18 posts categorized "War"

July 03, 2018


Sicario_day_of_the_soldadoScreenwriter Taylor Sheridan cut his teeth on this film’s unimpressive prequel but his slack effort with a mucky melodramatic sequel is still no bueno.

Anyone looking for an equal amount of truth as you get from an episode of Hugh Laurie’s television-pleaser “House,” will be disappointed. This is agitprop junk politics in the interest of normalizing hellishly violent acts, frequently involving children, in the context of America’s raging border war against immigrant refugees. Exploitation is the genre at play, but not the cool one (see "Faster, Pussycat Kill! Kill!" for that). 


Soldado is Spanish for soldier. You can guess which of this film’s four ostensible leading characters (Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Isabela Moner, Elijah Rodriguez) is the subject of the title. Keep in mind that two of the four are teenaged children.

Naturally, it is Josh Brolin’s square-jawed mercenary Matt Graver whose “day” involves kidnapping a teenage girl (Isabela Moner), dragging her through a series of grotesque episodes of war violence because that’s just how Matt rolls, deadly style. Never mind that the poor girl will probably never be able to speak again. That’s normal. Or so this movie wants you to believe.

Don’t go looking for continuity between this movie and the first film. Any matching details are purely coincidental. In this nightmare view of the ongoing real-life nightmare of America’s self-imposed border crisis, U.S. President James Riley (Matthew Modine) is a warmonger nut job. President Riley has a sit-down with Josh Brolin’s roid-rager mercenary Matt Graver that births a plan to kidnap the teenage daughter of a prominent Mexican drug lord, sticking the blame on another cartel, and letting shite hit the fan. Stupid is as stupid does. War is the goal, endless wars and the fat military, mercenary, and prison price tags that come with it.


We’re in an age where it’s a given that the U.S. Government deals strictly in corrupt activities. Suicidal body-bomb terrorists from New Jersey are rebranded as Cartel terrorists so the U.S. military can have carte blanch, as if they didn’t already have it before. Just to be clear, Mexican drug cartels are supposedly transporting Islamic terrorists across the border to the country that Mexico’s desperate immigrants are seeking safety within.

Graver and his team (including Benicio Del Toro’s Alejandro) kidnap Isabela Reyes in the false flag operation.

Miguel, a start-up teen gangster (played by Elijah Rodriguez) is looking to come up fast in the local cartel when he spots Alejandro after nearly being run over. Miguel’s memory later sparks a shark-jumping double climax that lets its audience know this drawn-out melodrama of lawyers, guns, and money has its tongue firmly in cheek. Sure, there’s even a bloody hole in the cheek, just to prove it.

Rated R. 122 mins. (D) (One star — out of five / no halves)

January 02, 2018


Darkest_hour_ver3Joe Wright is a director who specializes in period kitsch. His 2005 version of “Pride & Prejudice” is a well-defined dollop of cinematic tough love as experienced through Jane Austen’s emotional turbulence of class struggles.

“Atonement” (2007) found Wright following his muse Keira Knightly through the war-torn romantic terrain of Ian McEwan’s novel with emotional grace notes played in ringing succession. The keen-eyed filmmaker maxed out with his visually embellished adaptation of Anna Karenina, once again featuring Keira Knightley, this time as the title character of Tolstoy’s epic love story.

However deft Joe Wright clearly is with clearing his theatrical space for actors to deliver finely crafted performances in “Darkest Hour,” the filmmaker is hamstrung to liberate the film from screenwriter Anthony McCarten’s staid text and dull plotting. There is no question that Gary Oldman’s performance as Winston Churchill is a portrayal for the ages. As well, Kristin Scott Thomas is purely grounded as Churchill’s wife Clemmie. Ben Mendelsohn’s King George VI casts a long shadow that few living politicians could pretend to fill.


The problems with this dull, drawn-out film announce themselves early on through Dario Marianelli’s bombastic musical score that attempts to mask narrative shifts that clash rather than mesh with the aural hamburger-helper. The story takes place over a one-month period during May of 1940, when Winston Churchill took over as Britain’s Prime Minister at a time when Germany was winning World War II. For as unpopular as Churchill was at the time, he put his head down and got to work, or so the story goes.


"Darkest Hour" gets overwrought and fussy regarding Churchill’s mistreatment of his youthful secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), who has to develop much thicker skin if she is to endure the demands of taking dictation from the head of the British Empire. We accept the sub-plot ruse in the beginning, but it runs threadbare by the time Churchill is pressured toward engaging in peace talks with Hitler.

