Tag Archives: war movies

The Last Waltz

1982

by Matt Weiner

Wars are complicated. War movies? Not so much, at least not in this country. How, then, to tell the story of an invasion unfolding in the middle of a decades-long civil war?

In 1982, writer and director Oualid Mouaness narrows the lens in his feature debut to focus on the smaller picture. Set at the onset of Israel’s June 1982 invasion in Lebanon during the country’s ongoing civil war, Mouaness’s camera almost never leaves the fenced-in confines of one Beirut school.

Encroaching tanks and fighter jets begin the day as distant updates on the radios, with concerned teachers and school staff furtively trying to stay updated without alarming the children. But as the invasion progresses, it becomes impossible for anyone to keep the reality of war at bay.

How this plays out in a diverse country already torn apart by years of fighting becomes the subject of two love stories. For Yasmine (Nadine Labaki), concerns about her militia member brother outweigh keeping her relationship going with Joseph (Rodrigue Sleiman), a fellow teacher with opposing political views.

Their complicated allegiances serve as a stand-in for the rapidly shifting political landscape in the country, and their uncertainties—toward each other, and the future—are played to great effect by both Labaki and Sleiman.

The film’s other main star-crossed love story is a much lighter one, as 11-year-old Wissam attempts to woo a classmate in the face of challenges both typical—pre-teen embarrassment—and extraordinary, like the one checkpoint to her house being closed.

The split between the faculty and the students is effective, to a point. Although as the idyllic bubble of the students clashes more and more with the war just beyond the school walls, the intensity given to Wissam’s courtship feels increasingly at odds with the stakes.

Some of that seems by design. Mouaness hints at the greater sectarian strife tearing the country apart, but there’s only so much metaphorical weight you can load onto the school’s metaphorical stand-ins. The film does such an economical job sketching the complexities of the war that any single, tidy resolution would do the message a disservice.

In the meantime, we are left feeling much like Wissam, aware for the first time of the complicated forces that determine our lives. And aware too of just how powerless we are to alter their direction.

City of Ruins

Mosul

by Hope Madden

Matthew Michael Carnahan is a screenwriter unafraid to dive into the political. Though none of his films are classics, from the best (The Kingdom) to the worst (Lions for Lambs), all tell stories that combine governmental indecision with action in an attempt at cultural relevance.

As a rule, the success of his themes depends on the film’s director. So with Mosul, Carnahan has no one to blame but himself if it doesn’t work.

The film spends a single, tumultuous afternoon in the titular Iraqi city with the Nineveh province SWAT team, the only group to fight ISIS occupiers continuously from 2014 to 2017. Onscreen text clues us in to their successes, their legendary status, and their desperation to complete one last mission before ISIS finally flees the city.

En route to completing that mission, they hear gunfire and come to the aid of two standard issue uniformed police officers about to lose their lives in a standoff with ISIS. When all is said and done, one cop is on his way back to the other side of the city. The second, Kawa (Adam Bessa, Extraction), joins the rogue unit.

Carnahan shows surprising instincts when it comes to pacing. Rather than generating tension to be released with bursts of action, Mosul periodically punctuates the near-constant action with brief respites.

Carnahan knows how to make the most of these moments. We catch our breath for a glimpse of each of these men as men. The character building is brief and nearly everyone will die before we know their names, but thanks to touches that never feel scripted or heavy handed, the characters have the chance to be human.

The breathlessly paced slice of war torn life is grounded by two performances: Bessa and Suhail Dabbach, playing commanding officer Jasem. Kawa’s character evolves almost at the speed of light, turning in one afternoon from a wide-eyed, by the books police officer to an unrecognizable man with a mission.

Jasem is on the other side of that evolution and the veteran Iraqi actor makes you believe. A father figure who is simultaneously merciless and dangerously compassionate, he’s a bright and constant reminder of exactly why the unit fights.

Carnahan’s first time out behind the camera rushes at times. Kawa’s speedy transformation certainly strains credulity. But Mosul handles the political themes with a surprisingly light hand. It certainly keeps your attention and delivers eye-opening information without abandoning storytelling to do it.

