Lone Survivor Review – Fallen Brothers


Director: Peter Berg 

Writer: Peter Berg (screenplay), Marcus Luttrell, Patrick Robinson (book)

Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch


Release date: January 23rd, 2014

Distributors: Universal Pictures, Foresight Unlimited

Country: USA

Running time: 121 minutes


 

3/5

Best part: The visceral action sequences.

Worst part: Its unsettling agenda.

Here’s a fun question: what do The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Devil, and Zack and Miri Make a Porno have in common? Give up yet? Ok, i’ll just tell you. The answer: their titles reveal major spoilers. This is a problem for multiple reasons. Assuredly, the studios must think their audiences are stupid. To attract multiple target markets, filmmakers and studios reveal their movies’ greatest secrets. Sadly, Lone Survivor is up there with the aforementioned releases. Lone Survivor harms itself thanks to one tiny detail – it’s based on a true story. Unquestionably, this issue is most problematic when dealing with docudramas. Despite the obvious marketing troubles, it’s still acceptable to look past these issues and lap up this confronting thrill-ride.

Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Taylor Kitsch, & Emile Hirsch.

Whether they’re PR stunts or debacles, these movies carry a duty to inform but not spoil applicable and potentially groundbreaking stories. This movie’s production history is a tumultuous journey in itself. Based on Marcus Lutrell and Patrick Robertson’s book about these harrowing events, certain facts, figures, and opinions were changed to suit a ‘standard’ narrative structure. Causing controversy on all fronts, the book has been translated into an exhilarating yet morose action flick. Despite Luttrell’s blessing, the movie sits uncomfortably on shaky ground. This story, though exponentially impactful, needed a significantly more objective and accomplished writer/director. The first half presents these courageous figures as war-obsessed men of honour. Lutrell (Mark Wahlberg) is a grizzly soldier unafraid of death and disparity. Lieutenant Michael P. Murphy (Taylor Kitsch) awaits his upcoming wedding with baited breath. Matthew Axelson (Ben Foster) revels in his profession’s most masochistic aspects. Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) is the tough-as-nails rookie with a heart of gold. Spoiler: three of these people aren’t making it back to base. Introducing its tough-guy caricatures, the first half boasts an awkward and bafflingly unimpressive sense of humour. Making up reconnaissance and surveillance unit SEAL Team 10, these US Navy SEALs head up an important mission called Operation Red Wings. Their mission revolves around murderous Taliban leader Ahmad Shah. Responsible for the deaths of 20 US Marines, Shah must be captured or killed by any means necessary. Dropped into the Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush region, the team sneak through this harsh and unending forest region. Unfortunately, within the first few hours of this mission, the team’s cover is blown by innocent civilians. From this point on, the movie’s Call-of-Duty-esque conflict kicks into gear. 

Eric Bana.

Lone Survivor, despite the marketing and narrative flaws, is a tight, tense and visceral thrill-ride. Mixing varying genre elements into one confronting and egregious concoction, the movie wholeheartedly praises these real-life heroes. Transitioning from gripping war-action flick to horrifying survival thriller, Lone Survivor delivers several tremendous highlights. Pandering to this movie’s agenda would be wrong. But, then again, it would be cruel to attack writer/director Peter Berg for choosing this story. Oh boy, treading this line is difficult! Anyway, though I respect Berg’s intentions, his movie becomes an obvious and one-sided war flick. Berg’s career is peppered with intelligible action flicks (The Kingdom, Welcome to the Jungle) and disgracefully forgettable blockbusters (Hancock, Battleship). Obsessed with the US Military, he becomes infatuated with these all-encompassing tough guys. Here, his blockbuster ticks and war-drama tropes awkwardly clash. Beyond his hit-and-miss filmography, Berg’s inept screenplay turns a potentially compelling concept into indulgent and ineffectual material. Returning to the big screen after Friday Night Lights‘ ongoing success, American prosperity and foreign policy are tools at his disposal. Using military technology and soldiers for the movie’s overwhelming production, Berg’s commendable intentions are overshadowed by his distracting political agenda. Painting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in black and white, Lone Survivor develops a one-sided and imbalanced portrait of this harrowing conflict. Don’t get me wrong, I wholeheartedly respect the US military’s efforts to build monumental infrastructures across the world. Unfortunately, movies like Lone Survivor refuse to deliver detailed viewpoints. Praising the US’ stranglehold over smaller territories, heartfelt moments transition into trite and uninspired sections. Bookended with archival footage of Navy SEAL training, and pictures of these heroic figures, this right-wing action extravaganza should’ve retreated to safer ground. Going all out, Lone Survivor transitions into a confused and questionable commentary on the past decade’s aforementioned conflicts. 

