BLACK CRAB (2022) – War Action Thriller Exciting and Cinematic

0

BLACK CRAB (2022), a new Netflix original movie which hails from Sweden, is a slick, stylized war action thriller about a secret mission in which a small group of soldiers must make their way behind enemy lines across a frozen body of salt water to get top secret materials to their base on the other side.

The story takes place in the near future, but its bleak scenes of war violence amid an unnamed European landscape and its story of the brutality of war, definitely benefits from the real-life current war in Ukraine which is playing out each night on news stations across the world. The film’s points, even though the story is set in the future, resonate that much louder in this current setting of an unprovoked brutal attack on a sovereign nation.

While the plot often borders on the ridiculous, it makes for grand cinema and some truly exciting and suspenseful film sequences,

The film opens with a woman Caroline Edh (Noomi Rapace) in a car with her daughter when the road is attacked by an unnamed military force. Vehicles are blown up, and soldiers on the ground abduct Edh’s daughter. The story then jumps ahead in time, and we see that Edh is now a rebel soldier in an unnamed country fighting the unnamed invading enemy.

Edh is selected for a top-secret mission. Her side is losing the war, and unless they can get some top-secret materials to their base on the other side of a body of salt water, they will ultimately lose the conflict. Fortunately, this body of water is now frozen. Unfortunately, it’s too thin for vehicles to drive over, and too thick for boats to get through. The solution? A group of soldiers will ice skate— yup, you heard that right, ice skate across the thin ice under the cover of darkness, braving both the elements and their enemies in helicopters who will be flying above trying to shoot them dead. Edh and her fellow soldiers have been chosen for this mission because of their ability to ice skate quickly.

Edh correctly calls this a suicide mission, but the superior officer takes her aside and tells her that they have found her missing daughter, and that she is at the base across the frozen water. If Edh gets there with the secret information, she will be reunited with her daughter, hence giving Edh more motivation than anyone else to make it across the ice.

And that’s the story told in BLACK CRAB. As I said, some of it is ridiculous. Ice skating across a frozen body of salt water? Yeah, it sounds like a suicide mission. More importantly, it sounds like a failed mission! But I guess desperate times call for desperate measures. I just wasn’t completely convinced that this wasn’t anything more than a plot contrivance to film some cool scenes.

And that by far is the best part of BLACK CRAB. Writer/director Adam Berg fills this one with lots of cool visuals and exciting action sequences. There’s one moment where Edh and her fellow soldiers suddenly find themselves skating over a graveyard of frozen human corpses just underneath the ice, either from a capsized lifeboat or some other brazen attack, that makes for a particularly creepy sequence.

The action scenes are topnotch. Helicopters zoom by trying to pick off the skaters, there are several hard-hitting explosive firefights, and more than one thrilling sequence involving hand grenades.

The screenplay by Berg and Pelle Radstrom, based on a novel by Jerker Virdborg, definitely sets the stage for lots of excitement, even if not all of it makes the most sense. The plot thickens and gets better when the skaters discover just what it is they are bringing to their base across the ice. The overall theme of the movie besides war is hell, is that you can’t trust anyone on either side. Indeed, the skaters do not trust each other at all, but as their situation grows more dire, and as the body count among them grows, they throw all that suspicion aside and trust each other in order to survive. This part of the story works well.

The skaters all have different personalities, yet we don’t really get to know any of them all that well, other than Edh.

I like Noomi Rapace a lot. She is intense here as Caroline Edh and very believable as the relentless soldier who will do anything to get across that ice to be reunited with her abducted daughter. I first saw Rapace in the original THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATOO (2009). She has also starred in PROMETHEUS (2012) and the underrated thriller DEAD MAN DOWN (2013). Her performance here in BLACK CRAB goes a long way towards making this movie a watchable thriller.

The rest of the cast is commendable. Jakob Oftebro who plays Nylund, one of the characters Edh trusts the least at first, until circumstances bring them together, does have a Brad Pitt-type vibe going on throughout this movie.

I really enjoyed BLACK CRAB. As I said, its wartime plot and images of bombed European cities benefits from the current war in Ukraine, as points the film makes resonate deeper than they might have otherwise. It comes off less as futuristic fiction and more like real life drama. It has the style and grittiness of an action thriller like ATOMIC BLONDE (2017), only it takes place in the near future rather than during the Cold War.

