Lone Survivor

Lone Survivor is a stupendous movie. Remarkably shot, very well acted, and the story does a lot.

The people saying it’s a pro-war, bloodthirsty, pro-American empire, movie didn’t watch the same movie I watched. It’s pro-soldier, pro-sacrifice, pro-comradeship, pro-military, and as anti-war as a movie can get.

I wept as I left the theater.

You will enjoy Lone Survivor if you liked:
Saving Private Ryan
The Grey
The Impossible
Thin Red Line

Here’s a trailer:

The deets:

Released January 10, 2014

Written by Peter Berg. Based on the book by Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson.

Directed by Peter Berg

Starring Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch, Eric Bana, Alexander Ludwig, Yousuf Azami, and Ali Suliman.

Rated: R

*     *     *     *     *

Story

Mike Murphy (Kitsch) and his team of Navy Seals are sent on operation Red Wings. This mission will take the Seals to a remote region of Afghanistan, where they are to find and either capture or kill Shah (Azami). The Seals are a tight group and an opening montage shows how Seals are trained– spoiler: it’s completely insane.

Marcus Luttrell (Wahlberg) is one of the four Seals sent on the mission. The other two are Danny Dietz (Hirsch) and Matt ‘Axe’ Axelson (Foster).

Their commander is Erik Kristensen (Bana), which is, interestingly, yet another role that Eric Bana is playing where his character’s name is similar or the same as his. In Hannahis character is Eric. In The Incredible Hulk, his name is Bruce Banner.

Anyway, back on task.

A new addition to the Seal team is eager to go on the mission, but Shane Patten (Ludwig) is left behind in order to help coordinate communications. He will likely go on the next mission.

So these four hike to a mountain above the village where Shah has been spotted. They get eyes on him and settle in for the day, waiting for night to fall before they go in and get him. They are surprised to see that Shah has a veritable army with him, as opposed to the ten guys they were expecting.

Then some goats show up, followed by some goat-herders. The four Seals capture the men, but are faced with a dilemma, let the prisoners go or kill them so the operation isn’t compromised– along with the Seals safety. The Seals know for a fact that these men will go and tell Shah immediately about the American soldiers in the mountains.

The Murphy, the boss of this team, makes the decision: let the villagers go and hightail it out of there, trying to outrun Shah’s army.

But Shah’s army not only catches up to them; they get ahead of the Seals. Now we have an extended, visceral, extraordinary gunfight. Two-hundred or so Taliban soldiers against four Navy Seals.

And the Seals are incredible. With almost no shots wasted, the Seals start methodically taking out the Taliban soldiers. But the Seals are flanked and they have to get out of there. Each one takes hits: to the leg, shoulder, abdomen. They keep going.

And they keep going.

And not all of them make it, but they keep going until biology takes over their incredible will and training and shuts them down.

Luttrell is the last one and he winds up needing the help of locals and a rescue team to get out alive.

Critique

Lone Survivor doesn’t go wrong. It starts slowly enough that we can come to know and appreciate these soldiers. The movie establishes authenticity with the right jargon and the right procedural practices. We feel the casual excellence that these soldiers embody early on, and we are made privy to the limitations that training and technology have.

The acting is outstanding, with Kitsch, Hirsch, Foster, and Wahlberg each being distinct and sympathetic characters. We want Foster to win the argument over what should be done with the goat-herders that were captured, but we know that his position is wrong, although it’s the only one that keeps them safe. Bana and Ludwig do a great job in their support roles.

And the production value is fantastic, although there are a few moments where the body-abuse noises are a little too much. But we are with them, with the camera work not shaky-cam, but immediate and present.

Peter Berg has delivered a spectacular movie about heroism, sacrifice, camaraderie, and specifically the extraordinary force that is the Navy Seals. It doesn’t overdo drama– it simply presents the events as they were described by Luttrell in his book.

That said, what exactly does this movie glorify? Does it glorify violence? War? American imperialism and nation-building abroad?

Nope. For the majority of the movie, these issues aren’t even raised. The film makes sure we know Shah is a truly bad guy, as we see the guy executing an Afghanistan man. Thus, we have a villain. We have good guys going after a bad guy, and then the good guys have to fight for their lives.

Should the good guys even be there? Not addressed. Directly. Do the villagers who shelter Luttrell support the American mission? Also not addressed.

But at the end of the movie, we see the effect this conflict is having on families. This might have been done with the intent of demonstrating the sacrifice, but it serves rather as a statement against war and a demand that any war that these extraordinary people get sent to, and that their families have to suffer due to, be very careful, very justified, honest, and truly right.

