12 STRONG (2018)

January 18, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. During the movie, Afghanistan is referred to as “the graveyard of many empires”. Traditionally, January is the graveyard of most new movie releases, so it’s a pleasant surprise when we see an entertaining, well-made and historically interesting film, and it’s still mid-January!  Doug Stanton’s book “Horse Soldiers” is the source material for director Nicolai Fuglsig’s first feature film, and it’s anything but a disappointment.

The film opens on September 11, 2001 and subjects us, yet again, to those horrific images seared into the minds of anyone alive on that day. What most of us didn’t know, was that about a month later, a team of U.S. Army Special Forces (the Green Berets) were being dropped into the rough and mostly unfriendly terrain of Afghanistan. This ridiculously courageous team of 12 men had one mission: secure Mazar-i-Sharif to prevent a takeover by the Taliban.

An early scene tells us this won’t be the usual blind patriotism we often see on screen. One of the soldiers, Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon), is told (with a bit of anger) by his wife, “I’ll love you when you get back.” This contrasts to the usual loyal and stiff-upper-lip military wife we see in most war movies. Another wife scrubs the oven rather than snuggle with her man, while yet another coerces a taboo pledge to come home to her.

Chris Hemsworth (THOR) plays Captain Mitch Nelson, the intelligent but not-yet-battle-tested leader of a special ops team. The plan is for Nelson and his team to connect with General Dostum, an Afghan War Lord in charge of the Northern Alliance, and fight together to gain control of Mazar. After arriving at a local outpost nicknamed “The Alamo” (34 miles from town), the team gets their first surprise … they must split up and cover the ground on horseback. Filmed in New Mexico, the journey is miserable and filled with danger – an ambush could occur at any moment, or perhaps they are being set-up by those they have been ordered to trust.

Horseback riding, caves, the weather, and the elements of the terrain are all challenges, but none of it compares to facing the Taliban forces which number in the thousands, and feature tanks, rocket launchers and an endless supply of weaponry. Director Fuglsig utilizes a “Days in Country” counter so that we can get some semblance of time and ongoing misery being fought through by the Americans. But no day is normal when the soldiers are on horseback while being attacked by tanks. The odds seem unsurmountable.

One of the more fascinating aspects of the story and welcome approaches of the film is back-and-forth between Captain Nelson and General Dostum. Initially, Dostum shows little respect by telling the young officer that he lacks “the eyes of a killer” and isn’t yet a warrior, and he spends a great deal of time lecturing and philosophizing on Nelson’s behalf. Of course, the lessons may be frustrating in the moment, but aren’t lost on Nelson as there is a huge payoff at the peak of the key battle.

The battle scenes come in all sizes – small skirmishes and massive, large scale assaults. Each is intense and dramatic and well-staged, though there are some moments where we shake our head in disbelief. At least we do until we remember that this is a true story, and despite that, it is truly unbelievable.

The supporting cast includes Michael Pena and his snappy punchlines, Trevante Rhodes (MOONLIGHT), William Fichtner with a shaved head, Elsa Pataky – Hemsworth’s real life wife as his screen wife, Taylor Sheridan, Geoff Stults and Jack Kesy. Rob Riggle plays Colonel Max Bowers, who was Riggle’s commanding officer when he served in the Marines. The previously mentioned Michael Shannon is a bit underutilized, but the film’s best moments are those with Hemsworth and Navid Negahban (as General Dostum). You likely recognize Negahban as Abu Nazir from “Homeland”. It’s their exchanges that show how the line between allies and enemies is not always crystal clear – even if they are fighting for the same thing.

