DUNKIRK (2017) – Innovative Movie Brings Miraculous World War II Rescue to Life

0

dunkirk-movie-poster

Forget everything you know about traditional storytelling.

DUNKIRK (2017), the new World War II movie by writer/director Christopher Nolan, changes the rules and then some.

As he has been known to do in the past, Christopher Nolan tells this story in a nonlinear fashion, and he does it with a minimum of dialogue and character development.  Yet, the film doesn’t suffer for it.  Nolan has called DUNKIRK his most experimental film, and I would have to agree.

In an interview, Nolan described the soldiers’ experiences at Dunkirk in three parts: those on the beach were there a week, the rescue on the water took a day, and the planes in the air had fuel for one hour.  To tell this story,  Nolan separates it into these three parts- the week on the beach, the day at sea, and the crucial hour in the air, but he does this in a nonlinear fashion, meaning all three events are shown happening concurrently and interspersed with each other.  Surprisingly, the result isn’t confusing. Instead, this bold use of time generates heightened tension and maximum suspense.

DUNKIRK tells the amazing story of the rescue of 338,000 British soldiers from the French port town of Dunkirk in events which transpired from May 26 – June 4, 1940.  The soldiers were surrounded by German forces and the only escape was by sea, which was covered by German planes.  In effect, there was no escape.

However, in what turned out to be a stroke of genius, instead of sending the navy, the British authorities sent out a call for civilian ships to go to Dunkirk, which they did and they miraculously rescued the soldiers.  The smaller civilian ships had the advantage of being able to navigate the shallow waters off the beaches of Dunkirk.  And while militarily speaking Dunkirk was a massive failure, one big surrender and escape mission, in terms of morale, it became a major turning point in the war.  Had the British soldiers been captured, Germany would have advanced, most likely on their way to a successful invasion of Great Britain.  But the soldiers escaped to fight another day, and Churchill turned the event on its head, claiming a moral victory and using it to espouse the spirit of resistance.

On land, the movie follows a young soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) on the beaches of Dunkirk as he attempts with his fellow soldiers to survive long enough to be rescued.  On the sea, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and Peter’s friend George (Barry Keoghan) set off in their small ship to Dunkirk to assist with the rescue.  And in the air, Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) do their best to fend off the German planes long enough for the rescue to be a success.

It’s a dramatic yet simple story told in an innovative way by Christopher Nolan. While my favorite Christopher Nolan film remains THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) with INTERSTELLAR (2014) a close second, his work here on DUNKIRK rivals both these movies.

Of course, the film that set the bar for war movies remains Steven Spielberg’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998).  Is DUNKIRK as disturbing as SAVING PRIVATE RYAN?  No, but it doesn’t have to be.  It’s an effective movie in its own right.

And while the opening moments of DUNKIRK are not as in-your-face horrific as the opening in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, it’s still intense and sets the tone for the rest of the movie.  Young Tommy’s early escapes from death are riveting and tense.  The film is rated PG-13 and as such you won’t see much bloodshed, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  R-rated movies these days use CGI blood which often looks fake. There’s nothing fake looking about DUNKIRK.  It all looks very real.

Christopher Nolan purposely chose unknown actors to portray the soldiers on the beach, and there is a minimal of dialogue.  We learn nothing about Tommy’s background, and he and his fellow soldiers do little more than looked dazed, exhausted, and frightened, which is exactly how they are supposed to look.  In most other movies, this lack of character development and lack of dialogue would be troubling, but not so here.  Here in DUNKIRK it comes off as authentic and real.

As such, Fionn Whitehead is effective and believable as Tommy, a character we know little about but we still want him to survive.  All we need to know is he’s on that beach and needs to get home.  In this situation, that’s enough to make his character work.

Aneurin Barnard is equally as good as Gibson, a French soldier Tommy befriends as they try to escape.  Since Gibson is French and speaks no English, he speaks in the movie even less than Tommy.  One Direction band member Harry Styles plays Alex, a soldier Tommy and Gibson rescue.  Styles gives Alex more personality than any other soldier in the film, and he makes Alex a cynical young man who gives away Gibson’s secret, that he is a French soldier impersonating a British one in order to be rescued by the British.

The folks on the boat probably deliver the best performances in the movie.  Mark Rylance is excellent as Mr. Dawson, the man who we learn later lost a son to the war and seems to embrace this mission as a way to save all his other “sons.”  Tom Glynn-Carney as Dawson’s son Peter and Barry Keoghan as Peter’s friend George also have some fine moments.

And Cillian Murphy is very good as the first soldier rescued by Dawson.  Shell-shocked, he resists their attempt to go to Dunkirk to rescue more soldiers.  He does not want to go back, as he is convinced they will die.

Once again, Tom Hardy is playing a role with a minimum of dialogue and with his face covered.  I’m starting to get used to Hardy playing roles where we can’t see his face, from Bane in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012) to Mad Max in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015). As pilot Farrier he only has a handful of lines here.  But that doesn’t stop Hardy from delivering a memorable performance.

Jack Lowden is also very good as Farrier’s fellow pilot Collins.

