Sunday, November 27, 2016

NOW SHOWING: Allied (2016)

                The third in our series of war movies for this month is “Allied” starring Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard.  They bring their star wattage to a WWII spy movie directed by Robert Zemeckis.  This is Zemeckis’ first war movie.  It was filmed mostly in London for $85 million.  The screenplay was by Steven Knight who claims it is based on a true story that he was told when he was 21.  Take that for what it’s worth.

                The movie opens with British spy Max Vatan (Pitt) parachuting into French Morocco in 1942.  A taxi delivers his genuine spy brief case which includes passports, weapons, and a wedding ring.  The taxi takes him to Casablanca where he meets a beautiful female spy named Marianne (Cotillard) who will masquerade as his wife.  Do you really want to remind people of a little old movie named “Casablanca”?  That’s some pretty big shoes to fill.  The script forces Max and Marianne to have a rocky start in their relationship.  Like in every romance ever filmed.  She is condescending and wears the pants in the partnership.  It is established early that she is a brilliant actress.  This will be a major plot point.  The mission is the assassination of the German ambassador at a party.  To get an invitation, Max has to get past a suave Nazi (August Diehl from the bar scene in “Inglourious Basterds”).  The movie actually does the old stunt hands shuffling cards routine.  Apparently Pitt was not willing to go to poker boot camp for his role.  Before the suicidal mission, Max and Marianne consummate their made in Hollywood romance in a car in a sand storm.  Points for originality with that setting.

                The assassination scene is surprisingly lacking in suspense and is not even close to suicidal.  In the post-coitaling of the Nazi glow, Max proposes and they return to Great Britain to an idyllic life with Blitz baby Anna.  Max is back to being an RAF wing commander, having apparently been on a spy lark in Morocco.  Time passes until the phone call comes.  It seems Marianne is suspected of being a Nazi agent.  Max must help ferret her out and then execute her if it turns out to be true.  They don’t plan on interrogating her or turning her into a double agent like every other German spy discovered in Britain during WWII.  According to the movie, killing his wife is routine procedure for an “intimate betrayal”.  It’s in the manual!

                “Allied” is not a bad movie, but it is forgettable.  It is too old fashioned.  And credit to the set designer and the costume designer for the period look.  You have to credit Zemeckis for not following the recent trend of defying all logic and physics.  That does not mean the movie does not have moments and plot developments that are fodder for “what was up with that?” or “why did the screenwriter throw that in?” discussions.  The answer to those question is invariably “because the plot needed it”.  I’ve already mentioned Max being put in a position where he may have to execute his wife.  Here’s another example.  In order for Max to be able to make a trip behind enemy lines for a crucial scene, the character has to be a spy / RAF pilot.  This is the kind of credulity straining you get in movies like this.  And then there are the plot developments that make no sense even if you factor in Hollywood.  Why is Max’s sister openly lesbian?  Is that cocaine someone is doing at a house party in 1940s London?

                Considering the stars, the movie is lacking in romantic spark.  The arc from disdain to impromptu proposal is too rushed.  Then we have a similar leap to marital bliss.  It just does not feel right.  The action does not take your mind off the flawed romance.  There are two underwhelming action set pieces.  In neither do you think Max and/or Marianne are in any real danger.  I will credit the movie with introducing enough red herrings to keep you wondering.  However, when the movie is over you will realize you were being manipulated the whole time.  It is a spy movie after all.  I just expected more than the usual. 

                I get psyched to go see war movies in a theater.  I get my clip board with my legal pad and I sit on the floor in the aisle so I can use the floor lights.  It’s not the most comfortable way to enjoy a movie, but I do it for my readers – both of them.  Since war movies are rare (except this month), I don’t get to do this very often.  For that reason I can’t be too harsh with a war movie I get to see in a theater.  It is disappointing when I see a war movie with the pedigree of “Allied” and realize a lot of talent was wasted on a tired story line.  There have been hundreds of war movies made, but there are still good stories to be told.  Including many true stories of actual events and people.  It angers me that the $85 million could have been spent on a movie about a real heroic spy like Vera Leigh, for instance.


