Universal via Everett Collection
Lone Survivor isn't a film for the faint of heart. It's a film that beats you down and only lets you up for a few precious moments before the credits roll, but that emotional throttling is what helps make the film such a powerful experience.
Peter Berg's Lone Survivor tells the story of Operation Red Wings, primarily focusing on a group of four Navy SEALs who are sent to the mountains of Afganistan to capture or kill a member of the Taliban. The plan goes wrong, and the team has to fight for their lives to escape the enemy-infested area. The film does a marvelous job of ratcheting up the tension before collapsing into its main action sequence, one that is as thrilling as it is unsettling. The long sequence brings forth memories of the infamous D-Day opening of Saving Private Ryan, except this film's fire-fight stretches out the violence like a medieval torture device. The langourous scene is, at times, hard to sit through. Each moment slips by in coiled tension. It's undoubtedly uncomfortable, and the film makes a point to never make the violence fun or enticing. The action isn't consequence-free, and every bullet fired carries weight, making the scenes brutal and unrelenting because of it. The film takes on the aura of a horror movie that wants you to feel every second that ticks by, and director Berg makes sure that a pressing hopelessness starts to weigh on the viewer just as it does on the soldiers.
Mark Wahlberg is plenty capable as Marcus Lutrell, a member of the SEAL unit that is sent on the mission. The supporting cast plays its parts admirably by believably infusing a diverse set of personalities and values into the soldiers, while still keeping them in tune with the same military culture that governs much of their thoughts and actions. There's a great scene where a difficult decision has to be made, and the viewer gets to see the different directions to which some of the character's moral compasses are tuned. Sometimes the right thing can mean different things to different people when the risk of death is on the table. The real standout in the cast is Ben Foster, whose SO2 Matthew Alexson swirls with barely contained fury. He is darkly intense and has electric screen presence that really starts to manifest when the bullets star flying and things become dire.
Universal via Everett Collection
For all the good will that the film builds up in its first and second act, the final third of the film hits some snags as history demands that the story take itself to a different location, sacrificing some of the tension that it has built up. In the last 30 minutes of the film, there are some odd tonal choices that don't gel with the tension brimming in the first half. A comedic scene involving a language barrier stands out in particular.
The movie makes a point to steer clear of any political judgment, and it doesn't try to lay blame for the botched mission on any one head. And while the film never outwardly states and opinion on the conflicts that America found itself embroiled in during this time period, the searing brutality depicted in the movie highlight that no one should be subjected to the pain that these men were faced with. Made abundantly clear is the soldiers' willingness to drop everything and serve their country the best way they know how. Lone Survivor tries to honor the soldier, but not glorify war.
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Lone Survivor is at its best when it makes you feel the worst. It gives soldiers their due reverence by showcasing the true terror of the battlefield, and while the film does start to sag a bit in its third act, it's still more than worth the experience in order understand the consequences of war, and its toll on the people in the trenches.
The genesis of Universal's 47 Ronin is almost as tragic as the actual history that the movie is culling from. As the story goes, Universal saw the sprigs of talent sprouting from fresh faced director Carl Rinsch, whose previous experience was limited to just a couple of commercials and a nifty short film. The studio decided to ease the new director into feature filmmaking by cutting him what amounts to virtually a blank check, and giving him charge over a multi-national samurai fantasy epic. Almost impossibly, the film isn't a complete disaster. It's just a minor one.
47 Ronin follows the classic story of the titular team of warriors, a group of disgraced samurai who band together to seek revenge against a merciless warlord that betrayed and killed their master. But this isn't your grandfather's version of the story. 47 Ronin is an international affair, and it's covered with a veneer of Japanese mysticism and a thick coating of Hollywood lacquer, but east meets west rather uncomfortably, and it's mostly due to Keanu Reeves. Reeves' character is clearly crowbarred into the story that has no room for him, and it's plainly obvious where the seams of the story were stretched in order to patch him into the narrative. Reeves plays Kai, a half Japanese, half English orphan who is adopted by the samurai clan. His character serves no real purpose beyond being white, slicing things until they die, and playing the male lead of the most superfluous love story of the year. Rinsch simply can't make the inclusion of the character feel organic in any way, and "Kai" ends up feeling like a calculated studio move. It's a shame that the film spends so much time on Reeves when the real star is clearly Hiroyuki Sanada, who plays off the stoic samurai most believably among the rest of the cast.
It's also shame that with all the mysticism pumped into the story, there's no magic in the actual center of the film, the ronin themselves. The only personality trait a samurai is allowed to possess seems to be unerring stoicism, and between all 47 ronin, there are probably only three distinct samurai with any discernible character traits beyond an intense need to brood, and you'll probably only remember those three by the time the credits roll, only to promptly forget about them only a few hours later. Thankfully, Rinko Kikuchi's slinky and treacherous witch adds some much needed camp and personality to the mostly forgettable human characters.