And while he’s not in the movie a whole lot, Kenneth Branagh also makes his mark as the well-respected Commander Bolton.

In another buck of traditional storytelling, there isn’t a major woman character to be found, but again, it doesn’t hurt this powerhouse movie.

There are a lot of riveting sequences. Tommy’s initial escape from German soldiers gets the film off to a tense start. The sequence where Tommy, Gibson and Alex hide out in an abandoned ship stranded on the beach during low tide just before it is used as target practice by the German soldiers is as suspenseful as it gets.

Scenes of ships being bombed and sunk are harrowing and cinematic.  And the editing during the climactic sequence is second to none.  It’s one of the more suspenseful last acts to a movie I’ve seen in a while.

Nolan also makes full use of sound.  When the planes attack, the sound effects are loud and harsh.  They make you want to cover your ears.  In short, during the battle scenes in DUNKIRK, the audience truly feels as if they are part of the battle.  You’ll want to duck for cover.

Sure, I could have used a bit more dialogue and character development.  Perhaps that would have made this movie perfect for me.  But as it stands, it’s still a pretty remarkable film.

DUNKIRK is a harrowing adventure, a rousing look at a pivotal moment in history, a rescue that had it not happened, would have changed the future of western civilization because the Nazis most likely would have conquered England and France, and who knows what would have happened after that.

But that’s not what happened, thanks to the herculean efforts of hundreds of civilians and their small ships, who against all odds rescued 338,000 trapped British soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk.

DUNKIRK tells this improbable story in mind-bending fashion, thanks to the innovative efforts of Christopher Nolan, one of the most talented writer/directors working today.

It’s history brought to life by a gifted filmmaker and storyteller.

—END—

MEGAN LEAVEY (2017) – Emotional War Tale, But Mostly For Dog Lovers

1

megan-leavey-poster

I love dogs.

Like other dog owners, I’ve learned over the years that dogs not only provide companionship but contribute an awful lot to the households they live in.  I can’t imagine going through life without the dogs I’ve welcomed into my home.

And that was the main reason I wanted to see MEGAN LEAVEY (2017), a new war drama based on the true story of an American soldier and her bomb sniffing dog on duty on the dangerous desert roads of Iraq.

The other reason I wanted to see this one was Kate Mara.  I like Mara a lot, and I’ve enjoyed most of her movies, although it seems she is still waiting for that breakout role.  And while I don’t believe MEGAN LEAVEY is that movie, it still makes for a worthwhile trip to the theater.

It’s 2001, and Megan Leavey (Kate Mara) lives in New York City with her mom Jackie (Edie Falco) and her step dad Jim (Will Patton).  It is not a good situation, as her mom is about as sensitive to her needs as an acid bath, and when Megan is fired from her job, she hits rock bottom, reeling from both unemployment and the recent death of her best friend.  With nowhere else to go, Megan decides to join the Marines.  At the very least, it will get her away from her family.

Things do not go smoothly at first for Megan in the Marines either, but eventually she finds her niche, and it’s with the Marine’s K9 unit where she bonds with the unit’s most aggressive dog, a German Shepherd named Rex.  He’s so aggressive he’s difficult to train, and Megan is given the chance to train him since she’s the low person on the totem pole. She is able to break through to Rex and reach him in a way no one else had been able to do, and soon they are on missions together where Rex is the most sought after dog because of his superior bomb sniffing abilities.  All is well until Rex misses a bomb, it goes off, and— things change drastically after that.

MEGAN LEAVEY is an emotional movie, especially for dog lovers who understand the bonds formed between people and dogs.  At one point late in the film, Megan says that Rex taught her how to love again.  It’s a statement that on the surface might seem overdramatic, but for people who own dogs, it rings true.  Dogs do possess that ability.

And the dog who plays Rex in this movie nearly steals the show.  His expressions and intuitive eyes should earn him a Best Doggie Actor Nomination.

Kate Mara is excellent as Megan Leavey, which comes as no surprise.  She’s always good. As Megan Leavey, she really brings to light how messed up Megan’s life is at home, and so the audience is easily rooting for her to pull it all together somehow.

And I totally bought her relationship with Rex.  Not sure if I’d call this Mara’s best performance to date, but it’s up there.

Edie Falco also stands out as Megan’s incredibly annoying mother, Jackie. Likewise, Geraldine James makes her Dr. Turbeville just as irritating.  Turbeville is the veterinarian who takes issue with Rex’s aggressiveness and almost forms a personal hatred towards the dog, so much so that she tries to block Megan’s efforts to adopt him later.

Rapper Common does a nice job as the head officer of the K9 unit, Gunny Martin.  He’s tough on Megan, but he also sees promise in her and gives her the break she needs when she is given Rex to train.

Ramon Rodriguez is likable as fellow soldier Matt Morales who becomes Megan’s closest friend in the military, and the two flirt off and on in an on again off again relationship.

Bradley Whitford, who we just saw earlier this year in the horror movie GET OUT (2017) and who’s most famous for his role as Josh Lyman on the TV show WEST WING (1999-2006), plays Megan’s dad Bob.  She doesn’t live with her dad, but she should.  He’s always there for her with solid advice, and he provides a shoulder to cry on.