Tuesday, November 22, 2016

NOW SHOWING: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016)

                “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” is Ang Lee’s attempt to revolutionize the war movie.  Not content to bring Ben Fountain’s acclaimed novel to the screen in a standard format, he went radical on the filming process.  Normally, cinematographers shoot at 24 frames per second.  Lee (“Ride with the Devil”) went with an eye-popping 120 per second.  This broke Peter Jackson’s record of 48 for “The Hobbit:  An Unexpected Journey”.  Ang Lee must have a very tiny penis.  Because of the necessary technology, the film was shown in its new format in only six theaters worldwide (only two in America).  Based on the box office receipts, don’t wait for more theaters to install the expensive technology necessary to show the film “the way it was meant to be seen”.  I saw the movie in a mortal theater so I did not have to pop my eyes back in (or take a bottle of aspirin for a headache).  I also was not distracted from the plot.  Let’s see if that was fortunate.

                Billy Lynn (rookie Joe Alwyn) and his squad mates (referred to as Bravo Company) have been brought back to the States from Iraq for a bond tour or today’s equivalent of such.  It is a publicity stunt to remind America that we are still at war in Iraq and our soldiers are forgotten heroes.  They are famous for their performance in a fire fight that was recorded by an embedded news crew.  They lost their beloved and loving Sgt. Bream (Vin Diesel) and Lynn was awarded the Silver Star.  The movie centers around their participation in the halftime show at the Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving game.

                The movie is shown with flash backs to their time in Iraq.  These scenes attempt to establish that war is hell and Iraq was its ideal location.  We learn that Billy was your typical Generation X foul-up who turns out to be good at soldiering, but does not really take much pride in it.  He has a mentor in Bream, who is called “Shroom” because he dispenses wisdom as though he is on mushrooms. He tells Billy to not reason “why?”  He also tells him a variation of the old “you can’t avoid the bullet that has your name on it.”  We get the obligatory house search by the arrogant Americans which will breed more terrorists.  This leads up to the fire fight where the adrenaline flows, the training kicks in, the bonding pays off, but leads to heartbreak. It earns the boys a trip away from their real home (the Army) to their underappreciating home – America.  On the plus side, the “dog and pony show” could be financially lucrative if a movie deal comes through (and provided the producers don’t blow the budget on a new filming process).

                Back at home, Billy is reunited with his sister Kathryn (Kristen Stewart playing the literally scarred sister – Oscar please!).  Kathryn represents all the modern hippies who think the war is a big mistake.  She pushes the seemingly normal Billy to see a psychiatrist for PTSD.  A sister just knows these sort of things.  She also wants him to avoid going back.  This will mean abandoning his mates.  What’s a dude who has bonded with his comrades to do?

                The trip to Cowboy stadium is a real trip.  They have an agent named Albert (Chris Tucker playing Chris Tucker) who is on the phone to Hollywood trying to arrange a movie deal.  Meanwhile they are being treated like the heroes America insists they need to be.  Cowboys owner Norm “Jerry Jones” Oglesby (Steve Martin) channels Fox News and so he doesn’t have to do all the heavy lifting, an oily oilman is thrown in as a cherry on top.  This Odyssey includes a press conference where the men say all the right things.  This is a metaphor for the movie as all the characters say the right thing for characters in a war movie of this type.  When asked how he was able to act in a way to deserve the Silver Star,  Billy actually says:  “I did what I had to do”.  Then Billy passes by the island of the Siren when he hooks up with a cheerleader named Faison (Makenzie Leigh, who acts about as well as a real cheerleader).  Several other episodes lead up to the big halftime show which features “Destiny’s Child” with an actress playing Beyonce’s ass.  Why Destiny’s Child?  Because when Lee googled songs about soldiers, their name came up and actresses with nice booties come cheap.  Did it matter that the song is definitely not about soldiers in Iraq?  No.  Unless this is another example of the movie’s theme that America cares more about thugs than grunts.  If so, well played!  As though the booty shaking is not enough sensory overload, how about throwing in a lot of fireworks culminating in a rocket effect?  Give me a P – give me a T – give me an S – give me a D…  The second half goes about as well for the squad as it does for the Cowboys.

                “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” never connects.  Lee’s frame rate may have been revolutionary, but the script was certainly not.  It is full of clichés and very predictable.  The themes are tired.  Their presentation is heavy-handed.  If you want to see these themes presented well, watch the vastly superior “Flags of Our Fathers”.  It even has the football scene.  “Flags” mined new ground by showing that even in the “good war”, the government used soldiers to gin up support for the war and Americans on the home front could be uncaring and clueless.  But “Billy Lynn’s” is not exactly breaking new ground with the Iraq War.  We may not have known in 2004 what dicks we were, but by now it is not exactly a news flash. 