It also joins a recent set of movies with plots about traveling over ice. We just saw the historical adventure AGAINST THE ICE (2022) which told the true story of a treacherous expedition into Greenland. And last year Liam Neeson and some friends traversed THE ICE ROAD (2021) in northern Canada in tractor trailers as part of a rescue mission to free trapped miners. Of the three, I enjoyed BLACK CRAB the most.

And it features an effective electronic music score by Dead People. It’s the type of score that would have been right at home in a John Carpenter film of yesteryear.

As I said, the film is available on Netflix, in both its original Swedish language with English subtitles, or dubbed in English. I prefer the original Swedish language version with subtitles.

BLACK CRAB is an intense and surprisingly cinematic adventure that not only provides its audience with a hard-hitting thrill ride but also has a few things to say about the futility of war. In any age.

—END—

THE OUTPOST (2020) – Story of U.S. Soldiers Battling Taliban Solid Yet Unremarkable

1

If you like war movies without fanfare that simply focus on the intense horrors of war, then THE OUTPOST (2020) may be the movie for you.

Directed by Rod Lurie with a screenplay by Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson, based on the book The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor by Jake Tapper, THE OUTPOST tells the story of a small group of U. S. soldiers encamped in an outpost in Afghanistan which is so poorly located it isn’t funny. Surrounded completely by immense mountains, the soldiers are constantly at the mercy of the hundreds of Taliban soldiers in the mountains who fire on them daily in the hope of some day overtaking the camp.

As such, the soldiers understand that while on paper their mission is to mingle with the locals in order to win their hearts and minds, their real mission is simply to survive. And that’s really what THE OUTPOST is all about: survival.

There really isn’t a strong narrative or deep character development. The plot of THE OUTPOST simply follows the soldiers inside Camp Keating where they engage in daily banter until they are fired upon and are forced to defend themselves, trying their best not to die.

As such, the bulk of this film is not all that enjoyable because you don’t really get to know any of the characters and there’s not much of a story. What you do get is an appreciation for the stress and anxiety these soldiers go through on a daily basis. One reason a film like 1917 (2019) worked better is it chose to focus on two main characters throughout the movie and audiences saw the larger story through their eyes. That doesn’t really happen here in THE OUTPOST.

However, the film held my interest long enough to get me to the climactic battle when the Taliban finally descend upon the camp in an all out attack. This final battle is by far the best part of the movie and lifts this one to worthwhile viewing status. It’s extremely cinematic.

The sound editing and mixing throughout THE OUTPOST is impressive, and no more so during the climactic sequence. It sounded like missiles were flying through my living room!

If there is a main character in THE OUTPOST, it’s SSG Clint Romesha (Scott Eastwood), as he is in this film throughout. You don’t really learn all that much about him though, and he doesn’t really shine until the climax. As such, Eastwood, who’s Clint Eastwood’s son, is fine throughout but isn’t asked to do a whole lot until the final reel.

Perhaps this movie should have been entitled SON OF THE OUTPOST. See, in addition to Scott Eastwood, the cast also includes Milo Gibson, Mel Gibson’s son— James Jagger, Mick Jagger’s son— Will Attenborough, Richard Attenborough’s grandson— and Scott Alda Coffey, grandson of Alan Alda. Wow!

The one other character who comes close to being a main one is SPC Ty Carter (Caleb Landry Jones), a rather unhinged character who like Eastwood’s Clint Romesha, doesn’t really do a whole lot until the final battle. Caleb Landry Jones is a talented actor who has enjoyed some memorable roles in such films as THE LAST EXORCISM (2010) and GET OUT (2017). He’s very good here as well, especially in the film’s climax.

Orlando Bloom has a small role as a commanding officer who dies early on. The commanding officers at Camp Keating don’t fare so well. Their survival rate is nil, it seems.

Director Rod Lurie does an excellent job capturing the insane anxiety felt by everyone at the camp, and also does an awesome job with the film’s explosive conclusion.

The screenplay by Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson, based on true events, does the same, but falters with a lack of any kind of character development or plot pacing. The characters all have names but we know little about them, and other than their constant need to defend themselves against the surrounding Taliban soldiers, there’s nothing else driving the story forward. This may be the point, but it makes for labored viewing. The film runs for two hours and really doesn’t hit its stride until 90 minutes in.

Still, it successfully shows the viewer how horrifying and hellish soldiering can be.

