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.
It was the trickle of pee heard around the world. Cannes attendees were aghast and/or amused an infamous scene from The Paperboy that shows Nicole Kidman urinating on Zac Efron; this is apparently a great salve for jellyfish burns which were covering our Ken Doll-like protagonist. (In fact the term protagonist should be used very loosely for Efron's character Jack who is mostly acted upon than active throughout.)
Lurid! Sexy! Perverse! Trashy! Whether or not it's actually effective is overshadowed by all the hubbub that's attached itself to the movie for better or worse. In fact the movie is all of these things — but that's actually not a compliment. What could have become somethingmemorable is jaw-droppingly bad (when it's not hilarious). Director Lee Daniels uses a few different visual styles throughout from a stark black and white palette for a crime scene recreation at the beginning to a '70s porno aesthetic that oscillates between psychedelic and straight-up sweaty with an emphasis on Efron's tighty-whiteys. This only enhances the sloppiness of the script which uses lines like narrator/housekeeper/nanny Anita's (Macy Gray) "You ain't tired enough to be retired " to conjure up the down-home wisdom of the South. Despite Gray's musical talents she is not a good choice for a narrator or an actor for that matter. In a way — insofar as they're perhaps the only female characters given a chunk of screen time — her foil is Charlotte Bless Nicole Kidman's character. Anita is the mother figure who wears as we see in an early scene control-top pantyhose whereas Charlotte is all clam diggers and Barbie doll make-up. Or as Anita puts it "an oversexed Barbie doll."
The slapdash plot is that Jack's older brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey) comes back to town with his colleague Yardley (David Oyelowo) to investigate the case of a death row criminal named Hillary Van Wetter. Yardley is black and British which seems to confuse many of the people he meets in this backwoods town. Hillary (John Cusack) hidden under a mop of greasy black hair) is a slack-jawed yokel who could care less if he's going to be killed for a crime he might or might not have committed. He is way more interested in his bride-to-be Charlotte who has fallen in love with him through letters — this is her thing apparently writing letters and falling in love with inmates — and has rushed to help Ward and Yardley free her man. In the meantime we're subjected to at least one simulated sex scene that will haunt your dreams forever. Besides Hillary's shortcomings as a character that could rustle up any sort of empathy the case itself is so boring it begs the question why a respected journalist would be interested enough to pursue it.
The rest of the movie is filled with longing an attempt to place any the story in some sort of social context via class and race even more Zac Efron's underwear sexual violence alligator innards swamp people in comically ramshackle homes and a glimpse of one glistening McConaughey 'tock. Harmony Korine called and he wants his Gummo back.
It's probably tantalizing for this cast to take on "serious" "edgy" work by an Oscar-nominated director. Cusack ditched his boombox blasting "In Your Eyes" long ago and Efron's been trying to shed his squeaky clean image for so long that he finally dropped a condom on the red carpet for The Lorax so we'd know he's not smooth like a Ken doll despite how he was filmed by Daniels. On the other hand Nicole Kidman has been making interesting and varied career choices for years so it's confounding why she'd be interested in a one-dimensional character like Charlotte. McConaughey's on a roll and like the rest of the cast he's got plenty of interesting projects worth watching so this probably won't slow him down. Even Daniels is already shooting a new film The Butler as we can see from Oprah's dazzling Instagram feed. It's as if they all want to put The Paperboy behind them as soon as possible. It's hard to blame them.
"Almost Reel is one of the decade's best columns!"
-- Harlan Sanders, The Silver Spring Post-Dispatch
"When I read last week's Almost Reel I laughed, I cried. It was better than Cats."
-- Lew Lautin, National Internet Review
A couple of weeks ago, Columbia Pictures (part of the evil Sony empire) admitted that they'd been using a fictitious movie reviewer, "David Manning," to supply some of the glowing phrases that we see attached to each and every film that comes out of Tinseltown.