                I have not read the book yet, but I assume it is more competent in advancing its themes.  It surely has better dialogue.  The movie gets the soldier banter right, but the rest is from the “what would this type of character say at this point?” school of screenwriting.  It is replete with gems like:  “I’m not a hero.  I’m a soldier.”  The actors manage to spout their lines with straight faces.  This is especially true for Alwyn who plays Billy as G.I. Joe’s kid brother.  He is adequate (like Ryan Phillipe in “Flags”).  His skills do not include portraying PTSD.  The movie gives little support for his need for a psychiatrist.  In fact, the movie curiously does not make a good case for how horrible the squad’s experience in Iraq was.  It “tells” us, but the scenes set in Iraq do not advance this theme.  The only thing really bad that happens to them is the death of Shroom.  That one combat scene is fine, but you expect more from Ang Lee.  At least he avoids the recent spate of extreme combat scenes like in “Hacksaw Ridge”. 

                The only thing I enjoyed was the soldier camaraderie.  The squad members have a lot of chemistry and their interaction feels authentic.  Their ragging is not forced.  None of the actors is big league, but they fit together well.  One caveat is there is no dysfunction in the group. So there’s one cliché that Lee eschews.  Compare this to the trio in “Flags” and you can see where dysfunction can be compelling and entertaining.  Lynn and his boys are all on the same page.  There is little tension.

                “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” is a war movie that wants to be more important than it is.  There is nothing special about it except the frame rate and most of us average joes will not even be able to see it in that format.  After seeing the standard version, I’m not planning on booking a flight to NYC to see the “whole shebang” (Lee’s words).

GRADE  =  C-


                “Tunnel Rats” is a Uwe Boll film released in only one theater.  Boll is a famously bad director who is a whipping boy for critics.  He won the Golden Raspberry Award for Directing for this film and two others.  The movie was a German/Canadian production, but really it was a Boll production.  He wrote, directed, and produced it for $8 million.  It made $35,000.  This guy must be independently wealthy.  Supposedly this particular boll effort got some positive reviews.  Let’s see if those critics were right.  I’ll save you the trouble of watching a Boll movie by describing the plot.  So spoiler alert!  And you’re welcome.

                                The movie is set in the Cu Chi area in South Vietnam in 1968.  Cu Chi was famous for its intricate tunnel system used by the Viet Cong.  Some daring American grunts would volunteer to go into the tunnels.  They were called Tunnel Rats.  In the opening scene, one of these men is stabbed in a tunnel – from below!  (That’s the first exclamation point – there will be more.)  Cherries arrive and Lt. (credited as Sgt.) Hollowborn (Michael Pare) warns them against using dope (although viewers might want to disregard that warning).  He orders the hanging of a VC sniper and forces the squad to witness.  “We show no mercy, we take no prisoners”.  (The motto of Boll films.)  The LT boxes a soldier who criticized the execution!  A soldier talks about going home to his sick mother.  Guess who won’t be going home to his sick mother?  The camp is in the jungle – with no fields of fire or any kind  of defense.  The VC could literally sneak up to their tents!  The squad is heterogeneous with the typical mixture.  There is a Bible thumper, a boy from the hood, an intellectual black, a hick, and a cynical white guy. 

                They go out on a mission and find a tunnel.  The holy roller goes in and gets killed.  The cynical white pokes his head out and gets impaled by a female VC!  She then throws a grenade that wounds the intellectual.  When the rest find the cynic, they don’t bring back his body!  They look for intellectual and LT falls into a stake pit and the hick is machine gunned.  Meanwhile the camp comes under assault in broad daylight.  The grunts fire M60s from the hip.  In the tunnel, one of the men has to cut his way by a dead body!  Enjoy your pop corn.  The boy from the hood swims through part of the tunnel to pop up in a bunk room and hurl a grenade.  At this point only three members are alive when the air strike comes in.  The movie concludes with a long and exhausting scene where the Bible thumper and the VC girl are trapped and trying to dig their way out.