He should keep directing his own movies.

Battle Scars

Ghosts of War

by Hope Madden

Here’s the thing about horror movies in 2020: they have to one up 2020. This year itself is such a horror show, it’s hard for cinema to keep up.

Writer/director Eric Bress (The Butterfly Effect) does what he can with the supernatural war tale, Ghosts of War.

Five WWII soldiers are ordered to hold tight in a French mansion circa 1944. It’s an isolated estate, once a Nazi stronghold. Terrible things happened there, and even though the surroundings suggest luxury, the mission may be the most dangerous the platoon has ever faced.

It reminds me of that time earlier this year when COVID trapped a Bolivian orchestra inside a haunted German castle surrounded by wolves.

So the film has that to compete with. Of course, the other thing Ghosts of War has going against it is the surprisingly engaging and unfortunately underseen Overlord, a WWII horror show that drops us alongside a handful of soldiers into war torn France just in time to find zombies.

Very little is more fun than Nazi zombies.

But Bress isn’t interested in zombies. Instead, he explores the madness that weighs on men who’ve done the unthinkable by trapping them in a situation where they must face their demons.

Kyle Gallner delivers an appropriately haunted performance as one of the soldiers—each of whom Bress characterizes with quick, shorthand ideas: the nut job (Gallner), the smartypants (Pitch Perfect’s Skylar Astin), the hero (Theo Rossi), the big talker (Alan Ritchson), the leader who’s in over his head (Brenton Thwaites).

Gallner and Astin are the only cast members given the opportunity to differentiate themselves from the pack as the platoon stumbles upon evidence of the haunting. Bress and his ensemble stumble here, rarely developing any real dread, infrequently even delivering the jumps their quick cut scares attempt.

Ghosts of War makes an effort to say something meaningful. That message is waylaid by confused second act plotting and a third act reveal that feels far more lurid and opportunistic than it does resonant or haunting.

Bress tries to take advantage of the audience’s preconceived notions in order to subvert expectations, but he doesn’t have as much to say as he thinks.

Unforgiving

The Outpost

by Hope Madden

Films concerning the US’s two decade war in Afghanistan have not managed to find much of an audience. I’m not sure Summer 2020—the year we welcomed meth gators as a needed distraction from our own personal hell—will improve those odds.

And yet, director Rod Lurie’s The Outpost bravely ventures to the streaming environment this week to remind us that a solid, understated war movie can still thrill.

The ensemble piece features Caleb Landry Jones and Scott Eastwood as two sides of a coin. Eastwood’s Staff Sgt. Clint (that’s right) Romesha is a born leader with quiet dignity, grit and a mind for strategy. Cynical of the Army’s “frat boy” culture, Jones’s Staff Sgt. Ty Carter doesn’t quite fit in.

Where doesn’t he fit in? A sitting duck army outpost situated at the basin of surrounding mountains where Taliban forces travel, watch and shoot.

Screenwriter Eric Johnson’s bread and butter has been teaming with Paul Tamasy to create the cinematic presentation of a true story. They nearly won an Oscar for Johnson’s first foray into feature length screenplays, David O’ Russell’s powerful The Fighter (with Scott Silver).

The duo join forces again, this time adapting Jake Tapper’s investigative book concerning one extraordinary battle in our war in Afghanistan.

Understatement works in the film’s favor, Lurie favoring overlapping dialog and naturalistic settings to bombast and a leading score. In fact, much of the film plays without a score, a refreshing change that gives The Outpost a grittier, more realistic feel that serves it well. Because truth be told, a true tale that delivers this amount of sheer will, courage, perseverance and spirit is undermined by flapping flags and swelling strings. Lurie’s restraint says, “This is really what happened. Can you effing believe that?!”

That’s not to say The Outpost eliminates every cowboy moment. Indeed, this may be the first role in which Eastwood makes the most of his famous last name, clearly channeling his father in a performance punctuated by controlled, hushed rage and squinting blue eyes.

But Caleb Landry Jones, as remarkable and versatile actor as you will find, is the broken soul of this film. Jones does “haunted” in a way that makes every other performance feel like a performance.