Their sacrifice, training, sense of duty, love, life, and determination are sacred– and must not be wasted.

In the end, the tragedy of war is laid bare. We weep at the loss that war brings and we hope that the people sending these soldiers off to war find a way to avoid war as much as possible.

Whether you agree with the current conflicts aside, war is tragic and these lives and families are sacred. That message is brought home with power at the end of the film. Go see this movie so that you are re-sensitized to the need to diminish war on a global scale and specifically for American men and women in the military.

Content warnings: Plenty of profanity, lots of visceral violence and injuries. High, high body count.

Writing: 4.5          Acting: 5          Overall: 4.5

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Battleship

Look, Battleship is another movie based on a game/toy and that’s a bit ridiculous. But you gotta give Peter Berg props for really going for the gold ring here and all in all, Battleship is actually a surprising amount of fun, mainly because it knows it’s pretty ridiculous.

Here’s a preview:

Here are the deets:

Released May 18, 2012

Written by Erich Hoeber and John Hoeber

Directed by Peter Berg

Starring Brooklyn Decker, Rihanna, Liam Neeson, Taylor Kitsch, Alexander Skarsgard, Tadanobu Asano, and Jesse Plemons

Rated: PG-13

*     *     *     *     *

Story

Battleship begins with Alex Hopper (Kitsch) screwing up his life royally as his brother, Stone Hopper (Skarsgard), an officer in the Navy, watches. Romantically, Alex screws his life up in the pursuit of a girl he finds irresistible, Sam Shane (Decker), because he just has to get her a chicken burrito.

Stone is torqued off at his brother and makes him join the Navy so he can turn his life around. Apparently Alex does this, because the story then picks up with Alex somehow being a Lieutenant, yes an officer, and dating Sam. Based on dialogue, it’s probably been about two years. The lovebirds want to get married.

But first, Alex has to demonstrate he’s still a rogue by being a total stud but reckless in the soccer game that is part of the RimPac International Navy Exercises. Then Alex has to ship out with the rest of the Hawai’i based navy fleet for the exercises. Also, the commander of the fleet is Admiral Shane (Neeson), who is Sam’s father.

Unfortunately the naval exercises are interrupted by invading aliens who wipe out the fleet’s ability to communicate and use normal radar, and the aliens also isolate Alex’s destroyer, his brother’s destroyer, and the destroyer commanded by Alex’s Japanese nemesis, Nagata (Asano). What’s more, Sam, the fiancee, is a physical therapist who is taking a walk up a mountain with a crippled vet who thinks he’s less than a man. That mountain happens to have a huge communications array on it.

Now stop and think this through. Can you guess what’s going to happen? Is someone going to die to make the emotional stakes high? Is there going to be a grudging respect formed between nemeses? Is the vet going to have a chance to redeem himself?

That’s the story.

Critique

I’ve mocked enough. The movie is cliched and cheesy and delightfully so. The only time it takes itself seriously is when Admiral Shane is honoring a group of older naval soldiers. Not a lot of effort went into trying to craft surprising plot twists and the cleverest and most authentic of dialogue.

But think it through again. Alex misses the game-winning goal, despite the classic build up to what would typically be a winning scene. A clever, physics-defying move wins the day. Teamwork and trust and determination prove vital to victory.

This movie is all heart and effects. It’s aware of its cheesiness and pokes intermittent fun at the sometimes unbelievable dialogue of the soldiers. Watch for the scientist who asks, “Who talks like that?” The scientist who comes through in the end.

Every note that this kind of movie is supposed to hit is hit, right on. It’s not overwrought like Armageddon, not melodramatic like stuff by Michael Bay. It’s practically a love letter to the Navy, only with incredible stationery and penmanship.

I was thoroughly entertained. The acting had some good and some ‘meh’ moments. Liam Neeson is wasted, but Rihanna does a nice job. This is also Taylor Kitsch’s best work. Jesse Plemons (who was in Friday Night Lights with Kitsch (which was developed by Peter Berg, the director)) plays his FNL character, Landry Clark, on a military ship. Jesse’s going to need to get some acting lessons under his belt. Asano does a fine job as Nagata.

The writing is very self-aware, which serves the movie well. If it had tried to take itself seriously, like the Transformers films, it would have been a disaster. However, we never really find out what it is the aliens want. They would have been a lot more interesting if we knew what they were after.

Then there’s the issue of physics. Just forget everything you know about physics and you’ll have a much better time in Battleship.

Finally, as evidence of the self-awareness and light-heartedness of the script, notice how the dialogue treats harsh language. A very nice touch. And if you want to see the set-up for the sequel (because there will be one), stay to the end of the credits.

