the excitement out of the drama in classic fashion. Even when he is delving in clichés, he brings such heart and intensity, you can’t help be won over.

11-06-16

Eye In The Sky

Posted in Drama, Thriller, War on March 24, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo eye_in_the_sky_zpsngimpfbv.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgA British mission to capture terrorists is led by Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren). The criminals are discovered in a safehouse in Nairobi. Among them are a radicalized British-born woman who has converted to Islam. There’s also her husband, a Somalian jihadi with American citizenship. The British operation is aided by on-the-ground intel (Barkhad Abdi) who uses remote controlled surveillance. These technologically advanced cameras work like something in a James Bond film. One is a robotic flying contraption designed to look like a hummingbird. It gives overhead views from a lamppost outside the terrorist’s house. The other is a tiny flying winged bug that has been carefully maneuvered to fly inside the house. This one is perched on a rafter giving clear perspectives of the individual rooms within.

Watching in safety from thousands of miles away at intelligence headquarters in London are the politicians and lawyers, including Powell’s military superior, Lieutenant General Frank Benson (the late Alan Rickman). They are trying to determine whether to take action. There’s much protocol debate over the various consequences of their actions and how they will be perceived. American drone pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) is awaiting orders in a claustrophobic trailer at Creech Air Force near Las Vegas. He’s the one with his finger on the actual button – a missile connected to a flying drone, an unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV).

Eye in the Sky is a fascinating ethical study surrounding the decision-making involved between the military and the government. It’s a brilliant set-up. The scenarios allow for a careful consideration regarding the complexities involved. The operation becomes more complicated when the terrorists are observed gearing up for a suicide bombing – an act that will endanger the lives of potentially hundreds of people. The objective to “capture” soon develops into “kill” – at least that’s what Colonel Katherine Powell recommends.

The legalities of drone warfare is a highlight of this thoughtful discussion. What are the ethical ramifications? The ability for governments to execute people from the safe comfort of a remote location in a different country is addressed. Also the collateral damage, specifically the possible loss of innocent human life, is taken into account. Director Gavin Hood takes a long time to set up the plot, but once the story catches spark, it’s pretty tense. He’s so much more engaging when directing these smaller films (Oscar-winning Tsotsi) than the big budget Hollywood blockbusters (X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Ender’s Game). The intricate consideration of numerous “what-ifs” form the crux of the drama. The moral dilemmas make Eye In The Sky essential viewing.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Posted in Comedy, Drama, War on March 11, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo whiskey_tango_foxtrot_zpsbnf0cmgd.jpg photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgI watch movies because I enjoy them. I truly do. However, while I’m viewing a film, I’m evaluating it. I’m formulating my thoughts so I can write a review. Questions arise. Am I enjoying this? Why am I entertained by this? I can’t help it. It’s part of my process as a critic and it becomes an involuntary reaction. The greatest movies, I sort of forget to do this and I just get lost in the story. The worst, I am constantly aware that I am sitting in a theater enduring a bad movie. I am trying to assess what what makes it so awful.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot or WTF, isn’t horrible. As a matter of fact, there’s a lot to recommend it starting with a pleasant performance from comedian Tina Fey in a dramatic role. But for much of its run time, I kept asking myself, Why did this picture get made? What makes the story of Kim Baker more important than the hundreds of others that could have been dramatized? What makes this drama so unique? That this correspondent happens to be female is the best answer I can come up with.

WTF is based on reporter Kim Barker’s memoir The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan. That’s quite a mouthful for a surprisingly simple saga. She was working for The Chicago Tribune in the 2000s, but in the film she’s a TV journalist. Part of the reason Kim is sent is due to her unmarried, childless status. From Baby Mama to 30 Rock this is an underlying theme to Tina Fey’s roles. WTF is a series of little episodes. When she meets gorgeous blonde Aussie newsperson Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie) they have a discussion about attractiveness. A “4” or “6” back home is like a “9” in Kabul. They call it the Kabubble. For the record, Kim is “Kabul cute”. Side note: Does Tina Fey really think she’s just a 4?

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is the chronicle of a plucky reporter who shakes up her life by taking a job covering the war in Afghanistan. The production comes from the directing team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa who were responsible for the enjoyable romantic comedy Crazy, Stupid, Love. Robert Carlock wrote the screenplay. He was a Saturday Night Live writer from 1996 to 2001 and a show runner for the TV comedy 30 Rock. Given the background of the people involved, I hoped for an incisive and witty take on war with acerbic overtones. Yet WTF is largely forgettable, an incidental tale of a journalist’s experiences. It’s random and unexpectedly bland. Details include actor Alfred Molina who plays a lascivious Afghan prime minister that’s regularly putting the moves on her. There’s even a contrived romance featuring Martin Freeman that is as fabricated as any stock boy-meets-girl love affair you’ve ever seen. The sitcom observations are just too shallow to make this the insightful feature that it could have been. WTF indeed.