“You can die for your country, I’m gonna live for mine.” (Matt ‘Axe’ Axelson (Ben Foster), Lone Survivor).

Ali Suliman.

Given the thumbs up by Glenn Beck himself, Lone Survivor hurriedly became a red-white-and-blue box office success story. With LA Weekly critic Amy Nicholson’s review panned by the debilitating media commentator, this potent war flick is an obvious and mean-spirited right-wing fantasy. However, overcoming its irritating and one-sided agenda, Berg’s action direction bolsters this terrifyingly graphic and intense action-thriller. Stepping into the four soldiers’ shoes, the movie examines its characters’ identities. Driven by manliness, ego, and focus, the movie, despite telegraphing certain characters’ demises, comments on every soldier’s immense will to succeed. Lone Survivor, despite the glorious attention to detail, gives thanks to Zero Dark Thirty, Platoon, Black Hawk Down, The Hurt Locker, and Three Kings. A long list for sure, but these movies are infinitely more thorough and responsive. Like The Kingdom, the punishing violence and gore elevate this hokey and conventional war-docudrama. Depicting this conflict’s most intensifying moments, bullet wounds, bruises, and shrapnel cuts stand out. In fact, opting for practical effects is the movie’s ballsiest choice. Berg’s attention to detail and action-direction develop several enthralling set pieces. With our lead characters going head-to-head with Taliban forces, the second two-thirds deliver brutal and ever-lasting gunfights. Despite the one dimensional enemies, the visuals and stunt sequences elevate this middling war-drama. The cliff sequences – in which our lead four hit every rock and tree on their way down – are shockingly gruesome. In addition, Tobias A. Schliesser’s cinematography throws the audience into this atmospheric and saddening situation. His distinct camera movements and angles heighten each set pieces’ intensity and emotional impact. Treading light ground, the performances also elevate this underwhelming and heavy-handed action flick. Wahlberg, carrying multiple action flicks last year, is suitably intense as the team’s determined leader. Left with the most responsibility, Wahlberg’s magnetic presence bolster’s this thrilling survival tale. Kitsch, recovering from a disastrous 2012, is energetic as the cocky second in command. Hirsch and Foster, known for disturbingly honest turns into low-budget dramas, excel in this moody war-drama. Rounding out this eclectic cast is Eric Bana as Lieutenant Erik S. Kristensen. Bana, coming back into the spotlight, is a welcoming presence as the leader manning the all-important military base.

I know I should be respectful to Lutrell and his fallen comrads. In fact, to be clear, I’m specifically attacking Berg for transforming this story into something it’s not. Turning this brave story into an explosive romp, Berg’s aura delivers an underwhelming effort reeking of wasted potential. However, thanks to Berg’s action direction and attention to detail, this engaging war flick overcomes its brash agenda and underwhelming cliches. More movies about this subject should be made, just not like this. 

Verdict: A brutal yet overbearing war-docudrama.

Savages Review – Stone-r Flick


Director: Oliver Stone

Writers: Shane Salerno, Don Winslow, Oliver Stone

Stars: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively, Benicio del Toro


Release date: July 6th, 2013

Distributor: Universal Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 131 minutes


2½/5

Best part: Benicio Del Toro’s sadistic villain.

Worst part: The multiple endings.

Ever since Proposition 19 was announced, planning to make medicinal marijuana usage legal in California, this hot button issue has been discussed by both the US Government and Hollywood to varying degrees. With an issue as pressing as drug induced relief for dying patients, heavily opinionated director Oliver Stone has now thrown in his two cents. It comes in the form of his new flick Savages, a film containing a lot of talent but failing to sink any teeth into this pressing debate.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson, JohnTravolta & Taylor Kitsch.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson, JohnTravolta & Taylor Kitsch.

