The Best Movies of 1998

1998 logo

Now it’s time to go to take a look back at the movies of 1998, the same year when California started the ban on smoking in bars and restaurants. What else happened that year? John Glenn became the oldest astronaut to go into space, and it gave us a reason to watch the space shuttle launch on television for the first time in years. The Denver Broncos became the first AFC team in 14 years to win the Super Bowl when they beat the Green Bay Packers (I’m so glad I didn’t bet on that game). The whole controversy of President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky exploded, which the President’s enemies seized upon like teenagers going through their dads’ Playboy magazine issues while he is out of town. And, most ironically, a court in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan ruled Osama Bin Laden was “a man without a sin” in regard to the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Well, we knew better.

As for myself, I was in my second year at UC Irvine and my fourth year in college. I still had a dorm room all to myself, and I was busy with school work and appearing in plays like “Enrico IV,” “The Scarlet Letter” and “Twelfth Night.” Of course, I tried to get out to the movies as much as humanly possible. Many of the movies on this list were ones I actually didn’t get around to seeing until years later, so it’s probably best I am giving you this list now.

10) There’s Something About Mary

Theres Something About Mary poster

Bobby and Peter Farrelly gave us one of the most gut bustlingly hilarious movies ever made with “There’s Something About Mary.” I was dying with laughter while watching this, and I wasn’t expecting to. In retrospect, I should have though since this came from the same directors who gave us “Dumb and Dumber” as well as “Kingpin.” On top of having so many funny moments, the movie also has a lot of heart in the way it portrays the two main characters played by Ben Stiller and Cameron Diaz. Those of you who think Diaz can’t act need to revisit this one because she is so good at playing a teenager who we later see as a well-meaning adult with a few too many stalkers.

9) American History X

American History X poster

So much has been said about the making of “American History X” and the bitter disagreements between director Danny Kaye and actor Edward Norton. Regardless of whoever deserves the majority of the credit, there is no denying this is a powerful and unforgettable motion picture. Norton gave one of his very best performances as white supremacist Derek Vineyard, and the look he gives the camera after killing two people is a very chilling moment which is not easily erased from the conscious mind. Norton also gets great support from Edward Furlong who plays Danny, Derek’s brother, who threatens to tread down the same hateful path Derek has. Kaye, even if he didn’t get final cut, gives the movie an amazing look in black and white which captures the escalating tension of Derek’s journey from a world of hate to a place of compassion.

8) Dark City

Dark City movie poster

Alex Proyas followed up his brilliant adaptation of “The Crow” with this visionary sci-fi epic about a man who wakes up not knowing who he is, and of those who seek to capture him for their own twisted experiments. Like many great sci-fi movies “Dark City” was a box office flop upon its release, but it has since found an audience to where there’s no denying it is a cult classic. You’re along for the ride with Rufus Sewell as he tries to understand his place in a world ruled over by the Strangers. This movie remains suspenseful to the very end, and the look of the movie feels like no other I have ever seen. Jennifer Connelly also stars in the film and looks beautiful as always, and it is interesting to watch Kiefer Sutherland play a complete wimp after watching him for so long on “24.”

7) Out Of Sight

Out of Sight movie poster

Here’s the film which brought Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney together, and it also serves as one of the very best adaptations of an Elmore Leonard novel. With “Out of Sight,” Clooney proved without a doubt there was going to be life for him after “ER” with his performance as Jack Foley, the most successful bank robber in America. When Jack escapes from jail, he ends up sharing some trunk space with Federal Marshall Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez). “Out of Sight” also marked the beginning of a career resurgence for Soderbergh, and he got to work from a truly great screenplay written by Scott Frank. Also starring is the fantastic Catherine Keener, Ving Rhames, Steve Zahn, Dennis Farina, Isaiah Washington, and the always reliable Don Cheadle. This movie was a lot of fun, and Clooney and Lopez had such great chemistry together.

