Lone Survivor


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.

Pain & Gain

Pain & Gain

Pain & Gain (2013), directed by Michael Bay

I must admit I’m one of those people who makes fun of Michael Bay despite hardly having seen any of his movies.

I’ve seen the Bad Boys flicks (meh), the first Transformers movie (which I thoroughly enjoyed, although that could be attributed to the fact I saw it in a theatre in Holland, having not seen a movie for weeks, while drinking Heineken) and The Rock (14-year-old me LOVED it).

No Armageddon. No Pearl Harbor. No Transformers sequels. So really, I have no reason to judge (in fact, given the record above, it might turn out I’m a previously unrealized Michael Bay fan…).

That being said, I went into Pain & Gain mainly just hoping for the best, believing that maybe somehow Michael Bay had latched onto a passion project and would find a way to use his style for good, rather than evil.

In some ways Pain & Gain is a glorious mess of a movie. I enjoyed its bombastic exuberance, Bay’s ‘roided-out, coked-up style, its neon money shot approach to a story to dumb to be true, but true nonetheless. Bay’s bigger-is-better motif works well with the smaller scale story that is already jacked up beyond recognition. Bay typically takes a bad idea and blows it out of proportions, but this movie is all about a bad idea blown out of proportion, so his style somehow actually works well for the material.

I’m not so sure if Bay is in on the joke. Obviously he gets these guys are idiots. And his musings on the American Dream hit you on the head hard enough to guarantee they’re overt. The film has enough self-reference and mockery of its subject that Bay fully recognizes the pitfalls of the lifestyle he’s capturing. But, I mean, he gets the irony of him, the king of the overblown, at the helm of this movie?

Really, it is a Michael Bay approach to the material. It’s an auteur film. Because, let’s face it, what really happened is a few moron lowlifes brutally murdered two people as the result of a horribly ill-conceived plan. All the fun of this movie, the exuberant characters (born-again, coke head Rock), the pop-music, high-life style, the frenetic energy, is all Bay.

Scorsese could have made this film too (based on a Nic Pileggi book, maybe?) but it would have been a very different creature.

And that’s a compliment. It might not be an accurate portrayal of these events (in terms of tone, not facts) but Bay’s take makes for a much more entertaining movie, no? It’s exuberant and pumped up and entertaining. How wonderful.

Sure it’s critical of everything Bay normally celebrates. Big and dumb is his jam. Is he now admitting that big and dumb is, well, big and dumb? Are all his past movies, which have earned him millions of dollars, his own personal get-rich quick scheme? He just got away with it?

Probably not, but it’s fun to think about. And anyway, it doesn’t matter, Pain & Gain is still a mostly fun movie, a good time out at the cinema.

This semi-positive review in some ways feels like a “most improved” award. The movie is no marvel. It’s far, far too long. It feels weird to write, but Bay could have seriously tightened up this movie. And the multiple voice-overs bit wears considerably thin by the time the third or fourth voice is thrown into the mix. One voice-over, if any, would have been enough. Having the cop or the useless female character on the soundtrack adds nothing.

But hell, it’s a Michael Bay film and I mostly enjoyed it. That’s saying something. Maybe I really am a Michael Bay fan? I’ll have to watch Pearl Harbor and Revenge of the Fallen to see. But I probably won’t do that.

Pain & Gain is in cinemas now.

Broken City (2013), directed by Allen Hughes

Mama (2013), directed by Andres Muschietti

In my effort to save money and to see more movies at the same time I did a double-shot cheap Tuesday night at one of our local theatres here.

So I thought, why not write a double-shot cheap review? Do you feel frugal and smart? Or just cheated? Exactly.

Plus, what better way to review two mostly forgettable, mediocre movies that have absolutely no relation to one another? Exactly.

First up for the night was Mama, a Canadian-Spanish horror/ghost movie, “presented” by Guillermo del Toro and staring everybody’s new favourite actor, Jessica Chastain.

