Rating: The Ugly – 60 Genre: Action, Crime Duration: 109 mins Director: Baltasar Kormákur Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Giovanni Ribisi, Ben Foster
The modern thriller is a tired animal indeed what with the scarcity of original plots and mind numbing dialogue that, instead of building character, is simply a vehicle for tying scenes together and abiding by an MTV archetype of cool. However, if you must turn one of these scripts into a movie then a watchable cast and able director are bare minimum prerequisites. Contraband just about pulls this off with Ben Foster and an always enjoyable Mark Wahlberg starring as a couple of drug smugglers and Giovani Ribisi as a slightly deranged wannabe tough guy attempting to pull their strings along the way. Yes, the plot swings between predictable and confused and, yes, it’s bloated with the contradictory ideas of a script writing committee but there’s some fine gunplay and car chasing to complement the cast’s chemistry. If you’re stuck for something to watch, this one will fill the void adequately.
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 Ugly – 60.4 Genre: Disaster Duration: 130 mins Director: Wolfgang Peterson Stars: George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Diane Lane
The Perfect Storm is a dramatised account of “The Storm of the Century” that hit the north eastern sea-board of the US in the early 90’s. The movie focuses on a swordboat crew led by salty captain George Clooney, whose attempt to traverse the oceanic monster leads to disastrous consequences. The dialogue is cheesball city but the sea-based action sequences particularly once the storm gets going are a sight to behold.
Rating: The Good – 78.3 Genre: Drama, Sport Duration: 116 mins Director: David O. Russell Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams
David O. Russell’s return to directing after a six year absence is a witty and soulful sporting drama that recounts the true life efforts of two working class boxers to overcome their circumstances and banish respective demons. If it sounds like a tired premise, fret not, because The Fighter is a one of a kind film that shifts seamlessly between touching personal drama, wilful farce, exhilarating sporting action, and hysterical comedy and all the while remaining true to the rich characterisations at its core. Mark Walhberg stars as Micky Ward, the younger brother of a briefly famous Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale in sensational form), whose past exploits against Sugar Ray Robinson have become the stuff of local legend and the defining moment in the now crack addicted and failed pugilist’s career. Now Micky’s trainer, he’s quick to point out that the two brothers were very different in the ring and, as the playfully elegant documentary-like opening sequence demonstrates, they are very different outside it too. Despite their differences, there’s a deep bond that Dicky instinctively exploits along with their overbearing mother (Melissa Leo) as they mismanage Micky into one bad fight after another. That is until the younger brother’s new girlfriend (a typically strong Amy Adams) encourages him to stand up for himself.
There’s so much going on here that it’s a testament to all involved the the movie glides so cohesively forward from one differently toned scene to another. An air of sharp comedy hangs over the film through the various characters’ combustible interactions but because of its perceptive portrayal of ordinary people there is, at its core, an honesty reminiscent of the best and most insightful dramas. Furthermore, much like that most untouchable of TV shows, The Sopranos, the realness of the characters and their dialogue acts as a tangible basis that allows their extraordinary experiences to thrill all the more especially during the boxing sequences. Combined with the assured energy of Russell’s direction, the film takes on a real verve and electricity from the viscerally shot fights to the soft and graceful subjective interactions.
But while Russell gives this film its momentum, it’s the cast who gives it its substance. Being the very definition of an actor who can shine in the right role or bomb in the wrong one, Mark Walhberg is beaming here like never before. It’s not a soul scouring piece of acting like Bale’s but it’s a triumphantly weighted ‘roll with punches… until’ performance that parallels Micky’s outside and inside the ring personas in endearing manner. This is a protagonist who we care about. Bale does his not unusual piece of dramatic weight loss to play the “squirrelly” larger than life junkie but it’s his ability to expose the essence of the human being beneath in all manner of interesting and charming ways that grabs the attention here. He deservedly nabbed the Best Supporting Oscar for the turn but it’s his young De Niro-like energy that impresses most. Leo also scooped the Best Supporting gong for her fiery portrayal of the shrewd yet loving matriarch. It’s her and her motley crew of battle axe daughters that allow Russell to generate a fair bit of farcical relief and while the antics of the Ward/Eklund women can sometimes feel a little forced, they are terrifically funny when they get going. The real Dicky Eklund felt it wasn’t an accurate reflection of his mother and sisters and one suspects Leo and Co. added many more claws for comic as well as dramatic effect. If so, job done!
It all builds up to a rousing finale that like the best sporting dramas seems to add more significantly to the tone of the film rather than the plot. It’s a wonderful moment of movie holism where the sum of the film’s parts come together to give us something we were never really promised while getting there but only too delighted to receive.
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.