6) Rushmore

Rushmore movie poster

This was my introduction to the highly creative world of Wes Anderson. “Rushmore” is an instant comedy classic with more depth to it than many others of its genre at the time. Max Fischer is an original eccentric character; a young man involved in just about ever extra-curricular activity at school, all at the expense of his report card. Jason Schwartzman is great fun to watch as Max, and Bill Murray gives a performance which damn well should have earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. With Anderson, his comedy is fueled by the sadness and isolation of his characters, and of the things they desperately want in life. “Rushmore” is filled with as much meaning as it does laughter as both Schwartzman and Murray battle over the same woman played by Olivia Williams. It also owes a lot to the late Mike Nichols’ enduring classic “The Graduate.”

5) Happiness

Happiness movie poster

Todd Solondz’s follow up to “Welcome To The Dollhouse” may very well be the most ironically titled film in cinema history. Controversy followed “Happiness” all the way to its release, and the MPAA of course just had to give it an NC-17 (it ended up being released unrated). One of the blackest of black comedies ever, it follows the lives of three sisters and the various people who are a part of their fragile lives. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman gives a frighteningly memorable performance as an obscene phone caller, and it was one of the first real examples of the brilliant character actor we came to see him as. But the bravest performance comes from Dylan Baker who plays Bill Maplewood, a psychiatrist, husband and loving father who, unbeknownst to his family, is a pedophile. Baker ends up making you empathize, but not sympathize, with a man who we would instantly despise once we discovered his terrible secret. As unappealing as these characters may seem, Solondz makes us see ourselves in them and to where we cannot see we are not all that different.

4) The Big Lebowski

The Big Lebowski movie poster

I didn’t get to see this when it first came out in theaters, but my parents did eventually strap me down in a chair to watch it, and this should give you an idea of how much they love it. The Coen brothers follow up to “Fargo” did not get the same reception when originally released, but it has since built up an amazing cult following. Much of this is thanks to Jeff Bridges’ brilliant performance as Jeffrey Lebowski, aka “The Dude.” What could have been a performance built on stereotypes of the slackers we know in life turns out to be perhaps the most memorable character in Bridges’ long and underappreciated career. It’s an ingenious comedy with not so much a plot as a connected series of events which start with the theft of Lebowski’s carpet which he says “tied the whole room together.”

3) The Truman Show

The Truman Show movie poster

It still seems criminal how Peter Weir’s film was surprisingly, and infuriatingly, snubbed for a Best Picture nomination. Jim Carrey gives a truly astonishing and powerful performance as Truman Burbank, a man who slowly becomes aware he is the star of a reality show about his life. Yes, he should have been nominated for an Oscar alongside his co-star Ed Harris, but there will always be the unforgivable snubs. “The Truman Show” has become a prophetic movie of sorts as reality shows are the norm in today’s culture, and this obsession we have over them remains very strong to this day. Andrew Niccol’s screenplay was a brilliant examination of how we might view our own life if we found out it was based on a lie, and that everything we know is actually wrong. This stands as one of Weir’s best American movies in a long and justly acclaimed career.

2) Shakespeare In Love

Shakespeare in Love movie poster

While it may have gotten overwhelmed by Miramax’s Oscar campaign, there’s no denying “Shakespeare In Love” is a brilliant and highly entertaining romantic comedy. The film tells the story of how Shakespeare goes about writing “Romeo & Ethel The Pirate’s Daughter” which eventually evolves into “Romeo & Juliet.” Gwyneth Paltrow gives a most entrancing performance, and I loved watching her every second she appeared onscreen. Joseph Fiennes is perfectly cast as Shakespeare himself, a passionate writer who is hopelessly enamored with Paltrow’s Viola. I also got a huge kick out of Geoffrey Rush’s performance as theater manager Philip Henslowe, a brilliant comic creation who steals every scene he is in. “Shakespeare In Love” serves as not just a great story of how Shakespeare may have written one of the most immortal plays ever, but also as a great satire of the film industry and how it deviously profits from unsuspecting participants.

