Rating: The Good – 75.8 Genre: War, Drama Duration: 133 mins Director: Clint Eastwood Stars: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Kyle Gallner
Bradley Cooper takes on the role of Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in U.S. history, in Clint Eastwood’s take on the personal politics of war and the wearing effects it has back home. Putting in another immense shift, Cooper constructs a strong character that sways and bends under the stresses that come with his elite skill. Beginning with his training as a Navy SEAL, we follow Kyle through his four tours in Iraq and his intervening attempts to build a family, where a number of plots play out in successive manner. Plots ranging from the SEALS’ mission to take out a local warlord to Kyle’s personal but often thrilling battle with an elite enemy sniper. Eastwood is to be commended for maintaining the integrity of each of these plots while sewing them into the wider dramatic story concerning Kyle’s wife (Sienna Miller in a solid turn) and his increasingly debilitating PTSD. In fact, American Sniper is arguably the veteran director’s most artful film from the point of view of its structuring. His use of flashback and parallel scenes help to move the film forward so the audience is informed and engaged at an equally steady rate. The action sequences are less inspired with respect to Clint’s directing but their sheer scale tend to compensate for that. Where Eastwood’s touch truly lets him down, however, is yet again in the dramatic stakes. Always a relatively cold director, he fails to make the camera one with his protagonists and while this could have allowed for a more realist style, his pedestrian camera work is incapable of serving that end. In the end, much of Bradley’s good work is left unharnessed as what should be a very personal movie feels decidedly impersonal. American Sniper has been the subject of much political discussion concerning the “War on Terror” and the lauding of an elite killer who showed less remorse in real life than is depicted here but such criticisms are outside the scope of a straight up film critique and so, as a war movie with a dramatic edge, American Sniper must stand on its artistic merits alone. In that respect, it has much going for it even in spite of some directorial limitations.
Rating: The Ugly – 60 Genre: Action, War Duration: 121 mins Director: Peter Berg Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch
Highly dramatised account of a Navy SEAL team’s desperate attempt to escape dozens of Taliban during a compromised mission in Afghanistan. Peter Berg is a curious director. A glance at his CV and he could look like simply another journeyman director. But every now and then he pops up with a film that seems uniquely his. The fact that Lone Survivor counts as one such movie is both good and bad for Berg. Good because we have a movie with its own personality but bad because the cheesiness and fundamental idiocy of the plot must therefore reflect largely on him. Far from being an unashamed propaganda movie, Lone Survivor is a crudely veiled one. It doesn’t focus on the skill of the soldiers as a more straight up propaganda piece would. Instead, it’s an attempt to appeal to the emotional bonds that exist between the them. By placing them in a hopeless situation and having them shepherd each other to safety, bullet-ridden and broken… but never beaten. Of course, most propaganda films will play on the audience’s heartstrings aiming for emotional resonance. But Berg doesn’t simply play on them. He bounces on them – trampoline style. Some action fans will forgive this. Many won’t – and the truly awful dialogue during these gut wrenching moments won’t help them to in the slightest.
But for those who can forgive it’s more ridiculous qualities, there are rich rewards to be had in the action department. For Lone Survivor is a relentless shrapnel cloud of an action film, more visceral than most. The final hour is an excruciating embellishment on the levels of pain and punishment these men supposedly volunteer for and, as the opening scene alludes to, even crave. Sure, we recently had a rather complex analysis of this peculiar personality in the The Hurt Locker and, in contrast, Berg’s more exaggerated and fallow depiction of war addiction seems all the more disrespectful to the actual men and women of combat. However, what it lacks in subtlety and insight it makes up for in thump by putting us right in the middle of his imagined experience. An experience that amounts to a discombobulation of close quarter hillside combat interspersed with bone crunching mountain tumbling and lung bursting falls.
If the film is let down by a lack of believability in the action stakes, it’s not making up any ground in its character development. The four SEALS are introduced briefly in the beginning but any notion of building on that gets lost once the bullets start flying. And when two of those guys are played by Ben Foster and Emile Hirsch, it’s an unforgivable waste. Needless to say, the bad guys, to specify, the Taliban, are even more one dimensional. Strangely bedecked with ‘Ming the Merciless’ inspired makeup (just in case their slaughter of unarmed civilians didn’t make them seem mean enough), the story would’ve been made at least somewhat substantial if they were given even a modicum of personality. So extreme are they in their badness that the inclusion of a village of kind Afghans towards the end seems all the more conspicuous and, worse, tokenistic. A painful coda dedicated to their real life contribution to the SEAL’s escape only compounds this.