References to Dunkirk come across as gratuitous considering that awful film’s recent engagement to a plethora of fawning critics who seem to have never seen a competent war film in their lives. There should be a moratorium on World War II films considering that era's disconnected irrelevance to our drone-dominated modern warfare, and the fact of Cinema's already mile-high coverage of World War II.

When Oldman’s Churchill boards a London subway to get a feel for the will of the people, it’s clear that the filmmakers have sunk to a new basement level of pandering to their audience. The scene works in spite of itself, but it nonetheless represents an unforgivable sin of sewing up a mess of a movie with a flurry of hand-stitching. “Darkest Hour” is a brief, and presumably misleading, biopic aimed more at winning awards for acting than in connecting our modern political problems with those of the past. Here is a film to sip tea over, rather than watch with any sense of urgency or relevance beyond the endearing performances of its cast.    

Ben Mendelsohn

Rated PG-13. 125 mins. (C-) (Two stars — out of five / no halves)

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Groupthink doesn't live here.

July 28, 2017


Rated PG-13. 106 mins. (F) (Zero stars — out of five / no halves)

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June 04, 2017


WarMachineAlthough crushed under the smothering weight of director/writer David Michôd's relentless voice-over-narration, a lacking vision of satirical tone, and undisciplined editing (courtesy of Peter Sciberras), “War Machine” enjoys considerable lift from the efforts of its (mostly) solid cast — Topher Grace go to your room. Still, you couldn’t be blamed for not wanting to endure all the talky narration (from a character you don't even see until half way though the movie) to get at the story hiding underneath.

This Netflix-produced movie is inspired by Michael Hastings’ 2010 book “The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War In Afghanistan,” but the author of “Animal Kingdom” (Michôd) doesn’t grasp first rule of screenwriting; 'show, don’t tell.' There isn’t a single thing that Scoot McNairy’s narrating journalist Sean Cullen tells us that we wouldn’t better receive without the audio-present redundancies. It feels as if the projectionist were substituting audio from a documentary over a feature film. Disaster.

War Machine

Brad Pitt’s General Glen McMahon (The Glenimal) would fit neatly into Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove,” a similarly themed anti-war film that this movie can’t otherwise hope to aspire to. Pitt’s character is based on General Stanley McChrystal, whose exposure as a rogue U.S. military asshole of epic proportions became public knowledge after Michael Hastings’ feature article (“The Runaway General”) for Rolling Stone Magazine (in 2010). Brad Pitt colors his warmonger persona with features that boldly boarder on the cartoonish. He keeps his right eye in a near-permeant squint, and contorts the fingers of his hands when using them to add emphasis in convincing those around him to agree with his every crackpot idea. Dude is a real piece of work. Meg Tilly steals the movie as the General’s doting wife Jeannie McMahon. If only the filmmakers better knew how to balance Tilly’s authenticity with the satirical zing they never attain. Part of the problem is that, regardless of how tweaky Brad Pitt makes General Glen, the guy doesn't stack up as the anti-hero you want to build your story on. It should have been the reporter's story to begin with.  

There may well be a good movie hiding somewhere beneath this film’s ton of narration and poorly edited construction. I’d like to take a shot at cleaning it up, that’s for sure. The predictable soundtrack on display would be the second thing to go; I don't care if Nick Cave was responsible. 

You do come away from “War Machine” with a clear understanding of the utter worthlessness of America’s copyrighted Afghanistan War. And, you’ll know exactly what an “insurgent” is and is not after watching this frustrating film.  


Not Rated. 122 mins. (C) (Two Stars — out of five / no halves)

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May 22, 2017


The-cranes-are-flyingThe cranes of the film’s title refer to the large majestic fowl admired by a couple of Russian working class lovebirds named Veronika and Boris — played by Tatyana Samoylova and Aleksey Batalov — during the waning days of World War II. The cranes symbolize the lovers’ hope for skies filled with natural beauty rather than birds of war — namely German warplanes.

During its first act, Russian director Mikhail Kalatozov captures the couple’s exuberant affection for one another in stylized medium and close-up shots that emphasize Moscow’s urban architecture around them. That Kalatozov borrows formal compositional techniques from German Expressionist Cinema, for such a deliberate anti-war film, adds to its irrefutable power.

The lovers’ scenes together are given imperative compositions to emphasize the confining nature of outside forces that threaten the amorous pas de deux they share. In spite of the war that rages around them, Veronika and Boris seem to share a bright future together. When they return to their respective apartments after spending precious moments together, the lovers each throw themselves onto their beds in a similar fashion. Boris calls Veronika Squirrel, a term of endearment she insist he never stray from using. The audience swept up in the infectious romantic energy that Kalatozov creates onscreen.


