Tag Archives: soldiers

War Machine – Review

21 Jun

In 2012, a book titled The Operators by Rolling Stone editor Michael Hastings was released. It details the times that Hastings spent with General Stanley McChrystal, who was the commander of the International Security Assistance Force. Soon after Hastings published an article featuring McChrystal and his team, which featured a lot of trash talking certain high level government officials, McChrystal was pretty much forced to resign his position. Now we have another look at the story in a fictionalized, satirical account of what happened by writer/director David Michôd and his latest film War Machine. I’ve heard a lot of mixed things about this movie, so I was a little hesitant going into it, but I have to say I really had a blast with this movie, despite some of its minor storytelling set backs.

General Glen McMahon (Brad Pitt) is a man of principles, conviction, confidence, and opinions. While all of those words do perfectly describe the officer, he’s also loud mouthed, arrogant, and a buffoon. He’s also the commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan at the tail end of the war. Along with his team of sycophants and cronies, McMahon has a plan to bring peace to the Middle East with the payoff being a huge boost of his ego. Of course, along the way he has to deal with bureaucrats and politicians cutting into his plans while also trying to manage relations with Afghanistan’s new president (Ben Kingsley). While formulating a plan to head into enemy territory in a major assault that will be the high point of his career, McMahon agrees to have Rolling Stone reporter Sean Cullen (Scoot McNairy) join the ranks to see the inner workings of his squad. This, along with every other bad decision of his career, will ultimately be his downfall.

The first thing that I really came to appreciate after watching War Machine is the film’s tone. It’s silly and often times over the top, but it never falls into the realm of stupidity. The dialogue has some corny jokes, but it also has some pretty whip smart moments of really good satire. While all of the humor is well and good, I was also surprised to find some depth and drama to the storytelling. I was really just looking to have some laughs with this movie but I felt a little more than that. By the end of the film, I started to analyze the character of McMahon and his intentions and the consequences of his action. There are even a few quieter moments that were actually kind of sad, and that’s an area I really wasn’t expecting the film to go based on the trailer. This isn’t just a surface level movie that exists to provide some cheap laughs. War Machine has a message and actual depth to it to support the laughs and the sillier moments in the movie.

So, War Machine is a movie with a message and it’s one that I can agree with. Unfortunately, the film’s biggest problem lies with how this message is conveyed at certain times. Throughout the movie we hear Scoot McNairy’s character doing a voice over and explaining certain things that are happening in the film or describing a character we are meeting for the first time. This helps since there are a lot of minor characters in this movie and everyone is constantly traveling around. While this helps with certain things, it also comes across as annoying more often than it should. The character of Sean Cullen is fine when he’s actually with McMahon and the other soldiers, but his voice over is so cynical and snide, while also beating the viewer on the head with the opinions being expressed in the movie. It was kind of annoying being told how I should be thinking. If the writing of the voice over was toned down just a little bit, that would have been great. I can figure out the messages and themes of movies, so I really don’t need them explained to me in this way.

One of my main draws to this movie was to see Brad Pitt in yet another role where he’s playing someone completely out of the ordinary. Pitt takes this part of McMahon and completely embodies it. From his odd posture, to his facial ticks, and even the goofy way he walks and runs, he’s perfectly believable as this character and it’s easy to forget you’re watching an actor, even if his face is so recognizable. Sir Ben Kingsley is also hilarious as the off the wall president of Afghanistan that McMahon is trying to cooperate with, even if they’re both not on the same page with each other at all. Kingsley is really hardly in this film, but most every scene has Pitt in it. Unfortunately, while everyone else around them do their jobs fine, they aren’t given a whole lot to do other than the bidding of McMahon, and while there are funny moments surrounding their characters they don’t really have too much that stands out.

At the end of it, War Machine is a pretty funny film with a memorable lead character and a sharp satirical look at America’s goings on in the Middle East. It isn’t really a heavy film, so if you’re looking for serious war and drama, look elsewhere. War Machine is packed with great satire and a tad too much cynicism for my taste. Still, as far as comedies go, it’s definitely one that’s worth a look.

Final Grade: B+

The Great Wall – Review

3 Mar

I recently did a review for Zhang Yimou’s 2011 war drama, The Flowers of War. In that review, I mention that Yimou is a very respectable film maker who has an especially strong talent for filming what I believe to be some of the most beautiful looking movies I’ve ever seen. His latest film is The Great Wall, a monster movie that involves protecting the Imperial City from creatures hell bent on destroying civilization as we know it. That combined with Yimou’s colorful and sweeping directorial style kind of made this a must see for me. Well, all I can say is that this film definitely looks great. That’s pretty much where the compliments end.