Will Patton, from the TV show FALLING SKIES (2011-2015), and who’s been in a ton of movies [my favorite being his role as Coach Bill Yoast in REMEMBER THE TITANS (2000)] plays Megan’s step dad Jim, a loser of a man who means well but is such a weak individual he just allows Megan’s mom Jackie to run the show.

Gabriela Cowperthwaite directed MEGAN LEAVEY and does a nice job with it.  The entire film looks good, and the scenes taking place in Iraq possess the necessary edge and suspense.

Is it as powerful as other war movies in recent years, films like AMERICAN SNIPER (2014) and ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012)?  No.  The script simply isn’t as strong, and the story doesn’t resonate as well.

The screenplay by Pamela Gray, Annie Mumolo, and Tim Lovested is more interested in Megan Leavey and her personal plight, and how Rex helps her through it, than in a broader portrait of the war in Iraq, and that’s perfectly fine.  The film, after all, is entitled MEGAN LEAVEY.  As such, it’s more a tale of humanity lost and found again than about the plight of dogs and soldiers in the war in Iraq.

It’s also a much more effective movie for folks who love dogs.  If you’re not into dogs, the story might not move you as much, and that’s because if you remove the dog element from the story, what’s left is standard and ordinary.

I liked MEGAN LEAVEY.  To use a baseball analogy, since Megan Leavey is a huge Yankees fan in the film, the movie is not a home run, but it is a solid double, good enough to make its point and tell a satisfying story in the process.

I give this one two and half  doggie biscuits.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

ALLIED (2016) Hearkens Back to 1940s Classics

1

allied-poster

The best part about ALLIED (2016), a love story and thriller that takes place during World War II, is that it hearkens back to classic movies like CASABLANCA (1942) and Hitchcock’s NOTORIOUS (1946).  The worst part is that in spite of the nostalgia it evokes, it fails to rise to the levels which made those 1940s classics so memorable.

That being said, ALLIED is a solid film that is much better than the lack of hype surrounding it would lead you to believe.

ALLIED opens in 1940 Casablanca, where we meet Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) a British intelligence officer on a mission to assassinate a key Nazi figure.  He’s working with Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard) a French Resistance fighter, and the two are posing as husband and wife as they work to infiltrate the inner circles of the Nazi regime in Casablanca.  It’s a bold assassination plot, and their chances of survival are slim.

But survive they do, and as they make their escape from Morocco, Max asks Marianne to come back to London with him and marry him, which she does.  The two of them, having risked so much to pull off their ruse in Casablanca, have clearly fallen in love.

The two begin a life in World War II London, even having a baby together, and life is as good as it can be for people being bombed regularly by the Nazis.  But things take a sinsiter turn when Max’s superior officer Frank Heslop (Jared Harris) informs him that British Intelligence suspects Marianne of being a Nazi spy, and that if proven true, that Max will have to kill her.

The final third of the film follows Max’s efforts to learn the truth about his wife- is she a spy or isn’t she, and if she is, then what will he do about it?

I really enjoyed ALLIED, although the film falls short of being something special.

I especially enjoyed the beginning of this movie.  It takes its time setting the stage for the assassination plot by Max and Marianne.  Lesser films would have begun with the assassination and jumped right into the marriage between Max and Marianne.  By inviting us into the stress and anxieties behind their ruse, the film really allows its audience to get to know Max and Marianne and to see just how it is that they fall in love.  It makes the second part of the film all the more painful because we see these two go through a lot and grow very close.

The scenes during this part of the movie involving Nazis are also very suspenseful and well done.  The opening third of the movie is compelling and tense.

The movie also looks great, fully capturing the period, which one would expect from a movie directed by Robert Zemeckis.  And it’s interesting that Zemeckis directed this movie, because you know he’s the guy behind such visual flicks as the BACK TO THE FUTURE movies, WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT? (1988), FOREST GUMP (1994), and THE POLAR EXPRESS (2004), but there really isn’t anything all that visual about ALLIED other than its period piece window dressings.  I mean, the film looks wonderful, but knowing that Zemeckis directed this one, I expected even more in terms of cinematic flair.  That’s not meant to be a knock on Zemeckis but simply an observation that knowing his resume I thought his work here was not all that reflective of his signature style.

The screenplay by Steven Night is as solid as the rest of the movie.  As I said, it does a nice job in the first act of allowing us to be a part of Max’s and Marianne’s love story.   The second act keeps things moving as the action switches to wartime London, and of course the final act turns things up a notch as the audience is eager to follow Max on his investigation, to help him learn the truth about his wife— is she a spy or isn’t she?

I thought the one place where the movie didn’t excel was its ending. Like the rest of the movie, it’s satisfactory, but it’s nothing special.  I had hoped that a phenomenal ending would put this movie over the top, but that was not the case.  It’s certainly not a bad ending by any means, but CASABLANCA it ain’t.

Night also wrote the screenplay for THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY (2014), a wonderful film that was one of my favorite movies of 2014 yet seemed to fly under everyone else’s radar.