Where Berg truly fails however is in confusing his audience with respect to how he frames his heroes. We’re asked to sit in awe of their dedication, skill, and courage yet the tactical ineptitude that these supposed elite soldiers demonstrate is mind boggling. Their decision making, rationale, and professional comportment appear rather sloppy even to the layman. In the absence of any commentary on this supposed true event, we are left scratching our heads as to how this could’ve happened. Who knows how much liberty was taken in the adaptation but Hollywood is usually guilty of overplaying their heroes not underplaying them let alone leave the audience uncertain as to how much respect they deserve. What is for certain is that we miss much of the action as we ruminate on it. Given that the action is the solitary virtue of this movie, that’s all the more unfortunate.
Rating: The Good – 65.7 Genre: Action, Thriller Duration: 128 mins Director: Ridley Scott Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe, Mark Strong
Above average espionage thriller concerning a CIA agent (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his handler (Russell Crowe) who are attempting to flush out the elusive leader of a dangerous terrorist cell. The plot is intricate but tight for the majority of the first two acts and DiCaprio and Crowe are very good, particularly when together on screen. Mark Strong is also present as a foreign intelligence tsar and as usual he steals every scene he’s in. Scott’s direction is slightly more understated than usual which was the right call considering the strength of the script and actors he was working with. It does unravel somewhat towards the end as the plot is rushed to a close and some liberties with logic are taken. However, for the most part, Body of Lies is a slick piece of entertainment.
Rating: The Good – 75.8 Genre: War, Drama Duration: 131 mins Director: Kathryn Bigelow Stars: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty
Kathryn Bigelow had already proven her action chops with the brilliant Point Break so she was always a good candidate to direct a film about a bomb disposal unit in Iraq. However, in The Hurt Locker she and writer Mark Boal take a more pensive approach and focus on the mental battlefield that the soldiers fight internally. Think The Thin Red Line without all the monologues or broad sweeping references to nature and you’ve got the idea. For the most part, it works thanks to the compelling performance of Jeremy Renner as the ace explosives disarmer who is addicted to the rush he gets from his job. The film follows him and the two other men of his unit, the equally excellent Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty, as they are called to disarm a variety of devices. However, the unnecessary danger that he puts himself and those around him in strains relations between him and his men resulting in a few close calls, both professional and personal.
Bigelow effectively contrasts the lulls and boredom of downtime with the fear and tension of battle and her handling of the latter scenes is especially fantastic. One scene in particular where Renner and Mackie’s characters coordinate their efforts against a sniper threat under a baking hot desert sun works beautifully. However, despite the plaudits this film received, there are problems. Boal based this film on a series of Vanity Fair articles and unfortunately he never really stepped back far enough from that source material to tie them together into a single story driven by a discernible plot. As such, the story comes across as a fascinating collection of anecdotes. Furthermore, their attempt to engender the proceedings with a sense of purpose towards the end comes off as rather clumsy with Renner’s character inexplicably getting involved in a couple of incidents that ultimately bear no consequence to the rest of the sequences. That said, because the individual sequences are such a treat to watch and the acting is universally first class, The Hurt Locker remains a richly entertaining experience.
Rating: The Good – 80.5 Genre: War Duration: 114 mins Director: David O. Russell Stars: George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube
David O. Russell is a very special film-maker, there’s no doubt. To take a heist movie that is essentially an allegory about the greedy motivations of modern superpowers, root it in a story that is equally touching and funny, litter it with hard-edged action, and then infuse the whole thing with more visual and auditory verve than practically any other movie of the 90’s…is no small feat. Set during the first Gulf War, George Clooney fronts an interesting cast as a special forces Major who leads three enlisted soldiers into enemy territory to nab for themselves some of the gold that Saddam stole from Kuwait.
Heist movie, war movie, comedy, or drama, Three Kings works effectively on all levels. There’s a burning originality to Russell’s approach as both director and writer. Images of bleached desertscapes contrasted with brilliant blue skies are pictorially enhanced due to combination of transparent film and silver halide to create vibrant colours and true blacks while, on the writing front, his adaptation of John Ridley’s story sews thoughtful but accessible dialogue with hysterically funny turns of phrase to produce a script of real elegance. The result is a cogent balancing of surreal moments of war with slick action drama, a madcap roller-coaster of sleek satirical mayhem.