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William (Matt Damon) and Pero (Pedro Pascal) are two mercenaries scouring the East looking for “black powder,” which we now know as gunpowder. During their search, they end up at the Great Wall of China and are questioned about their intentions immediately upon their arrival. The two partners soon learn why the soldiers at the wall are so concerned about their motives. During a seemingly quiet afternoon, the wall is raided by alien monsters called the Tao Tie, whose goal is to penetrate the wall and continue on to the Imperial City. It doesn’t take long for William to come to a decision as to wether he wants to escape with Pero and another Englishman, Sir Ballard (Willem Dafoe), or if he would rather stay and defend the Great Wall with the newly appointed general, Lin Mae (Jing Tian).

I was excited for this movie for multiple reasons. First off, I was pumped to see Zhang Yimou tackle a big budget monster movie and have his style painted all over the movie. I was also just pumped to see another monster movie from Legendary, which has pretty much become the monster movie company for America. In these ways, the movie does succeed. When battles start happening, I got really into it. The special effects look kind of cartoony, but for some reason, that didn’t really bother me. I was taken aback by Yimou’s use of color and framing scenes to make them look as epic as possible. One of these shots in particular happened in the very first battle where you can see most of the battle in one super wide shot. Another really cool thing are the different regiments of the soldiers and the uniforms they wear to identify themselves. Honestly, in terms of style and scope, this movie stands tall.

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Like I said before, that’s pretty much where all of the good stuff ends. The Great Wall really isn’t all that good of a movie despite having a really cool premise. My biggest problem was the characters. I haven’t seen such poor development and writing in a really long time. Any scene that didn’t involve a battle or special effect of some kind fell flat. Like completely, utterly flat. It’s incredible how an epic period piece featuring alien monsters attacking the Great Wall of China could be so boring. There are a few characters worth something, but that’s not saying to much. William’s partner Pero has a good amount of one liners and a story that at least attempts to go somewhere before that’s shut down by some idiotic decisions from the writers. Lin Mae is also a pretty cool character who feels the most human out of anyone else. The worst offender of characters not worth anything is Sir Ballard. If you were to take Willem Dafoe out of this movie, nothing would be different. He’s completely wasted here.

I was also really bothered by the acting in this movie, but part of this also has to fall on the writers. There was so much clunky and awkward dialogue in this movie which only made me more distracted during the down time that I’ve already complained was boring enough. Like I said before, the only exceptions from this are Pero and Lin Mae. They weren’t perfect, but they were better than the rest. Honestly though, I was mostly shocked at how flat and uninspired Matt Damon was. I didn’t know until the end of the movie that he was supposed to be European, and I still don’t know exactly where he’s supposed to be from. His accent is on and off throughout the whole movie, and the way he delivers his lines is cringeworthy. Aside from his weird accent, he uses this over the top tough guy voice that wore thin on me after the second line of dialogue he had.

The Great Wall is a very disappointing movie. Throughout its run time, I saw a lot of hope for potential, but nothing really came of it. I will say that this is a fantastic looking movie with cool creature design and some excellent use of lighting and costume design. Everything else from the characters and their development to the structure of the narrative is flat, recycled, or just plain boring. As a monster movie, it works at the most basic of levels. As a movie to be appreciated and viewed for something more than that, it’s a failure.

Final Grade: C-

’71 – Review

21 Apr

Ireland has a very rough history with plenty of material to adapt for the silver screen. That being said, it’s very important to handle these events and people as respectfully as possible, which should really be the case with any biopic or historical film. Yann Demage’s 2014 film ’71 takes a look at the early days of the Troubles, a conflict that lasted in Ireland from 1968 to 1998. What’s interesting about this movie is that, on its surface, it tells a story of a soldier trapped behind enemy lines, but this film tells so much more than that. It’s a nearly unbiased look at a very violent time in history that also works great as an entertaining action thriller.

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In 1971, Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell), a new recruit for the British army, is sent to Belfast with his squad to aid the Royal Ulster Constabulary in its search for firearms in suspected IRA houses. The longer the raid lasts and the longer the British soldiers have to hold the neighborhood at bay, the more violent and chaotic everything becomes. Amidst the chaos, Hook is separated from his squad and is left in the streets of Belfast to fend for himself. When news of a stranded soldier reaches certain members of the PIRA and the OIRA, the hunt begins to find and kill this soldier. Meanwhile, other in the city are more sympathetic to Hook’s case, which means he has to choose his friends very carefully in his wait for his squad to return and finally extract him.

Like I said, the crux of the plot of ’71 is Gary Hook trying to stay alive in hostile territory. Looking beyond that, however, you will find a total nightmare of a situation that only gets worse as the movie goes on. Hook is pretty much in the movie and left behind enemy lines so that we can see through his eyes an unbiased look at the violence and brutality that happened in the early days of the Troubles. At first, when Hook is with his squad, the movie has a harsh view on the Catholic nationalists in the IRA and at first I thought that the movie was going to make them the opposition for Hook. As time goes on and the story evolves, however, the Protestant loyalists who are supposed to be with the British at this point can’t be trusted either. This film does a great job at showing the corruption and deadly nature of both sides where no one is anyone’s friend.