I liked THE OUTPOST. For two thirds of the film it felt like a documentary, and then it stepped up its game with an intense conclusion that is second to none. I just wish it had done a better job developing its characters so that we had more reason to care for them other than the obvious one, that they were soldiers doing their jobs and making the ultimate sacrifice. So, you definitely care for these guys. You just don’t know them.

A more personal emotion connection to these men would have made the ending all the more powerful.

As it stands, THE OUTPOST is solid viewing, a sincere yet unremarkable take on soldiers at war.

—END—

DA 5 BLOODS (2020) – Spike Lee’s Latest A Moving Discourse on Black Lives Matter Told Through A Story About Vietnam

1

da 5 bloods

DA 5 BLOODS (2020), Spike Lee’s latest movie, and his first for Netflix, is must-see viewing, especially in light of current events.

It offers a history and an understanding of Black Lives Matter that argues that the plight of the African American male in the United States has been an issue since the country was first formed, and in spite of various movements to make changes, from the Civil War to the civil rights movement in the 1960s, things here in 2020 remain largely the same. And it does it with a story about Vietnam that is straightforward without being preachy. It makes its points without hitting you over the head with them.

DA 5 BLOODS is the story of four Vietnam vets, Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clark Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.), who return to Vietnam in 2020 to both locate the remains of their fallen Squad Leader Norman (Chadwick Boseman) and to recover a stash of gold which they had found and buried in the jungle there.

The bulk of the movie is this present-day story, but the film also incorporates flashbacks to show us these five friends—da 5 Bloods— in action in Vietnam. Spike Lee does a couple of creative things with these flashbacks. He didn’t use younger actors or CGI affects to make the four main characters look younger. They appear in these scenes looking as old as they do now. Only Norman, played by Chadwick Boseman, appears young, which serves to accentuate that Norman’s life was cut short and he never got to grow old. I thought this was a bold decision on Lee’s part, as this is hardly ever done, especially with the available CGI technology. It’s a decision that really worked.

The other creative decision Lee made with the flashback sequences is he changes the screen format for them. The movie is in widescreen format, but when the flashbacks occur, the ratio changes and the picture is reduced in size. It’s another neat effect that works.

The screenplay by Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, Kevin Willmott, and Spike Lee is full of intricacies and works on multiple levels. It hammers its point home that the plight of African Americans in the U.S. has been going on since day one— with references to George Washington owning slaves— and that it continues to this day.

And the main story of the four men returning to Vietnam is a good one, and would have worked well as a straightforward war drama. It’s a really good screenplay. It was originally written by Danny Wilson and Paul De Meo as a story about four white Vietnam veterans, and for a while Oliver Stone was attached to the project. It eventually made its way to Spike Lee, and he and writer Kevin Willmott rewrote the script and changed the story to be about black soldiers instead.

The other subplot is that these four friends have changed over the years, and throughout their journey back into Vietnam they struggle to get along because they have changed so much. Paul, played by Delroy Lindo, is the most interesting character of the four. He suffers from PTSD and is haunted by dreams of Norman, who he idolized. To make matters more complicated, Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors) also joins the group, against his father’s wishes, but David is worried about his dad and wants to be there to keep an eye on him. Paul also feels guilty because he has never been able to love his son the way he wanted.

To the shock of his friends, Paul is also a Trump supporter, and even wears a MAGA hat! As he explains it, he is sick and tired of the system constantly walking over him and taking from him, and so he wants to blow it all up and vote for someone who hates the system like he does. Delroy Lindo is excellent in the role, and he delivers the best performance in the movie.

Clark Peters as Otis, Norm Lewis as Eddie, and Isiah Whitlock Jr. as Melvin are also very good, and each of their characters also have their own back stories. And Chadwick Boseman, who of course plays Black Panther in the Marvel movies, and also played Jackie Robinson in 42 (2013) is really good here in a limited role as Norman. He’s only in the flashback scenes, but he makes his presence known, and it’s clear why his friends admired him so much. The scene when they finally find his remains is one of the most emotional scenes in the movie.

Jean Reno also shows up as a shadowy French businessman Desroche who is also interested in the gold the men are searching for. Van Veronica Ngo enjoys some chilling scenes as Hanoi Hannah. And Melanie Thierry is very good as Hedy, a French expert on land mine diffusion who David meets in a bar and who later becomes an integral part of the storyline.

DA 5 BLOODS doesn’t skimp on the war violence either. There are some gruesome scenes, especially toward the end.

There are also plenty of emotional scenes and poignant ones, including the sequence where Otis visits an old girlfriend, and Paul and David’s father/son interactions.

