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.
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.
The Hurt Locker (2009)
by Steve Habrat
Despite what you may think of the Academy Awards, I think most who saw Kathryn Bigelow’s Iraq War film The Hurt Locker can agree that it was indeed the best film of 2009. Paranoid and frantic while taking absolutely no stance on the Iraq War, Bigelow masterfully sculpts a beast of a film, leaving us just as shaken up as one of the soldiers is after a bomb blast. It’s tough to wrap your head around the idea that a film dealing with a war that was as unpopular as the Iraq War would have no comments about the war itself. Instead, this is a boys being boys film, one where Bigelow presents three radical personalities (one timid, one by the books, and one who relentlessly lives on the edge), puts them in a bomb suit, and shakes them up violently to see what makes them tick. The film begins with the quote “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug”. The Hurt Locker turns out to be more than just a psychological study of the toll urban warfare takes on a soldier, but is also a movie about the crippling addiction of pushing the envelop and tempting death.
The Hurt Locker begins in 2004, just shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. After the grisly death of Staff Sergeant Matt Thompson (Played by Guy Pearce), the reckless and testy Sergeant First Class William James (Played by Jeremy Renner) comes in to take his place as a bomb diffuser. James joins Sergeant JT Sanborn (Played by Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Played by Brian Geraghty) and the group sets out on a string of missions including suicide bombers, car bombs, roadside bombs, etc. Sanborn and Eldridge try to keep their small group together and guarded where anything and anyone can become a threat. As James relentlessly tests the patience of Sanborn and Eldridge with his irresponsible behavior, Sanborn and Eldridge begin to fear for their own safety as well as begin to entertain ideas of finding a way to get rid of James. James, on the other hand, gets a thrill out of tempting death and his addiction to the “rush of battle” has caused him to become an outsider when playing the role of civilian.
Bigelow shies away from using familiar faces in her film, allowing the soldiers to seem like actual soldiers serving a tour of duty rather than a bunch of pampered actors sipping bottled Fiji water. This approach gives The Hurt Locker a heavy does of realism and randomness that can’t be matched by many other war films. Her fidgety camera that will unexpectedly zoom in on possible threats adds another layer of anxiety to the experience. Anyone can die at any second and Bigelow doesn’t want you to escape that nail biting dread. Pearce was the only recognizable actor in The Hurt Locker and he is knocked off in the first ten minutes of the film. Hell, if Pearce can get it, than any of these soldiers can bite the dust at any time! The Hurt Locker posses a documentary feeling throughout the course of its runtime, sometimes making you forget that you’re watching a movie. When snipers open fire on the group in one particular scene, you are practically ducking behind your coach and hugging the ground for dear life. Every battle doesn’t descend into quick cut gunfights, but rather embraces drawn out tension mixed with anticipatory trepidation of where the threat will come from next. Can you trust that man holding that cell phone? Is that car loaded with explosives? Are the citizens watching from their windows carrying a detonator or gun?
The Hurt Lockers presents three radical forms of the soldier. Eldridge represents the skittish soldier who fears death above all else, where every day could be his last. Sanborn is the by the books man who views his duty as just another day on the job. James is the one addicted to the “rush of battle” and views war as a drug. He can’t escape the thrill of it. Each performance is heavy and the relationship between the three main characters is never firing on all cylinders. Very rarely do they all click and work hand-in-hand, when they do they are alarmingly efficient. The most complexity lies in James, who cares more about the corpse of a boy who is currently having his guts ripped out and having them replaced with explosives over his own child back on American shores. Rarely does he talk about his wife, only when he is probed and had a little to drink. He struts towards bombs with his chin and helmet held high, loving every step he takes towards possible death. When he finds a bomb that could wipe out a large area, he rips off his bomb suit and goes about disarming the bomb comfortably. If it blows up, the suit won’t save him. But you have to wonder if he would really care if it did blow up. James also symbolically serves as the bottle that Eldridge and Sanborn are dropped into. When a rush shakes up James, the worst and the weakest points emerge from Sanborn and Eldrige
There is never a down moment in The Hurt Locker, one that doesn’t enthrall and hold your eyes to the screen. From the directing all the way to the script, the film is absolutely perfect, an atypical accomplishment for any film that makes its way out of Hollywood. The film opened the eyes of mainstream audiences to the talents of Jeremy Renner, who is finally becoming a household name. I firmly believe that The Hurt Locker is an instant classic, a film that will join the ranks of classics like Apocalypse Now and Platoon. In fact, the movie stills impacts me every time I see it, leaving a crater in stomach. It is a film I will never forget seeing in theaters for the first time and walking out of absolutely silent, verbally paralyzed by the sheer intensity of it. If you have never seen The Hurt Locker before, it may be wise to experience it with someone who already did just so they can have 911 ready. Why? Because you may pass out from holding your breath.