And that's the issue with 47 Ronin. It's largely forgettable. When your film takes on a historical legend like the tale of the 47 ronin, a story that has been told and told again ad nauseum over the years, you really need to justify your own version. There are reels and reels of film dedicated to this story, and 47 Ronin doesn't manage to add anything significant to the canon. It promises to weld myth and history together, but does so clumsily, and while some of the action scenes are exciting, especially a particularly inspired set piece that involves the ronin noiselessly breaking into a heavily guarded fortress, the film is a bore when it's not clanking swords together.
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47 Ronin is a film with many stories. As much as it is a tale about the revenge of four dozen masterless samurai, it's also the tale of an inexperienced filmmaker swallowed up by the enormity of blockbuster filmmaking. Most of all though, It's proof that you shouldn't cram Keanu Reeves into a movie that doesn't really need Keanu Reeves. What you're left with is a dull and bloated samurai epic that has its moments, but feels largely unnecessary.
WARNING: The following posts contains major spoilers for Evil Dead.
Evil Dead fans have been gobbling up every tidbit of information about the 2013 remake of Sam Raimi’s 1981 camp thriller, including the biggest twist on the theme: replacing Bruce Campbell’s Ash as the star of the movie with Jane Levy’s possessed Mia. The shift in focus was an easy peg for celebration on the part of women seeking a more level gender playing field in horror. Mia is giving us a potentially feminist alternative to Ash, but the change could also be a simple refresh button choice on the part of director Fede Alvarez. It’s Mia blood-drenched moments in the final half hour of the film that truly makes the role far more prominent and begs the question, does Mia’s powerful role change things for women in horror?
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The answer is slightly more complicated than a straight “yes.” At the end of the film, Mia is buried by her brother as a means of killing the demon inside of her and when she comes back as herself, she’s eventually the only living member of her group of friends, forced to defeat the demon herself. Mia not only takes Ash’s role as the star, she takes his role as the movie’s central badass, and one who eventually sends the demon back to hell with a blood-covered chainsaw as blood rains from the sky. She’s resourceful, smart, and when she’s backed into a corner, she’s the one with the last minute surprise that saves the day: She rips off her own hand when she’s trapped (also an homage to Ash) instead of being rescued by a miraculously surviving friend with the element of surprise (like the spectacled buddy who saves her brother David earlier in the film). Basically, Mia not only survives: she absolutely pummels evil.
Still, she’s not the shining beacon of feminism, exactly. This last-ditch effort could be categorized somewhat broadly as the classic horror trope of the "final girl." She’s the last one standing, she’s rarely the blonde, and she steps up to defend herself in the face of death. It’s a story we’ve seen again and again, but up until characters Buffy Summers won our hearts on Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, the final girl was generally the mousy brunette whose purity was her main trait. Buffy (as well as characters like Sidney from the Scream movies) was very sexually active, dispelling the notion that the final girl had to be chaste. Like Sarah Michelle Gellar’s heroine before her, Levy’s character takes it a step further.
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Mia, whose trip to the ill-fated cabin where she will spend the worst night of her life was inspired by her recent near fatal overdose of cocaine, is somewhat of a degenerate. She's not a sweet babysitter or a straight-A student or some pure being about to be corrupted, like Cheryl who served as the devil’s vessel in the original The Evil Dead. And with that, she's opening the definition of the final girl even further. It's something horror expert and Women in Horror Month founder Hannah Neurotica (Forman to the non-horror community) says is happening more and more in the genre, "One of the things about the final girl, back then, was that she didn’t do drugs, she didn't have sex, she didn't do anything immoral. Now we're seeing more of a shift that girls aren't actually going to be punished for engaging in those activities."
And that's just it. Generally, the more free-spirited, sexual girls generally go down first or at least earlier in the hierarchy of horror movie slayings, while the good girl is the one who triumphs. To some extent, Evil Dead doesn't abolish that tendency. Take Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore) in Evil Dead: the ditzy, blonde girlfriend of Mia’s brother David (Shiloh Fernandez) is scoffed at by nurse and know-it-all Olivia (Jessica Lucas) as yet another of David’s many girls. She’s primed for falling prey to the villain (or devil taking possession of anyone he can get his hands on, in this case). She's not a prime candidate to be the final girl and that's still the case. That being said, she's certainly more of a "good girl" than drug-addled Mia, who isn't exactly set up for the final girl slot either.
For Levy's heroine, the places at which she breaks the conventions of the final girl aren't limited to her nasty little habit. Unlike final girls before her, including Jamie Lee Curtis' classic Laurie from the Halloween series, Mia isn't a babysitter with no need for depth or a backstory. She is full of rage, built on the notion that her brother abandoned her when their mother was dying in the hospital. We sort of connect the bridge between her anger over her past and her life-threatening dependence on drugs, and suddenly, she's not just a vessel for the spirits awakened by the book of the dead. She's a full character who comes into the film with her own agenda, acting out motivations and demons of her own. In many ways, she's introducing that side of horror to a mainstream audience thanks to a wave that has been building and continues to build in the genre.