All this is burnished by an understated intersection of character and plot that at all times does justice to the political sentiments of the overall project. And it’s here that the cracking cast makes their contribution as Clooney, Ice Cube, Mark Walhberg, and Spike Jonze are individually assured but collectively superb. Clooney’s Major Archie Gates has an edged charisma that is well suited to his role of the beleaguered special forces operative and, with it, he plays off the more homely charm of Mark Walberg who is undoubtedly at his best here. At the time of release, Ice Cube was a bit of a revelation as the spiritual yet burly chief while Jonze just about steals the show as the slightly unhinged but well meaning yokel.
The politics of the film bleed out bit by bit as these characters interact but through its easy humour, charm, and excitement, it never feels preachy. In fact, in these more cynical and manipulative times, Three Kings is exactly what a war film needs to be:- intelligent, bold, and with a necessary sense of humour.
Rating: The Good – 80.4 Genre: Thriller, Drama Duration: 157 mins Director: Kathryn Bigelow Stars: Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt
The search for Osama Bin Laden was always going to make a thrilling story but few would’ve expected it to be depicted in the manner Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty did. Rather than give us a sprawling manhunt full of thrills and close calls or a tense forensic investigative mystery, she and her writer Mark Boal offer up something more contemplative and altogether more unorthodox. Jessica Chastain plays the driven young agent who is charged with fulfilling the increasingly unpopular remit of finding the world’s most wanted man. Beginning in 2003, we see the eroding yet hardening effect the eight year manhunt has on her as she moves from one source to another (the infamous “detainees”) trying to piece together the puzzle from their scant accounts. The controversial torture scenes are incorporated incidentally and without judgement (this shouldn’t be mistaken for approval) so that an overall picture is painted. This of course encourages a more objective assessment of the entire affair and lets the viewers make up their own minds. It’s the personality of the main players that keeps the audience interested during the protracted first and second acts, watching them wear and tear in relation to the pressure of a fruitless endeavour and changes in political climate. Chastain is real and reveals a curiously compelling strength but there’s no doubt her character can grate (there are a few misjudged brattish moments where she genuinely tests the audience’s loyalty). Jason Clarke is excellent as the lead investigator and Jennifer Ehle shows yet again how important she can be to a movie in a well written support role.
As he did with The Hurt Locker, Boal shows that script writing is not his first trade. The structure is almost alien to what we are used to but thanks to the uniqueness of the story and a more refined working relationship with Bigelow, they manage to steer this one home. The first two acts can be slow going but there’s an organic flow to the chapters and events as they unfold. There’s also a serious payout because during the final act when we leave Chastain’s character and pick up with the SEAL team who execute the ultimate search and destroy mission, this films morphs into sleekest depiction of stealth warfare we’ve ever witnessed on film. A series of rugged and grizzled looking men (a mix between lesser known actors and actual former SEALs) begin to fill the cast and Greig Fraser’s cinematography comes into its own as the bleached deserts of day time Pakistan are replaced with the steely grey of the extended night-time mission. The action is slick, real, and very hardcore for when the SEALs aren’t busy surviving helicopter crashes and improvising their entries they’re executing their plan and training with formidable precision. And it’s in this feature that the true strength of Zero Dark Thirty is revealed. It’s authenticity. Based on real life accounts and informed by a team of consultants, this film pulses with realism. Everything in this film from the experimental stealth helicopters, the four goggle night vision apparatus, to the relatively more modest even humdrum tools of the earlier investigation (with the exception of that cool “predator bay”) feels legitimate. And when combined with Bigelow’s methodical buildup and tightly controlled tension, it all amounts to a cinematic experience that is genuinely unique and immensely competent.
Rating: The Good – 64.5 Genre: Action, War Duration: 115 mins Director: Paul Greengrass Stars: Matt Damon, Jason Isaacs, Greg Kinnear
Paul Greengrass’ film was done no favours by tagging it as “Bourne goes epic” because this film is not as epic as nor anyway related to any of the Bourne instalments. It is, however, an interesting attempt to address the complexities of the most recent US-Iraq conflict as they appeared on the ground. It follows a military team led by Chief Miller (Matt Damon) who are responsible for searching possible WMD sites in the early days of the US invasion. When his team continues to find no sign of said weapons, he takes it upon himself to find out why. As you would expect from Greengrass the action scenes are well handled (although coming from the man who gave us two of the Bourne films they are perhaps underwhelming) and the acting on all fronts is decent. There are some silly bits but overall this is a satisfying modern war film.