Rating: The Good – 70.5 Genre: Sport, Drama Duration: 118 mins Director: Peter Berg Stars: Billy Bob Thornton, Jay Hernandez, Derek Luke
Director Peter Berg and writer David Aaron Cohen’s adaptation of H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger’s novel chronicles the travails of a football mad Texas town and their high school team’s attempt to win the State Championship amidst social and personal pressures. Living up to the seminal novel was always going to be next to impossible especially for a (albeit) solid journeyman like Berg but there’s no denying this one just sort of works. From the bone shaking tackles, the swagger of the touchdowns, to the strategising on the sidelines, Berg does every bit of the game justice and so the audience will be suitably engrossed on that level alone. But it’s the team camaraderie and off-field personal tests that coach and players alike face throughout the season that gives this movie its substance despite Berg and Cohen presenting only fleeting snippets of each drama ‘s due to time limitations. Berg quite smartly uses the energy of the rough and tumble to exhilarate the audience and then funnel it into some rather touching moments of emotion when needed. It’s all very explicit with plenty of slow motion shots and uplifting score but, because of its honesty and Berg and Cohen’s success in binding us to the players, the resultant goosebumps are guilt free and welcome. Billy Bob Thornton puts in an outstanding shift as the thoughtful coach desperate to keep both his self respect and his job despite their mutual interference. But it’s a bunch of unknowns that fill out the rest of the cast and not one puts a foot wrong. Modest in its aims yet efficient in its execution, Friday Night Lights does what all good sports dramas should do and remains respectful of the source material as it goes. Nicely done Mr Berg.
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 – 78.9 Genre: Crime, Neo-Noir Duration: 110 mins Director: John Dahl Stars: Linda Fiorentino, Peter Berg, Bill Pullman
Smokey, sultry, and a 24 carat bitch, Linda Fiorentino takes the femme fatale concept to a whole other level in this outstanding made-for-tv John Dahl feature. She stars as a devious manipulator who flees to a small town outside Buffulo while on the run from her slightly deranged husband (Bill Pulman’s finest performance). Peter Berg is the small town guy with big city aspirations who is enchanted by Fiorentino’s sophisticated grittiness and ultimately becomes the central pawn in her attempt to rid herself of all her problems at once. Everyone involved in The Last Seduction acts their pants off (in many cases that’s a literal truth) and Steve Barancik’s script sizzles as the likes of Fiorentino, Pullman, and the late great J.T. Walsh revel in its delivery. Berg plays the perfect rube throughout managing to be even less savvy than William Hurt in the not dissimilar Body Heat. Dahl’s atmospheric stamp is all over the look and sound of the film as shadow, eye lighting, and cigarette smoke combine with Barancik’s dialogue and Joeseph Vitarelli’s cheeky score to tie it all together into such a nice little package that you’ll find yourself revisiting this modern noir gem time and time again.
Where does one begin with a comedy satire as good as this? Reginal Hudlin’s The Great White Hype is as incisive and witty a film as you’ll see on the boxing ‘industry’. It follows arch manipulator, the Rev. Fred Sultan as he orchestrates a fight which will engage the interest of white America, who he believes want nothing more than to see a white heavy-weight contender. Samuel L. Jackson is electric as the not unfamiliar boxing promoter who cons and finagles his heavyweight champ into fighting what the world initially sees as a chump contender. Jackson’s character is shamelessly hysterical but with the strong hint of a darker side. Damon Waynes is every bit his match in the comedy stakes as the unmotivated and disgruntled champ. However, for a film as full of scene-stealers as this one is (Jamie Foxx, Jeff Goldblum, Cheech Marin, and Jon Lovitz also star), Peter Berg deserves special credit as the man Sultan dresses up as the greatest contender the world has ever seen:- ‘Irish’ Terry Conklin (“I’m not Irish!”). Berg’s performance more than anyone’s will have you in fits of laughter as he embodies everything that is shallow and vacuous about the entertainment industry but with just a hint of humanity. Tony Hendra and sports enthusiast Ron Shelton’s script is razor sharp and there isn’t a line in it which won’t crack a wry smile. Yes, there are a host of genuinely hilarious moments but there is also some brilliantly subtle humour threaded throughout the story, the most effective of which comes to the fore during the climactic bout in a fleeting but telling moment of classy meta-analysis. File under “minor gem”.