Saturday, June 7, 2014

Lone Survivor Lives Up

They're the ones fighting.


As Allan Bourdius continued his awesome coverage of the 70th anniversary of DDay on Twitter, I noted my amazement that the entire venture didn't turn into a slaughter and complete defeat for the Allies given all the things that went awry that day. It’s a serious reminder that any plan can fall apart at the whim of Murphy’s Law, and unfortunately for the group of Navy SEALs at the heart of Lone Survivor, that proves true for them as well.

For those who don’t know, Lone Survivor relates the tale of retired Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell who, as the title suggests, is the only one of his comrades to come back alive from a borked mission to capture/kill a Taliban bigwig. Between a few goat herders, unreliable communications, the unforgiving terrain of Afghanistan, and a small army of Taliban fighters, the SEALs' mission priority quickly shifts from reconnaissance to simply getting home in one piece.

It’s pretty impressive how well the film conveys the brutality and the desperation of the ensuing firefight. Between the acting, the cinematography, and some stuntmen who really know how to sell a fall, it’s not hard to find yourself wincing just watching it. Hollywood usually likes to exaggerate things for effect, so one might find themselves questioning the plausibility of these guys taking as much damage as they do and continue fighting, but from what I’ve read, the movie actually tones it down some. For example, Luttrell had to crawl several miles after shrapnel tore up his legs, but in the movie he’s only reduced to walking with a bit of a limp. Sometimes reality is simply more unbelievable than fiction.

And yes I did compliment the acting up there. I know people like to give Mark Wahlberg grief, but I can’t say I’ve ever had him ruin a film and this one is no different. Given his star power and the fact that he plays Luttrell, it wouldn’t have been surprising to see it turn into a one man action hero piece with every other member of the team used as red shirts, but fortunately this film didn’t do that. Instead we get a good look at team leader Michael P. “Murph” Murphy and fellow team members Danny Dietz and Matthew “Axe” Axelson, played by Taylor Kitsh, Emile Hirsch, and Ben Foster respectively. The actors do a fine job of conveying their personas without hamming it up or needing the script constantly double-back for a flashback or other random contrivance.

Of course, whenever somebody makes a movie about American soldiers that doesn't show them actively rebelling against the military, complaints about jingoism abound. I've seen that come up about this one too, but as usual it’s unfounded. The Americans are not portrayed as saints, and the Taliban are nameless and faceless because SEALs do not have time to ask for their personal histories in the middle of a gunfight. Further, there’s no moral equivalency to be drawn with the Taliban, who are in reality even more reprehensible than the movie portrays them. On top of that, one of the actual Hollywood embellishments of the film gives the Afghan civilians a chance to shine brighter, rather than minimizing or otherwise white washing their part in the story.

All in all this is a solid film, and despite knowing the story going in, I found myself really engaged and occasionally even surprised. It’s easy to forget what we as a nation ask our warriors to suffer through on our behalf, and it’s nice for once to have a movie that focuses on that rather than using them as props for a running commentary on the politics of the conflict in which they’re engaged. Director Peter Berg and his cast and crew said they set out to make an authentic movie that does justice to the men it portrayed and what they endured. As a civilian with no ties to the real life action heroes on which it is based, I’m hardly in a position to judge whether or not they succeeded, but I will recommend seeing Lone Survivor just the same.

*this post cross-posted at http://www.theirfinesthour.net

Monday, June 2, 2014

Droning On (About RoboCop)

One of these things is not like the other.

RoboCop continues the tradition of rebooting franchises and not giving us the common courtesy of some form of subtitle so that we can differentiate between the new one and the old one. Seems like filmmakers hope that by sticking to the original name they can completely overwrite the original so that nobody remembers how much better it was. Fortunately, in this version Alex Murphy becomes a black cyborg with a single organic white hand so I can refer to him as RoboJackson and anyone who’s old enough to remember the 80s will get the joke.

RoboJackson is about everything except this Alex Murphy guy who gets turned into a cyborg and the family that has to live with that new reality. It’s about drones, corporate greed, businesses in bed with government, modern news coverage, and did I mention drones? It’s like the filmmakers saw all the wonderful satire of the original film and felt like if they didn't stuff this one full of social commentary, people would think they didn't get it.

The difference between their film and the original in that regard is that the satire of the original film was window dressing. It was just the backdrop to a story about a man trying to regain his humanity after being turned into a robot, and then that man getting some sweet revenge with his new robotic body. This movie is too busy cutting away to Samuel L. Jackson doing his best Glenn Beck impression and Michael Keaton’s evil corporate machinations to focus on that part. This guy doesn't know how to go home to his family because Gary Oldman brought him back to life as only a head and a hand. Who needs all the drone crap when you have any number of PTSD and wounded warrior allegories right there?

Joel Kinnaman was doing a perfectly fine job of acting, why not let him take a crack at that? It actually would've been an interesting way to retell this story, and thus perhaps justify itself. That’s not to say doing the drones vs. human police thing couldn't have been interesting, but it’s so on the nose in this movie that you might as well have had Sam Jackson shouting “Drones, motherf***er! Do you want them!?” (I’d totally watch that movie, by the way.)

Then you have the corporate greed thing, which the original film already handled. Not to mention pretty much every other movie since then. In the 80s it may have seemed like privatization run amok was the dystopian future to which we were headed, but now one would expect the construction of RoboCop to be the Hail Mary of a corporation trying to survive the squeeze between health care costs and government regulation. Michael Keaton’s character should have been a man desperate to stay in business and distraught that he can’t afford to keep enough officers on the payroll to protect the citizenry. Instead he’s just another CEO who’s so anxious to make money he’s willing to outright murder people.

Then again this is the sanitized, PG-13 version so they keep the murdering to a minimum, to the point of having RoboJackson zapping people with a taser instead of perforating their genitals. That was a result of the budget exploding and the studio getting nervous they couldn't recoup their money on an R-rated film, which only serves to reinforce what I said in the Godzilla review about filmmakers not having to worry about and work within their limitations.

So rather than the comically gratuitous violence that was a hallmark of the original RoboCop, we get a CGI Michael Jackson cylon dancing around the screen to blast apart equally non-existent robots. It’s not even Alex Murphy deciding which robots to blast most of the time since Gary Oldman's character somehow wires him to let the robot part make the decisions without him noticing. Does anyone else miss the days of an actual guy on an actual set with actual props doing actual things?

Thus yet another perfectly good cult classic becomes a bloated big budget CGI action fest complete with all the usual tropes and continuing the trend of watering down everything that’s unique about a franchise in pursuit of the all mighty dollar. Perhaps Hollywood loves that greedy executive plotline so much because they can relate to it so well.

Overall, it’s not a terrible movie, it’s just terribly average. If you’re looking to waste a couple hours with the upcoming Blu-ray, it’ll do the job adequately. Otherwise find something else to buy with your dollar.

*this post cross-posted at http://www.theirfinesthour.net