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While this movie tells a story of a very dark time in Ireland’s history, it can’t be said that this isn’t an entertaining movie. There are movies like The Baader Meinhof Complex that tell a story about a dark historical time, but it does so in a way that made me feel like I was reading a very interesting textbook. It was a great movie, but not something I would call genuinely entertaining. ’71, on the other hand, is a fast paced and very entertaining movie that is filled with action and suspense. One scene in particular has Hook navigating an apartment complex while trying to stay hidden from the PIRA members that tracked him there. It’s a nail biting scene that forcibly moves you to the edge of your seat and leaves you there to fend for yourself. I love seeing great action and suspense held together by a very smart and intriguing story. It’s refreshing.

This movie marks two careers that hopefully have bright futures. Since being in ’71, Jack O’Connell has gone to star in Angelina Jolie’s film Unbroken, which was received well enough, but didn’t really make a huge mark. O’Connell is excellent in ’71 and really channels the fear and desperation that his character is going through. Another new talent we have from this movie who I demand to see more from is director Yann Demange. Demange has worked with shorter works before, but this is his first feature, and what an excellent debut it is. The way he captures realism while making an entertaining action film is how movies should be made. He understands the medium and I can’t wait to see what else he has to offer.

’71 is an extremely powerful film that is accurate in its portrayals of history while also serving up some great action and suspense sequences. The music, the acting, and the cinematography all work in tandem to create and atmosphere that is as wide and exposing as it is claustrophobic. There was never a boring moment in this movie and trying to figure out who was one who’s side only made it all the more interesting. This was mostly a festival movie that got a very limited release, but all of the great press it got was exactly what the movie deserved. Unfortunately, not enough people have seen this movie which means many people are missing out on a great film.

Casualties of War – Review

21 Feb

Some of my favorite war movies are these grand, sweeping spectacles with dazzling set pieces and all star ensemble casts added in just to make the entire experience feel even bigger. My prime example would be Saving Private Ryan, but films like Black Hawk Down and We Were Soldiers also fits the mold very. On the opposite side of the spectrum is Casualties of War, which is an example of a much smaller and personal conflict that occurred during the Vietnam War. This certainly doesn’t make for a less harrowing movie, especially under the direction of Brian De Palma, but the fact that this story actually happened makes it all the more intense.

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Max Erikkson (Michael J. Fox) is a fresh Vietnam recruit who is actually ready to serve his country overseas. He is put in a small squad of close knit soldiers led by the beloved and respected Sgt. Tony Meserve (Sean Penn). After his closest friend is killed in an ambush and with his tour coming to an end, Meserve starts losing his grip on the entire situation and decides that his squad is going to go to a nearby village on their next mission and kidnap a girl (Thuy Thu Le) to use as their slave along the way. The only person in the squad who sees how crazy and wrong this is is Eriksson, but the desires of the squad completely overtake any sense of right and wrong leaving Eriksson to get threatened and harassed at every turn. When the time to bring justice finally arrives, things only become more complicated when Eriksson’s superiors blindly turn away from the facts.

So Casualties of War may not be the grandest or most expensive war movie ever made, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t memorable. In fact, I’ll probably remember this one for a lot of different reasons. This film shows a war of conscience, individuality, and camaraderie occurring during the much larger Vietnam War. There are a lot of small things that make this movie work so well, and only one hinderance that I can think of. The entire film is pulled taut with suspense and a dreading sense that anything can happen since no one is looking in the jungles. This made for a pretty wild ride for most of the movie, and the only disappointment is that there wasn’t enough time spent on the ending of the film. That’s a pretty small complaint in comparison to all of the positives.

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Brian De Palma is a film maker every film buff knows and hopefully has a good understanding on how he makes his films. At first it seemed like a strange idea having De Palma directing a war film, but he really is a guy that can delve into any genre and after seeing this movie I know why he was the right choice. Other than way he directs his actors and gets the most out of their performances, he also has a very distinct signature style that brought a lot to Casualties of War. De Palma is known for enhancing the drama in his movie with split diopter shots, and it may be used the most effectively here. These shots allow a close up of someone’s face while different atrocities and acts of violence occur behind and around them, still clearly in view while the character may be facing away. It’s expertly used in this film.

Of course, none of this would work if the stars of this movie weren’t perfectly cast. I was mainly intrigued by this movie because I was curious to see how Michael J. Fox would play in a war film. I gotta, say I’m surprised with how much I believed his character. Opposite him is Sean Penn, as the film’s main antagonist. The way the movie’s set up, we like him just as much as Fox’s character does in the beginning, but as the story progresses, we start to evolve emotionally with Fox and start hating Penn’s character more and more. A young Sean Penn gives the best performance of the movie and works great with the much more innocent Michael J. Fox.

Casualties of War is a great but minor war film. It’s interesting to see a war movie deal with more individual crises, instead of looking at a particular battle or even the entire war as a backdrop. This is a very intense movie. It has an intense script, intense performances, and intense direction. Fans of war movies should definitely check it out for a pretty unique experience.