Together Lurie, his writers and his cast sidestep clichés, delivering instead a clear-eyed look at bravery, failure, and the cost of war.

Indirect Message

1917

by George Wolf

War. Maybe you’ve heard of it lately.

Taking inspiration from the past, director Sam Mendes has crafted an immaculate exercise in technical wonder, passionate vision and suddenly vital reminders.

The inherent gamble in crafting a film via one extended take – or the illusion of it – lies in the final cut existing as little more than a gimmick, spurring a ‘spot the edit’ challenge that eclipses the narrative.

1917 clears that hurdle in the first five minutes.

It is WWI, and British Corporals Blake and Schofield (Dean Charles-Chapman and George MacKay, both wonderful) are standing before their General (Colin Firth) amid the highest of stakes. Allied intelligence has revealed an imminent offensive will lead straight into a German ambush, and the corporals’ success at traveling deep into enemy territory to deliver the order to abort is all that will keep thousands of soldiers – including Blake’s own brother – from certain death.

Mendes dedicates the film to the stories told by his grandfather, and it stands thick with the humanity of bravery and sacrifice that ultimately prevailed through the most hellish of circumstances.

Blake and Schofield head out alone, enveloped by ballet-worthy camerawork and pristine cinematography (Roger Deakins, natch) that never blinks. The opportunities for edits may be evident at times, but the narrative experience is so immersive you’ll hardly care. We’re not merely following along on this mission, we’re part of every heart-stopping minute.

Anyone who’s seen the actual WW1 footage from Peter Jackson’s recent doc They Shall Not Grow Old (an irresistible bookend to 1917) will recognize a certain sanitation to the production design, but the trade-off is a fresh majesty for familiar themes, one that’s consistently grounded in stark intimacy. Mendes and Deakins (buoyed by a subtly evocative score from Thomas Newman) brush away any dangers of “first-person shooter” novelty with a near miraculous level of precise execution that succeeds in raising several bars.

1917 is absolutely one of the best films of the year, but it’s more. It’s an unforgettable and exhausting trip, immediately joining the ranks of the finest war movies ever made.

Bombs Away

Midway

by George Wolf

After Independence Day, 2012, The Day After Tomorrow and more, the book on Roland Emmerich is fairly easy to read: expect spectacle over storytelling.

Midway is Emmerich’s latest, and that checks out.

A grand production respectfully dedicated to the American and Japanese forces that fought the legendary battle, the film does have heart in all the right places. But too often, it feels more inspired by war movies than the real thing.

Patrick Wilson is Edwin Layton, whose description as “the best intelligence officer I’ve ever known” gives us an early introduction into screenwriter Wes Tooke’s plan for character development.

“I told you she was a firecracker!”

“He’s the most brilliant man I know.”

“Best pilot in the world!”

“Knock off the cowboy b.s.!”

Layton still feels guilty about the intelligence failures of Pearl Harbor, and he pleads with Admiral Nimitz (Woody Harrelson) to trust his prediction of an upcoming Japanese invasion of Midway Island.

Names such as Nimitz and Halsey (Dennis Quaid) may be the only ones familiar to non history buffs, but no matter, none of the characters feel real anyway. They’re just humans who pose nicely while spouting the dialog of actors explaining things to an audience.

So much for the storytelling, now for the spectacle.

It’s pretty damn thrilling.

When the battles are raging, especially in the air, Midway soars. Constructed with precision and clarity, these extended set pieces allow Emmerich to indulge his showy instincts for maximum payoff.

Director John Ford famously filmed on Midway Island while the battle took shape. Emmerich and Tooke don’t ignore that fact, a not so subtle reminder that this is their movie about war, and they’re going big!

And about half the time, that’s not a bad thing.

When it needs to be big, this film is huge, detailed and epic. But when it needs to be small, and make this history breathe again through intimate authenticity of the souls that lived and died in it, Midway just can’t stop flexing.

