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 very first moment of Robot & Frank is kind of a groaner: a title card flashes before the woodlands of upstate New York informing the audience that the film is set in “the near future.” At once the golden rule of show-don’t-tell is broken while the time-sensitive ambiguity of the information can come off as careless and frustrating. But Robot & Frank is for the few of us out there with enough patience to last beyond the initial five-second frame of a movie.
Everything thereafter is wholly impressive from the engrossing confusion that overtakes the audience when we first meet the on-in-years Frank (Frank Langella) a retired jewel thief struggling with the early-to-mid stages of Alzheimer’s. The story opens with Frank attempting to rob his own house — trapped in the motions of his youthful glory days and at painful odds with his increasing struggles with memory. Frank is alone: his affectionate flighty daughter Madison (Liv Tyler) is off traveling the world only speaking to her father via fleeting video-phone conversations. Frank’s resentful son Hunter (James Marsden whose only flaw here is that his ever-present charm makes him a little hard to believe as an embittered everyman with daddy issues) visits regularly to check on his father but brings nothing but malice and judgment. The only company Frank does have is a friendly librarian Jennifer (Susan Sarandon) the object of his flirtatious affections. Frank’s regular visits to Jen’s library — which is being “reimagined” as a digital cutting-edge social-media-incorporating blah blah blah experience — help to establish his lasting affection for the woman as well as the reality of the world in which this story is set. Jennifer like many in their society is abetted by a robot associate who helps to carry out her day-to-day.
It isn’t long into the film before Hunter decides that a caretaker robot would be the right fit for his father; unsurprisingly this is not an idea to which Frank takes too kindly. At first the highly intelligent android (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) simply insists on feeding Frank a healthier diet taking him for hikes and employing the mindful activity of gardening. Frank is interested in none of this — except for the robot’s apparent knack for lock-picking. After taking note of Robot’s (he never gets a name) skill Frank decides to get back in the game: with his knowhow and Robot’s aptitude the two can really make a run for some high-profile items like the priceless copy of Don Quixote that the new owners of Jennifer’s renovating library plan on disposing (Frank wants to steal it so that he can give it to her — a sweet gesture if it weren’t so misguided). Beyond the monetary gain from this return to action is the first friend Frank has had in years. He shares stories with Robot relishing in his pal’s unwavering loyalty (he’s programmed that way after all) but lamenting in Robot’s frequent admissions that he is not actually alive.
Therein lies the heartbreak of the story: the affair of unrequited love. While Frank gradually (and begrudgingly — don’t you worry the process is quite begrudging!) comes to care for and cherish Robot he is placed with the new struggle of accepting his companion’s lack of ability to reciprocate any truly genuine affection. Robot is there for Frank through anything. He is “instinctually” driven to protect Frank from harm even if it means sacrificing his own well-being… as he understands he has no being to preserve. And although the self-involved Frank revels in this kind of relationship at first his love for and friendship with Robot becomes a source of deliberate pain in the film: beyond his shattered relationship with his children and his waning mind the sorrow is in Frank’s inability to accept that his closest friend is not really there.
As obvious ties can be drawn between this and the tragedy inherent in an Alzheimer’s sufferer grasping at things long gone the movie also serves as a truly interesting and approachable examination of the science fiction element of artificial intelligence — probably one of the best takes on the idea that film has given us in recent years. Capped with a fun albeit extremely odd performance by antagonist Jeremy Strong (as the new owner of Jennifer’s library) as well as an always welcome visit from Jeremy Sisto (as a crafty law enforcement officer with eyes on Frank… but don’t worry the heist motif never overtakes the film to the point of crime-thriller) as well as some genuinely unforeseen turns of events Robot & Frank is consistently gripping. A rare thing to say about a somber character study. Robot & Frank uses sci-fi as it was created to be used: to say something poignant about the human condition. Jake Schreier's Robot & Frank is not at all something you have to be "into" sci-fi to appreciate; it's simply a story about friendship and loneliness... something all humans (and some robots) can understand.