The Hurt Locker is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Battle: Los Angeles (2011)
by Steve Habrat
I think it is safe to assume that the true day that cinema died is March 11th, 2011. Sure, every year sees it’s fair share of rubbish movies discarded into your local megaplex to fill space, but none have been more absurd, shrill, dumb, meaningless, and excruciating than Battle: Los Angeles. The film is the textbook example of how not to make a movie, especially pure escapist entertainment at that. The film, which has no trace of a plot, looked promising. Did you happen to see the theatrical trailer? It was spellbinding and intriguing. The final product isn’t anywhere near what the trailer promised. Seriously, Hollywood, did anyone actually read the script to this thing? And who actually gave the filmmakers the go ahead? And who convinced a talented actor like Aaron Eckhart to actually star in the damn thing? Nothing about this film is remotely close to engaging and every time it hints at a clever set up, it pulverizes it with a barrage of gunfire, screaming, and camera work so shaky, it practically makes you want to vomit. I’ve been told I am lax when it comes to blockbusters of this breed, but Battle: Los Angeles has tried my patience and left me shell-shocked that Hollywood actually tried to pass it off as entertainment. They must take us for fools!!
Okay, so I’m sure by now you’re curious what the film is about? Well, the answer to that question is basically nothing. Aliens attack earth for our resources (Apparently, they want our water) and a bunch of meathead clichés fight back. They are lead by the retired Ssgt. Michael Nantz (Played by the determined-not-to-let the-film-crumble-into-smoldering-ruin Aaron Eckhart). Unfortunately, he can’t salvage the film’s set up by his acting alone. The rest of the characters don’t matter, as they are there to just be “Hoorah!” shouting targets for the aliens. Their mission is to hold LA at any cost. Why? Good question. They never tell us and we are supposed to just accept it. The film refuses to offer anything in the way of substance and opts for countless gunfights instead. It never attempts to offer up a developed hero we can stand behind and the rest of the marines that populate the squad are there to be shot up by the aliens. The film is the simple equation of explosion, run, scream, shoot, plot how to destroy the alien killing machines, repeat.
Usually, when I go to this type of film, I lower my expectations. I give myself over to it and roll with the punches. Sure, when the lights come up again in the theater, I will admit that what I just saw was pure crap. But, if it’s crap done right and with some obvious care of the material, then I will give the film some critical leeway. I will not tear the film to pieces if it at least made me care about a character, invoked something in the way of an emotion, thrilled me, entertained me, or transported me to a world I never knew I wanted to visit. This is precisely why we go to these types of movies. We go to explore a world we have never seen before with a larger-than-life hero and escape from our daily problems, if only for a little bit. And I will admit that my expectations were lowered when I started to see the irate reviews for this film. It broke my heart because the trailer had been so effective and for a while, the film was actually tolerable. I was curious to see what route the film was going to take. But after about twenty minutes, the project dive-bombed and it never regained itself. The major problem with all of it is the fact that it attempts to blind us to the fact that there is nothing underneath all of the rumble and special effects. There is no humanity to it. It’s all, sadly, for nothing.
Furthermore, the film is not only a chore to endure, but it features dialogue so painful, it’s offensive. It seems like the film was penned by a fifteen year old action junkie who watched District 9 way too many times and plays Call of Duty: Modern Warfare too often. The film is like an unholy mutation of two forms of unrelated entertainment that are both actually quite respectable. Any film that contains the line, which is someone offering up their help in dissecting one of the barely seen extraterrestrials: “Maybe I can help! I’m a vet!”, should have gone back to the drawing board. The film is loaded with these so-bad-they-actually-make-you-groan lines and it shamelessly delivers them with a straight face. Instead of thoughtful banter between the marines, it consists of them yelling: “Let’s show them who they fucked with!” and my personal favorite “We already had breakfast!” (This line, if you have seen the movie, has got to be the cheesiest lines in the history of cinema.).
Since this is a special effects spectacle (Well, it’s convinced that it is.), you are probably wondering how the effects are. This is the films strongest department, as the alien ships are actually quite creative. They resemble the silver disc-like flying saucers that we have seen in countless stock photos. The aliens, however, are not nearly as inspired, as they are a strange machine and flesh fusion that we never get a good look at. They march around in the distance making growling and clicking noises that would make the Prawns in District 9 roll their eyes. They have guns attached to their arms, which is another neat concept, but ultimately is obscured underneath more gunfights and explosions. And don’t even get me started about the final battle between the marines and a ship that rises up out of the ground. At one point, the aliens use a strange, spider-like death machine that fires off several rockets at once. You would think that the aliens would use more of these, as it is clearly a devastating weapon that proves to be quite a challenge to bring down. Unfortunately, it is loudly destroyed and that’s the last we see of this.
Battle: Los Angeles has succeeded in putting the final bullet in the head of blockbusters. Every single aspect of the film is so awful; I started to wonder if this was all just a sick joke on the audience. The film relentlessly bashes us over the head and practically causes a seizure from the shaky, strobe like editing. It raises more questions than it answers (How the hell are the televisions and internet still working even though LA has been bombed into oblivion?). I have never, in the twenty-one years I have been attending movies, wanted a film to end so badly as I did this one. It was excruciating. I will admit that even trying to form a proper way of describing how awful this film was to anyone is difficult, as it is dreadful on so many levels. It was appalling. Please, folks, for the love of God, do not see this movie. Do not show support for this kind of shit. That’s exactly what the film is. Shit. A stinking, steaming, ugly, disgusting, mean, lump of shit. The acting is shit, the script is shit, the cinematography is shit and the plot is shit. Battle: Los Angeles is without question, the worst film in recent memory. Somewhere, Battlefield Earth is breathing a huge sigh of relief.
Battle: Los Angeles is now ruining movies on Blu-ray and DVD.