If Brad Pitt seems quite at home wearing a World War II military uniform, that’s because he’s already done so in Quentin Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009) and more recently in FURY (2014).  As Max Vatan, Pitt is just OK here.  I’ve seen him deliver far better performances— in MONEYBALL (2011), KILLING THEM SOFTLY (2012), and THE BIG SHORT (2015), to name just a few recent ones— than he gives here in ALLIED, where he seemed quiet and reserved throughout. For a man fearing that his wife is a Nazis spy, he never really shows the amount of angst one would expect from a man in his position.  It also doesn’t help that Pitt seems to wear the same blank expression on his face throughout the movie.  Sure, it’s the look of a man who is a covert intelligence officer, who is trained not to let others see his true feelings, so in terms of the plot of the movie, it’s fine, but in terms of letting an audience know what he’s thinking, it doesn’t fly.

The best performance in the movie belongs to Oscar-winning actress Marion Cotillard.  She nails Marianne’s persona.  In the opening act of the film, Marianne tells Max that she is successful at fooling people because her emotions are true and real.  She really does like the people she is infiltrating, and so her emotions are genuine and difficult to see through.  Which makes things all the more complicated for Max later when he’s trying to decipher if she is a Nazi spy or not.  Cotillard captures this duplicity brilliantly.  Because of her performance, the audience really believes that she is in love with Max, but like Max, we’re not so sure if these genuine feelings are legit or simply part of her job as a spy.

Cotillard is also terribly sexy in this role, and I enoyed Cotillard here better than in other Hollywood movies I’ve seen her in, movies like INCEPTION (2010) and THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012).

Jared Harris, an excellent actor who has a ton of credits, and who I have particularLy enjoyed in such movies as SHERLOCK HOLMES:  A GAME OF SHADOWS (2011) where he played Professor Moriarty, and the underrated Hammer Film THE QUIET ONES (2014), as well as the TV series MAD MEN (2009-2012) where he played Lane Pryce, is good here in a supporting role as Max’s superior, Frank Heslop.

For some reason, ALLIED has received almost no hype. I suspect, based on things that I’ve heard and read, that the powers that be had little faith in this movie.  It’s actually a pretty good movie, especially if you enjoy World War II period pieces.

Is it as good as those classics I mentioned at the outset of this review?  No, but then again, not many films are.  But it’s still a solid movie from beginning to end, worth the price of a movie ticket, and good for an enjoyable two hours at the movies.

—END—

 

 

 

WAR DOGS (2016) -Gritty Tale of Guns & War

0

war dogs poster

WAR DOGS (2016), the latest movie by HANGOVER trilogy director Todd Phillips, recounts the true story of friends David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli who became gun runners for the U.S. government during the Iraqi and Afghan wars.

The film opens with David Packouz (Miles Teller) lamenting that his life is going nowhere. He’s been working a thankless job as a professional massage therapist, and his business venture to sell bed sheets to nursing homes has fallen flat.  He does have a beautiful wife Iz (Ana de Armas) but once he learns she’s pregnant he fears he’s not going to be able to afford having a baby.

Enter his best friend from school Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), who has returned to Florida to set up shop with his gun selling business.  Efraim takes David on as a partner, and he explains to David how his business works, that he has taken advantage of a plan set up by the Bush administration which allows small businesses to bid on U.S. military contracts. Efraim explains that most of the huge contracts still go to the large mainstream weapons manufacturers, but even with the “crumbs” as Efraim calls them, you can still make a lot of money.

And they do.  Within the first few months of working with Efraim, David is earning close to $300,000.  And things only get more lucrative for them, especially after they travel to Iraq to personally deliver a truckload of Italian made berettas to the U.S. military, driving through a dangerous stretch of land known as “the triangle of death”  to do it.  After this stunning delivery, their reputation begins to grow.

They travel to Las Vegas to a weapons convention which Efraim calls “Comic Con with guns” and they decide to go all in as they try to secure their largest deal yet, as they learn that the U.S. military is attempting to arm the entire Afghan army.  The job proves too large for them, until they attract the attention of the infamous and uber shady arms dealer Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper) who tells them he can get them all the ammo they need to pull off the deal, as it’s stashed away in Albania where the Albanian government is desperately trying to sell off its stockpile of ammuntion.  Girard tells them he can’t do the job himself since he’s on a terrorist watch list.

Efraim and David agree to work with Girard, and they pull off their largest sale ever, earning them millions of dollars.  Of course, they also enter illegal territory here, which eventually attracts the attention of the U.S. government.

As I said, WAR DOGS was directed by Todd Phillips, the man who directed the three HANGOVER movies, but don’t let this connection mislead you.  WAR DOGS really isn’t a comedy.  Sure, there are parts that you will laugh at, but for the most part its a gritty captivating drama about the shady world of gun running during the Iraqi war.

As such, I really liked WAR DOGS.  The story works, thanks to sharp screenplay by director Phillips, Stephen Chin, and Jason Smilovic.  It tells a riveting story, has some memorable lines, and does a nice job with the characterizations.