                This is not the worst Vietnam War movie.  It actually is fairly entertaining if you are into combat porn and can turn off your brain for a while.  There is a lot of extreme violence and it is preposterous.  There are a variety of deaths, but they are all ridiculous.  Boll is a better director than his reputation.  He uses a lot of hand-held.  He intercuts between the tunnel and the camp for the action scenes.  The music is revved up, of course.  The dialogue is not as stomach-turning as you would expect.  Supposedly the actors improvised their lines.  Maybe they had seen other Boll written movies.  They throw in some Vietnam slang and it does not seem forced like in better Vietnam War movies.  The characters are cliché, but that is hardly a first.  There is even some character development.  Unfortunately, the cast is low rent and does poorly.  One interesting thing about the otherwise inferior plot is the positive spin on the Viet Cong.  The female guerrilla is a nice touch and her linking up with the fundamentalist is a commendable twist.

                In spite of the non-snarky comments I made about “Tunnel Rats”, this is a bad movie.  I had to watch it, you don’t.


Sunday, November 13, 2016

CRACKER? 13 Hours (2016)

                “13 Hours:  The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” is a movie by Michael Bay of “Pearl Harbor” infamy.  He based the movie on the book by Michael Zuckoff.  He interviewed several of the characters in the movie.  Three of them (Kris “Tanto” Paranto, John “Tig” Tiegsen, and Mark “Oz” Geist) vetted the script and served as technical advisers.  The movie was filmed in Malta.  The Annex and the compound were accurately recreated.  The movie ended up as Bay's least successful endeavor.  It is also his least bull shit film.  Now you know what the movie-going public wants.

                The movie begins with one of the lengthiest background information lead-ins I have ever seen.  But our current events challenged society needs the background and it is informative.  In a good sign, the intro is relatively neutral.  It makes it clear the movie will be about the “six elite military operators” that defended a covert CIA base.  “This is a true story”.  Yeah, we’ve heard that before.

                Dan Silva (a buff, bearded John Krasinski) is a contractor (mercenary to people who insist on political incorrectness) who is leaving his wife and kids to do one last job (are any of them not “the last job”?) in Libya.  Before landing, he takes off his wedding ring.  My first thought was:  OMG, Jim is going to cheat on Pam!  Actually it is to hide his status from the terrorists.  Huh?  Silva is greeted by a bud named “Rone” (a first-billed James Dale).  The ride to the compound features a Libyan stand-off that is used to establish that Silva is no longer in Kansas and his new boss CIA desk jockey “Bob” is a stereotypical war movie bureaucratic wuss/dick.  In other words, the exact opposite of Rone’s team of bon homie badasses.  Bob has the heavy burden of representing the entire bungling government, including the never mentioned Hillary Clinton.

                A visit by bleeding heart Ambassador Stevens (Matt Letscher) comes at a bad time considering Benghazi is a hell mouth.  (The movie does not cover how low a campaign contribution you have to give to get his gig.)  Mr. Chips decides he wants to stay in the Annex which is the equivalent of a listening post in the Verdun no man’s land.  But at least he has two overconfident and underqualified security guards.  And the local militia guarding the perimeter.  What could happen, right?  Certainly nothing on the anniversary of 9/11.  Right? 

                Sept. 11, 2012 opens with Silva calling his wife and finding out she is pregnant!  Why do people call their wives in war movies?  Does he want to provoke the hell mouth?  If so, mission accomplished because here the hajis come.  It’s like the Alamo, but with no Davy Crockett.  Or any other Texans.  When Rone and his boys learn the Ambassador is in danger, they want to rush to his aid.  Unfortunately, “Bob” tells them to “stand down”.  They go anyway.  Let the combat porn begin!

                The team makes a drive to the Annex that is straight out of “Black Hawk Down”.  You can’t tell the good Libyans from the bad, except that the bad ones are shooting at you.  They reach the Annex and we get a little breather before the volume goes up again.  Next, there is the Bayesque wild ride back to the compound.  Imagine “Fast and Furious” with more gunfire.  It’s now time for the “Zulu” reenactment.    We started with six mercs – the over/under is four for this particular “last stand” movie.