Writers Peter Craig (THE TOWN) and Ted Tally (Oscar winner for THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS) do a nice job of character development, and the camaraderie of the 12 men of ODA 595 seems authentic – despite some schmaltzy moments over their 23 days of Task Force Dagger. Early on, we are informed that the most important thing to take to war is “a reason why”, and then towards the end, Dostum explains that the United States is in a no-win situation: we are cowards if we go, and enemies if we stay. It’s chilling commentary on a war that has dragged on much too long … despite the heroic efforts of the 12 horse soldiers.

watch the trailer:

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THE HOMESMAN (2014)

December 1, 2014

homesman Greetings again from the darkness. We have come to expect our Westerns to be filled with stoic heroes and nasty villains, but this film delivers a pious, yappy leading lady paired with a selfish, no frills drifter. Based on the 1988 novel from Glendon Swarthout, it’s also the second directorial outing from Tommy Lee Jones (The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, 2005).

Hilary Swank plays Mary Bee Cuddy, a name repeated so many times that it will surely stick with you … even if the movie doesn’t. Thirty-one years old and unmarried, Ms. Cuddy is not without talent. She works the plough horses, cooks up fried chicken, and plays a mean fake piano. As is pointed out to her a couple of times, she is also “bossy” and “plain” looking … neither trait especially appealing to men in the wild west.

Ms. Cuddy volunteers to take three local women to Iowa. The three women (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter) have each gone insane, and somehow Iowa is the most civilized place within a wagon ride’s distance. Cuddy teams up with a low-life drifter played by Tommy Lee Jones, after they strike a deal that allows him to escape certain death. The verbal clash of cultures and personality between the two main characters provides most of the action on screen, as the three women being escorted are mostly muted and either locked in the back of the wagon or tied to a wagon wheel during riding breaks.

The film is at its best when focusing on the harsh realities of frontier life. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Brokeback Mountain) does a nice job of capturing the wide expanse and stark vastness of the landscape, while also tossing in some artsy silhouettes and proof of abruptness of this life. Director Jones utilizes some haphazardly timed flashbacks to help us better understand the plight of the three women, but this could have been done much more effectively. Courage, inner-strength, and morality all play a role here, and the contrast between frontier and civilization was most distinct.

Much of the film plays like an oddball buddy picture – think Nolte and Murphy in 48 Hours, or Bogart and Hepburn in The African Queen. If you find the interaction between Swank and Jones to be realistic, then you will probably buy into the whole film. If not, the lack of flow and choppiness of scenes will jump out. There seems to be a never ending stream of little more than cameos from a tremendous line-up of actors: Barry Corbin, William Fichtner, Jesse Plemons, David Dencik, Evan Jones, John Lithgow, Tim Blake Nelson, James Spader, and Hailee Steinfeld. There are even a couple of scenes near the end featuring Meryl Streep (her daughter Grace Gummer plays one of the 3 insane women). The slew of familiar faces actually detracted from the story for me, because the Swank and Jones characters just couldn’t hold my attention.

The ending seems quite odd and a bit out of place for what we have just watched, and I’m still confused by the line of dialogue addressing the difficult “winter” they must have had on the wagon trip … it’s clearly stated that the trip began in May and would take a few weeks. Even in Nebraska, May and June can’t be considered winter. If you enjoy Hilary Swank on a soapbox or Tommy Lee Jones dancing a jig, then perhaps the pieces will fit better for you than they did for me.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are intrigued by a long, mostly uneventful wagon trip where 3 of the 5 people don’t speak and one rarely shuts up.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: Tommy Lee Jones dancing a jig (twice) or Hilary Swank playing air piano just aren’t enough to pull you away from holiday shopping.

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE LONE RANGER (2013)

July 6, 2013

lone ranger Greetings again from the darkness. The Western genre has always appealed to me. I love the clear division between good and bad. Heroes and Villains face-off and the good guys usually win, thereby protecting those too weak to protect themselves. TV had an impressive string of popular westerns: “The Rifleman”, “Maverick”, “The Big Valley”, “Rawhide”, “Bonanza”, and “Gunsmoke” (1955-75).