And now, drum roll please…

1) Saving Private Ryan

Saving Private Ryan movie poster

It would be so easy to put this as my top choice thanks to some of the greatest and most vividly realistic depictions of war ever put on film. Steven Spielberg’s depiction of the landing on D-Day is nothing short of amazing, and it was one of the reasons why I saw this film five times before it came out on DVD. But moreover, it is a deeply respectful salute to those war veterans who served in the armed forces during World War II. “Saving Private Ryan” is filled with great performances from a great cast of actors including Edward Burns, Jeremy Davies, Giovanni Ribisi, Tom Sizemore, Adam Goldberg, Vin Diesel, Matt Damon, and Barry Pepper among others. But it also has one of Tom Hanks’ best performances ever as Captain John Miller, a military man who leads his men to find Private Ryan and bring him back home to his grieving mother. Just when you thought Spielberg had peaked with “Schindler’s List,” he gives us yet another astonishing piece of filmmaking which shows him at the height of his powers.

Honorable Mentions:

Primary Colors – Great Mike Nichols movie based on the book by Joe Klein. It features great performances from John Travolta, Emma Thompson, Kathy Bates as well as an extraordinary cameo from Mykelti Williamson.

Bullworth – Warren Beatty’s scathing political satire may be a bit too broad, but it is a very effective indictment of how the Democratic Party let the American people down.

Elizabeth – Definitely worth mentioning for the brilliant breakthrough performance of Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth.

Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas – Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s crazy novel is a true acid trip nightmare with Johnny Depp channeling the reporter all the way to what he was famous for wearing and smoking.

God Said, Ha! – Wonderful concert film of Julia Sweeney’s one-woman show which deals with the time her brother got cancer, and of how she later got cancer herself.

Hurlyburly – Film adaptation of David Rabe’s play dealing with Hollywood players and their dysfunctional relationships with one another. Features a great cast which includes Sean Penn, Chazz Palminteri and Anna Paquin among others.

Affliction – Another emotionally bruising movie from Paul Schrader which is based on the novel by Russell Banks. Features career high performances from Nick Nolte and the late James Coburn who deservedly won an Oscar for his work.

Next Stop Wonderland – An eccentrically unusual kind of romantic comedy which helped introduce actress Hope Davis to a wider audience.

Ronin – One of the last films from the late John Frankenheimer which stars Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, and Jonathan Pryce among others. It also features some of the very best car chases of the 1990’s.

Run Lola Run – Kinetic German thriller with Franka Potente that views her attempts to save her boyfriend’s life in three different ways. This was a great teaser for what would come in 1999, when movies of different kinds proceeded to change the rules of where a story could go.

The Thin Red Line – Terrence Malick’s first movie in over 20 years threatened to be more meandering than anything else, but it is filled with such powerful imagery and to where many considered it more anti-war than “Saving Private Ryan” was.

John Carpenter’s Vampires – It was advertised as a horror movie, but it is really a more of a western and the closest John Carpenter has ever come to making one. James Woods’ performance alone is worth the price of admission as he plays the most badass of vampire hunters, Jack Crow.

Star Trek: Insurrection – Much better than its reputation may suggest, being an odd numbered Star Trek movie and all.

 

 

Matthew Modine Shares Stories About the Making of ‘Full Metal Jacket’

Full Metal Jacket Matthew Modine

While moderating a Q&A session with Leon Vitali and Tony Zierra about “Filmworker” at the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles, actor Matthew Modine shared some stories about the making of Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket.” In the 1987 war film, Modine plays Private Joker, one of a dozen soldiers who endure Marine Corp basic training under the brutal and abrasive instruction of their drill instructor, Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (the late R. Lee Ermey). Following graduation, he heads to South Vietnam to work as a war correspondent for the Stars & Stripes newspaper, and it is there he witnesses the atrocities of war up close. The question is, how much of his humanity can hold onto in the face of death and destruction?