Of course, it must be stated that Mia isn't some heroine gleaming in the face of a misogynistic genre. She’s a member of a growing group — and a sign that the shift that began with final girls like Alien’s Ripley is not so much a trend (which implies that it’s a temporary wave), but a permanent change in the fabric of mainstream horror. "A lot of horror films now are taking the character of the final girl and experimenting with it and taking it in different directions and that is a feminist act regardless of whether or not it was intended because it's allowing women to have more to them and a role in the genre and that alone is progress," says Neurotica.
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It's something that touches all areas of the genre, not just Evil Dead’s slasher category. In television we're seeing characters like The Walking Dead's Michonne and any character Jessica Lange plays on American Horror Story acting as not only formidable presences on screen, but as actual draws for audiences. Entire movie franchises like Underworld and Resident Evil are built on the shoulders of women fighting the forces of horror. Part of that can be attributed to the fact that, well, Kate Beckinsale looks pretty hot fighting vampires. The other factor is that the base of horror fans is diversifying, and fast.
A quick look at TV ratings for horror hits proves that. According to Ad Week, Walking Dead draws more women than supposedly lady-friendly shows like The Real Housewives of Atlanta or New Girl, and Fox's bloody serial killer drama The Following ranks high among women as well. And of course, there's the Resident Evil series, which is a billion dollar franchise and has plenty of female fans of its own. Horror that pleases both sexes by delivering full characters with depth as well as guts on both sides of the gender divide isn’t just a step for leveling the playing field and raising the bar on quality horror, it's a necessary way to make sure a film appeals to the full breadth of horror fans.
Evil Dead's Mia may not be breaking ground, but she's performing the very important task of keeping the progression of strong women in horror moving forward. The more opportunities we have to see a woman so badass she'll rip off her own hand to kill the devil, the better.
Follow Kelsea on Twitter @KelseaStahler
[Photo Credit: TriStar Pictures; 20th Century Fox Television]
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The story is the same. Poor little orphaned Oliver Twist (Barney Clark) has had a hard life. Either toiling in a horrible workhouse or being beaten at a miserable foster home it's hasn't been easy for the 9-year-old. The boy finally runs away to London where he is immediately spotted by the Artful Dodger (Harry Eden) a wily pickpocket. He whisks the sickly Oliver off to meet Fagin (Ben Kingsley) the leader of the pickpocket gang. Under the watchful guidance of Fagin and the other boys Oliver is taught the fine art of lifting. But when he finds himself at the wrong place at the wrong time and is falsely accused for a theft Oliver is inadvertently taken under the wing of the kindly Mr. Brownlow (Edward Hardwicke) a rich man who adopts the boy. Finally some happiness right? Not if you're in a Dickens novel. No sooner is Oliver contentedly ensconced with Brownlow when tragedy strikes again. Fagin's business partner the utterly cruel Bill Sykes (Jamie Forman) kidnaps Oliver and forces him to help them rob Brownlow's house. And when that doesn't go so well Bill then wants to get rid of Oliver. Only with the help of Bill's mistress Nancy (Leanne Rowe) who feels sympathy for Oliver can the boy be reunited with the only person who has ever showed him any kindness.
In a film full of fine performances from relatively unknown British actors Ben Kingsley stands out--and rightly so. Finally Kingsley has been given a part worthy of his talent and the Oscar-winning actor plays one of literature's more memorable characters to the hilt. Part Shakespeare's Falstaff part Lord of the Rings' Gollum Kingsley enjoys playing up Fagin's sprightly nature and physicality. Fagin is a merry prankster even if he's all hunched over and craggy faced with a high squeaky voice and a long moldy beard. But Fagin suffers. He doesn't really want to corrupt young Oliver. He knows the boy is pure of heart but he's too afraid of getting caught--or of evoking Bill's wrath--to let Oliver go. Kingsley subtly shows this internal struggle of good and evil raging within Fagin. As far as the rest of the cast it's interesting to note how all the children are fresh-faced and wide-eyed especially Clark as the oh-so-fragile yet surprising resilient Oliver and Eden as the crafty but goodhearted Dodger. All the adults especially the mean-spirited ones are either very severe and haggard or doughy and sweaty. In fact the film is a great study in faces a testament to Polanski's keen eye for the human condition.
Roman Polanski may have made some bad choices in his personal life but the man sure knows how to make a movie. With Oliver Twist the Oscar-winning director returns to the 19th century England he so vividly painted in his 1979 Tess--except this time around it's a bleak existence in the mud-caked streets of Victorian London being used as a backdrop instead of the lush English countryside. Polanski and his team painstakingly recreate the newly industrialized London from the ground up. It's a bustling teeming frightfully dirty environ filled with pestilence and vermin of all kinds. It must have been such an awful and a brutal time period to have endured and Polanski wants to make sure we understand this so we'll be that more amazed by how this little boy survives in it. There are times you almost wish they would break out into song ("Food! Glorious food!") just to lighten the mood a bit--but of course that's an entirely different Oliver Twist. And therein lies the film's problem: too many Twists. By count there's about 18 other versions either done as feature films or television movies/miniseries--and that's not including the Oscar-winning 1968 musical Oliver!. With all of Polanski's talents he could have picked something that was a little less of a retread.