One of the most popular got it’s start on the radio in 1933: “The Lone Ranger“. When it hit TV in 1949, the great Clayton Moore donned the mask and badge, accompanied by Jay Silverheels as Tonto. Though they filmed a couple of movies, they were best known on the small screen. Then in 1981,  The Legend of the Lone Ranger was released in theatres. It was directed by William Fraker and starred Klinton Spilsbury. If you have never seen it … Mr. Fraker never directed another movie and Mr. Spilsbury never acted again. Enough said.

lone ranger2 Thirty-three years later, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, director Gore Verbinski and mega-star Johnny Depp have teamed up for a re-imagined Tonto and the Lone Ranger story. Yes, that is the proper order since this is mostly the story of Tonto, told by Tonto, with the camera focused on Tonto (Depp). There is very little respect for the roots of the story, and that’s probably because it would not be politically correct these days to have a subservient Comanche taking orders from a masked white man.

We first meet an aging Tonto as the “Noble Savage” in a 1933 Old West traveling museum. This approach reminds me of the far superior Little Big Man featuring Dustin Hoffman. Tonto proceeds to tell a young boy his version of history. We are never really sure if this is a tall tale or just a commentary on how our memory recalls events solely from our own perspective. Tonto’s character is given a full backstory, but John Reid, the square and square-jawed prosecutor who Tonto mentors into becoming the lone ranger4Lone Ranger (played by Armie Hammer) is presented as a naive buffoon. Reid’s courageous brother Dan is played by James Badge Dale, and the bad guys are played by Tom Wilkinson (Cole, the train baron), and William Fichtner (Butch Cavendish, the notorious outlaw who wiped out the Rangers).

It seems apparent that Verbinski was striving to create the next Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. The template is familiar … lots of action and wise-cracking, replete with the newest caricature in the Johnny Depp repertoire. Though Depp has many critics, I am not one. To me, he is a modern day Red Skelton, and I admire the nuances of his Captain Jack Sparrow, Wily Wonka, Mad Hatter, and of course, Edward Scissorhands. Tonto is another feather in his cap (so to speak) and his decision to base the look on Kirby Sattler’s painting “I Am Crow” adds a stark look along with fodder for comedy.  Depp performs an impressive stunt featuring a tall ladder and two trains … it plays like a tribute to the great Buster Keaton.

lone ranger3 Many film critics have been bashing the production – some even before the film’s release. In this day of information overload, we all are aware of the battle between the filmmakers and the studio. The final product does in fact wear the scars of entirely too many writers and budget mismanagement and limitations that come with the Disney brand. What should have been a perfect fit (ultimate good guy Lone Ranger) turned into a jumbled mess at times. The 2 1/2 hour movie easily could have been a full hour shorter. Maybe building two new locomotives worked great for realism, but was tough on the budget. With so few young movie-goers even aware of the Lone Ranger, creative freedom to re-imagine the character makes sense, but making him a klutzy sidekick probably doesn’t. So what we get are pre-release headlines telling us the film is a bomb. I find that unfair. It certainly appeared that most of the audience I was part of enjoyed the movie, though there were cracks about how long it was.

There are some very impressive segments within the film and having Rossini’s William Tell Overture playing over the heart-pounding climax adds a level of fun that most movies don’t have. The use of Monument Valley in Utah put me in the mood for a John Ford movie marathon.  So while I fully agree that the movie is much too long, the script should have been tightened, and more respect paid to the main character, it seems highly likely that the movie will be remembered much more fondly than film critics would have us believe … at least by those who give it a shot.

**NOTE: if you are unfamiliar with the legend, Britt Reid who became The Green Hornet, is the great nephew of John Reid (The Lone Ranger).

**NOTE: I totally missed the significance or tie-in of the blood-thirsty rabbits in this movie, though they did remind me of Monty Python’s Killer Rabbits.  If you “get” this, please explain to me.

**NOTE: Helena Bonham Carter.  ugh

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you can ignore the critics and accept this as another blockbuster summer fun flick OR you want to see the latest addition to the Johnny Depp Hall of Oddity

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting the All-American hero as seen in the long ago TV series (this is really not his story)

Below are two videos.  The first is the 27 second opening to the TV series.  The second is one of the full trailers to the new movie:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Td4RHvyAFsM

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3L5pbgKyWs4