Sadly, we’ve been stuck fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since the early 2000s, but one positive—if you can call it that— that has come from this period is that it has provided a canvas for some pretty good movies.  A lot of stories, nearly all of them tragic, have come out of these wars, and filmmakers have done an admirable job telling them, with films like AMERICAN SNIPER (2014) and THE HURT LOCKER (2008).  You can add WAR DOGS to this list.

Both Miles Teller and Jonah Hill do fine jobs here.  Teller has starred in the DIVERGENT series and the recent reboot of FANTASTIC FOUR (2015) as a very young Reed Richards, and of course he received high praise in the Oscar winner WHIPLASH (2014).  He’s excellent again here.  He’s perfect in the role, making David the everyday “normal” guy who gets involved with his best buddy’s shady business dealings for the right reasons- to support his wife and baby- and who sticks to his guns–heh heh– when things go south and refuses to throw out his principles.

While Jonah Hill is mostly known for his goofy comedies, he’s already shown acting chops in such films as MONEYBALL (2011) and THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013) so I’m not sure if this is his best performance yet, but it’s certainly a good one.  In fact, Hill is clearly the best part of this movie.

He makes Efraim volatile, unpredictable, and a hoot to watch.  As David explains, Efraim’s gift is he can make himself into the exact person that the person he’s trying to con wants him to be. As such, you can never trust him.  Hill is great at capturing this part of Efraim.  He also gained a lot of weight for the role, and he really becomes this character.

And Bradley Cooper is actually very good in a small role as the shadowy arms dealer Henry Girard.  Sometimes when major actors appear in small roles you’re left wondering why?  Not the case here, as Cooper gives this guy a demeanor that makes you actually like him.

Director Todd Phillips also gives us some memorable scenes, like the suspenseful trek across the Triangle of Death.  I also liked the scene just before this sequence when David and Efraim have to negotiate with the help of a young boy translator to get their weapons into Iraq.  The scenes in Albania were also sufficiently gloomy.

All in all, I really liked WAR DOGS, a captivating and entertaining film that plays like a cross between THE WOLF OF WALL STREET and AMERICAN SNIPER.

Its story of how David and Efraim were able to weasel their way into the lucrative cutthroat world of weapons distribution  for the U.S. government and actually become major players in the arms dealing business will leave you shaking your head,  questioning just how it was that the government encouraged this to happen in the first place.

—END—

 

WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT (2016) – War Comedy Rather Tame

0

whiskey tango foxtrot poster

What would happen if 30 ROCK’S Liz Lemon left her TV studio job and went to Afghanistan to cover the war?

Check out WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT (2016) and you’ll have the answer.  Well, sort of.

Tina Fey, who played Liz Lemon for 7 seasons on the television show 30 ROCK, and stars in WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT (2016) isn’t playing Lemon here, but she might as well be. The similarities between Lemon and reporter Kim Baker, who Fey plays in this movie, are many.   They both have smart-alecky senses of humor, are awkward around men, and are energetic and ambitious.  The one big difference is Lemon is much funnier.

Not that movies about wars should be funny.  After all, war is no laughing matter.  Yet, when done right, black comedies about war— M*A*S*H (1972), GOOD MORNING VIETNAM (1987)— can be classics.  When done wrong, they can be embarrassingly awful.  WHISKEY TANGO FOXTRAT falls somewhere in between.  It’s not bad.  In fact, at times it’s pretty darn good, but on the whole, it just lacks the teeth that a black comedy about the war in Afghanistan needs to be successful.

It’s all very light and peripheral.

It’s 2004, and reporter Kim Baker (Tina Fey) is sent to Afghanistan to cover the war there because the network she works for is scrambling to find enough reporters to provide coverage of the multiple wars.  Baker agrees to go even though she has no foreign correspondent experience.  She’s as green as a cucumber.

Her contact there Fahim Ahmadzai (Christopher Abbott) quickly shows her the ropes and introduces her to all the folks she needs to know, like the man leading her security detail, Nic (Stephen Peacocke), fellow reporters Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie) and Iain MacKelpie (Martin Freeman), the leader of the Marine unit she’s covering, General Hollanek (Billy Bob Thornton) and the local Afghan leader, Ali Massoud Sadiq (Alfred Molina).

At first, Kim is overwhelmed and doubts she can last there very long, but as it turns out, she shows that she has what it takes to get the job done, like running alongside Marines during a fierce fire fight and capturing it all on film.  She quickly gains the respect of her fellow journalists and becomes something of a name back home.

Fellow reporter Tanya Vanderpoel shows Kim the wild times of the night life, something that at first she resists, but eventually she lets down her guard and accepts the lifestyle there, even becoming romantically involved with Iaian MacKelpie.

In short, Kim becomes addicted to the high octane life of a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, until she realizes that this lifestyle as much as it provides her with a constant rush isn’t normal, and is not something she wants to do for the rest of her life.

WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT attempts to show the horrors of war through the eyes of an out-of-place reporter who brings her snarky humor along with her to Afghanistan.  The problem is neither the horror nor the humor rise above standard fare, making this movie while entertaining nonetheless a bit underwhelming.

