Archive for the War Category

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.

The Railway Man

Posted in Biography, Drama, War with tags on May 7, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Railway Man photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgEric Lomax was a British Army officer who was sent to a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in 1942. He subsequently wrote a book entitled The Railway Man. In it he recounted his horrific persecution on the Thai-Burma Railway during World War II.  The same setting detailed in the movie The Bridge on the River Kwai. Remember that film? If not, then go rent that profoundly better movie instead. Seriously. Just go. I command you.

The Railway Man begins in 1980 where Scottish World War II veteran Eric Lomax (Colin Firth) meets pretty Patti Wallace (Nicole Kidman) for the first time on a train in a scene that is meant to be delightfully adorable. Kidman does what she can.  However given her stature, we keep expecting the star to become a more integral part. The underwritten role would’ve benefited form a lesser known actress because it’s more of a accessory than a fully formed individual. They both settle into a comfortable existence together as a married couple, but wouldn’t you know it, trouble looms on the horizon. As biopics are often wont to do, this idyllic life is only presented to contrast with the real point of the story. You see Lomax is tortured by repressed memories of his time spent as a Japanese POW. Cue the flashback sequence, a dependable device to be sure, but the bane of every manufactured biopic that has ever been made.

The Railway Man suffers from erratic pacing. These flashback sequences comprise the bulk of the second half of the film. They’re set at the POW camp with actor Jeremy Irvine portraying Lomax as a younger man. He does what he can with a pretty sizeable role, but there is a disconnect. The disturbing events of the past juxtaposed with the placid view of him as an adult don’t jive well. The back and forth is jarring and doesn’t flow into the overall narrative. He builds a radio which the Japanese Army believes he is using to transmit signals. As a result, he must endure the horrors of an abusive prison which include waterboarding.  I get that it’s told from Lomax’s POV but his captors might as well be cardboard cutouts because they have no depth or personality. They merely serve one purpose, to be the antagonists from which Lomax must suffer.   They’re somewhat given a face in actor Tanroh Ishida as Takashi Nagase, an interpreter.

Languidly paced biography is handsomely mounted and well acted but this period melodrama is inert. Colin Firth exemplifies respectful reverence in his depiction of Eric Lomax as a soft genteel man haunted by the past. His posttraumatic stress disorder continues to weigh on him. That sets the stage for the climax. Lomax learns that that Takashi Nagase is now employed as a tour guide. Actor Hiroyuki Sanada is him as an adult. The Japanese soldier who oversaw his torture in 1942 now works at a museum on the very grounds of the prison camp where the two men first met. In an effort to reconcile his feelings, Lomax re-visits Burma several decades later. On paper the developments sound fascinating, but what is undoubtedly an important account is given a very conventional treatment. The film builds to this meeting as a highlight of sorts. Will he find peace or revenge? Colin Firth’s portrait of restrained passivity is both admirable and frustrating. The biopic engages at irregular intervals but it’s so carefully modulated that it feels like an artifact from a bygone era. The Railway Man is ultimately a positive tale and I suppose it gets some sympathy points for that.

05-04-14

300: Rise of an Empire

Posted in Action, Drama, History, War with tags on March 9, 2014 by Mark Hobin

300: Rise of an Empire photo starrating-1andahalfstars.jpgOkay let’s see now. Pecs, Blood, Pecs, Blood, Pecs, Pecs, Pecs, Blood, Blood, BREASTS, Pecs, Pecs, Blood, Blood, Pecs Blood, Pecs. That pretty much sizes up the narrative formula of 300: Rise of an Empire. This is the sequel (prequel) to 300, the once cutting edge action/fantasy movie based on the Dark Horse comic by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley. Released back in March of 2007, its innovative visual style borrowed from Sin City, favored the appearance of a comic book. Now almost a decade later, the look has been copied (The Spirit, Immortals) and even parodied (Meet the Spartans) to the point where innovative spectacle isn’t enough. We require a story.

Stepping into Gerard Butler’s leather briefs as the star this time around is Sullivan Stapleton who plays Greek general Themistokles. He’s leading the charge against the invading Persian army. The Persian people are once again represented by Xerxes, the giant god/king. You might remember him from part one. He was the eccentric that looked like he was dipped in bronze, adorned with gold chains and then applied Joan Crawford eyebrows. He’s ticked off because Themistokles killed his father. Xerxes thinks he’s calling the shots, but he’s really just a puppet of Artemisia, the queen/commander of his naval fleet. As portrayed by Eva Green, she is the real star of the show. Following years in captivity after being raped by a gang of Greek soldiers, she is out for revenge. That is a pretty good reason to be upset. So after you hear her side of the events, you’ll switch allegiances and root against the Spartans. As the most memorable character, she rises above the mire with her wickedly scene-chewing performance.

