Friday, January 10, 2014

"Lone Survivor" Is a Truly Brutal Film Experience

Lone Survivor

There are a lot of reasons why Lone Survivor is a risky movie.  First, it's based on a true story in which many people were killed, and you don't want to divert from the truth too often.  Second, it's set during the controversial (and ongoing) war in Afghanistan, and politics may or may not come into play.  Third, and finally, it's about a "lone" survivor, meaning only one person lives; how do you create suspense when the story's ending is in the title?  Against all odds (much like the main character), Lone Survivor turns out to be one of the most effective war films of the past decade or two.  

Lone Survivor is about a disastrous SEAL Team 10 mission in 2005.  Four Navy SEALs, Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), and Matt Axelson (Ben Foster), were dropped in the Afghanistan mountains to do some reconnaissance on a Taliban target when they came across two non-combatant goatherds.  Letting them live means death for the SEALs, but killing them is morally wrong.  After a discussion, they allow them to live, which causes the SEALs to be ambushed.  An intense, lengthy firefight ensues.

For the most part, writer-director Peter Berg purports this to be faithful to Marcus Luttrell's account in his 2007 book of the same name.  But some have called Luttrell's account into question, especially when it comes to the amount of combatants the SEAL team encountered.  The point is that any "true" story presented on film or in writing is going to be scrutinized and debated.  It's impossible to deny that many soldiers were killed, however, and Lone Survivor portrays those men with the respect they deserve.

Politics and propaganda play a role in any war film, as well.  As far as politics go, Lone Survivor has none.  This is a story about soldiers making the ultimate sacrifice.  There is no statement about why we're over there or anything like that.  I find the lack of an overt political viewpoint vital to this film.  War should be debated, but soldiers' stories should not.  Lone Survivor is not meant to be representative of the entire conflict, therefore it is mainly just the story of these four SEALs.

Because this is the story of a group of Navy SEALs, a lot of action is going to take place and, at times, it could possibly come across as a recruitment video.  Lone Survivor does treat its characters as heroes, and rightfully so.  It glorifies them, but not in a "Go America!" kind of way.  They are glorified because they died for their country.  And this is not just the story of Americans.  Afghan villagers figure prominently into a portion of the film, and they are not presented negatively.  That said, this film made me root for the SEALs and nearly cheer as they shot the bad guys.  That isn't because it's propaganda, though; it's because the film does a great job of making the four main characters likable.

Character development is minimal in the film, but the few scenes before the ambush do a fine job of setting these guys up as devoted friends.  It's important that you care about these guys because, as the title spoils, only one of them is going to make it.  It's also important to care about them because half of the movie is essentially one long action sequence.

A straight hour (give or take) of action would normally be an overwhelming, shallow experience in a film.  In Lone Survivor, it is still overwhelming, though that's the point, but it is certainly not shallow, or action for action's sake.  When something is based on a true story, you are allowed to break the rules of filmmaking.  A lot of times, a Hollywood film would still break up such a sequence for the sake of the audience, but, thankfully, that doesn't happen here.

Lone Survivor is an experience.  I went into this film thinking it would just be your typical true American war story; a good movie with a lot of patriotism and flag waving.  Instead, I got hooked into a brutal battle that seemed to never end.  It wasn't enjoyable action; it was awe-inspiring action because it actually happened.  Director Peter Berg (Battleship) staged the sequence masterfully, and I certainly have a stronger opinion of his work after this. And even if it has been made to look better for Hollywood standards, it still worked for me, and it certainly made me feel something.  When action can get an emotional response from you, then you know it was warranted.

The action alone is effective, but the actors sealed the deal.  Wahlberg is in his wheelhouse with this one.  While he doesn't necessarily sound like he's from Texas (as Luttrell is), he is believable as a soldier and his moments of desperation felt legitimate.  Emile Hirsch and Taylor Kitsch do fine in their roles as well, but it's Ben Foster who outshines everyone.  I've been a fan of his for quite some time because of his ability to bring both quiet and loud intensity.  You see this crazed devotion in his eyes for his friends, and it truly makes you want things to work out for him and fellow soldiers.