Tina Fey can be hilariously funny.  She’s not here, although her Kim Baker is a likable enough character.  At first the humor in the movie stems from Kim’s being so green and inexperienced.  Later it’s watching her make full use of her gumption.  But the film never takes these moments far enough.

When Kim finally decides to go all in with the night life, for example, the film never shows things as bawdy as they’re supposed to be.  We witness Kim and her friends binge drinking and talking about wild sex, but we never see it.  We see Kim vomit for a couple of seconds the next morning, but we never see her act like someone who really overdid it the night before.

Later in the story, Kim becomes involved romantically with Iain MacKelpie, and although Martin Freeman delivers what may be the best performance in the film as MacKelpie, he and Fey share very little chemistry.  Their relationship is supposed to be hot and heavy, yet it’s all so asexual.  Part of the problem is that Tina Fey generates as much sexual charisma as a library book on insect mating habits.

As I said, Martin Freeman delivers the best performance in the movie.  Freeman, from TV’s SHERLOCK and THE HOBBIT movies, among other things, gives MacKelpie some range at least.  At first, he comes off as an absolute cad, the last person you’d expect Kim to fall for, but when he comes to her rescue at one point, we see that he’s a three-dimensional cad with genuine feelings.  Once they become involved, he actually treats Kim very well.

Billy Bob Thornton does his thing in a nice performance as General Hollanek.  Likewise, Margot Robbie does well as veteran reporter Tanya Vanderpoel, who shows Kim the ropes and encourages her to becomes a savvier reporter.

Christopher Abbott makes his mark as Kim’s contact person Fahim Ahmadzai, and Alfred Molina enjoys some humorous moments as Afghan official Ali Massoud Sadiq, a man who has the hots for Kim and is always trying to find a way to get her to go to bed with him.  While some of Molina’s scenes are funny, others are too over the top and come off as phony.

WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT could certainly have benefitted from some sharper writing.  The screenplay by Robert Carlock, based on the book “The Taliban Shuffle:  Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan” by Kim Barker, comes close to hitting its mark but never quite gets there.  While it’s true that for the most part there was an undercurrent of uncomfortableness throughout the story, as a movie about the war in Afghanistan should be, the true horrors of the war were never quite hit upon.

For example, at one point Iain MacKelpie finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, and he’s kidnapped.  At this point, I’m thinking, western journalist captured, this is not going to end well, but it does, as Iain is rescued without suffering nary a scratch.

The humor never totally works either.  Writer Carlock wrote for SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE and for 30 ROCK, so you’d expect this one to be quite funny, but it’s not.

Directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, the same two directors who directed the very funny CRAZY, STUPID LOVE (2011) don’t display the same comic hand  here.  They do a good job with the sense of place, as I certainly felt transported to Afghanistan, but for some reason, the horrors of war never come to light.  I expected this tale to be more disturbing.

Likewise, with Carlock writing the screenplay, Ficarra and Requa at the helm, and Tina Fey in the lead, I expected this one to be funnier than it was.

WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT generates some sympathy for the soldiers fighting in this Afghan war, as well as some for the reporters covering it.  However, one thing that is missing is a sense of the Afghan people.  The main Afghans we get to know are almost caricatures.

The film could have used a heavier dose of realism.

The film’s title, WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT, refers to the letters WTF, and while I’m sure there will be some viewers who after seeing this movie will be asking just that, I think the better question after watching this movie is Where’s The Ferocity?  War is ferocious, and a movie about war should be as well.

While not bad, WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT is far too tame to succeed as a black comedy about war.

—END—

 

 

 

Thought-Provoking THREE KINGS (1999) Quirky and Intense

0

Streaming Video Review:  THREE KINGS (1999)

By three-kings_movie-poster-01

Michael Arruda

 

With the upcoming release of George Clooney’s latest movie, TOMORROWLAND, due in theaters on May 22, 2015, I decided to check out an earlier Clooney film that I had missed the first time around.  THREE KINGS (1999), a movie about the first Iraqi war, starring Clooney and Mark Wahlberg and now available on Netflix Streaming, takes place in the waning days of the Persian Gulf War.

When Major Archie Gates (George Clooney) learns that three soldiers have discovered a map leading to massive amounts of gold which Saddam Hussein had taken from the Kuwaitis, he decides to steal it.  He enlists the aid of these three soldiers, Sergeant First Class Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg), Staff Sergeant Chief Elgin (Ice Cube) and Private First Class Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze).  They set out in secret for the gold, but along the way they witness the Iraqi Republican Guard executing an innocent Iraqi, an action which Major Gates can’t let stand.  He retaliates, and in the process, rescues a large group of Iraqi prisoners, a group that includes women and children.

Suddenly, Gates’ objectives change, as he finds himself responsible for this group of prisoners, and he agrees to help them reach the Iranian border, a quest that puts him and his men up against Saddam Hussein’s forces and his own American army.  And then there’s the matter of the gold, which Gates still has no intention of giving up, setting the stage for a thrilling journey through the Iraqi desert as they attempt to escort Iraqis to freedom.

I really enjoyed THREE KINGS, both its story and its quirky tone, which for the most part works as a black comedy.

It was interesting to watch a movie about the first Iraqi war, made before the events of September 11.  So many recent movies have focused on the second Iraqi war and the events following 9/11.  Events depicted in this movie, while still disturbing— it’s a war after all— still don’t play as intense as recent films on the second Iraqi war and the war in Afghanistan, movies like AMERICAN SNIPER (2014) and ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012), and THE HURT LOCKER (2008).  Our collective consciousness is much darker now than it was when this film was made in 1999.

But that’s not to say that THREE KINGS doesn’t have its share of intense moments.  It does.  The execution of the Iraqi woman in front of her young daughter, for example, is a jarring sequence, as is the torture sequence where Mark Wahlberg’s Sergeant Barlow is captured by Iraqi soldiers and tortured with electric shocks and is eventually forced to drink motor oil.  These scenes are not for the squeamish.

I also had to keep reminding myself that this was about the first Iraqi war.  For instance, when the film makes reference to Saddam Hussein and the influence he wields over his Republican Guard, I found myself scratching my head questioning, “Saddam Hussein?  Isn’t he dead?”  Of course, then I’d remember that the objective of this first war was only to oust Hussein from Kuwait, and that he wasn’t removed from power and eventually executed until after the second Iraqi war.

Writer/Director David O. Russell has made a hard hitting war movie that effectively makes its point that although Americans largely viewed this war as a “clean” war, in that not a lot of American soldiers lost their lives, and that its objective was largely met, it’s still a war, and for the people of Iraq, there was nothing “clean” about it.  It disrupted their lives and caused death and destruction.

Russell keeps things from being too bleak with a quirky tone that generates laughter, albeit mostly of the uncomfortable variety.  Spike Jonze’ Private Vig is humorous in his naivety, even though his ignorant views are as sad as they are funny.  His banter with Walberg’s Sergeant Barlow is the liveliest part of the movie.

Russell would go on to make THE FIGHTER (2010), also with Wahlberg, and SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012), two films I liked better than THREE KINGS.  Russell also directed AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013), the overly ambitious 1970s con artist tale which I liked but didn’t love, and I think that while THREE KINGS is a less ambitious film than AMERICAN HUSTLE, I liked it more.

As screenplays go, Russell’s work here with THREE KINGS is very good, as the story remains compelling throughout and actually gets better and more exciting as the movie goes along, and the dialogue is first-rate.  It makes its points about the Gulf War and provides plenty of entertaining snappy dialogue that is riveting and real.  That being said, it’s not quite as good as his screenplay for SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012).  That one was a grand slam.

George Clooney is terrific as Major Archie Gates.  At first, the jury is out on this character, as you wonder what kind of a man he is since he’s willing to steal gold from the Iraqis, but when he steps up to intervene on the innocent Iraqis’ behalf, you see firsthand what kind of a man he is, and he’s all the better for it.  Clooney is effective throughout and makes Gates in spite of his early actions a man you can root for.

Reportedly, Clooney and director Russell feuded on the set, so much so that Clooney declared he’d never work with Russell again.  Not sure if this is true or not, but Clooney’s Gates certainly seems like his he has a chip on his shoulder throughout this movie.

Mark Walberg is also excellent as Sergeant Troy Barlow.  There’s a youthful exuberance about Barlow, a naivety that nonetheless is balanced with a sense of responsibility and leadership.  Barlow takes the even more naïve Private Vig under his wing and looks out for him throughout the story.  It was fun to see a younger Walberg, and while he’s very good in this movie, he’s gotten even better over the years, improving to the point where he’s one of the better actors working today.

 

Spike Jonze is memorable as Private Conrad Vig, although I wanted to give the character a library card and a newspaper with the instructions to start reading.  Vig is a backwards but well-meaning character, and Jonze does a nice job capturing these traits.  Ice Cube is also notable as the religious Sergeant Chief Elgin.  He provides the moral conscience for the group.

Nora Dunn is also very good as reporter Adriana Cruz, who spends the bulk of the movie getting the runaround from Clooney’s Gates, but we get to know her well as she shares her lamentations about the war, wondering what this war was really all about.  And at the end, when Gates needs the help of the press to get his job done, it’s Cruz that he turns to.

I really liked THREE KINGS.  It’s a thought-provoking exciting movie about a war that nowadays has been largely overshadowed by the traumatic events which were soon to follow it.

—END—

FURY (2014) – Brutal War Tale Does Its Job

0

Fury-2014Movie Review:  FURY (2014)

By

Michael Arruda

 

If there’s one message in FURY (2014), the new World War II action movie starring Brad Pitt, it’s that war is a hell that just won’t quit.  Even in the waning days of the war, the fighting continues, oftentimes with more ferocity than ever before.

To this end, FURY succeeds.  It’s a brutal in-your-face slugfest between Allied soldiers and the Nazis.  We see heads blown off, eyes stabbed out, and even a severed face lying on a tank seat.  It’s not for the squeamish.