Content warnings: some mildish profanity and plenty of explosions and non-graphic violence.

Writing: 4          Acting: 3.5           Overall: 3.5

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Snakes on a Plane

Snakes on a Plane is not as bad as some people make it out to be. What else is there for the ‘trapped in a hurtling metal cylinder 6 miles above the earth’ genre, anyway? Killer koalas? The snakes are a fun device; get over it.

Here’s a preview:

The deets:

Released August 18, 2006

Written by John Heffernan, Sebastian Gutierrez, and David Dalessandro

Directed by David R. Ellis

Starring Julianna Margulies, Samuel L. Jackson, Rachel Blanchard, Nathan Phillips, Kenan Thompson, Sunny Mabrey, and Elsa Pataky

Rated R

*     *     *     *     *

Story

Surfer and all around outdoorsy guy Sean (Phillips) witnesses a brutal murder in Hawaii by evil guy Eddie Kim. Convinced to go into the FBI’s protection and testify against Kim, Sean heads to LA with Agent Neville Flynn (Jackson). They are booked on a red-eye flight from Hawaii to LAX, on which they have taken over the entirety of first class.

Kim knows about Sean and has already tried to kill him once, so it comes as no surprise that Kim has a plan to get rid of the potential witness. This plan comes in the form of a huge crate of vicious snakes. The crate is set to open on a timer and nearby crates of leis are covered in a pheromone that will drive the snakes nuts. The idea is to bring the entire plane down in what would be seen as a freak accident.

The snakes wreak havoc with the plane, killing people in all sorts of creative ways. The surviving passengers and crew members hole up in first class, fending off snakes and trying to get the plane safely to LA. A snake expert is called in over in Los Angeles to try to help officials on that end be ready to help the victims of the snake attacks.

Throughout all of it, Sean, the easy-going surfer dude, has to decide what’s important and what his role in the world needs to be. His protector, Agent Flynn, has to be bad-@$$ and heroic. The flight attendant who is on her last flight before leaving the biz and going to law school (Margulies) has to help, while other characters are there to show humanity at its best and worst.

And all of this happens on an airplane, with some very good and very bad snake effects and a few genuine jump moments.

Critique

It’s easy to criticize Snakes on a Plane. It’s preposterous, technically very inaccurate when it comes to the snakes and the plane itself, and the characters aren’t very smart. Honestly, how hard would it be to make the plane really cold and pretty much ice the snakes in one move? You’d think the snake expert would suggest that.

What’s more, Phillips is not exactly a textured actor and Jackson is there mainly to be a mean, determined son of a gun.

Thankfully, Margulies can’t help but be a very fine actress and the story, while preposterous, follows solid archetypes and is technically pretty good.

What you end up with is absurd B-movie stuff that is better than a B-movie because of the nice peripheral performances, some character surprises, and some surprisingly nice redemption stories. Yes, the jerky businessman gets his. Yes, the potty-mouthed flirt finds a grain of decency and ends life heroically. Yes, the older brother does, in the end, save his brother.

So it’s silly, over the top, technically jarring, but overall, a satisfying film. The satisfaction comes from some surprisingly deft touches with scenes where characters are given time to find their place and truth. Plus, the snakes are creepy and there are real jump moments here and there.

Also, you realize that the guy joining the mile high club is Tim Riggins, right?

Content warnings: Plenty of profanity, particularly the most quoted line of the film; sensuality, some top nudity, and drug use; violence and snake blood; some ugly scenes as snake victims perish messily.

Writing: 3          Acting: 3          Overall: 3

Don’t believe me? Check out the reviews for Snakes on a Plane at Rotten Tomatoes.

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John Carter

It turns out that Tim Riggins still isn’t much of an actor, but lucky for him and the viewer, John Carter turned out pretty great despite that.

Here’s a preview:

The deets:

Released March 9, 2012

Written by Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews, and Michael Chabon (Based on the books by Edgar Rice Burroughs, specifically Princess of Mars.)

Directed by Andrew Stanton (yes, the Andrew Stanton who brought you Finding Nemo and Wall-E etc.)

Starring: Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Taylor Kitsch, Willem Dafoe, Dominic West, Ciaran Hinds, Thomas Haden Church, Bryan Cranston, Mark Strong, James Purefoy, and Daryl Sabara

Rated: PG-13 (for the same reason as the Lord of the Rings movies- those creatures’ blood ain’t red)

*     *     *     *     *

Reports say that the budget for John Carter came in at $250 million. That’s gotta be record-breaking. Luckily, it’s money well spent, because John Carter is a fun, action-packed, mostly coherent, visual treat.

