Tag Archives: War

Outside the Wire

17 Jan

‘Outside the Wire’: If they survive their mission, do androids dream of military pensions?

By Tom MeekFriday, January 15, 2021

There’s no way drone warfare will ever be as cinematically visceral or thrilling as flesh and blood warriors going at it hand-to-hand in the trenches. Not going to happen. The Aaron Paul vehicle “Eye in the Sky” (2015), in which the “Breaking Bad” actor played a drone pilot on U.S. soil taking out baddies abroad, isn’t going to make anyone forget “Saving Private Ryan” (1998), let alone “Fury” (2014), the WWII chess game with tanks staring Brad Pitt. But what if you sent out the ’bots to settle things? Imagine BB-8 and Robocop teaming up to take out Isis insurgents, that could work, right? “Outside the Wire” pretty much weaves all the above into an antiwar anthem that’s ironically powered by some heavy-duty blam, blam, boom shoot-em-ups.

The film lands us in the near future, with much of the action taking place in the Baltic region. There’s a Cold War tang to the landscape and it feels as if all is calm in the Middle East, as if 9/11 never happened. Much of what drives the plot is heavy-handed hooey, but there are some big ideas touched upon and some great performances. First up we have Harp (Damson Idris), a U.S. drone pilot who, like Paul’s ace, sits in a high-tech shipping container somewhere in the United States as his drone surveys a hot military operation in an Eastern Bloc country. Up against the wire, Harp chooses to hit the site despite there being friendlies in the area, his thought being that it’s better to lose two and save 30. It gets him in some hot water, earning him an assignment over in said hot zone to learn what it’s like to be under fire. The troops in this near-future scape are supported by robotic units called Gumps – think of those cool Boston Dynamics creations and you’d have the right idea – but Harp’s assigned to aid a special ops mission led by Anthony Mackie’s uber intense Capt. Leo, who operates lone wolf style outside the wire.

The classified (and pat) crisis du jour is terrorist and rebel factions vying to get their hands on some nukes. The twist is that Leo’s an android. No, it’s not like finding out late that “Ash is a goddamn robot” in “Alien” (1979); it’s an early giveaway. Under his uniform Leo has the glowing blue internals that Alicia Vikander’s demurring AI had in Alex Garland’s sharp contemplation on creator and creation, “Ex Machina” (2015). Like Vikander’s android, Leo’s got a few computations going on beyond what his human handlers have given him, and on-the-job training for Harp at times calls to mind the good-cop, bad-cop hazing Denzel Washington laid down on Ethan Hawke in “Training Day” (2001).

The fun of “Outside the Wire” isn’t so much the narrative arc but the navigation of chaos – robotic, rebels and otherwise – by Harp and Leo. Leo’s physically gifted beyond human, a “Six Million Dollar Man” lite, but the film doesn’t ride that rail; he’s designed to appear human in all aspects (and feels pain). Some of the more interesting thinking points raised are Leo asking Harp why the Marines made him look as he does and not a blonde, blue-eyed QB (Do you dream of an electronic Tom Brady?), and in the occasionally abusive treatment of Gumps by their human military counterparts. Neither gets explored in any depth, but they are cause for provocative pause. The production values of “Outside the Wire” impress in scope and quality, and the combat scenes are well choreographed and orchestrated by director Mikael Håfström. In the end, the film succeeds on Mackie’s stoic magnetism and Harp’s wide-eyed vulnerability. Like the equally serviceable Netflix thriller “Extraction” (2020) starring Chris Hemsworth, “Wire” would be pure pap without its top-notch cast.

Da 5 Bloods

12 Jun
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Spike Lee’s latest, “Da 5 Bloods,” was supposed to get a theatrical release, but Covid-19 has changed the rulebook. Lee was also supposed to be a jury member at the Cannes Film Festival last month, but that’s postponed to 2021.

The gorgeously composed film, something of a Vietnam War reconciliation project, is a hot hodgepodge of socially conscious branding wrapped around a treasure quest thriller adorned with reappropriated cultural icons – namely Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” which crops up from time to time, most obviously in the form of a disco four of the five titular “bloods” visit upon their return to the country where they fought some 40 years earlier. “Da 5 Bloods” starts out with some archival imagery of the poetically loquacious Muhammad Ali, politically active blacks taking to the street and iconic clips of savagery from the Vietnam War with voiceover telling us that African Americans make up 11 percent of the population but made up 33 percent of the fighting force, posing the question: “Will history stop repeating itself?”

The “bloods” in question were part of an Army squad, and have reunited to return to ’Nam to gather the remains of a fifth blood (Chadwick Boseman, “Black Panther”) who was killed in action. They know loosely where his body is, as well as a hefty stash of gold bricks. Of the returning four, Delroy Lindo’s Paul stands out the most: He’s a Trump supporter (Lee and Lindo vociferously oppose Trump and his policies, but that’s kind of the point), wears a red MAGA cap throughout and has a prickly relationship with his son David (Jonathan Majors), who’s in tow. What ensues is a strange olio of “Grumpy Old Men” gone up river “Apocalypse Now” style before straying into “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” territory as the loot is also sought by a French opportunist (Jean Reno, “Le Femme Nikita” and “The Professional”) and a faction of Vietnamese nationalists who want to settle an old score with the “bloods.” It’s a lot to unpack as Lee continues to stir in revisionist history and social barbs. It’s a compelling mess that’s almost too rich for its own good, and a better war film (postwar film?) than Lee’s 2008 “Miracle at St. Anna.” Somehow too, Paul Walter Hauser (Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” and “Richard Jewell”) makes his way on scene and that MAGA hat, for better or worse, takes on its own persona.

It’s amazing to realize that Lee won his first Oscar only last year, for the “BlacKkKlansman” screenplay. He’s made a lot of films in his time, and not all have stuck their landing; but as a filmmaker, Lee’s always been a risk taker, and one with something to say. At the end of “BlacKkKlansman” Lee stitched in footage of the violent Proud Boy tiki march in Charlottesville; here there’s a “Black Lives Matter” chant with a hopeful flourish. (Lee also just completed the short “3 Brothers: Radio Raheem, Eric Garner and George Floyd,” which should require no explanation.) “Da 5 Bloods” may not be Lee’s finest film, but it comes at the right time.

1917

10 Jan

‘1917’: They’ve only a short time to save lives, and we go with them through the hell of war

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When it comes to war movies, there’s plenty about World War II but far, far less when it comes to chronicling its bloody predecessor. What exists is pretty rich and powerful, including classics such as “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930), “Gallipoli” (1981, and a classic!) and “Paths of Glory” (1957), which all captured the barbaric horror of trench warfare – inhumane hellholes of mass slaughter where heroics were measured by the last man standing. A couple of years ago, Peter Jackson fittingly embraced those lost heroes with the cinematic ode “They Shall Not Grow Old,” the “Lord of the Rings” director’s first documentary; and looking to add to that list, director Sam Mendes (“American Beauty” and “Skyfall”) drops a taut, face-paced shot of adrenaline on us in “1917,” which might not be long on plot, but pins you to the edge effectively as the clock ticks and ordinance explodes overhead.

Much will be made about the long-shot cinematography by Roger Deakins (“Fargo” and an Oscar winner for “Blade Runner 2049”). It’s absolutely brilliant, and any of those pooh-poohing it as a gimmick likely don’t understand the technical complexity involved. Deakins’ artistry gets put on display from frame one as we meet up with young lance corporals Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) lazing wearily in a field. Brought bleary-eyed before their C.O., they’re ordered to deliver a message to another allied outpost several clicks away: The grim circumstance of the situation is that communications are down, and if they fail to make the drop before the next sunrise, some 1,600 British soldiers will march into a trap and be slaughtered. Blake’s brother, as we’re informed, is among the unaware – the sense of urgency’s not just paramount, its personal.

From that brief, officious interlude, we’re off, following the lads down into the trenches, through the bomb burst, across the wire and into German-controlled French countryside. Along the way, mangled corpses hang from barbed wire entanglements and bob in the mud pits and streams they must cross. Then there’s the close encounters with the enemy, including the pilot of a downed biplane, when a brief moment of humanity turns deadly. The whole harrowing ordeal unfurls in real time, with the two constantly flushed, harried and under fire. In its pressure-cooked pace, “1917” invokes the same fraught “what could possibly go wrong next?” anxiousness that “Uncut Gems” rattled us with just weeks ago.

What’s most impressive about Mendes’ salute to valor is the seamless synergy of choreography, action and sound (both ambient and Thomas Newman’s soul-shaking score). It’s an immersive effect that embeds you with the soldiers as if you were there, following as they charge through the trenches and duck enemy fire. That POV, while wholly visceral and unique, also makes “1917” feel a bit like a video game, in which depth of character becomes secondary to the next eye-popping visual. Chapman and MacKay are plenty fine, mind you; they’re just not given the theatrical real estate to expand. It’s all action, all the time. Pauses along the frenetic path do give us a chance to breathe when the pair check in with higher-ups (played by Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch and Mark Strong), but then it’s onto the next bullet-blazing gauntlet.

Overlord

10 Nov

‘Overlord’: Remember, Greatest Generation also had Nazi zombies to deal with in WWII

 

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You can think of “Overlord” as “The Dirty Dozen” by way of “28 Days Later” – that’s right, the WWII zombie apocalypse. The film starts with an imaginative bang and keeps its nose above the average even while dipping into genre tropes.

We catch up with a platoon of lads soaring above the D-Day armada heading for Omaha Beach. Their mission: Drop behind enemy lines and take out a radio tower in a medieval church or the U.S. air cover will get picked apart and the assault will fail. There’s a lot on the line. I’m not sure why there’s a few dozen planes on this mission, because stealth would make more sense, but it makes for the film’s best scene as German forces light up the approaching aircraft. The choreography, both in CGI manipulation and the goings-on with the boys inside as large-caliber bullets rip through the fuselage, amazes; cut frenetically with deafening ambient sound, it feels ripped right out of “Dunkirk.” Few make it to the ground alive (you could call it “The Dirty Half-Dozen”). After a few skirmishes with Nazi forces, the lads Boyce (Jovan Adepo); the squinty, badass explosives expert Ford (Wyatt Russell); wisecracking New York tough guy (think Joe Pesci) Tibbet (John Magaro); and a couple of other Star Trek red shirts get into the small village with the help of a comely village girl (Mathilde Ollivier). She takes them in, but what’s up with auntie’s reptilian rasping from behind closed doors?

Boyce ultimately makes it into a church basement, which is pretty much Mengele’s little shop of horrors if he was trying to engineer a zombie army of grotesque berserkers. The whole thing feels like a game of “Wolfenstein” gone 3D, but more grim. It’s here too that the film starts to sag, though there is tension added by the fact Boyce is black – no way to blend in among white supremacists (though otherwise, pretty much nothing is made of race). “Overlord” is largely Adepo’s film, and he carries it well, with both wide-eyed terror and heroic resolve. Magaro and Ollivier are also quite good in their limited stints, but Russell, filling a role akin to his father Kurt’s badass John Carpenter roles in “The Thing” and “Escape from New York,” doesn’t quite seal the deal. The part begs for more swagger. It works, but just barely, and is something of a missed opportunity for all.

The film, directed by Julius Avery, is a product of J.J. Abrams’s Bad Robot company, though Abrams has stipulated adamantly that it’s not a “Cloverfield” film. The connection between those entries is arcane at best anyhow, and something of a distraction. In construct, “Overlord” is more ambitious than those films, and its production values noticeably higher; but, then again, it’s about the fate of the democratic world hanging on the resolve of a bag of mixed nuts caught up in zombie-land.

Viper Club

5 Nov

‘Viper Club’: ER nurse mother does all she can when her son got missing, but that isn’t much

 

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With “A Private War” on its way – about a journalist in the field abroad and the dangers she faces – “Viper Club” might just be an hors d’oeuvre for those hungry for such an unsavory endeavor. The film’s rote: A mother (Susan Sarandon) with a freelance video journalist son (Julian Morris) wrestles with uncertainty when he goes missing. Helen’s no weepy victim; she’s an ER nurse in an New York hospital who knows how to deal with trauma and hold it together inside. It’s she who tells the emotionally sputtering floor doctor how to tell parents their child didn’t make it after a school shooting – for which he receives a face slap.

At first Helen is comforted by the efforts of the FBI and NSA, but then they become aloof, evasive and want her to keep it mum. She wants an exchange like the infamous one for Bowe Bergdahl, but the agency says her son is not military. Frustration mounts and at work Helen gets her wings clipped for providing extra medicine to a comatose girl. She’s on the verge of breaking when Sam (Matt Bomer), a colleague of Andy’s, shows up and tells her how she can buy Andy back through the right channels. Sam’s so squeaky clean and certain of the process that you feel it’s all too good to be true, but Helen, desperate, goes all in.

It’s not a very uplifting film by any regard, but it does capture the frustration and isolation of such a sad and dreadful situation. The film also underscores the state of journalism, where freelancers hit the field without insurance or protection, just a loose cabal of supporters sewn together by necessity and without a net of their own. The film, directed by Maryam Keshavarz, has a made-for-TV sheen to – it is, in fact, a YouTube-backed venture, and the setting too is quite narrow: Besides a few blurry images of  war footage, most of the action takes place in Helen’s apartment or the white, bright, bustling ER ward. For the most part, we sit with Helen, tortured as she is and wishing something more would happen.

Eye in the Sky

18 Mar

Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky is a taut, real-time thriller that gets at the complex politics of drone warfare as agents on opposite sides of the ocean debate what is and is not acceptable collateral damage given a time-sensitive strike against a terrorist cell. Best known for the Academy Award-winning, South African gang tale Tsotsi, Hood and his writer Guy Hibbert create something that’s both intricate and delicate. Ultimately, Eye in the Sky is best described as a fusion of a staged play and spy thriller.

The action takes place in four locations around the globe, with the focus being a terrorist hotbed in Nairobi where a Western convert masterminds the next wave of bloody disruption. In a dark and cavernous military post somewhere in England, Col. Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) oversees Operation Egret, an effort to extract a young Englishwoman (Lex King) who has joined the Al-Shabaab terrorist group. Elsewhere, Kenyan Special Forces on the ground sit on the ready to move in as a drone — piloted by U.S. serviceman Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) from a cramped military facility in the vast Nevada desert — watches from above. The Brits and Kenyans hang onto Watts’s feed while an indigenous informant (Barkhad Abdi) maintains street-level surveillance with short-range animatronic drones launched from a parked van.

It’s a basic nab-and-grab gig until the target leaves the house in a shroud so they can’t get a positive ID and moves to a well-guarded compound akin to the one Osama bin Laden was taken in. Soon, a larger plot to bomb a public marketplace emerges and the focus of the mission switches from a capture to a kill operation. Continue reading

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

19 Jan

<i>13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi</i>

Much will be made about the political ramifications of 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, but the reality is Hilary Clinton is never mentioned once. The movie does, however, cast an unflattering light upon the nameless U.S. officials monitoring the situation from afar via drone while boots on the ground take fire from teeming insurgents and face insurmountable odds. Politics in this landscape are unavoidable, yet at the core, 13 Hours is a tale of grit, courage under fire and the Semper Fi brotherhood forged between a half-dozen men who draw paychecks from the CIA to keep their unappreciative Ivy-League-educated wonks safe in the middle of a terrorist hotbed within revolution-flipped Libya on the eleventh anniversary of 9/11.

Memories of the 2012 siege of the U.S. Embassy and the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens remain fresh, but the film, adapted from Mitchell Zuckoff’s similarly titled book by Chuck Hogan (The Town), casts a bigger net than merely regurgitating what was shown in news clips and spun politically at the time.

To get there, we sit on the shoulder of Jack Silva (John Krasinski), a former Navy SEAL saying goodbye to his family and heading overseas for the inevitable shitshow. The opening flash points blasted onto the screen “digital dossier style” informs us that, of the United States’ 292 diplomatic outposts in the world, 12 of them are in perilous areas, and two of those are in Libya. Right after Silva is picked up by his Global Response Staff (GRS) lead, Tyrone “Rone” Woods (James Badge Dale), there’s an immediate showdown with some heavily armed unfriendlies in a crowded alleyway. Bravado and bluster gets them through, but these buff, bearded lads can back it up. Continue reading

Fury Road

15 May

Ka-chunk, ka-chunk, ka-chunck, back in 1985, the “Mad Max” trilogy unceremoniously sputtered to an anticlimactic halt rather than going out on a furious, nitro-boosted blast. That tepid finale, “Beyond Thunderdome,” would become the post-apocalyptic Outback series’ weak link, an unsatisfactory follow up to its crowning production. That film, “The Road Warrior” (1981), not only elevated Mel Gibson to bankable star status in Hollywood, it seamlessly spun together an odd olio of diverse genres without faltering into camp and boasted some of the greatest real-action car stunts recorded on film. What director George Miller and Gibson revved up was an instant cult classic, a box office smash (it covered its budget in the U.S. in one week) and a can-do mashup from Down Under that would become a model that many would try to copy, but few could emulate. With “Mad Max: Fury Road,”(released May 15) the series is back on track, and boldly so. It took decades to get here, but it’s well worth the wait, something well oiled in lineage and ready to sear into the minds of a new generation of thrill-injected converts.

Continue reading

American Sniper

19 Jan

‘American Sniper’: Clint’s a good shot, but we don’t get man behind the scope

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It’s pretty amazing the quality of films Clint Eastwood has been belting out as he sails well past the octogenarian mark, not just because he’s making movies at that age, but because of the ambition and scope of those films. “Invictus” (2009) took on the shifting tides of apartheid in South Africa, “J. Edgar” (2011), the biopic of America’s long-standing top dick, spanned eras and presidential regimes as America was shaped during the mid-1900s – and then there was the ill-fated but well-intentioned musical “Jersey Boys” (2014). Now we get “American Sniper,” the true story of Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL in the Iraq War whose remarkable gift is the ability to take out anther human being a mile away. As the billing has it, Kyle, as a marksman,  has the most confirmed kills in U.S. military history.

011615i American SniperKyle’s a pretty good shot; so is Eastwood, conjuring up some hellish gun battles and tense door-to-door incursions with Kyle on the roof keeping his boys safe from the jihadist around the corner with an assault rifle or RPG. He’ll even take out a woman or a child with cool professionalism (but not without a touch of nervous deliberation, to denote his humanity and the conundrum of such an act) should they prove to be the chosen chalice of hateful mayhem. The scenes, rich and rife with conflict and drenched with sun and sand, feel borrowed from Katherine Bigelow’s haunting wartime chronicle “The Hurt Locker,” yet there’s no plumbing of the soul or genuine crisis of conscience in Eastwood’s endeavor. Kyle, played by Bradley Cooper – a fine enough actor, but likely destined for the Kevin Costner outpost of shaggy good looks, nonchalance and zero range – is a square piece of paper, dedicated in his mission to serve, tough, resilient and skilled at what he does, but not much more. Sure he’s got a wife and a mindset, but as the film has it, they’re like hastily chosen add-ons when buying a car.

The book about Kyle (which he penned with two other writers) was a New York Times bestseller and much has been made about the subject in many circles of the press challenging Kyle’s credibility (visit Slate for a start) and virtue. Eastwood, you remember, spoke comically and boldly to a chair at the 2012 GOP National Convention, and you can only guess that there’s a degree of skewed political undertow in the film’s patriotic envelopment. Like the 2013 film “Lone Survivor,” the ostensible pursuit of jingoistic justification and boundaries of true events limit the expansion of character and sociopolitical exploration of war and intertwining of diverse cultures with mismatched agendas. As a result, both films detail harrowing ordeals without being so. From the film, there’s little doubt as to Chris Kyle’s commitment as a protector of his country or as a father, but when the film ends (and it’s on a (and it’s on a tragic note that developed as the film went into production), the definition of who Chris Kyle was remains a mystery.

A lump of coal and a fruitcake

25 Dec

‘Unbroken’ and ‘The Gambler’: Directors, cast don’t quite sell two true-to-life tales

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Few probably gave much heed to the actual words of Sony execs in emails unearthed by the now notorious cyberattack launched (purportedly) by North Korea. Just the spectacle of smug Tinseltown backbiting itself was enough, as big-ticket stars such as Adam Sandler were debased along with Angelina Jolie, who was tagged as “talentless.”

122414i UnbrokenThe Jolie slam gave me pause. She’s always conducted herself in ways that have invited ridicule (her blood vial marriage to Billy Bob Thornton, the incestuous podium posing with her brother and the weird, estranged relationship with dad, actor Jon Voight). But how could the woman who won an Academy Award (for “Girl Interrupted”) and made an impressive directorial debut with “Blood and Honey” – a provocative, Bosnian-Serbian updating of “Romeo and Juliet” – be “talentless”? Continue reading