Where FURY lags, however, and what prevents it from being a superior movie, is a lack of character development and a limiting story. FURY plays out like a slice-of-life portrait of five World War II soldiers battling against the odds in the final days of the war, as the Allies penetrate further into Germany.  It’s not the most dangerous mission ever undertaken, nor is it the most heroic war tale ever told.  It’s simply five men doing their job.

It’s less about the mission and more about the men, which is fine, except that this kind of a story deserves deeper character development.  While we do get up close and personal with these guys, the film never jettisons its action scenes in favor of scenes where we get to know these characters, save for one, perhaps the best scene in the movie, where the soldiers share a dinner with two German women.

When FURY opens, Sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) who commands the tank “Fury” has just lost one of his men, which leaves the rest of his crew, Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia Lebouf), Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Pena) and Grady “Coon- Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal) angry and upset.  Collier receives new orders to take his small group of tanks and intercept a squadron of Nazis.  Even though the war is drawing to a close, the Nazis are not giving up, and the fighting is more vicious than ever.  As such, the Allies are enduring heavy casualties, and Collier and his small group of tanks are being asked to do a job which normally requires more firepower, which they just don’t have right now.

Collier’s crew is assigned a new soldier, the very young Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) who’s only trained as a communications officer and is as green as a cucumber when it comes to combat.  After razzing him initially, Collier’s crew welcomes Norman into the fold, even as he admits he has no desire to kill anyone.

The tanks are ambushed, and all of them are destroyed except for “Fury,” which leaves Collier and his crew to take on the Nazis on their own.

FURY was written and directed by David Ayer, who earlier this year wrote and directed the Arnold Schwarzenegger actioner SABOTAGE (2014).  I enjoyed FURY much more than SABOTAGE.  Ayer also wrote and directed the police drama END OF WATCH (2012).  He wrote TRAINING DAY (2001), the film in which Denzel Washington won the Best Actor Oscar, and he wrote the original THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS (2001).

Ayer has been around, more as a writer than a director, and of the films he’s directed that I’ve seen, FURY might be his best yet.  It has a solid story, exciting action sequences, tense war action, and a competent cast.  The action is fast and furious, and the battle scenes do not disappoint.  Sure, more attention could have been paid to character development, and it could have used an additional plot point or two to lift it above the standard war movie, but as is it’s still a very satisfying movie.

Brad Pitt is solid as Sgt. Collier.  He’s the rock which holds his men together, and he’s the driving force that pushes them through the dark places.  In front of his men, he’s a bull, but alone, he breaks down, succumbing to the war horrors engulfing them.  I continue to enjoy Pitt’s string of recent performances, including roles in such films as INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009), MONEYBALL (2011), and KILLING THEM SOFTLY (2011).  Pitt was probably better in all three of those films, but his performance here is a good one, and it’s a role I enjoyed more than his most recent work in WORLD WAR Z (2013) and THE COUNSELOR (2013).

Just as good as Pitt is Logan Leman as green soldier Norman Ellison.  It’s largely through Ellison’s eyes that we see the horrors of the war, and we watch as Ellison goes from a naïve boy to a hardened soldier.

Both Shia LeBouf as “Bible” Swan and Michael Pena as Garcia are very good, but it’s THE WALKING DEAD’s Jon Bernthal as the animal-like Travis who stands out among the tank crew.  Travis is such a violent visceral character, and Bernthal has a field day playing him.  As we saw when he played Shane on THE WALKING DEAD, Bernthal is a very talented actor who I hope continues to land bigger and bigger roles in the movies.

While the action scenes are topnotch, especially the tank battle in which the Allied tanks are outgunned by a single Nazi tank, the best scene in the movie isn’t an action scene.  It’s when Collier brings Norman into a German home in which they find two young women.  While the other men engage in wild sex with the local German women, Collier shows Norman a more civilized get-together, over a home-cooked meal.  Of course, civility only goes so far, as Collier bursts into the woman’s home with a rifle and orders them to make dinner.

When Norman retreats into the bedroom with the lovely young Emma (Alicia von Rittberg), they share an intimate conversation and have what appears to be consensual sex.  Afterwards, when Emma leaves the bedroom, she looks at her cousin and smiles at her.  I don’t think Emma would be smiling had she been raped.  The whole point of this scene is that Norman is not a brute and that he doesn’t force himself upon the girl.  Then again, he’s a soldier with a rifle, and so certainly the door is open for interpretation.

Of course, when Travis, Garcia, and Swan arrive, that’s a different story, and Travis does everything in his power to humiliate and degrade Emma, in spite of Norman’s and Collier’s protestations.  The range of emotions throughout this sequence goes far deeper than at any other point in the film.  It’s the best scene in the movie.

I wish there had been more scenes in the film like this.

But as it stands, FURY is a very good movie.  It’s a down and dirty World War II thriller which serves as a sad reminder that war is a brutal ugly business.  As Brad Pitt’s Wardaddy Collier says in one of the best lines from the film, “It (the war) will end soon, but before it does, a lot more people have to die.”

For the men inside Fury, it can’t end fast enough.

—END—