                “13 Hours” has no glaring weaknesses.  It tells a true story that deserves to be told and it does it in an informative and entertaining way.  It is surprisingly light on politics.  This must have disappointed Republicans as much as Oliver Stone’s “W” disappointed the Democrats.  Bay is mostly interested in lionizing the contractors who fought off the hordes. The movie is mostly about macho heroes and a FUBAR situation  He does not really take a stand on the controversies surrounding the incident.  There are some allusions to those controversies, but the movie is not heavy-handed.  It is more of a standard action picture than a political thriller.   In fact, the script cobbles together several common war movie tropes - the running gun battle, the last stand, the red-tape loving ass-coverer, etc.  There’s nothing in this movie you have not seen before, but it is done competently.  The cinematography by Dion Beebe has a nice variety.  The dialogue by Chuck Hogan can best be described as manly. The score is what you would expect from this kind of movie and is actually fairly restrained.

                The cast is not A-List, but it does not need to be.  There is not a lot of acting required.  Krasinski was the big get for the casting director and he is adequate.  He plays Silva as a morose individual who is not very enthusiastic about this job.  He is certainly not the adrenalin junkie that most soldiers of fortune are portrayed as.  There is little character development and it is sometimes hard to tell the heroes apart, especially during the night fighting.  The screenplay throws in a few tired clichés.  “Bob” is a cartoonish bureaucratic wimp.  There is also a blonde spy who starts off sneering at the warriors, but ends up respecting them.  And there is the likeable Libyan interpreter who represents the “good” natives.

                The movie will of course be most remembered for its action sequences.  You get what you expect from Bay, but it’s not like he’s the only director that has adopted the over-the-top depiction of modern combat that goes back to “Saving Private Ryan”.  Since that revolutionary opening scene in SPR, directors have tried to depict combat realistically.  Some, like Ridley Scott in “Black Hawk Down”, have been successful.  Others have adopted the mantra that extreme combat equals realistic combat.  In other words, the more hellish the action and violence, the closer you get to proving war is hell.  What they don’t understand is it is possible to go too far and veer into super hero territory.  “13 Hours” is somewhere between SPR and “Hacksaw Ridge”.  There are no moments that cause a war movie fanatic to laugh out loud, but you just know there was not nearly as much ammo expenditure, explosions, and bloodshed in the actual firefights.  The graphic wounds are certainly appropriate to war.  We do love to see human equivalents of zombies get slaughtered.

                I feel a little sorry for Bay with regard to the lack of box office success for the film.  My theory is word got out to his general audience that the movie was not a “Transformers” sequel and the rabid Hillary haters found out it was not red meat.  This is a shame for Bay because the movie is not bad.  It may exaggerate the heroics, but the men were real heroes and they get their due.  In this respect, the movie reminds of “Lone Survivor” and “American Sniper”.  Not as good, but comparable.

GRADE  =  B  

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:    How accurate is it?  Let’s start by assuring you that it ain’t “Pearl Harbor”.   The background information is a good summary of the situation going into Sept. 11, 2014.  Although, oddly the footage shows Gaddafi’s capture before it shows the air strikes that helped contribute to his demise.  The main characters are all real individuals with “Bob” being a representation of the actual CIA chief who remains unidentified.  The setup of the Annex and the compound are true to life.  The circumstances of Ambassador Stevens death are accurate in the big picture.  The Annex was woefully insecure and the security detail was laughable.  The "February 17th Martyr's Brigade" militia that was supposed to defend the perimeter did run away at the first sound of gunfire.   The script gives a plausible  version of what transpired when members of Ansar al-Sharia stormed the site.  Stevens did go to a safe room, but the jihadists did set the building on fire.  The movie has Bob giving a “stand down” order, thus siding with the critics of the State Department and CIA.  This theory was debunked by the Benghazi Committee, but eyewitnesses, including the technical advisers insist they were told to wait.  The movie does not really address the State Departments decision to turn down requests for more security at the Annex.  While the attack on the Annex is accurate, the ingress of the contractors to search for Stevens was by armored vehicle and was not a hellish run through a gauntlet and there were no attacks while they were there.  They did take fire on the way back.  The assaults on the compound are basically true, but shall we say “enhanced”.  There was an attack at 12:30 and one at 2:30.  Both lasted about ten minutes.  The mortar attack around 5 A.M. that killed Rone and Glen was well done.  Another controversy the movie touches on is the supposedly criminally tardy air support.  That also has been debunked. Overall, I would give the film a B for accuracy.