Now when I see that a horror film is “presented” by Guillermo del Toro I prepare myself for something a little different, likely quite gothic, with some elements of fantasy. I’m thinking Splice, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, The Orphanage (which I must admit, I have not seen).

Dead on (pun intended). While it has its share of conventional horror moments (weird noises in the house, faces in mirrors, “it was just a dream” moments), Mama also has enough creativity behind it that it not only comes across as scary, but also compelling.

It’s kind of a weird mix, to be honest. While on one hand there’s this really rather intriguing story of a (SPOILERS) long-dead escaped mental patient still searching for the baby she stole, and of two little girls she takes in and raises, there’s also this side where they have to visit an archive at some point, and consult an expert, and have the woman hear something weird and creep around the house until something scares her and us.

Some of it works and some of it doesn’t. The plot is far too complicated. Characters go off to do their own thing and are forgotten about for long periods of time. There’s so many agendas by so many characters it’s hard to care about all of them. Some of them are quickly tossed aside, making me wonder why they were needed in the first place. Some of the “gotcha!” scares are a little much and there’s too many of them.

But the ghost, the horror part of the film, is genuinely creative and well wrought. It’s all CGI but it works really well and the design of the ghost is rather unique and very effective. I had the old chill down the spine feeling on more than one occasion.

The gothic atmosphere also works well and gives the material a grandiosity modern horror films tend to reject (thank you Paranormal Activity). I mean, how many cliff-top ghost story finales do you see anymore? It lost me at the end with the butterfly finale and us somehow being asked to see it as a beautiful compromise that the ghost is going to drag a little girl away to death (presumably). Didn’t buy it.

But in general, Mama is a unique and well made ghost story.

Skipping merrily to the other end of the cinema, I sat down for Broken City just as it started.

Broken City was marketed as an action film, complete with hip-hop soundtrack, but it’s actually a political thriller, lots of talking with some occasional bits of action.

This one is getting panned, but you know what? I didn’t mind it. Sort of like Mama, I thought it was decidedly OK but with some definite positives (that’s my only way to tie these two films together).

You’ve got Wahlberg doing his Wahlberg thing (which I like), you’ve got Russell Crowe playing a character with a personality (which was a nice change from Les Miz), you’ve got BC boy Barry Pepper (if you want to see me embarrassed ask me about the time I met Barry Pepper) and you’ve got an urban political plot with ins and outs and backstabbings all round.

The Hughes Brothers have a way of making movies that under no reasonable reasoning should work, but that I can’t help but like. I still haven’t quite put my finger on why. I’m a From Hell fan. Now that’s out there in the world. I also thought The Book of Eli was an entirely decent movie.

I had the same reaction to Broken City. Nothing especially interesting was going on, but through competent directing and engaging performances it drew me in. I enjoyed watching it, wanted to know how it played out. That’s not what I would call a rave review, but maybe this is a case of exceeding low expectations.

(Huge Spoiler) The worst part for me was seeing Coach Taylor all shot up. It got personal at that point.

The film is not to be taken seriously. I don’t see it as an accurate representation of urban municipal politics or as a relevant voice against corrupt government. It doesn’t reach anything nearly that lofty. But as a political thriller with more than a few entertaining twists and turns, it works, to a point.

So there you go, my cheap Tuesday, cheap thrills, movie night. I’ll save intellectual musings for films worth it. If you want thoughtless entertainment, these are two viable options. Especially for half price.

Mama and Broken City are in cinemas now.

Ted (2012), directed by Seth MacFarlane

Take This Waltz (2011), directed by Sarah Polley

I recognize that these are two pretty strange films to look at side by side. But I saw them both this weekend and I’m going to squeeze out some potentially thin thematic connections. Mainly though, I only had time to write one post. Anyway, don’t give me any grief about it.

I went into Ted with high hopes for an outrageous, stupid, foul-mouthed, immature blow out. With MacFarlane at the helm I figured it wouldn’t disappoint. I was wrong.