"Manning" heaped praise upon such unworthy fare as A Knight's Tale, The Animal and Hollow Man.
If you're anything like me--and if you are, those Air Supply albums are still a guilty pleasure--you're not at all shocked or surprised. Hollywood employs some of the slickest marketing professionals this side of big tobacco, another bastion of corporate responsibility.
There are a few small thoughts that come immediately to mind that should mitigate any sense of outrage we the public may feel at this duplicity.
1. Movie studios are in the business of "pretend." The one product movie studios manufacture is, well, movies, which more often than not are made up. Is it so much of a stretch to us that the studios would make up their own glowing reviews?
Look at it this way: were any of us really shocked that Mike Tyson took a bite out of Evander Holyfield's ear? Sure, there are rules in boxing, but the primary goal of the sport is to turn your opponent's face into a bloody pulp. Mike decided to use his teeth instead of his fists. The means may have changed, but the ends remained the same.
I think you can see how the parallel applies to movies, only with a lot less ear-biting and blood. (Assuming, of course, you're not the producer of three high-profile bombs in a row. If so, watch out--I hear Michael Eisner has sharp teeth.)
2. Movie studios lie all the time. Do bears, bare? Do bees, be? Of course, they do. (Apologies to David Addison.)
Not every movie the studios put out can actually be worth your hard-earned eight bucks, yet the studios only make money if you buy a ticket. In fact, movie studios rank right up there (or is it down there?) with the used car industry on level of truthfulness.
3. Movie studios often pay lots of money for blurbmeisters from all over the country to come to lavish junkets, all for the sake of a nice review. The studios often wine, dine, and give away free movie merchandise (which sometimes means expensive luggage and perfume) to reviewers as part of these junkets.
We the public are just not as attuned to the commonly used euphemisms that those reviewers employ. Although by now I think everyone knows that if a film is plastered with quotes such as "One of the year's/decade's/century's best movies" or "a nonstop roller coaster ride" avoid it like the plague.
Other words that are a real clue to a movie's suckiness include "triumphant," "glorious," "mesmerizing" and "this year's insert movie title here."
So studios tried to cut out the middleman and write their own over-the-top reviews for mediocre movies. Who are we to quibble?
After all, it's the assumption of the movie studios that in this great society we've created the public at large is simply a repository for disposable income, controlled by insect-sized intellect. The public can't possibly discern the difference between the review of a veteran movie screener and the review of my 4-year-old niece.
Astute members of the American citizenry have actually proved that point rather nicely for the studios. Ten (ten--as if one wouldn't have been enough to get the point across) class-action lawsuits have been filed alleging that some of the public has been duped by movie reviews from critics who have been richly wined and dined on studio-paid press junkets.
One of the quotes cited by the attorney representing the plaintiffs compared the John Travolta dud Battlefield Earth favorably to Star Wars. Another review raved that The Perfect Storm is "one of the best movies of all time."
Who are these people that believed those reviews, and where do they live? I have some property in Florida that I'd like to sell them. These rubes are a Wall Street cold-caller's dream.
"Hello Mrs. Smithee? I have a stock that's this year's AOL! It's a triumphant stock, with a glorious upside. It's just going up, up, up and will be one of the year's ten best performers! You say you want 1,000 shares? I'll put you down for 2,000."
Of course, one has to wonder why Columbia Pictures execs thought they had to make up anything. As Washington Post movie critic Desson Howe put it, "This country is overpopulated with helium-filled movie critics who like anything."
Personally, I don't like just anything. There has to be some gratuitous violence.
As for the marketing geniuses at Columbia, don't cry for them.
The two-man brain-trust that made up these phony blurbs e.g., calling A Knight's Tale's Heath Ledger "this year's hottest new star," have returned to work after a 30-day unpaid suspension, presumably to bigger offices and bigger paychecks.
All right, you pressured me into it. I admit it, I wrote those reviews at the top of the column myself. Columbia Pictures here I come!