Also, heads-up: critics tend to really dislike this type of movie. So take what you hear or read with a grain of salt. This is the movie you want it to be and you’re going to have a great time.

Story

The film opens with some scenes of magnificent back story, where we see that Mars is indeed inhabited. In fact, humans live there, as do some outstanding bipedal humanoid-types that are giant and have four arms. These are Tharks. They are the primary inhabitants of Mars, but the humans (who have blue blood) have become the dominant species. The humans have divided into two factions and a bad guy by the name of Sab Than (West) has just received a weapon of extraordinary power from Matai Shang (Strong), a Thern. The Therns are mysterious beings, said to be messengers of the goddess, Issa.

So now Sab Than is laying waste and is going to take the final city of the other guys, who are the good guys, of course. He offers peace to the ruler of the good guys, Tardos Mors (Hinds), as long as Mors gives up his daughter to be the wife of Sab Than. The daughter, Dejah Thoris (Collins), is the Princess of Mars who is the focus of the first book by Burroughs. Dejah is a strong character and she refuses to marry Sab Than.

We move to Earth, where John Carter (Kitsch), a former accomplished soldier who fought for the Confederacy, returns from the war and finds his family slaughtered. He turns to gold mining while dodging Powell (Cranston), a Union colonel who wants Carter to join in a fight against the Apaches. Carter escapes Powell’s clutches and comes upon a cave of legend, where he is attacked by a Thern and is accidentally transported to Mars, or Barsoom as Martians call it.

Carter is taken captive by the Tharks, the leader of which is Tars Tarkas (Dafoe), a surprisingly wise and compassionate member of the brutal species. Carter bests a Thark in a fight and is adopted by the Tharks. All the while, Carter still has no idea where he is and is trying to adjust to being able to leap incredible heights and distances and to the fact that he’s immensely strong. Carter intervenes when Sab Than’s forces catch up with the fleeing Princess Dejah, saving Dejah’s life and making an enemy of Sab Than.

Dejah tries to convince Carter to join in her people’s fight against Sab Than, but he just wants to get home. However, Dejah helps Carter understand where he is and what’s going on and sparks fly between the two of them. What ensues is what you might expect: a race to get Carter home, keep Dejah alive, save the innocent people of Mars, find out the truth of the Therns, and stop Sab Than. Of course, we get to a point where Carter must face the choice between going home and staying on Mars.

All of this culminates in an arena battle with two awesome giant white apes and some pretty great action set pieces.

And before we finish the story summary, this story is discovered by young Edgar Burroughs, Carter’s nephew.

Critique

The story summary is long, so the critique will be shorter.

The plot is somewhat complex, but it’s laid out well, with enough moments taken to set each scene well in time and space. Two issues: I want to know why there are blue-blooded humans on Mars and I want to know the truth of why the Therns are involved. The truth is that each character is, surprisingly, nicely fleshed out. There are a lot of people in this movie, but each one is distinct because each has discernible motivations, except of course for the Therns, whose opaque motivations add to the story.

In short, the writing is actually darn good. If critics call the plot too complex, send them to the grave of Mr. Burroughs and tell them to pay attention next time. These are the people who adored Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, so they can go eat toast. Andrew Stanton and Michael Chabon did a very fine job with this screenplay.

Note: I loved Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Taylor Kitsch needs to go do some indie films to find a few more levels, but he carries the movie fine. He is at his furious best in the battle scenes. Please be sure to watch for the scene where he takes a stand against a horde of attacking Tharks in order to protect Dejah. It has emotional punch– another excellent sign of Stanton’s adept hand.

The visual effects of John Carter are worth every penny. Where Avatar’s N’avi were alienating and a little plastic, the Tharks are so very good. I love the anatomy displayed in the attention to detail. You will love the scenery, the seamless CGI, the great air ships, and the creatures.

All in all, a little acting help for Mr. Kitsch and a few plot issues are the only critiques of this big-budget pleaser. Yes, John Carter’s story doesn’t surprise and the pacing is slightly uneven, but it’s still a thrilling and visually delightful experience.

Content warnings: Revealing attire on Dejah, loads of alien blood spilled in many action scenes, slight language. (Please also note that in the books, people are buck naked, so appreciate what you get here.)

Writing: 4.5          Acting: 4           Overall: 4.5

You think I’m blowing smoke don’t you? I’m not, but you can see that many critics really disagree by going to Rotten Tomatoes. You know what else? GeekDad on Wired.com agrees with me too. Check out their review.

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