Son of Saul

Posted in Drama, History, War on January 27, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo saul_fia_ver2_zpswqogquod.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgSon of Saul is a Hungarian drama covering a day-and-a-half in the life of one Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig), a Jewish prisoner at the Auschwitz concentration camp. He is forced to work as a Sonderkommando, that is – a captive who assists in the disposal of the dead, his fellow people, from the gas chamber. While there he discovers the body of a boy he takes for his son and tries to find a rabbi to give the child a proper burial.

The Holocaust has been the subject of innumerable pictures presented from a variety of different angles. Judgment at Nuremberg, The Pawnbroker, Sophie’s Choice, Schindler’s List, Life Is Beautiful, The Pianist, The Counterfeiters, The Reader and Ida are merely a famous few that have won awards and accolades. Son of Saul is critically acclaimed as well and is even up for Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards on February 28, 2016. Evidently the topic is ripe for more productions as director Laszlo Nemes approaches the material a little differently.

What separates Son of Saul is the you-are-there vantage point of the main character. Our lead is a prisoner but his own execution has been delayed. A visual perspective from a person thrust into the eye of the storm, so to speak.  The orientation is unique. We see everything from Saul’s viewpoint.  The action is shot in extreme closeup, often slightly behind or right in front of our protagonist. His expression is a blank face of detachment, perhaps immune to the atrocities that inundate him. The events however are often obscured, just out of focus for the audience, and hard to view clearly. We never see the faces of the victims or even their deaths distinctly. That is a blessing. Although the sounds that surround these incidents is horrifying.

Given the theme, Son of Saul is understandably difficult to watch. In many ways it should be. The plot doesn’t follow the traditional narrative that highlights an improbable hero. Its hyper-realistic style addresses the murder directly head on with no relief to alleviate the terror. The brutal efficiency with which the Nazis oversee this evil task is a robotic death camp of mind numbing savagery. A seemingly unending hell on earth from which human life is disposed like a mechanized chore. Even watching prisoners scrub the human blood from the floor of a massive shower can be an overwhelming experience.

Son of Saul is largely a compelling drama. Where the chronicle doesn’t near a masterpiece lies in the conclusion. The fact that Saul and his fellow workers’ days are numbered will inspire questions as the story wears on. Why submit to a ghastly task that only prolongs your inevitable death by days? Some abatement from their chamber of horrors is suggested but after a while Saul’s behavior becomes vexing for viewer. Setting up a brilliant beginning also demands a skillful ending. Son of Saul doesn’t quite deliver at the same level all the way through, but it is still a very powerful film nonetheless.

01-21-16

Beasts of No Nation

Posted in Drama, War with tags on November 4, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Beasts of No Nation photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgWar is hell. The idea has been promoted before and here it is presented once again. This time through a series harrowing images that remain in the mind’s eye well after this combat film is over. The tale concerns Agu (Abraham Attah), a young West African boy affected by an unnamed civil war raging in his country. His mother and sisters escape, but his father is shot and killed. Agu is essentially kidnapped by militants who coerce him to join their rebel force. Their mercenary unit is headed up by a megalomaniacal leader only referred to as Commandant (Idris Elba).

Agu’s awareness of evil expands as the conflict rages on. This conversion forms the narrative in the capable hands of newcomer Abraham Attah. He is fascinating, both thoughtful and sincere. It’s a revelatory performance and the most compelling reason to discuss the picture. Idris Elba as the Commandant is also effective as an intimidating presence overseeing this rag tag team of soldiers. His dominant authority over these young men and boys as he molds them into soldiers is chilling. As the full extent of his predatory abuse is revealed, he becomes an even more reprehensible individual. The pessimism inherent in the perspective adheres close to convention. It is his meeting with the Supreme Commander (Jude Akuwudike) where the limits of the Commandant’s power are revealed. This is where the script finally explores something slightly more innovative.

Director Cary Joji Fukunaga has shown a facility with different genres. He has gone from the Mexican gangland adventure Sin Nombre to an adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. This time he’s adapting another book, the 2005 debut novel by Nigerian-American author Uzodinma Iweala. Little detail is given as to what conflict this is and for what exactly are these various warring factions fighting. The lack of political context or commentary is a bit of a misstep in a chronicle about people who do indeed pick sides. Our protagonist, however doesn’t pick a side. He’s merely swept up into the maelstrom of violence. The saga revels in one war crime after another. The way people intellectually justify their point of view is clearly not the point. Beasts of No Nation is about a child’s loss of innocence. Not a novel idea, but at least one presented with a pair of laudable performances.

Note: Beasts of No Nation debuted simultaneously on Netflix and to theaters in limited release. It’s a tough watch particularly at a punishing 2 hours 17 minutes. The temptation to break away from this bleak story is pretty high. I admittedly did not see this in one sitting. I do consider my wavering desire to finish the movie, relevant. Definitely more of an immersive experience uninterrupted in a theater.

11-02-15

Stripes

Posted in Comedy, War on September 11, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Stripes photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgAll around screw-up John Winger loses his car, girlfriend, apartment and job as a taxi driver, all within a few hours. After seeing an ad on TV, he decides joining the army is the answer. With his friend Russell Ziskey, they go down to the local recruiting center to enlist. Bill Murray and Harold Ramis enter boot camp, make a lot of wisecracks and show off the lighter side of basic training. This American military comedy was a massive summer hit in 1981 and further cemented the popularity of rising star Bill Murray who had previously scored big with both Meatballs and Caddyshack in each of the two prior years.

Director Ivan Reitman would most successfully direct Bill Murray and Harold Ramis in Ghostbusters. Here he keeps things much looser in this meandering comedy that comes across as kind of sloppy in parts. Every major plot thread in the movie is a bit bewildering. To be quite honest, that’s a significant component of the film’s charm. Don’t try to reason why being late to your own graduation ceremony and then giving an utterly unconventional (albeit coordinated) drill display, earns you the accordance of even greater respectability.

General Barnicke: Are you telling me that you men finished your training on your own?
John Winger: That’s the fact, Jack.
Soldiers: That’s the fact, Jack!

Impressed, the General decides these are just the ambitious men he wants guarding a top secret EM-50 Urban Assault Vehicle. Incidentally, it looks like a Winnebago. The men are sent to Italy to guard the weapon. Here’s where the narrative falls apart. John and Russell basically run afoul over there. One thing leads to another and they end up taking on the Communists.

There are segments that make this seem more like a relic than the blockbuster comedy it became. Early in the film, when John returns home, his girlfriend Anita (Roberta Leighton) is casually walking around the apartment topless. Later the boys go to a bikini bar to participate in a mud wrestling match. It’s a protracted scene.  Gratuitous nudity was a hallmark of 80s comedies and this one employed it more than most.  Oh and apparently women are simply putty in the hands of Bill Murray. At one point, he gives his sweetheart (P.J. Soles) what he calls “The Aunt Jemima Treatment”. That’s where he charms her skeptical exterior by throwing her onto a stovetop and shoving a spatula into her crotch. It ends with her admitting that’s she’s “helplessly, hopelessly, deeply in love” with him. Something tells me this would end differently in the real world

It’s odd how a comedy from 1981 can seem more outdated than say one from 1961. Irreverent is the nicest way to put it. That’s not to say Stripes isn’t worth watching. It’s occasionally hilarious. At the time, the film was the third on which Harold Ramis collaborated with Bill Murray, but the first in which the two actually appeared on camera together. The chemistry of their effortless friendship in real life, easily translates on screen. There’s some terrific moments leading up to their arrival at Fort Arnold. The meet-and-greet scene in the Army barracks is a highlight for everyone involved. Ox (John Candy) and Psycho (Conrad Dunn) have amusing introductions. Legend has it that Bill Murray’s “Chicks Dig Me” speech, including the bit about Lee Harvey and the cow, was improvised, Their basic training and on through their graduation feature some extremely funny bits. Unfortunately the dramatic momentum runs out of steam during the final act. Up until then, it’s quite entertaining. Nostalgic viewers old enough to have originally seen it during the 80s should enjoy it even more.

09-09-15

American Sniper

Posted in Action, Biography, Drama, War with tags on November 28, 2014 by Mark Hobin

American Sniper photo starrating-3stars.jpgMovie adaptation of the memoir written by United States Navy SEAL Chris Kyle exists between the taught, tension filled investigation of The Hurt Locker and the overt rah rah jingoism of Lone Survivor. Kyle served four tours in the Iraq War and during that time, he had at least 160 confirmed kills by the Pentagon’s count, but 255 probable by his own calculation. Eastwood touches on his early years but the majority of the picture is devoted to Kyle’s military service, It is an often sobering account of how the most lethal sniper in American military history conducted his business in the Iraq War. As such it is Clint Eastwood’s best film in years.

Bradley Cooper handles the role with seriousness and humility. The actor fleshes out a character with pure sincerity. Although Chris remains a bit inscrutable, his devotion to his purpose and why he does what he does, is clear. The Navy SEAL is shown to be a perceptive man who understands the severity of what he does. His actions have grave consequences. Bradley Cooper looks quite different physically here. At 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, Chris Kyle was a large guy. Bradley Cooper sports a beard and packs on 40 lbs of muscle to become the man. With her reddish brown hair and American accent, Sienna Miller is virtually unrecognizable as well in a fundamental supporting part as his wife Taya Kyle.

Eastwood is effective at contrasting the difference between a sniper’s job from the troops fighting on the ground. To be honest, Kyle takes on this duty as well when he cannot be of help on the rooftops. As a sharpshooter, we are presented with the emotionally difficult decisions he must make from a distance. He weighs the importance of what he is about to do with the lasting results. Is this an innocent civilian or a dangerous enemy that threatens American lives? Not every assassin looks like a human killing machine trained for combat. Warning: the most compelling scene that illustrates this is in the trailer.

The negative effects his service had on his marriage is understandable but they’re the kind of well worn issues oft dramatized. Chris Kyle is a career solider. We understand his desire to keep going back to Iraq. He has developed a reputation as a legend and he is driven to contribute to the cause. Meanwhile his growing detachment from domestic life becomes problematic. He volunteers to return for a total of four separate tours and it weighs heavily on his marriage.  If there’s a mission that keeps him coming back, it is the unfinished pursuit of a Syrian marksman (Sammy Sheik) who is his counterpart on the opposite side. But his wife and kids need him too. This dilemma forms a persistent idea in the second half.

American Sniper is a solid well constructed effort that is arguably Clint Eastwood’s best since Gran Torino. I would support that assertion anyway. But it’s also rather predictable. The depiction hits the familiar beats you‘d expect the bio of a dedicated solider to address. Whether the deadliest sniper in U.S. history is a hero is not even a topic up for discussion. It is just presented as fact. The reverential portrait is a tribute that honors the man. The way this affected his personal life is a key aspect. The ongoing effect that war has on an individual’s psyche as well as his family are thoughtfully addressed, but there’s never anything particularly revelatory added to the conversation.

11-23-14

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Posted in Action, Drama, Science Fiction, War with tags on July 13, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes photo starrating-4stars.jpgThis sequel to 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes continues after the viral-based pharmaceutical ALZ-112 caused the fall of civilization. Most of the human population has died off due to their own engineered drug. Genetically evolved Caesar leads a society of super-smart apes in Muir Woods. A team of remaining human survivors immune to the virus are living nearby in San Francisco. One day someone inadvertently wanders into ape territory. In a tense standoff, one of the chimpanzees is shot which becomes the seed that leads to a growing battle for supremacy between the ape and human worlds.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is politically audacious. The narrative goes deeper than just people vs. apes. There is division even within the ranks of each species. Caesar the more level headed peace-keeping chimpanzee is pitted directly against his own kind in one bonobo named Koba. He’s an angry militant that wants to attack them first, lest they be attacked. To be fair, the humans did kill off one of their own first or should I say, an individual named Carver (Kirk Acevedo) did. He was acting alone but now his violent act is responsible for starting a brewing war among different primate species. On the human front it’s Malcolm (Jason Clarke) vs. Dreyfus (Gary Oldman). Guns complicate matters considerably. So does the apes’ ability to ride horses, which looks very cool by the way.

Dawn pushes the technology of CGI a giant step forward. The visual realism achieved in the rendering of the apes is so extraordinary, I forgot I was watching computer images on screen. A lot of the advances in this field are due to the simulation and modeling software developed by Weta Digital back in 2005 during Peter Jackson’s King Kong. However this far surpasses anything seen in that film. The believability of the apes is helped immeasurably by the motion capture performances of the actors that bring life to these creatures. I’ll cite not only the pioneer in the field Andy Serkis (Caesar) but also Toby Kebbell (Koba) who deserves a special mention. They have the biggest parts, but there are many artists putting in great work here. Although unseen, their actual expressions are incorporated into the visuals at various points. Caesar’s love for his primate family is fully felt just as one would feel affinity toward any flesh and blood family up on the screen. I dare say the writing of these digitally rendered creations actually exceeds those of the human characters. I was completely immersed in the story.

I certainly didn’t expect to get a cogent commentary on the nature of war when I sat down to watch Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but that’s exactly what I got. The script makes a compelling explanation of how the behavior of a few are sometimes extrapolated to everyone in the group. And how a political body might try to justify going to war against, oh I don’t know, let’s say an entire country because of the isolated actions of some fringe fanatics. It makes a strong case that when boundaries are drawn and resources are needed in outlying areas, war is inevitable. There’s plenty of jump-worthy moments to keep action fans entertained as well. I sat there mouth agape on several occasions because the sequences were that thrilling. The quality of Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a nice surprise in the re-introduction of this series back in 2011. Perhaps this production is an even bigger revelation because it’s better and improves upon something that was already quite good. At this rate, the third film should win Best Picture.