15 posts categorized "War"

June 04, 2017

WAR MACHINE

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.  

WarMachine2

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


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May 22, 2017

THE CRANES ARE FLYING — CLASSIC FILM PICK

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.

Cranes-are-flying-colesmithey

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.

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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“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.

Whiskeytangofoxtrot

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.

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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. 

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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

AMERICAN SNIPER

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.

American-sniper

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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October 13, 2014

FURY


Canned Heat
A World War II Tank Story

FURYWriter/director David Ayer’s World War II drama is a gritty European-style coming-of-age picture that reminds us how much war has changed in the past 65 years yet how much it remains the same. Even if the American soldiers who fought in the Good War were as blindly subordinate as modern-day military enlistees, they were cut from a harder timber, a kind of hardwood that doesn’t exist anymore. As for the many thousands of modern day corporate-funded mercenaries who play at every form of military skullduggery imaginable at home and abroad, that’s another subject.

The “Fury” of the film’s title is the nickname given to an American platoon’s M4 Sherman tank that serves as their fetid mobile home and method of survival. The ominous moniker is written large on both sides the tank’s giant 76mm gun. “Fury” may be the only World War II movie about a tank crew ever made.

Although it’s not based on any historically accurate narrative about an actual mission or even a real-life tank platoon, Ayer’s composite historic sketch brings together interesting factual elements. For example, Michael Peña’s Fury crewmember Trini “Gordo” Garcia represents one of the more than 350,000 Mexican men who fought for the American armed forces during World War II.

It’s April 1945. Allied victory is months away. Germany’s sturdier Leopard and Tiger tanks are eating up tin-can American Shermans at a rate of ten-to-one on the Western front. American soldiers are vastly “outgunned and outarmored.”

Fury2In the role of 3rd platoon tank leader Sgt. Don “Wardaddy” Collier, Brad Pitt’s compact portrayal errs on the side of Audie Murphy rather than the campy Lt. Aldo Raine character he played in Quentin Tarantino’s war fantasy “Inglorious Basterds.” Audie Murphy was a decorated World War II soldier-turned-Hollywood actor who enjoyed great success staring in westerns. It’s not that Wardaddy isn’t just as obsessed with killing Nazis as Lt. Raine; it’s all he lives for, apart from keeping himself and his crew alive. Having led the same handful of men though years of battles against German soldiers in Africa, Belgium, and the Netherlands, before losing his prized machine gunner in combat, Wardaddy is as battle-hardened as they come. Still, like the traumatized men who make up his tightly wound crew, Sgt. Collier is damaged goods.

Ayer establishes Wardaddy’s coldblooded instincts in a shocking opening scene where the America soldier rises from a corpse-covered German battlefield to ambush a German soldier riding on a white horse. Wardaddy slams his knife blade deep inside the Nazi’s skull though his eye socket with blinding speed. Kill or be killed.

The latest threat to Sgt. Collier’s tank crew comes from Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), a tenderfoot Army typist trained to type 60 words a minute. Norman is assigned to take over machine gun duties in the Fury. His first task is to wash all of the blood off the tank. The severed face of a Nazi soldier — eyeball included — must be disposed of.

During the single day that the story takes place, Wardaddy and his crew indoctrinate Norman in the brutal demands of their job — a job that pays $1.38 a day. The Fury’s crew like to chant, “the best job I ever had.”

The look of the film is utterly convincing. Every period detail of costume, production design, location, and battle action resonates with authenticity. Gifted cinematographer Roman Vasyanov returns to work with Davie Ayer after his impressive work on “End of Watch” (2012). Here Vasyanov uses more formal compositions to contain outrageously violent tank battle sequences that arrive at regular intervals.

Fury3The film’s centerpiece sequence exposes the paradox at the heart of the story. It takes place inside a quiet German apartment where a mother and her teenaged daughter hide in justifiable fear. Having taking notice of the women from the street below, Wardaddy takes Norman upstairs to introduce themselves to the German female civilians. The mother (Anamaria Marinca) toils in the kitchen to prepare food for her American guests while Norman and the woman’s daughter Emma (Alicia von Rittberg) get acquainted. The similarly aged young couple shares an immediate attraction in spite of their countries’ warring condition.