Here’s my main problem with Ted, and really, with a lot of MacFarlane products. While on one hand it tries to be subversive by making fun of everything and tearing popular culture a new one, it also revels in pop culture, which unfortunately in this means framing the crude, unusual humour in a plot that is so cliched, overwrought and overbearing (pun intended) that it ends up ruining the humour.

I mean, really MacFarlane? A story about an immature man having trouble growing up with a shrew of a girlfriend riding his back to be more of a responsible adult?

I don’t find the use of the word “fag” offensive in MacFarlane movies, because it’s used so ubiquitously that you know he’s doing it to get a rise out of you. For some reason I can appreciate that. It’s intentional and flies in the face of political correctness. It may be discomforting but it’s supposed to be. I like immature humour.

But to have all that in such a weak sauce plot really ruins the whole thing. Could MacFarlane really find nothing better for Mila Kunis to do than give Wahlberg a hard time and demand he stop being friends with his cool, talking Teddy Bear? Could we not find anything more interesting for this plot to revolve around than a guy struggling to stop just smoking weed everyday and become an “adult”?

It’s just such a tired premise. And MacFarlane does nothing new with it. Having that same old story only with a living Teddy Bear doesn’t offer any new perspective or comment or joke on the same old story. It’s just the same old story. With a Teddy Bear.

That said, I still somewhat liked it. The bear is hilarious, I love Wahlberg in comedies, all the Flash Gordon stuff is great. There are some genuinely funny moments and lines. It should have been a fantastic comedy.

But then there’s the rest, including the tacked on, ridiculous kidnap plot with Giovanni Ribisi. I don’t know, it just kind of ruined the whole thing for me.

And so that brings us to this movie’s opposite. The very serious, meticulously crafted, mature Take This Waltz.

Surprisingly it’s better than Ted. That is such a snob thing to say, but if you knew how much I wanted Ted to be better than Take This Waltz you might not see me as a snob. Unfortunately this review might solidify that view.

Take This Waltz is Canadian treasure (and serious CineFile crush) Sarah Polley’s second directorial effort, after the much applauded Away From Her. It stars Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen as a young married couple in tough times. In comes dark, handsome Luke Kirby as Daniel to get Williams all riled up. Things get complicated.

This is a very bittersweet movie. It’s bitter because it’s all about relationships failing and a young woman who just can’t seem to be happy. It’s sweet because you understand what she is feeling and you like the characters and how honest they are with each other. At the end of the day though it’s mainly frustrating.

It’s a beautifully filmed movie, and with a wonderfully careful, honest look at relationships that really touches a note. The performances are complex and rich. Williams is fabulous as a character that you may not like, but will probably understand and sympathize with.

I know I didn’t like her. She does nothing to help herself. She relies totally on the men in her life to make her happy. She barely works. She acts like a needy child, which as Rogen’s character shows, can be both endearing and also incredibly annoying and frustrating.  She means well but doesn’t seem to have the capacity to know how to function in life. I wondered at times if she wasn’t slightly disabled.

I think some will have trouble getting past that. But I don’t think the movie owed us a character we like wholeheartedly. I enjoyed aspects of her, but even with her frustrating personality traits I still felt sorry for her and took away a lot from her relationships with men and friends and life. There’s a needy, childish, unsatisfied little Michelle Williams in all of us I guess. And at the same time all the other characters are imperfect. And that makes them compelling and relatable.

I really liked this movie, all told. Polley is a wonderful director with a great eye for visuals and a deep understanding of characters and tone. It’s an immersive experience, watching it, and one that you feel the better for having gone through. Even if, at the same time, you kind of want to jump off a bridge.

That said, it was a little long and could have used a little more humour.

In a perfect world they would have combined Ted and Take This Waltz. That way it would have been an interesting movie with a compelling plot AND have a talking Teddy Bear.

I warned you there would be weak links in this review.

Both movies are in theatres now.