Savages is a toned down, confused yet stylish thriller, based on the exploits of US and Mexican drug cartels. Operating in California’s stunning Laguna Beach, two friends Ben (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch – having a bad year after mega-flops John Carter and Battleship) run a near-perfect Cannabis manufacturing and distribution business, creating the rarest and most potent chronic available in California. Protected by corrupt DEA agent Dennis (John Travolta), the pair share a sun and sea-drenched life, along with a polyamorous relationship with Ophelia (Blake Lively). Their operation however attracts the interests of a Mexican drug cartel known as Baha, run by the seductive Elena (Selma Hayek). After turning down her prestigious offer, the two friends must then retrieve their girlfriend from Baha’s grasp, particularly steering clear of crazy cartel enforcer Lado (Benicio Del Toro). The two will lay down their version of the law, while escaping the clutches of the USA/Mexico drug scene.

Blake Lively & Salma Hayek.

Blake Lively & Salma Hayek.

Without the multi-layered and in-depth narrative of Steven Soderbergh’s 2000 Oscar winner Traffic, Savages sadly feels like a pale imitation. With inventive visuals, opinionated direction and noticeable thematic relevance, this is truly a Stone-r film (pun intended). Self confessed pot-fiend Oliver Stone, known for classic anti-establishment films such as JFK, Platoon and Wall Street, over the years has lost his affecting touch. His last few films, including W., Alexander and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, have been boiled down into overly serious yet goofy message-based propaganda. Savages is no exception, taking shallow pot-shots at the Obama Government, reality TV and the drug war without following through. It’s enough to say you are against certain issues in a democratic society, but without the investigative and strongly opinionated story elements of previous Stone films like Born on the Fourth of July, what is left is an empty and simplified pseudo-remake of Natural Born Killers. Stone does however create a derivative yet distinct sense of visual flair for this overly serious crime-thriller. Told from the perspective of Blake Lively’s character, her shattered point of view is illustrated through the fun and experimental use of quick cuts, lens flares, contrasting bright colours and black and white photography. Frustratingly taking the viewer out of this revenge-fantasy at every turn, Tony Scott’s shaking cameras and colour filters are also on display, conveying a hyper-kinetic look at the drug trade hopping across borders in more ways than one.

“I have orgasms, he has wargasms.” (O (Blake Lively), Savages).

Benicio del Toro.

The film is called Savages for a reason, displaying a shocking yet tasteful use of violence. Stone holds back from gratuity, lingering just enough on each bullet hole, cut and blood splatter to leave a lasting affect on these powerful characters, stuck in the middle of this interweaving standoff between law and cartel enforcement. The film sorely focuses too much on expressing an obvious and painfully monotonous look at a bad political situation. The film tells its story like a stoner expressing an idea; it starts off promising yet quickly descends into tedium and loses focus. Quickly becoming annoying is Lively’s continuous narration, filled with terrible puns (‘Wargasm’ and ‘12 step-dad program’ …Really?!) and obnoxious explanation of every twist and turn. The film contains many obviously black and/or white characters, mostly representing different factions in this seemingly important discussion. The three main characters are also reduced to two dimensional anti-heroes and victims, particularly due to the Yin/yang qualities of Ben and Chon. Ben is simply the charitable pot-head with a heart of gold, while Chon is the typical tough as nails war veteran with a taste for murder. Instead of an objective yet formalist discussion of race, crime and sex in the vein of City of God, the film presents a largely xenophobic representation of other cultures, particularly with every cartel enforcer portrayed as a laughable Mexican stereotype.

Despite Stone’s immense prowess (seriously, go watch his previous efforts), his last few films have fallen into easy-to-avoid traps. With Savages, his hyper-kinetic style clashes with its overbearing message – making for a truly unpleasant experience.

Verdict: A disappointing crime-thriller.

Battleship Review – Battle: Pacific Ocean


Director: Peter Berg

Writers: Jon Hoeber, Erich Hoeber

Stars: Taylor Kitsch, Brooklyn Decker, Liam Neeson, Rhianna


Release date: May 18th, 2012

Distributor: Universal Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 131 minutes


 

2/5

 Best part: The first action sequence.