Wardaddy shaves and takes a sponge bath in the dining room. His back is covered in thick burn scars. He advises Norman to take the “good, clean” German girl to the bedroom, or else he will. By the time a meal is prepared, Norman and Emma have inked their mutual temptation in bodily fluids. As if smelling the scent of sex, the Fury’s remaining three-crew members burst in the apartment demanding their next turn with the girl. The freshly cooked meal and the availability of alcohol temporarily distract them. The tension that mounts is unbearable. This is the scene that explains why David Ayer made the film, and why “Fury” is a great movie.

Regardless of how united the Fury’s crew is in battle, they are otherwise incompatible individuals. The cold value system that enables them to survive in war has made them unfit to ever live in civilized society again. Not even their Sergeant can reel in the men’s animalistic behavior. Sex and killing have become analogous acts. Rape and murder is the same thing. Life is cheap. The death that the soldiers inflict on their enemy by “squirting” bullets has become a suicidal psychosexual nightmare dream.

War is hell. When will America stop starting them?

Rated R. 135 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)

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January 13, 2014

LONE SURVIVOR

SEALS Out of Water and Facts
How a Goat Herder Handed The U.S. Military its Ass

LONE SURVIVORAll films are political. All film is propaganda. Conscious awareness that Peter Berg’s seemingly straight-ahead war picture is little more than a two-hour recruitment commercial designed for the U.S. military to seduce testosterone-filled American males more interested in the size of their biceps than in using their minds to advance their lives is part and parcel of the film’s equation.

Indeed, after a grossly exaggerated near-death “flat-line” hospital monitor reading for our potential “lone survivor,” (the event never actually occurred) the film’s first ten minutes is spent showing a group of Navy SEAL trainees being physically pushed beyond the limits of what the human body can, or at least should, withstand. Young grime-covered Caucasian hard-bodies glisten with sweat as their grimacing faces depict the ferocity of their ostensibly dark intentions during extreme physical drills.

You might ask yourself, what if these strapping young men turned all of that ego-pumping energy into something less Sisyphean? Such questions are not encouraged in the film’s narrative. But, you may as well have some fun before the movie starts to beat you up.

And beating up its audience — through the vicarious experience of watching four SEALs suffer like you’ve never seen soldiers suffer before — is what’s on the menu.

Based more loosely on the facts than the filmmakers want you to know, on retired Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell’s memoir about Operation Red Wings, a failed January 2005 mission in Afghanistan’s Kunar province, “Lone Survivor” follows a standard script template. First-act character introductions arrive during the plotting of a military mission with “a lot of moving parts.”

Our team of four fearless SEALs is dropped into Sawtalo Sar, an inhospitable mountain range overlooking an al Qaeda stronghold where Ahmad Shah, an “al Qaeda” bad guy resides in a walled-off compound. Shah is credited with killing “20 Marines,” although the facts of the real story differs considerably since only “two U.S. soldiers or Marines died in Kunar province in 2005 before Operation Red Wings” took place. The name of the game here is propaganda, so just realize that every "fact" and figure that the characters spout is a vast overstatement.

The crux of the action is what happens to our four soldiers after they take position on a mountain from which they can telescopically view their human target walking comfortably with his associates inside his compound. Nonetheless, it’s too far to take a kill shot — besides their mission is one of “surveillance and reconnaissance.” One thing the troop and its planners didn’t take into account was the possible presence of local civilians, such as a goat herder and his two sons who happen upon the soldiers with their metaphorical pants down.

Naturally, the SEALs take the civilians captive and discuss how to proceed now that their cover has been blown. Killing or tying up the locals is out of the question. You might imagine that the U.S. military would have a standard logistical solution for such an ostensibly typical predicament. You’d be mistaken. The soldiers’ satellite phones don’t even work properly from their remote location. The team makes a decision they will soon regret. They let their captives go free. The youngest son is a fast runner adept at traversing the rocky Afghan terrain that has proven challenging to every military force that has ever attempted to invade it.