The stories of Kubrick’s behavior and work ethic have long since become legendary in regards to the methods he used to get an actor into a specific emotional state and the number of takes he puts his cast through. The first story Modine shared with us about Kubrick, however, proved to be a bit unexpected.

Stanley liked to carry a walkie talkie because he wanted to be a part of every aspect of the filmmaking,” Modine said. “Why shouldn’t he have a walkie talkie and know what the assistant directors were saying and what kind of movements were happening? We broke for lunch and the assistant director, Terry Needham, got a call from Stanley, and Stanley asked Terry to come over here. Terry said, ‘Okay, but where is here?’ He said, ‘I’m over here,’ and Terry said come out of the tent where we were having lunch. Terry didn’t want to say on the radio that he was stuck in the portapotty. He couldn’t get the door open. So that’s just a little window into a different part of Stanley that doesn’t appear in the documentary.”

During the Q&A, we learned how the crew on a Kubrick film was actually very small, and the one on “Full Metal Jacket” totaled about 15 people. Vitali even said there was only one electrician, and his job was simly operate the lights on a dimmer. Modine ended up adding a nice bit of trivia to this story.

The one electrician that we had working on the film, because of the union, he would come in and turn the lights on, and then Stanley would tell him to fuck off to his house because there was some wiring problem in his house,” Modine said. “He had to pay him for the day so he said go wire my house.”

Perhaps the most bizarre and hilarious story Modine shared with us was when he talked about Dorian Harewood who played Eightball, the soldier who experiences an especially brutal and bloody death which is captured in slow motion. The way this scene was shot, however, makes sense when Modine discussed what Harewood demanded from Kubrick.

Dorian Harewood is a wonderful actor,” Modine said. “We were originally contracted for about six months I think, and the contracts were coming to an end. So they wanted to renegotiate the contracts, and it wasn’t a renegotiation. It was just a reupping to continue the contracts for a longer period of time, and Dorian came to Stanley and said, ‘I want to renegotiate. I want more money,” and Stanley couldn’t believe the audacity of this young guy. He’s like, ‘You’re working for Stanley Kubrick and you are asking me to pay you more money?’ And he (Harewood) said, ‘Well yeah, I have to go back to Los Angeles. I have a singing career, I have an acting career, there’s other jobs, and if you want me to stay here, you’re gonna have to pay for it.’ Stanley couldn’t believe it, and I remember him stumbling around for hours furious with that crazy look on his face, and then he turned and he said, ‘I’m gonna kill him!’ I really thought, oh fuck, Stanley’s gonna commit murder. He’s going to kill Dorian Harewood. I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He goes, ‘I’m going to kill him.’ Remember when Dorian gets shot all over the body? It was because however number of days were left upon Dorian Harewood’s contract, Stanley was going to put in all the bullet hits he could. It was really cold. You could see Stanley wearing that hat and two coats, and we were wearing Vietnam khakis. It was freezing cold and snowing in London, and we were dressed up for North Vietnam. He killed him for as many days left that he had on the contract, and he had five days left lying on the cold earth with bullet hits. He (Stanley) would say, ‘Nah, we have to do it again. Put more bullet hits on him.’ And they were full loads full of exploding blood and everything.”

It was great to hear Matthew Modine share his stories about “Full Metal Jacket” as it remains one of Kubrick’s most memorable films. Many critics have called it the best war film ever made, and it features images which are impossible to forget. The actor also left us with something he wanted to share with all the directors in the audience.

My favorite direction from a director ever was from Stanley Kubrick,” Modine said. “He would clear his throat and pull on his beard and say, ‘Matthew, you’re not going to do it that way, are you?’ It’s my favorite direction because it’s so specific.”

In 2005, Modine published “Full Metal Jacket Diary,” a collection of photographs he took and of diary entries of his experiences which he kept during filming. Please click here to get more information about it.