Wort part: The jingoistic flair.

Starting off by saying Hollywood is out of ideas is obvious when applying that statement to Battleship. With a ridiculous concept in creating a special effects extravaganza based on the popular yet plotless board game of the same name, It makes you wonder what Hollywood may decide to adapt next. This film provides some visual stimulus but little beyond that to satisfy either film aficionados or even fans of the classic board game itself.

Taylor Kitsch & Tadanobu Asano.

Taylor Kitsch & Tadanobu Asano.

We begin our descent into nostalgia and mind numbing stupidity with renegade and good for nothing slacker Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch) and his brother Stone (Alexander Skarsgard); celebrating a birthday, family ties and Naval prowess. When Hopper tries to impress Samantha (Brooklyn Decker) and ends up breaking the law, he is forced by Stone to join him in the Navy. We then join them in full uniform and unlimited egotism as the annual Naval war games between the USA and Japan get under way in Hawaii. Due to scientists sending a signal to a planet much like ours in another galaxy, a strange cluster of objects fall out of the sky and into the Pacific Ocean. Disrupting the fleets in action, this alien group reigns war upon them and threatens the imminent destruction of mankind. Its now up to misfit Hopper and a sole Naval fleet to set aside differences and save the world from an overwhelming enemy.

Rhianna.

Rhianna.

Battleship is a prime example of the slapdash effort both directors and screenwriters put into blockbusters such as this each year. With the Transformers sequels and Battle: Los Angeles also suffering from major script and directorial failings, providing nothing more than a cash grab for a general audience is becoming more noticeable with each one of these cliche sci-fi action flicks. Peter Berg (The Kingdom, Hancock), who should be able to provide a convincing level of flair as acclaimed director Michael Mann’s protege, leaves behind entertaining characters and clever moments of comedy seen particularly in Welcome to the Jungle in order to achieve the conventional. This film may stand as one of the most generic blockbusters in recent memory. Even when looking down the cast list we see the who’s who of popular culture, several trying to make a name for themselves in one way or another. First off, Kitsch, fresh from the recent fantasy adventure epic John Carter, provides his usual emotionless delivery for another bland lead character role. While pop-star Rhianna, essentially playing Vasquez from Aliens, is unable to hold off her Caribbean accent when spouting several of the film’s many unnecessary one liners. Also suffering is an unconvincing Brooklyn Decker as Hopper’s girlfriend and soon to be fiancee. While phoning it in is Liam Neeson as Admiral Shane, who seems wasted in a role involving little more than a glorified cameo.

“We are going to die. You’re going to die, I’m going to die, we’re all going to die… just not today.” (Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch), Battleship).

 One of many Naval battles.

One of many Naval battles.

In their defence however, the dialogue throughout is solely based on endless references to Sun Tsu’s The Art of War, corny speeches proclaiming America’s ability to do anything and eye-rollingly tedious one liners. Battleship‘s moments of comedy fall flat and border on offensive; particularly when providing a one sided view of the Japanese. While the jingoistic view of American accomplishment is irritatingly pumped into this film, along with the unsubtle commercialisation of the Navy and Marine Corps. Loving shots of naval vessels and obvious metaphors for peace created by the US try too hard to convey a flag waving subtext. The noisy, special effect driven action sequences may look beautiful, but fail to provide any real creativity. Buildings fall down, people are needlessly killed in large quantities, free ways are crushed by Transformer-esque alien burrowers and battleships fire endlessly at alien spacecraft while being fired upon themselves. This repetitive and monotonous level of destruction does however start off promising. The first battleship sequence, one of few elements resembling anything from the board game, is choreographed, paced and photographed to create a thrilling 10 minute fight to the death against overwhelming and unknown odds. The aliens themselves, despite possessing some of the weirdest spiky beards in memory, are one dimensional at best. Their Halo-like jumpsuits along with conventional grey, slimy designs provide an uninteresting enemy for our heroes to bravely face.

