Lone Survivor

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Lone Survivor (2014), directed by Peter Berg

What exactly is the point of Lone Survivor? What are we supposed to take away from it?

This is the question I could not stop mulling over as I left a screening of the new Peter Berg film shocked and shaken, feeling slightly lost and downtrodden.

I certainly hadn’t enjoyed it, I knew that much. There is much in the film to be admired, from the incredible landscapes and cinematography, to Berg’s opening montage from real footage of Navy SEAL training, to the attention to detail and the obvious intention to portrait events as accurately as possible.

The score, from Texan instrumental band Explosions in the Sky, was impressively emotive, reminding me of the best of their work with Berg on his movie and TV series Friday Night Lights, one of my all-time favourites. Berg’s usual flourishes were also enjoyable, he’s one of the few working directors who seems to be able to use handheld camera work effectively.

But none of this helped me to overcome the feeling I was watching something I really didn’t want to watch, for any reason, entertainment, enrichment or otherwise.

The problem with the film is in its focus. It’s essentially two hours of the hell these guys went through. I get the intention to make us realize the hardships and brutal deaths by rubbing our noses in it, but it’s gruelling to watch and in the end does little to make us care more about these characters as people.

There seemed to be a lost opportunity to show the audience who these men, these names on the page, really were, beyond some perfunctory photos of wives back home and some macho boys-being-boys camaraderie before heading out on mission.

The impressive opening montage gave us a brief sense of how these individuals are shaped into a band of brothers and the film could have been better served by much more along this vein, rather than bullet after bullet thwacking through arms and torsos.

Without the character building film played like an episode of Friday Night Lights with only football. And football was never what made that show great.

For another comparison, the film feels like a Passion of the Christ for military worshippers. It’s exhausting watching the soldiers shoot Afghani after Afghani, get shot themselves, fall down cliffs, take shrapnel and, for all but the titular hero, die. Much like Passion, we are expected to feel more for these characters by understanding the pain they experienced.

Maybe it’s because I knew nothing about these events before seeing the movie, but I found the film had the opposite effect. It was hard to watch. I didn’t want to watch anymore. I covered my eyes at one point. And all because I knew so very little about these guys, beyond a couple were married and one was getting married and Ben Foster’s eyes are like glacial lakes I get lost in every closeup he has.

It was sad seeing what happened to them, of course, and it made me shake my head at the pointlessness of war. And that’s fine if it was the point of the movie, but in this case the point seemed to be the characters, the real men who fought and died, and the approach worked against the intent.

It was honestly numbing, an outcome I doubt Berg had in mind. It’s so intense and overwhelming I found it very hard to stay engaged. My mind had to retreat. And I’m not sorry for it, because I never felt the intent was worth the hardship, as it is in a film such as 12 Years a Slave, or something similarly difficult to watch.

I will say I’m glad Berg gave the Afghanis who helped save the US soldier the credit they deserve. So much of the film is an angry Arab people shooting gallery (which is accurate, so it’s OK? I’m not sure), that it was a welcoming relief to see other Arab characters played with humanism and compassion.

Thinking and writing about it now I am still conflicted, because it is so well made and Berg is great at what he does. I appreciate the dedication with which the film was made. But I didn’t enjoy watching it, I don’t feel I am richer for the experience and I have no desire to ever see it again. That’s not a great outcome.

Lone Survivor is in cinemas now.

Battleship

Battleship (2012), directed by Peter Berg

I was conflicted over whether I wanted to see Battleship or not, quite frankly. On the one hand it’s made by the same team behind Friday Night Lights, the best show ever, including director Peter Berg and actors Taylor Kitsch and Jesse Plemons. On the other, it’s based on a board game for heaven’s sake, and had a terrible, Transformers-looking trailer. You’ve heard mixed reviews, some in support, some vehemently opposed. Imma mix the two up into one.

Which means I thought it was okay.

Listen, I’ll say this much: it was a lot better than I thought it would be. When you have material like this, which seems straight out of Michael Bay’s playbook (I mean really, robotic looking dudes attack Pearl Harbour? It’s like a film snob’s nightmare), it’s hard to have high hopes. But it doesn’t take long into the screening to realize, oh right, wait a minute, this isn’t directed by Michael Bay, it’s made by people who have a sense of story and characters and making films that make some sort of sense. How refreshing.

They don’t save the premise entirely, but they sure give it a good go. The first third of the film is great. It has this Top Gun-esque setup, it’s got interesting, believable characters, it knows how to have some fun. There’s great music, a rarely-seen these days lightness to the material and, of course, all the bells, whistles, close up, handheld, zoomy, quick cut camera work of a Peter Berg show. Normally I would use most of those descriptions as a complaint, but somehow Berg always manages to pull that kind of filmmaking off and make it work really, really well.

I’m often the wet blanket that just wants to see the characters having fun and thinks films get bogged down with ridiculous stories and action and climaxes and so on. So when the aliens arrive and the digital effects team kicks it into high gear, the movie lost me somewhat. It’s still a heck of a lot better than other similar movies, but I’m sick of the aliens thing. I know we all love each other now and can’t have the US Navy squaring off against the Ruskies or the Chinese or something, but can we come up with something other than aliens, aliens, aliens?