Full Metal Jacket movie poster

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘Platoon’

Platoon movie poster

I think its use of “Adagio for Strings” by Samuel Barber is one of the reasons I stayed away from watching “Platoon” for the longest time. It still is one of the saddest pieces of music I have ever heard, although it would later be eclipsed by the even more emotionally devastating “Symphony No. 3” (subtitled “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”) by Henryk Górecki which Peter Weir used to powerful effect in “Fearless.” Plus, the way the violence in “Platoon” was described to me by friends at school, like when a soldier gets his arms blown off by a bomb, filled my mind with horrible images which had no business infecting my mind at such a young age.

It took buying the 25th anniversary edition of “Platoon” on Blu-ray for me to finally sit down and watch it. I hadn’t even seen the movie yet, and here I am buying it at Costco for $11.99 By then, I had seen many Oliver Stone movies like “Born On the Fourth of July,” “JFK,” and “Natural Born Killers,” so I was long overdue to give this Best Picture winner a look.

Before “Platoon,” I had seen “Apocalypse Now,” “The Deer Hunter,” and “Full Metal Jacket” which viewed the Vietnam War from different perspectives. The one thing they had in common was they were directed by filmmakers who had never served in Vietnam. Stone, however, had served there, so “Platoon” is largely autobiographical for him. As a result, this is probably the first truly realistic depiction of the Vietnam War anyone could have ever hoped to see in a movie.

Charlie Sheen stars as Chris Taylor, and it’s interesting watching him here as this was long before his days on “Two and a Half Men.” Taylor serves as the narrator and most relatable character as, like him, we are coming into this war fresh-faced, naïve and innocent. The first scene where Taylor comes off a plane with a bunch of newbies is an omen of what is to come. Seeing body bags filled with fallen soldiers and crossing paths with those men who have seen the war up close quickly gives you a good idea of what Taylor will probably end up looking like at the movie’s end.

Sheen is perfectly cast as he makes Taylor go from being a newbie to an experienced combat veteran in little time. It’s a shame Sheen has since pissed away a good portion of his talent to where he’s pretty much playing a version of himself as some drunken womanizer, be it on a television show or a movie. His work here is a strong reminder of how good he can be as he is utterly believable in a role no one would cast him in today.

Seeing Taylor struggle on through the Vietnamese jungle after the opening scene is a quick indication of how unprepared he is for combat. Like many wars Americans have fought, it was on the soil of another country they were completely unfamiliar with. We see how this puts them at an immediate disadvantage as they look completely exhausted and depleted even at the start of the day.

When it comes to Vietnam, Taylor makes it clear he is a unique case as he tells everyone he dropped out of college to volunteer and serve in the war. This makes him seem like part of a generation raised to believe fighting in a war is both noble and infinitely patriotic, something to be proud of. Taylor also feels that not only poor kids should be sent to fight instead of the rich, but he soon learns the truths about war, one of which is given to him by King (Keith David) who tells him something which resonates strongly even today: “You got to be rich in the first place to think like that. Everybody know, the poor are always being fucked over by the rich. Always have, always will.”

The other two performances worth noting are given by Willem Dafoe as Sergeant Elias and Tom Berenger as Sergeant Barnes. Both figure prominently in Taylor’s tour of duty, and even he says these two were fighting for his soul. Dafoe is mesmerizing as the idealistic soldier who sees America’s involvement in Vietnam ending badly. The Christ-like pose he gets in, whether its holding a machine gun over his shoulders or as he runs from the Vietnamese soldiers, is no mistake. Elias ends up dying for the sins of his fellow soldiers while doing his best to protect them.

Berenger’s performance as Barnes ranks among his best ever. He succeeds in getting inside the head of someone who has been shot at so many times to where they are forever psychologically altered. Having seen death up close, Barnes acts as if he has surpassed it. In some ways, Berenger doesn’t need those makeup scars to show you how many firefights his character has been in as watching him walk through the jungle, completely unaffected by explosions going off around him as if he were Colonel Kilgore in “Apocalypse Now,” is more than enough proof of this.