Much of the action is augmented to provide more shoot-‘em-up spectacle than actually occurred. The real number of Afghan fighters who attacked the encroaching SEAL team was considerably less, a lot less, than what you see onscreen. That doesn’t mean your stomach won’t tighten up in knots when the big battle heats up and continues for 40 seemingly interminable minutes.

The troop finds itself locked in an intense firefight on dangerous terrain. Bullets rip. Bones are smashed. Bodies fall, roll and smack into rocks and trees. Flesh tears. Blood gushes. This is why we are here, to experience an unimaginable fight to the death. To that end, the filmmakers do a great job of infecting their audience with pain and fear.

It is possible, even probable, that young men watching “Lone Survivor” will walk out of the cinema sufficiently jacked up on adrenaline to go running off to military duty to avenge the deaths of U.S. soldiers like the ones who perished during Operation Red Wings.

However, another reading of the film’s subtext reveals a glaring issue with the why and how America got itself into a war it has lost at every turn, regardless of how much money or how many lives have been thrown at it. A better choice for impressionable boys might be to look into the history of Afghanistan as a clan-based feudal country that has never been successfully occupied by any invading force.

“Lone Survivor” is a grueling movie that tips its pro-war hand in the liberties it takes with the facts surrounding a botched military mission. If the movie had stuck closer to the facts, then perhaps it might have had a chance of representing something more than merely another throwaway piece of patriotic breast-beating. But go ahead and step on the cinematic roller coaster; the chances are good you’ll survive if you don’t buy into the flimflam.

Rated R. 121 mins. (C+) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)

 



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March 02, 2013

PHANTOM

Downed Submarine —
Cold War Picture Sinks in the Deep


Phantom 2The cinematic offenses committed by the filmmakers of “Phantom” are varied and many. Whoever thought it was a good idea to have Russian characters speak without a Russian accent has some fundamental lessons to learn about filmic storytelling. You might imagine that a drama set inside the creaking hull of a relic submarine during the Cold War would be suspenseful if not downright claustrophobic. Not this time. Writer-director Todd Robinson (“Lonely Hearts”) has made a movie that suffers from attention deficit disorder.

Ed Harris gets our attention as Demi, a Soviet naval commander, circa 1968, assigned to helm the B67 submarine he served on for most of his military career for one last voyage. Inferring a Russian identity on the Ed Harris’s American accent and gestures is a non starter. The obsolete sub is being sold to the Chinese Navy. It’s up to Demi to deliver it. With his protégé second-in-command officer Alex (William Fichtner) at his side, Demi finds his authority challenged by a team of questionably affiliated spies — led by David Duchovny’s Bruni — on a mission to do global harm. Plot coupons appear and vanish at regular intervals. A cloaking device, which can sonically make the submarine appear to other vessels as a variety of much larger ships, is momentarily presented as a significant plot point before being discarded like so many other narrative details.

The radical spies’ plan involves the sub (disguised as a Chinese submarine) attacking a barely observed U.S. vessel. Blame will be assigned to the Chinese, and the proverbial poop will hit the fan. It doesn’t help matters that the story never expands to show activities on the target ship. The movie exists in an airtight vacuum where the benefit of context is regarded as an unnecessary luxury. The filmmakers rely on a kneejerk crutch of military lingo to falsely energize the action. Characters repeat phrases about things like “sonar con” and “acoustic signatures” with requisite seriousness, but the overall effect is unconvincing before turning into an utter annoyance.

The characters are so poorly drawn that you’re never sure what they're supposed to represent as human beings. Even their objectives are murky. Harris’s Demi initially comes across as an ethically solid Commander. But as he allows himself and his crew to be intimidated by the demands of spies, intent on setting off World War III, it becomes difficult for the audience to know where to place their trust.

The poorly constructed story goes through plenty of obfuscating gyrations before spinning out of control in a melodramatic puddle that takes the cake for soap opera cheesiness. You’d never guess that the story was based on an actual event that pales the Cuban Missile Crisis by comparison. Clearly, there is a fascinating and suspenseful story buried somewhere in the impetus for “Phantom.” However, you don’t see much evidence of it on the screen. Even you happen to be huge fan of submarine movies, “Phantom” is not worth your time.

Rated R. 97 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)

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