That is why Lone Survivor is such a gut punch.  You're told from the beginning that nearly everyone is going to die, but it makes you forget it and hope that they all somehow make it.  It's a hard film to watch, and that's the point.

Lone Survivor receives a:

Thursday, January 9, 2014

"The Desolation of Smaug" Is an Action-packed Improvement on the First "Hobbit" Film

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

The first Hobbit film annoyed me a bit.  I ended up liking it for the most part, but it left me less than enthused about this new trilogy of films from The Lord of Rings director Peter Jackson.  It was mainly because it was even a trilogy to begin with... Since all of the footage was shot at once, I had very little hope that The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug would be any different from the slow, frustrating first film.  Apparently a dragon and fan service can make a huge difference.  Smaug, the titular dragon, was worth the wait, and the appearance of Legolas (who does not show up in the book) is a welcome call-back to the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  In fact, this film fits right in with that superior set of films.

The lengthening of the book into three films doesn't affect Smaug as much as it did in An Unexpected Journey because the introductions are finished.  My biggest complaint about the first film was the introduction of the dwarves.  There was singing, eating, general goofiness, and they even did the dishes.  I know all of that is in the book, but if there was a moment that could have been pared down, it was that one.  Thankfully, the songs and intros are done with, and the quest to reclaim the mountain home of the dwarves from the terrible dragon Smaug can take the spotlight.

Smaug is an imposing presence in the film.  Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice-work (he also did some of the physical stuff, as well, though I’m not sure how that translated to the screen…) is perfectly sinister as the dragon.  The visual effects are the most impressive aspect of the dragon.  You truly feel the scale of the beast as he threatens Bilbo and rampages through the mountain.  His appearance definitely kicked the franchise into gear.

The journey in Smaug brings the main characters into contact with some other new and familiar faces, too; some more welcome than others.  Beorn the Skinchanger was interesting (though his time felt a bit short).  Legolas's return felt like a gimmick to please fans of the previous trilogy, but it worked for me because the character brings some great action to the proceedings.  And Bard of Laketown offered some compelling complications to the story.  

Other characters are only so-so.  Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) is a new elf that is largely used to inject a love triangle with Legolas and one of the dwarves (I forget which one because of all the silly names, but it's the one that looks most like a human).  The character is not so bad, but the love story felt unnatural.  I understand the desire to add some romance to a very plain quest plot, but all of the other complications (the threatening emergence of Sauron, for one) are enough.  The beefing up of the Master of Laketown and his Grima Wormtongue-esque assistant was an unneeded conflict as well, but it does give Bard some more stuff to do, I suppose.  Maybe developments in the final installment of the trilogy will change my mind, but for right now, these two conflicts seemed to be nothing more than padding for the plot.

Aside from those two minor gripes, I loved this movie.  The visuals and the action won me over.  Devotees of the book might be upset, but the barrel escape (a rather boring moment in the book) is amazingly complex and fun in the film.  A sequence during the confrontation with Smaug was added, as well, but made the film much more exciting.  

There are two aspects concerning the visuals that I did not get to see: the high frame rate and 3D.  Honestly, I really want to see the frame rate just to see what it's like, but I was glad to miss out on the 3D.  A few scenes might have been cool to see, but for the most part, I think it would have been too dizzying to be enjoyable.  Director Peter Jackson likes to spin the camera around, which might have made me nauseous in 3D.  And the frantic action sequences would have been tough to follow had they been in 3D.

In short, The Desolation of Smaug is fine in standard format, just like the Lord of the Rings films.  Beautiful visuals, complex action, and a mythical quest are more than enough for this enjoyable film.  Plus, it leaves you desperately wanting to see the next installment.  Let's hope things just keep getting better.

The Desolation of Smaug gets a: