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Lone Survivor (2013)

Lone Survivor 2013

by Steve Habrat

Way back in 2012, one of the first films that kicked off the summer movie season was director Peter Berg’s sci-fi Hasbro epic Battleship, which ended up being one of the biggest flops at the box office that summer. Whether you loved or loathed Berg’s aquatic aliens-vs.-humans blockbuster, it was clear that he is a very patriotic gentleman. A little over a year and a half later, Berg returns to the big screen with Lone Survivor, a breathtaking true war story that sheds the cartoonish Navy propaganda of Battleship and embraces a hair-raising grittiness that drops you right into the cold heart of combat. While Lone Survivor can be accused of bookending itself with the typical war movie sentiments (brotherly bonds, lump-in-the-throat jingoism), the film avoids clichéd mediocrity through the fluid chemistry between its hardened cast members, it’s pulse-pounding gunfights, and a shell-shocking brutality that leaves you sore and aching for hours after seeing it. More importantly, Berg works in a nerve-racking moral debate, which he uses to set the character’s fates into doomed motion.

Lone Survivor tells the true story of four Navy SEALs, Petty Officer Second Class Marcus Luttrell (played by Mark Wahlberg), Lieutenant Michael Murphy (played by Taylor Kitsch), Sonar Technician Matt Axelson (played by Ben Foster), and communications officer Danny Dietz (played by Emile Hirsch), who were sent into the rocky hills of Afghanistan to gather surveillance on Ahmad Shahd, a high-ranking member of the Taliban. The SEALs set up camp just outside the village where Shahd is believed to be hiding, but their position is soon compromised after three goat herders happen to stumble upon their position. The SEALs take the goat herders prisoner, but after a lengthy debate about whether to kill them or let them go, the SEALs decide to let them go back to their village. But soon after being letting them go, the goat herders quickly report the run-in to Shahd, who orders a small army of Taliban soldiers to take to the hills and smoke out the Americans. With poor radio connection and no way out, the outnumbered SEALs are forced to engage the charging Taliban forces in a gunfight until they are able to radio the nearby American base for extraction or reinforcements.

Given the film’s title, it is no secret that only one soldier (Luttrell) makes it out alive from this confrontation. Still, Berg ups the film’s tension considerably, and he applies a bruising realism that practically blasts you from your chair. Berg begins the film with stock footage of soldiers in basic training, reconfiguring themselves to be able to endure the intensities of war and the unforgiving environments where they may fight. It’s pretty captivating stuff, and you can’t help but admire these men for doing this, but when our four protagonists are wedged into the rocky Afghani terrain and taking bullets from all angles, it’s truly difficult to imagine that the wounds suffered are met simply with loud groans and a quick grits of their teeth. Rest assured that realism wins out, especially when a heavily wounded Dietz goes into shock after taking a few bullets and having several of his fingers shot off. And then there is the violence itself, which ranges from a nauseating decapitation early on, and then culminates in compound fractures, shrapnel protruding from legs, and spraying gunshot wounds that are executed with exploding squibs and red corn syrup, which gives the violence an extra punch that isn’t shaken off easily. What truly is astonishing is that these four men were able to keep their composures, even after tumbling down rocky cliffs and clearly suffering unimaginable internal injuries that must have been excruciating.

Lone Survivor #2

Berg’s swipes at realism are also aided by the performances from Wahlberg, Kitsch, Foster, and Hirsch, who all seem to instantly click as a unit. Over the past several years, Wahlberg has worked hard to establish himself as a serious actor, and with Lone Survivor, he continues to earn our respect. His performance as Luttrell is one that the audience really feels as he drags himself over jagged rock and collapses in a nearby stream. Kitsch, who was the star of Berg’s Battleship, gives an authoritative performance as Mike Murphy, the group’s leader who has the final say over how to deal with their grim situation. Foster, an actor who has always remained shy of the mainstream, contributes an impressive performance as Axelson, a man who was willing to do whatever it took to keep his fellow brothers alive. Then we have Hirsch as Dietz, the boyish communications officer that slips into shock after having several of his fingers taken off by whizzing bullets. When they are all together, the group really makes the brotherly camaraderie seem natural, even if they sometimes flirt with burly clichés. Rounding out the main cast is Eric Bana as Lieutenant Commander Erik S. Kristensen, who attempted to lead the rushed rescue mission that ended tragically. Also on board is Ali Suliman as Mohammad Gulab, the kindly Afghani villager who was willing to do whatever he could to protect the horribly injured Luttrell.

While Lone Survivor is certainly gripping and unforgiving, the film isn’t completely immune to a few creeping clichés. There are the expected slow-motion acts of heroism that coax tears to the eyes of the viewer, and the brotherly bonds, while convincing, are laid on pretty thick. Clichés aside, Lone Survivor’s real problem shows up when the guns start blazing and the grenades start exploding. The action looks, sounds, and flows spectacularly, but Berg allows it to overshadow his human subjects, which results in speculation that the filmmakers may have cared more about making an action picture rather than remaining fixed on the men who fell in this fight. Still, these complaints are minor, and they are neutralized by the moral debate at the film’s turning point. Watching the SEALs deliberate the fates of the three goat herders—a group that consists of an elderly man, a teenager, and a young boy—is something that will really ignite conversation when the credits roll. Overall, stretches of Lone Survivor will feel slightly familiar to most audience members, but Berg and his cast do a fine job at paying tribute to the men who lost their lives during Operation Red Wings. It’s a tribute made with scorching realism and teary-eyed patriotism, sending you away with a renewed appreciation for those who lay down their lives for freedom.

Grade: B+

We Own the Night (2007)

by Steve Habrat

The crime drama is a tough genre for a director and screenwriter to take a crack at. The genre is hopelessly enamored by loyalty, honor, and betrayal, all which have been done to death by this point. The last truly refreshing take on the genre was Martin Scorsese’s 2006 gangster epic The Departed, which was a beast of a picture that snagged Best Picture at the Oscars. The following year, director James Gray released We Own the Night, a period crime drama that tried to ride the wave of The Departed. Sadly, We Own the Night doesn’t make a tiny chip in The Departed but that doesn’t mean that the film doesn’t have aspects that one can admire. Slower and tighter, We Own the Night never really becomes a white knuckler due to some clichés that are just unforgivable but this grimy tale of two brothers on opposite sides of the law will actually manage to disturb you ever so slightly. The film also boasts a knockout performance from Joaquin Phoenix as nightclub manager Bobby Green, a shaky tough guy who wears the mask of cool like a professional. It is a haunted performance that isn’t easily shaken once you have walked away from We Own the Night and it single handedly makes the film worth your while. If you are not interested in Phoenix, see the film for its kick-in-the-head violence that actually manages to wipe away some of the glamour that Hollywood has attached to onscreen nastiness.

We Own the Night begins in November 1988, on the mean streets of New York City, where crime runs rampant. The law is nearly powerless as the criminals snicker at the police’s futile attempts to clean up the streets. It is in the thick of the crime that we meet Bobby Green (Played by Phoenix), a nightclub manager who enjoys doing blow in the company of his Puerto Rican girlfriend Amada Juarez (Played by Eva Mendes). Life is good for Bobby and the future promises to be even better but soon, his father, police Deputy Chief Bert Grusinsky (Played by Robert Duvall) and his brother, Captain Joseph Grusinsky (Played by Mark Wahlberg), warn Bobby that the owner of Bobby’s club, Marat Buzhayev (Played by Moni Moshonov), may be involved in smuggling drugs into the United States. After someone close to Bobby is gunned down by a Russian hitman, Bobby decides to become an informant for the police even though he has worked hard to keep his family’s ties to the law a secret. This leads to the capture of Vadim Nezhinski (Played by Alex Veadov), the nephew of Buzhayev. Just when Bobby thinks everything is back to normal, Nezhinski escapes from jail and vows to find Bobby and kill him.

Much heavier on the drama than the thrills, We Own the Night may not please those who are hoping for tons of shoot-em-up action. Sure, there are a few action scenes to speak of, all of which are tense and in your face. A raid on a drug house has some of the most stomach churning violence you are ever likely to see in a mainstream Hollywood film. It is pretty vicious to say the least and I actually liked this aspect of the film. All I will say is that the raid features some truly nasty scenes of people getting shot in the head. Another scene finds Bobby and Amada caught in a terrifying car chase in a heavy downpour. I never thought that a Hollywood car chase would make the hair on my arm stand up but We Own the Night has changed that. It helps that there is absolutely no music to tell us how to feel. It is just gunshots, shattering glass, and screaming, all which fry your nerves relentlessly. It ended up being my favorite sequence in the entire film. The rest of the film is a slow burner, one that hits you with thorny family relations. It is about Bobby trying to mend his relationship with his firm father and his brother who thinks the world of their father. It is these scenes that resonated the most with me, even if I was reminded about other, better crime dramas that dealt with complicated family relations and tensions (I’m looking at your, Godfather).

While aspects of the script may not stand out, the performances cover up some of the familiarity within We Own the Night. Phoenix is the one who really brings his A-game and knocks it out of the park. You are drawn to him from the get go and he refuses to let you pull away. He is almost always silky smooth, even when he is higher than a kite while his father lectures him about his lifestyle. When he explodes into rage, take cover. While he isn’t a cold-blooded gangster, he sure as hell isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. Wahlberg plays largely the same role that he did in The Departed but here he is a bit watered down. He is more family man than hothead with a mouth that would make a sailor blush. Duvall is his usual tip-top self, another veteran of the organized crime genre. Here he plays the determined good guy who is a little past his prime. I sometimes think he saw the clumsiness in the script but he rolls with punches gracefully. Mendes is the one without real purpose as she just acts as the sex appeal while the boys all flex the masculine muscle. Then there are the two Russian bad guys who are your typical gangsters who make lots of threats. They won’t make much of an impression on you.

We Own the Night also has some gritty set design and wardrobe detail to really yank you out of the present. We Own the Night does find a nippy chill of unease slowly circling the edges of the action but it never engulfs the film fully. When this film is good, it is really, really good but when it is average, it is really, really average. The film is never flat out bad, but it just stinks of a paint-by-numbers approach. This causes the two-hour runtime to really drag its feet at points, which had me checking my watch one or two times. Still, I was mesmerized by how much dedication Phoenix pours into this project and I applaud him for it. He comes out on top and leaves even the veteran Duvall chewing on his dust. It leaves you wanting so much more from this guy! I really have a hard time understanding why every single crime drama that comes out wants to touch the sky. Only a small handful of them truly do while the rest come close but end up falling hard. With We Own the Night, Gray really tried to run with the big dogs but these mean streets belong to Scorsese and Coppola, two men who really know how to construct a crime drama. Gray is left just re-evaluating his approach to the genre and thinking of more ways to impress the ones who rule this genre with an iron fist.

Grade: C+

We Own the Night is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Ted (2012)

by Steve Habrat

I may upset tons of people when I say this but I have never been the biggest fan of Seth MacFarlane’s Family Guy, the wildly popular animated television series that relies heavily on making one random joke about pop culture after another to the point where I almost get sick to my stomach. I’ve always found the jokes lazy, with MacFarlane hoping you’ll giggle at all the randomness he fires at you at rapid speeds. He’s also gone on to create two other animated series that have almost identical set-ups (American Dad and The Cleveland Show), one worse the other. With the popularity of Family Guy, you knew MacFarlane would eventually make the jump to the big screen and now he has with the surprisingly funny and warmhearted Ted, the first good comedy of the 2012 summer.  If you worry that Ted’s premise will wear itself out, you are in for a pleasant surprise. Focusing on a raggedy teddy bear that has magically sprung to life, Ted has a charm you just can’t resist, no matter how hard you try. This profane little party animal will also surprise you with his humility he demonstrates late in the game, something I was not expecting at all but ended up really getting into. Yet the magic of Ted comes from the way that MacFarlane manages to work his pop culture referencing gags into a live action film and for the first time, making it seem like there was some actual thought behind all those geeky references.

On Christmas day, 1985, young Boston outcast John Bennet (Played by Bretton Manley) makes a wish that the cuddly teddy bear he received Christmas morning would come to life and be his best friend forever. John wakes up the next day and realizes that his wish has come true. After horrifying his parents with his creepy new buddy, John and “Teddy” scamper off to conqueror the neighborhood. Teddy or Ted (Voiced by Seth MacFarlane), as he quickly becomes fond of, begins to catch the attention of the media and he rises to be a huge sensation across America. The fame fades and the years pass with Ted getting into trouble here and there. We soon come to present day where Ted and John (Played by Mark Wahlberg) are still shacking up together, living in a cloud of marijuana smoke and half-consumed beers. John works a dead end job at a car rental company that appears to be going nowhere fast but he still manages to get by. John is in a happy relationship with the sweet Lori (Played by Mila Kunis), who is forgiving of John’s loser lifestyle and beams at every moment they have together. Yet on their fourth anniversary, John fails to purpose to Lori, forcing her to demand that John pick her or Ted. John begins trying to grow up for Lori but the raucous Ted makes that a difficult task, especially when he gets his own apartment. Ted also finds himself harassed by a bizarre father (Played by Giovanni Ribisi) and his overweight son, who will stop at nothing to make Ted a part of their family.

It’s not hard to see what MacFarlane is saying with Ted, as he presents a man-child who just can’t let go of his teddy bear (or his free spirited youth, if we are going to identify the metaphor). Only when the man-child lets go of that teddy bear, will he truly be a man for his gushing gal pal. After some recently iffy starring roles, Wahlberg is back on track speaking through a thick Bahston accent and trading droll geek dialogue with the sexy Kunis, who couldn’t seem more at home here. The two work great together, making you wonder why nobody has tried pairing them up before. Every time you think John has finally gotten on the right track, in crashes the vulgar best buddy to rip him away from his adult responsibilities. Before separating, Ted and John would plant themselves on their sofa, rip bongs, and drone on and on about why Flash Gordon is the best movie ever made. When Ted gets his own place, things really spin wildly out of control into booze-filled blowouts that have them doing cocaine with one of their idols (I won’t spoil the surprise). Yet it was those little moments between John and Lori that forces some of the stuffing over in Ted and makes way for a human heart.

When we aren’t going “awwww” over John and Lori, you will be doubled over laughing over the slovenly title character as he curses his way into your heart. He ends up becoming a new pop culture icon himself! Ted is a skillfully illustrated little CGI creation that has been carefully fleshed out to make us never grow tired of his reckless, foul-mouthed behavior. Despite the fact he is a computer image, he really holds the screen, making us cease to see him as an expensive animation and view him more as a flesh and blood character. It helps that MacFarlane stuffs him with quite a bit of emotion that he smartly reveals at just the right time. When Ted realizes the damage he has done to John and Lori’s relationship, he goes above and beyond to really help his buddy out, actually realizing that he has been a horse’s ass and admitting it. This isn’t a fast one pulled by MacFarlane (thankfully). I kept waiting for Ted to revert back to being an asshole, and while he does in a way (he is more smartass than asshole), this character actually does undergo a major metamorphosis even before the final chase sequence is thrown in to for the hell of it.

Ted does come with a few rips and tears in his matted little body, mostly from the half-conceived weirdo father and his even bigger weirdo son, who are supposed to be the villains in all of this. Ribisi’s Donny is game to get freaky and he sure does in the final stretch, but Ted could have been a really great movie without his character being on board. His son does provide one of the film’s funnier one-liners but it doesn’t justify their inclusion. Without them, this comedy could have been fifteen minutes shorter and all the better for it. Community’s Joel McHale shows up as Lori’s frisky boss who constantly tries to impress her with all of his money. He quietly steals the show from everybody else and quite frankly, there wasn’t enough of him in the film. Ted also features a handful of other celebrity cameos that mirror MacFarlane’s fascination with random pop culture referencing. Don’t get me wrong, they are pretty clever and they will definitely catch you off guard. Another inspired decision by MacFarlane is having Patrick Stewart acting as the storybook narrator who goes off on a hilarious rant about how bad 2006’s Superman Returns was.

Another flaw that really bothered me in the opening half of Ted was the way that MacFarlane would undercut his own jokes. He would deliver a good one, think he was on a role, and then go too far with it, sucking the laughs right out of the moment. It happens a number of times near the beginning, sending Ted into a slight tailspin early on. Luckily, MacFarlane rebounds and the second half doesn’t have a dull moment. Overall, it is great to see MacFarlane showing a bit of range with Ted. After making millions off of rehashing the same material with slightly different characters, MacFarlane proves he could be a comedic force to reckon with on the big screen. He can do crass with the big boys and he can tell jokes until it hurts. If you were looking for another reason to see Ted, check it out for the chemistry between Kunis and Wahlberg, a pairing that I hope to see on the big screen again sometime. Even if you’re not a fan of MacFarlane’s television work, there is still much to enjoy in Ted. Plus, you have to give MacFarlane credit for producing a summer comedy that is worthy of the ten bucks you will spend on it.

Grade: B