Call of Duty

Overlord

by Hope Madden

Perhaps you don’t know this, but Nazi zombies have a horror genre unto themselves: Shock Waves, Zombie Lake, Dead Snow, Dead Snow 2, Blood Creek. Well, there’s a new Nazi Zombie Sheriff in town, and he is effing glorious.

Overlord drops us into enemy territory on D-Day. One rag tag group of American soldiers needs to disable the radio tower the Nazis have set up on top of a rural French church, disabling Nazi communications and allowing our guys to land safely.

What’s on the church tower is not so much the problem. It’s what’s in the basement.

Director Julius Avery stays true to the war film vibe. Though clearly Overlord lacks the scope of something like Saving Private Ryan, visceral scenes of war set the stage for a film about the monstrosity lurking inside man.

He’s aided immeasurably by two writers with a knack for tales of endurance. Billy Ray’s career is littered with tense political thrillers, and his co-scribe Mark L. Smith wrote The Revenant, for Lord’s sake. He knows how to put a man through some shit.

The fellas find cover in the home of a sympathetic French woman (Mathilde Olivier) and plot their next move. Too bad it’s in that church basement.

Pilou Asbaek offers another excellent performance, this time as the Nazi commander. He drips sinister and looks enough like a handsome Michael Shannon to terrify even when he’s not speaking.

All the performances are strong, and character arcs feel fresh even though you know—if you have ever seen a war movie—how they will progress. Because this is a war movie, but war is hell and hell is horror.

Avery creates the same kind of desperate tension you’d expect from a suicide mission, and when the tables turn and we’re suddenly inside some kind of filthy mad scientist horror, the film doesn’t lose a step.

Suddenly, through Avery’s eyes and the horrified reactions of our heroes, we see how easily not only war movies but Marvel comic book films can cross the line to blood chilling horror.

A satisfying Good V Evil film that benefits from layers, Overlord reminds us repeatedly that it is possible to retain your humanity, even in the face of inhuman evil.

Plus, Nazi zombies, which is never not awesome!





Brutally Vital

Land of Mine

by Rachel Willis

Land of Mine is almost impossible to watch. Not because it’s bad. On the contrary, it’s an amazingly crafted film that boasts an incredible screenplay and cast. It’s hard to watch because writer/director Martin Zandvliet’s film is so intense it leaves the viewer on constant edge.

Roland Møller is Sargent Carl Rasmussen, a Danish soldier tasked with overseeing fourteen German POWs at the end of World War II as they clear a beach in Denmark of land mines. This violation of international law is a stain on Denmark’s history that Zandvliet brings to light. The thought of grown men forced to crawl across beaches searching cautiously for land mines is repellant enough. It’s made worse by the fact that many of the POWs were teenage boys.

Zandvliet’s scripts balances the emotions of the situation well, and Møller’s performance brilliantly captures the feelings of the Danish people. There is little sympathy for the German POWs. If anything, this is seen as a just punishment for the crimes committed by Germany during the war. However, the audience sees the soldiers for what they are: children who simply want to go home.

As the film proceeds, tensions mount. The history of the situation is brutal and bleak, so as the audience gets to know the characters, it’s impossible not to sympathize and worry for their safety with each moment that passes. The mental torture inflicted on the prisoners is felt by the audience as we’re forced to watch their slow advance across the beach. Moments of quiet could be rent apart at any moment. It’s nearly unbearable.

However, Zandvliet knows when to give the audience a break, and the scenes on the beach are countered by more lighthearted moments: a soccer game, the boys talking about their futures, and interactions between Rasmussen and the boys that show his shifting emotions.

Land of Mine is difficult viewing, but as Zandvliet brings empathy and compassion to a dark moment in history, it becomes equally vital.

Verdict-5-0-Stars

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kCgLSY-3bYw





God and Country

Hacksaw Ridge

by Hope Madden

Bathing an audience in violence – but violence in service of a noble cause – has become filmmaker Mel Gibson’s stock and trade.

Braveheart was a great movie – thrilling, self-righteous and violent as hell. But Gibson really hit paydirt as a director when he underpinned his gorefests with images of the victimhood of the Christian. (Or, of Christ himself.)