With Hollywood scrambling for ideas, we’ve reached the point where Battleship is the biggest blockbuster on the menu. Sinking the director, cast, and Universal Pictures, this bomb destroys all the ships on the board!

Verdict: A mind-numbing and excessive blockbuster. 

John Carter Review – Kitsch’s Catastrophe


Director: Andrew Stanton

Writers: Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews, Michael Chabon (screenplay), Edgar Rice Burroughs (novels)

Stars: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Willem Dafoe, Mark Strong


Release date: March 9th, 2012

Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 132 minutes


 

2½/5

Best part: The Tharks.

Worst part: The cliched narrative.

The perfect way to describe this adaptation of the Barsoom series by Edgar Rice Burroughs is by comparing it to every classic action adventure film of its type. Charming yet tedious, John Carter is a sci-fi fantasy flick that will leave you underwhelmed, as great actors and a beautiful visual style are dragged through a slow pace and unoriginal script.

Taylor Kitsch.

The clichés begin with a young Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) reading from the memoirs of civil war veteran and all around badass John Carter (Taylor Kitsch). Suddenly we are taken back to the end of the civil war, with Carter looking for lost treasure while trying to avoid both the cruel american forces and savage native american indians. Carter’s dangerous discoveries and run ins with the law of the land lead to his transportation from Earth (Jarsoom) to Mars (Barsoom). With the realisation of his new home comprising of warring factions not resembling any nationality on earth and a spiritual alien tribe, its up to Carter and feisty princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) to save the dying planet from the forces of evil, with their hearts skipping a beat for each other along the way.

Lynn Collins & Ciaran Hinds.

John Carter is Avatar, Star Wars and Dances with Wolves all rolled into one. The film wears its cliches and influences on its sleeve, without displaying an even vaguely imaginative sci-fi action fairytale simultaneously. Despite this series of books being written in the early 20th century, this film was clearly the result of box office successes such as Avatar and Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean. Carter’s exploration of Mars is surprisingly dull due to the very simple quest our characters are placed in. Unlike Avatar, the film quickly loses focus and spends little time with its most unique characters. Whereas Avatar saw to the detailed exploration of a planet’s native inhabitants, The ‘Tharks’ in John Carter stand only for plot devices and comic relief. Unfortunately, the film focuses almost entirely on the warring Romanesque factions. Despite several clever moments of comedy, the human characters throughout are two dimensional at best while bland performances from British actors Ciaran Hinds and Dominic West prove costly for this already unenterprising adventure. Mark Strong is charismatic as the snarling, shape shifting Thern but suffers from a one dimensional character used specifically as a plot contrivance. This film proves that Hollywood’s fresh crop of young lead actors aren’t up to the task of carrying major Hollywood blockbusters.

“When I saw you, I believed it was a sign… that something new can come into this world.” (Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe), John Carter).

Mark Strong.

Kitsch and Collins are completely dull. Their thick accents and lack of expressions add to the tedium as they soon become uninteresting to watch. Their developing relationship also feels forced upon finding out Carter’s recently troubled past. This largely predictable quest and tale of love among the stars is not without its share of enjoyable moments. The technical aspects of the film reign supreme, especially when dealing with the alien characters. The Tharks are depicted as war ravaged and spiritually guided praying mantises. Their tusks, four arms and slender figures create a wonderful interpretation of the ancient Earth bound tribes from Africa to North America. While their strange body movements and reactions to  John Carter himself create many fascinating character interactions. Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton and Thomas Haden Church provide their usual screen prowess in their motion capture turns as tribe members Tars Tarkis, Sola and Tal Hajus respectively. The setting of Mars is also used to full effect. The idea of undiscovered worlds carved into the bright red planet is expressed through giant mechanised cities, flying machines, scary creatures, gigantic battles and alien inhabitants sticking to the old ways; brought to life through impeccable special effects and sickeningly harsh desert landscapes.

John Carter, for all the bravado and good-will of its typical summer blockbuster vibe, can’t help but trip over its own two alien feet. Despite the epic scope and fine cast, the movie comes off like a slap-dash studio decision. Sadly, Avatar‘s shadow is still too big!

Verdict: A perfunctory and uninspired sci-fi blockbuster.