Despite my wet blanketism, I still mostly enjoyed the last two-thirds of the movie. The action is coherent and exciting. At times it’s a little hand-to-forehead obvious in trying to tie in the movie to the game, but again, at least it has fun with it. It feels too long, which is never a good thing for an action-packed movie, but it remembers throughout that characters are the most important element of good storytelling and doesn’t fall too far into cliches (okay, maybe a little).

There’s still a lot of speculation over whether Taylor Kitsch is a bankable Hollywood star. This is his year to prove it, with two major releases (John Carter, Battleship) and one semi-major (Savages), but unfortunately it’s not going all that well. Both of the majors have been box office disappointments, especially, nay, notoriously John Carter, and it seems like Kitsch hasn’t been much of a selling feature for audiences.

Which I think is too bad and not Kitsch’s fault. I like the guy. Sure, I already have a fondness for him because he was my favourite character in my favourite TV show. But even if you don’t know and love Timmy Riggins (Texas forever), I think that Kitsch has a charisma and nonchalant screen presence that is refreshingly reserved and subtly humorous. John Carter, despite my standing up for it (or maybe because of it?) was a disaster that Kitsch in no way could have saved. Battleship is another underrated, under performing movie that can’t be saved, which is even more frustrating because Kitsch is far better in this one than Carter.

Only time will tell what the career of Kitsch holds, but wait for Savages, because it looks excellent and will be more of an acting-focused film than explosions and whatnot (well, maybe). And give the guy a chance. He may just win you over yet.

As for Battleship, it’s generally good old fashioned summer movie fun, if not a bit haywire for my liking. Check it out. Oh and, for the record, I like Rihanna in it. She’s got some great, punchy on screen presence going on.

Also, one last point, I could do with less of the “missile heading for something finale”. Mission: Impossible 4, The Avengers, this one…we get it.

Battleship is in theatres now.

John Carter

John Carter (2012), directed by Andrew Stanton

Can someone please tell me what there is not to love about John Carter?

Mars setting! Willem Dafoe as a nine foot green alien! Tim Riggins jumping hundreds of feet in the air! Gratuitous shots of Lynn Collins’ inner thighs! Jimmy McNulty with an English accent and sword! A giant pet six-legged monster dog named Woola!

I mean, this has to be a classic right? Right? Nobody?

John Carter is probably the first big movie of 2012, but most people won’t even know that. Why? Because everyone, critics and audiences alike, wrote the darn thing off before any of them had seen it. Everyone hated the trailer. I’m not sure why. Probably because it didn’t explain every little detail about the movie and ruin it like every other trailer does. It went for, you know, atmosphere and intrigue instead. But whatever. And they hated the movie’s title. Not sure why. If you think about it Star Wars is a pretty dumb name for a movie too.

Also outside of a handful of us people who know what’s what (or just watch way too much TV) people probably didn’t get too excited about the prospect of seeing Taylor Kitsch in a major blockbuster film. For those of us OBSESSED with Friday Night Lights, however, that is newsworthy. Also you get to see him fight Dominic “The Wire” West over which is the better drama series of the last decade (Friday Night Lights by a hair, for the record).

People also seem really unwilling to spend money on a movie about a character they’ve never heard of. I’m not going to lie to you and say that I had heard of John Carter before. I hadn’t. He’s a character in a series of stories written a century ago by the same fellow who brought the world Tarzan. As a hundred year old sci-fi concept, John Carter probably seemed hokey to some, but I think mainly the adverse reaction is because we’re so force-fed prequels, sequels and reboots these days that we have little patience for wrapping our minds around anything new. Even if it is old. You know what I mean.

Does all this lead up into me defending John Carter as a misunderstood masterpiece of movie magic? Despite my love of alliteration, no. What I am going to say though is that it’s not nearly as bad as it could have been and that Disney should at least be marginally applauded for taking a chance, even if its marketing department might have killed the whole project before a single person saw it.

I really liked that I didn’t know this character before. It was fun and oh so refreshing to be told a story that I didn’t already know and be introduced to a character who I haven’t seen in five other movies already. I’m not a huge sci-fi fan by any definition, especially fantastical sci-fi like this, but even I enjoyed being taken to this far off world where green aliens stage gladiatorial matches against sightless giant white gorillas (true story). It was fresh and new and somewhat fun.

Maybe I just go for the underdog, although how a $350 million movie ever became an underdog is a little confusing. John Carter is not a great movie. It might not be a particularly good movie. It’s far too long and a little dull at times and maybe even a little too “out there” for its own good. I watched it kind of wide eyed, feeling like I was playing catchup for much of the film.

But you know what? I thought about it after I saw it. I tried to figure out what I liked and didn’t like about it. Some of the characters and images stuck with me. It took me into a world that I hadn’t been in before. That’s a lot more then I can say about most of the rehashed Hollywood blockbusters that have come out lately.

So this is by no means an overwhelmingly positive review. John Carter is a flawed, experiment of a movie. But I thought Kitsch showed real strength as a leading man. I thought the special effects were notably good. I admired that the film took a chance by bringing a new story and character to the screen and that it had more going for it then just familiarity.

What a shame that John Carter made less money in its opening weekend then the universally panned The Lorax made in its second weekend. Oh well.

John Carter is in theatres now.