Gibson returns to what works with his latest, Hacksaw Ridge.

There is no question that the story of WWII veteran Desmond Doss not only deserves but requires our attention. A conscientious objector and devout Seventh Day Adventist, Doss refused to bear arms and yet he single-handedly carried 75 injured soldiers to safety during a particularly bloody battle in Okinawa.

Screenwriters Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan burden the film with every cliché in the WWII movie arsenal, from the wholesome hometown love to the flatly stereotyped platoon mates to nearly every line in the film.

Yet, between Gibson’s skill behind the camera and Andrew Garfield’s commitment to his character, Hacksaw Ridge always manages to be better than the material. And there is really no denying Gibson’s knack for action, carnage and viscera – all in the service of non-violence, of course.

It was Doss’s faith that kept him strong in his non-violent beliefs, just as it was his faith that kept him courageous in battle. Whether you believe in God or you do not, you will admire Desmond Doss, and Garfield does him justice.

He’s goofy and layered and at no point does Doss’s own explanation of his faith feel like a sermon. Thank God.

Garfield also boasts lovely chemistry with just about every actor onscreen – this is particularly touching in some early scenes with Teresa Palmer, playing Doss’s hometown sweetheart Dorothy.

So, come for the wholesome message, stay for the flaming soldiers who’ll flail in unimaginable agony before your very eyes.

It isn’t tough to shock with violence when you’re re-telling the greatest story ever told, but to one-up the carnage in a war movie? Have you seen Platoon? Saving Private Ryan?

Well, Gibson has, and he won’t be intimidated. But give the man credit, these sequences are breathtakingly choreographed, as full of energy and clarity as they are human entrails. If you’re looking for an opportunity to satisfy your bloodlust while also celebrating pacifism, well, Gibson’s got you covered.

Verdict-3-0-Stars





Bay Really Tried

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

by Hope Madden

While it may be tough to separate the release of 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi from the US presidential race, there’s little question that the tale itself offers the kind of compelling material suitable for the big screen.

Director Michael Bay helms the film chronicling the disastrous consequences of understaffing the security detail surrounding an American ambassador and a secret CIA installation in one of the globe’s most unstable nations.

The trivia section for this film’s IMDB page notes that this is Michael Bay’s third film based on true events, after Pearl Harbor and Pain & Gain. That does not inspire a lot of optimism. And yet, for a Michael Bay film, 13 Hours is surprisingly restrained, respectful, and solid.

Had it been any other director, the word “restrained” would probably not appear in that sentence, but Bay dials down his own bombast to a degree that is genuinely surprising.

The screenplay, written by Chuck Hogan from Boston Globe reporter Mitchell Zuckoff’s book (co-written by surviving members of the security team), offers the point of view of the veteran security detail hired by the CIA to police and protect their compound. Staffed by retired Marines, Navy SEALs, and Army Special Forces, the security team on the ground on the 11th anniversary of the September 11th attacks had the skills, but not the number, to contend with the organized militant attack.

John Krasinski and James Badge Dale anchor the film with believable if under-dimensional performances of two of the security contractors in a by-the-numbers combat procedural.

Sidestepping politics in favor of nerve-shredding action, Bay creates set piece after explosion-and-firebombing-ready set piece. His tendencies and crutches are on full display, though the film feels relatively simply crafted when compared to his other atrocious efforts. It’s a welcome change of pace because self-congratulatory violence would undermine this truly harrowing ordeal.

Yes, CIA agents are painted as one-dimensional pencil pushers jealous of and abusive to their physically superior security guards; yes, individual character weaknesses are exaggerated; yes, tragedies and fatalities are telegraphed from the opening scene. And, yes, the story these survivors have to tell would likely have been better handled by another filmmaker.

13 Hours, though, is not a terrible film. It’s no Zero Dark Thirty, not even a Lone Survivor, and perhaps the sheer volume of blood spilled for the sake of excitement and hoo-rah is too great to consider the film deeply respectful of its subject matter. But I think it’s safe to say that Bay really tried, and, to a limited degree, he succeeded.

Verdict-2-5-Stars