Unfortunately characterization, story and drama are pushed aside solely in favor of a dated style that isn’t innovative anymore. Gushing fountains of CGI blood garnish a scene like parsley on a plate. The super slo-mo sepia toned plasma streams across every battle scene. Oh and there are a lot of battle scenes in this picture. It never lets up. Throats are cut, men are beheaded, women are raped. The amount of slaughter shows no subtlety or justification. It’s merely offered up as entertainment for an audience that might have to pay as much as $19.50 to see this filth in IMAX 3D. And let me tell you, the dichromatic visual palette is dark, muddy and not impressive. So save your money and see it in 2D at a bargain priced matinee, if at all.

There are some hilarious lines however. 300 seemed kind of oblivious to the homoerotic subtext of so many half naked muscular gym bodies in a historical context. Seriously, why don’t these men wear armor? On the other hand, 300: Rise of the Empire seems to not only embrace it, but exploit it. “You’ve come a long way to stroke your c*** watching real men train,” quips Sparta’s Queen Gorgo upon Themistokles’ arrival. Later Themistokles proudly states, “I have spent my life on my one true love — the Greek fleet.“  Naturally he says this right before a most ridiculous sex scene between him and the seductive Artemisia. There is so much punching, choking and hair pulling, it’s unclear whether they’re making love or physically assaulting each other. Once they’re done she deadpans “You fight much harder than you f***” on his performance. Ouch!

The triumph of the few against the many was unquestionably a more engaging plot point in the first film than the ugly tale of revenge on display here. You can laugh at the unmitigated excess of the saga and try to appreciate it on that level. Unfortunately all the carnage without any redeeming value gets pretty mind numbing after awhile. 300: Rise of an Empire is too witless to really enjoy. Surprisingly this became a huge success which proves that an interesting script is not required of a hit.  300: Rise of An Empire did $45.1M in its opening weekend.  Expect studio execs to dust off other 7 year old properties now. Wild Hogs 2 anyone?

Lone Survivor

Posted in Action, Biography, Drama, War with tags on December 26, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Lone Survivor photo starrating-1andahalfstars.jpgLone Survivor is the depiction of a United States maneuver during the War in Afghanistan in 2005. Labeled Operation Red Wings, a group of Navy SEALs are tasked to capture or kill high ranking Taliban leader Ahmad Shah. The story is based on Marcus Luttrell’s 2007 book about the failed mission. First let’s address the elephant in the room. I’d be hard pressed to name a more spoiler heavy title than Lone Survivor. It’s a pretty efficient buzzkill. There’s Death of Salesman perhaps, but then that play had so much more to offer intellectually. We’re introduced to a team of four Navy SEALs played by Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch and Ben Foster. Right from the start there’s this nagging feeling that we probably shouldn’t get too attached to at least three of these guys.

This is a pretty simple plot. Four guys go in. Only one comes out. Basically everything that can go wrong, does go wrong. Director Peter Berg (Battleship) never met a bullet going through flesh that he didn’t want to film in slow motion. The death of Ben Foster’s character is particularly gruesome. As he’s gasping for breath, blood pouring out, we watch as he is hit not once, not twice but three shots with grisly brutality. A veritable pastiche of sound effects highlights detonations, guns shooting, bullets whizzing by. Several scenes show soldiers tumbling down the side of a mountain. This tableau is repeated several times in fact. Their bodies somersaulting like rag dolls with bones crunching against every rock along the way in glorious sonic clarity. In one of the production’s quieter moments, Wahlberg performs surgery on his leg with a knife.

Lone Survivor is a weird mix of jingoism and “war is hell” mentality. The opening crawl of actual training footage feels like a military recruitment film, but then the senseless escalating body count screams otherwise. Our team of four Navy SEALs are robust models of tough American masculinity. Their male bonding, rah-rah, “let’s go kick some Taliban butt” mindset is occasionally interrupted by exclamations of “Muthaf–ka!” and “F–k You!” For the second half, it’s seemingly the only words they know as the action is mainly punctuated by the sound of bodies exploding while bullets pierce their skulls in blood splattering detail. The soundtrack has the audacity to play the quietly solemn beats of a noble drum march in the background as if that makes all the carnage more meaningful. There are admittedly two examples where expectations are subverted and humanity is displayed. In those minutes, we realize what this picture could have been. Then it’s back to bloody business as usual. In the end, the overriding conclusion is that Operation Red Wings was a tragic waste of life and this movie is a tragic waste of time.

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