The visual simplicity that Kalatozov uses to establish the story allows the filmmaker to gradually — painstakingly — develop the film’s thematic complexity toward a psychological and emotional crescendo that reveals key self-destructive elements of war.

Boris volunteers with a friend to go off to war. He doesn’t warn Veronika of his plans. Whether he does so to spare her some small amount of worry, or because he doesn’t value her opinion is hardly a matter of importance. Once on the battlefield, a fellow soldier’s insult, regarding the photo of Veronika that Boris carries with him, insures that the two men will share in a dangerous recognizance mission together.


Back at home Veronika staves off romantic advances from Boris’s insistent cousin Mark, a concert pianist given a deferral from conscription — supposedly due to his prodigious musical talent. A German bombing raid leaves Veronika homeless and her own family dead. Boris’s physician father Fyodor invites her to come live with his family even as they are forced to relocate east of Moscow. 
Being in such close proximity to Mark, allows him to take advantage of Veronika when circumstance allows. Their forced marriage is a mockery that Veronika escapes while working as a nurse in a hospital with Fyodor. A pivotal sequence involving a wounded soldier left inconsolable after discovering that his girlfriend has married another man, speaks volumes about the judgmental attitudes that misrepresent Veronika’s character in the eyes of society. The tone-deaf speech that Fyodor publicly gives the soldier about the kind of woman who would do such a thing, stabs into Veronika’s heart with lasting damage.

The Cranes Are Flying” benefits greatly from Tatyana Samoylova’s sturdy performance; her youthful beauty shifts from soft to hard over the course of the story. Veronika becomes a symbol of maturing femininity whose purpose is to promote peace, but the hypocrisy that drove her there remains with her.

Cranes are flying

Not Rated. 95 mins. (A+) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)

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March 10, 2016


Whiskey-tango-foxtrot“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” (a.k.a. WTF) is such a bizarre title for a movie that it seems unlikely audiences will flock to see Hollywood’s first good film of 2016. I’ve seen it twice for good reason. Tina Fey blows the doors off this baby. So does the ensemble. Martin Freeman (as war photographer Iain MacKelpie), Christopher Abbott (as Afghan fixer Fahim), and Billy Bob Thornton (as a Marine General) contribute mightily to the film’s artistic success. Sure it's American white lady propaganda. You know that going in.

It’s a telling coincidence that the real Kim Barker, upon whose book “The Taliban Shuffle” this film is based, once described herself as “a Tina-Fey type. The heavens were listening. Fey got wind of it and optioned the book before teaming up with co-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa to take a running start at Robert Carlock’s seamless adaptation of Barker’s book.

If anything, the movie is paced too evenly. It's missing a dramatic centerpiece, but pushes through on the inertia if its wealth of well observed details. 

The movie squanders a potential key sequence that would show how Kim Barker handles herself alone. As fits the Hollywood formula a man, who represents her knight in shining armor, saves a drunken Kim from an unknown alley in the darkness of night. Can’t win ‘em all. This is a sign of how far Hollywood is willing to go in promoting an unapologetically feminist character; she needs a man to save her even if she manages to return the favor.

Episodic in form, and contained in mainly medium and close-up shots, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” blends America’s pointless Afghan war, comedy, intersecting political and cultural mores, with a thematically meaningful romantic thread. The nuanced tone of the movie is reflected in a military rescue mission that occurs at Dutch angles of blue and green lighting to the strains of Harry Nilsson’s “Without You.” The action is stylized to fit the genre, and the moment.


One of the film’s clearest themes states that gender doesn’t matter much; we all become products of our environment. In Kabul, “sex with strangers in restaurant bathrooms” comes with the territory for foreign journalists, and their bodyguards, regardless of whether they are men or women, much less pretty or average looking.

Once leaving her relatively sheltered life in the States, Kim Barker embraces her wartime environment in the “Ka-bubble” of Afghanistan. A watershed event occurs during her first embed outing. Her Humvee’s bulletproof windshield absorbs the first bullet fired by a group of angry Afghan warriors. Without missing a beat Kim jumps outside to videotape the action as she shadows an American marine like a monkey on his back. Her bravery (or professional rashness) earns her an “Oo Ra” from Billy Bob’s General Hollanek. Later, when Kim explains the reason that Marine-built wells keep being destroyed in a tiny village, we see a woman speaking truth to power in a way that has never before been shown in cinema. 