There are all kinds of memorable exchanges, like when Paul calls his friends the N-word, and they take offense. There’s conversatons about drug abuse, alcohol, guns, and other hot button topics. The script even throws in an Easter Egg to one of Lee’s favorite movies, THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE (1948), as one of the characters utters the film’s most famous line.

All in all, DA 5 BLOODS is one of Spike Lee’s best movies. I actually enjoyed it a bit more than his previous film, BLACKKKLANSMAN (2018), which was also an excellent movie and was a Best Picture Nominee. I thought DA 5 BLOODS was a more ambitious movie and a bit grander in scope. That being said, it’s a bit long, clocking in at two hours and thirty four minutes, and I thought it dragged somewhat during its second half.

But it’s still one of Lee’s best.

It convincingly defends Black Lives Matter and explains why this movement is so important, because nothing has changed for over two hundred years. And while the film offers a conclusion of hope borne from tragedy and violent bloodshed, it does so with one eye on the future that perhaps at long last this is indeed the moment of change people have been waiting for, but also with another eye firmly set on the past as a reminder that we’ve had these moments before and they haven’t changed a thing.

DA 5 BLOODS is a movie about friendship, bloodshed, and sacrifice. It travels between the 1960s and 2020 effortlessly, offering looks at two key volatile periods in the history of race relations, offering a vision that perhaps this time the change is permanent and real.

—END—

 

1917 (2019) – World War I Drama Cinematic But Rarely Moving

0

1917

1917 (2019), the new World War I drama by director Sam Mendes, who also co-wrote the screenplay, is at times cinematic and suspenseful, and at others brutal and shocking, but strangely it’s rarely moving.

In short, it’s not going to do for World War I trench warfare what SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998) did for the World War II D-Day invasion at Normandy.

1917 wastes no time getting started. Within the first few minutes of the movie, Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) learn that they’ve been selected for a very dangerous mission. General Erinmore (Colin Firth) informs them that the battalion of soldiers on their way to engage the Germans are about to enter a trap. With phone lines cut, they have no way of warning them, so Blake and Schofield have been charged with racing across the front lines into no man’s land to cross into enemy territory in order to give the troops orders to stop their advance, since they mistakenly believe the Germans are on the run.

Blake has been chosen because he’s an expert with maps and will be able to navigate through the tricky enemy territory.  And only two men are being sent to avoid detection. To make matters more complicated, Blake’s older brother is in the battalion that’s about to fall into the trap.

The movie then follows Blake and Schofield on their nearly impossible task of making their way through the trenches to warn their fellow soldiers in time.

Director Mendes filmed 1917 to appear as if it was filmed in one long shot, and for a while, especially early on, it heightens the effect of the movie. Honestly, later in the movie, I simply didn’t notice as much.

Like Christopher Nolan’s DUNKIRK (2016) at times there’s not a lot of dialogue, as there’s mostly running and trudging through mud, and what little dialogue there is doesn’t always resonate.

The cinematography is impressive, and there are certainly some major cinematic moments, especially approaching the film’s climax. There are also some shocking scenes, although nothing as brutal as what was depicted in Steven Spielberg’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN.

The best part of 1917 is the way it depicts trench warfare. You can almost smell the mud and the decomposing bodies. Mud is everywhere, as are corpses. One scene involves some particularly nasty looking bloated bodies floating in a river. It really captures the sense of how draining and how worn down the soldiers were from the unending horrors of it all.

The screenplay by Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns is decent enough, although the writing is nowhere near as sharp as the cinematography. The dialogue just isn’t all that moving, nor are the characters. In fact, I didn’t really feel an emotional connection to the proceedings until the final reel.

Both Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay are very good in the lead roles. They have to be. They’re in most of the movie. Everyone else is secondary. And heavy hitters like Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Mark Strong appear in nothing more than cameos.

While I definitely enjoyed 1917, it didn’t wow me completely. Visually, it’s striking, as the images throughout the film are potent and sometimes haunting. But the dialogue and the characters weren’t quite up to snuff.

1917 is an above average World War I drama. It gives you a thorough understanding and appreciation for what trench warfare was like.

It also has some things to say for present day audiences. In today’s world, where we seem to be at war nonstop, its message of soldiers wondering what they’re fighting for, and wishing just to get back home, says something of the importance of war as a last resort, as opposed to war as the first choice of world leaders.

—END—

 

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—