The disorienting storyline spans more than three years, during which time the fearless Baker becomes a battle-tested war journo looking for her next adrenaline fix. So much so that her Afghan fixer Fahim is compelled to read her the riot act over her irrational actions of late. Kim Barker hasn’t had much cultural sensitivity training.


Kim gets a brief, and comical, introduction to Afghanistan from the first Western woman she meets, television reporter Tanya Vanderpoel (played by the impossibly lovely Australian Margot Robbie). Tanya hates to be “rude,” but just has to ask Kim for permission to have sex with Kim’s supposedly New Zealand-born bodyguard Nic. Kim gives her consent. She’s only thinking of her boyfriend back in New York. Still, Tanya encourages Kim to share in the practice of shagging your peers. When Kim demurs, Tanya blurts out the unthinkable, “Talk to me in two months when you pussy’s eating your leg.”

Normally I wouldn’t spoil a joke, but trust me; you’ll still laugh when you hear it. The irreverent zinger reflects the film’s precise use of coded ways that journalists, military officers, security forces, and afghan civilians and military communicate. When Alfred Molina's Afghan bureaucrat Ali Massoud Sadiq says he wants Kim to be his "special friend," we know what he means. 


The movie explicitly addresses American media’s nonexistent coverage of the war in Afghanistan during a meeting between Kim and Geri Taub (Cherry Jones), the head of the network that funds her reporting. Geri blames it on the public’s lack of interest in the war rather than even pretend to have an editorial mind of her own. The economic signal is clear. War is money, but the media can’t sit at the big table to profit from it anymore.

“The Navy says Who Ya, the Marines say Oo Ra; don’t mix them up.”

Rated R. 112 mins. (B+) (Four stars — out of five / no halves)

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January 27, 2015


Corporate Political Military Junta Propaganda
Hollywood Commits Cultural Suicide With Clint Eastwood’s Help

American SniperAll films are political; all films are propaganda, some more so than others. Imagine a movie entitled “Russian Marksman.” Visualize one named “Israeli Shooter.” These simple titles offhandedly refer to military occupations currently taking place in oppressed countries. As a Palestinian living under occupation, you probably wouldn’t be pleased to see “Israeli Shooter” playing at your local cinema.

These corollary film titles evoke racist ideologies once you consider that modern wars are motivated by imperialist agendas seeking to kill, humiliate, and rob weaker cultures of their natural resources and cultural identities. The capitalist ideology of war is built on the intrinsic basis of racism. So it follows that Hollywood’s current system serves as the corporate-controlled US Government’s most visible means of spreading its xenophobic political agenda next to Fox News. Thanks Warner Brothers; thanks a lot.

American Sniper” is a war movie built more on fantasy than reality. It would be more correctly categorized in the war fantasy genre shared by films such as Jack Starrett’s “The Losers” (1970) or Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds.” If you want to see recent movies that fit more accurately into the war genre designation you could check out Kimberly Peirce’s “Stop-Loss” (2008) or Paul Haggis’s “In the Valley of Elah” (2007). “Stop-Loss” is especially germane to “American Sniper” because it exposes the U.S. military’s treacherous and unprecedented policy of sending soldiers back for two, three, four, or more tours of duty, pushing combatants past their breaking points and into walking time-bombs. Chris Kyle, this film’s real-life sniper, completed four tours of duty in Iraq. The average US soldier in Vietnam completed just one tour of duty, as did soldiers in World War II and the Korean War.


One of the film’s most egregious examples of manufactured fiction occurs in the guise of a “rival” Iraqi sniper named Mustafa (Sammy Sheik) who presents Chris Kyle with an all-encompassing focal point of mirror reflection. The cartoonish construct of the Mustafa character sends a clear signal about the film’s crude level of disinformation.

It’s revealing that Senator John McCain felt obligated to speak up in defense of “American Sniper,” a one-note piece of cinematic propaganda so obnoxious that it threatens to undermine the very nature of its intended effect. The Hollywood military scriptwriting machine can’t compete with Paul Verhoeven when it comes to creating nuanced cinematic propaganda; see “Starship Troopers,” a brilliant example of antiwar satire.

In the same way that the Internet has liberated hordes of people from the oppression of religious doctrine (atheism has exploded exponentially around the globe in the past 10 years), it is possible that “American Sniper’s” enormous box office success will backfire as more people wake up to the con game that America’s corporate political military junta is running. Consider Scientology’s “prison of belief.” Their membership is in steady decline since the Internet exposed the Scientology con game for what it is. “American Sniper” is catching a wellspring of justified criticism that the movie is doomed to soak in forever more.

The U.S. Government’s long-running collaboration with Hollywood dates back to War World II. Recent war films such as “Black Hawk Down” (2001), and “United 93” (2006) wear their obvious political ideologies on their sleeves. Still, many American movie audiences buy (hook, line, and sinker) every piece of spoon-fed text and subtext they’re given as gospel truth. Coincidentally, the US military refers to its “Hooyah”-happy soldiers as “true believers.” Nevermind that the shallow pond of every soldier’s belief system is built entirely on misrepresentation. Chris Kyle believes he is fighting in Iraq to avenge 9/11, of all things. (Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11.) Cue the sad trombone. He would have been better off selling his soul to the Church of Scientology.

U.S. soldiers have a lot in common with religious zealots; their blind faith enables them to kill without question. Chris Kyle sported a blood-red Crusader cross tattoo to make his Christian faith obvious to those around him. He worships at a bloody altar. In “American Sniper” hero worship is everything. Chris Kyle is nicknamed Legend. We hear the tag a lot throughout the film. “Savages” is the epithet applied to the Iraqi freedom fighters that oppose their US occupiers in once-vibrant cities that are now reduced to rubble.

American Sniper2Chris Kyle’s “first kill” is a child soldier whose mother passes him a grenade to throw at a crew of heavily armed American soldiers stationed around an armored security vehicle. How and why does it occur that the film’s intended American audience doesn’t choose to empathize with the brave Iraqi mother and child whose military-aged male relatives and friends have all been killed or hauled off to prison? Gilo Pontecorvo’s classic 1966 resistance film “The Battle of Algiers” eloquently addresses this question with a cinema vérité-styled depiction of the French occupation of Algeria. “The Battle of Algiers” extrapolates on historic truisms regarding occupations from the perspective of the occupied freedom fighters, i.e. occupied people, always fight harder and better than their occupiers because they have more at stake. And, in the end, resistance fighters always win. Take Afghanistan for example. The British couldn’t take it despite three attempts; the Russians got chased out; and now the Taliban are stronger than ever after handing the American military's ass on a sand-covered plate, albeit it in trillions of pieces.

American-sniperHow would you respond if you were put in a similar situation, in which most of your town’s buildings had been leveled by foreign occupiers who can’t even speak your language and yet kick in your doors at 5am to violate your every mode of dignity? History has proven time again and time again exactly how you would respond, just like the desperate mother and son that we see Chris Kyle kill with single shots from his well-hidden sniper’s position. Clearly, he was not a student of history.

In his book, Chris Kyle said that he was “not a fan of politics.” He failed to see, however, that he was its victim. A particularly repulsive scene in “American Sniper” shows Chris’s father at the dinner table with his wife and two young sons. Dad preaches a brand of Christian indoctrination as dogmatic and dubious as anything in Islamic scripture when he distills humanity into three types: sheep, sheepdogs, and wolves. Papa Kyle detests bullies, and yet fails to recognize his own reflection in their mirror. The ferociously angry father insists that his sons be sheepdogs protecting those weaker than them. Throughout the film, Chris Kyle repeats his vociferous desire to protect his fellow soldiers, unrepentant bullies like him, whom he mistakes for guardians of America. He talks as if he is the oppressed freedom fighter doing battle with occupiers on his own home soil. Talk about twisted and confused.

Forget that America went to war with Iraq under false pretenses concerning non-existent “weapons of mass destruction,” or that the Big Oil interests that pushed for Bush Junior’s invasion of Iraq led Americans to believe that the Iraq War was directly linked to avenging the perpetrators of 9/11. Everybody and his sister knows that the Iraq war was always only ever about oil and the ever-growing greed of the military industrial complex.

“American Sniper” is an artless nuance-free hate piece built on insultingly unsound narrative ground. That Clint Eastwood got roped in to be a party to such a nasty bit of business will forever tarnish his career, but who cares? As long as patriotic (read sheep-like) American audiences walk around with shouts of “hooyah” (“Heard—Understood—Acknowledged”) rattling around in their dumb little heads, then America’s corporate political military junta has done its job. Their big mistake lies in presuming that Americans are that “dumb” to begin with. Message to the Hollywood political military junta: we know more than you do, and we know what to do with our knowledge.

Rated R. 134 mins. (F) (Zero Stars - out of five/no halves)

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