Stone makes you feel the blood, sweat, tears and exhaustion these soldiers experience, and it’s all so vivid to where we come out of “Platoon” feeling like war veterans ourselves. It leaves all those other movies which make war seem like fun to utter shame. Coming from a filmmaker who has seen this particular war up close, we cannot deny the authenticity he puts on display.

“Platoon” also captures how quickly people can lose their moral bearings in the face of war. The scene in the village is by far the movie’s most unnerving moment as we watch Taylor and the other soldiers get overcome by their boiling anger and hatred. What’s so horrifying is that while you would like to believe you would have acted differently than they did, there’s no way you can be sure if you haven’t been in combat. The line between soldier and killer gets seriously blurred here, and it’s not hard to understand why.

Before filming began, the cast was treated to an intensive military training course under the tutelage of former Marine Captain Dale Dye who also served in Vietnam. They were made to dig foxholes and subjected to forced marches and nighttime ambushes which utilized explosions. This succeeded in breaking them down, and you can see and feel the weariness in them throughout. It more than adds to the sheer realism we see here.

There’s no victory to be found in “Platoon,” only death and destruction on both sides of the conflict. The movie gets at the truth of war which Danny DeVito talked about in “The War of the Roses” when he said, “There is no winning! There’s only degrees of losing!”

The violence and death portrayed may not seem quite as visceral as it did when the movie first came out. There have been many other war movies since like “Saving Private Ryan” which featured scenes of such brutal violence that no other filmmaker could possibly match. Plus, we all know about the Vietnam War in general and big a mistake it was for America for many years now. Still, “Platoon” is nothing less than powerful as its vision of the craziness and insanity of war is impossible to shake once you have seen it.

The Vietnam War may be a thing of the past, but the lessons we learned from it still need to be taught over and over again. America keeps fighting wars which, whether necessary or not, continually overstay their welcome and leave a lot of people feeling angry and betrayed. Oliver Stone certainly understands that, and he makes “Platoon” into a movie which shows the damage of war and why we can’t just let the past be the past.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘The Hurt Locker’ Raises the Bar on Seriously Intense War Movies

The Hurt Locker movie poster

Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” is one of the most intense war movies I have ever seen. It follows an elite Army EOD bomb squad in Iraq assigned with the task of disarming IED’s, or explosive devices designed to create the most damage possible. Chris Hedges was once quoted as saying war is a drug, and this perfectly the movie we are about to witness. Every time these soldiers go out into the field, it’s either life or death, and no one has any idea how it will turn out. We get to view things from the soldier’s perspective, and the result is a film of wished it was.

The movie stars Jeremy Renner as Staff Sergeant William James, a highly experienced bomb technician who takes over a bomb disposal team after its previous leader is killed in combat. Aside from William, the team is also made up of Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) who are immediately taken aback by William’s seemingly reckless tactics. From the moment he steps onscreen, it is clear William finds much more excitement in this most dangerous of jobs than any human being should ever be allowed to experience. It ends up being more important for him than anything else in his life, including raising a child his girlfriend just gave birth to.

When this movie was released, it was already past the point where Bigelow should have gotten her due as one of the best action directors working in movies today, and “The Hurt Locker” may very well be her masterpiece. As I walked out of the movie theater, my nerves still jangling from this intense experience, I was just waiting for someone, anyone to say they never realized a woman could direct an action movie so effectively. It’s like I was almost daring someone to say this. For those of you who are surprised at seeing a female director pull this off, I got a few things to tell you about: “Near Dark,” a vampire-western hybrid, “Blue Steel” with Jaime Lee Curtis, “Point Break” with Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze, “Strange Days” with Ralph Fiennes and Angela Basset and directing from a script by ex-husband James Cameron, and the vastly underrated “K-19: The Widowmaker” with Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson. Bigelow directed all of these movies. She didn’t start yesterday folks!

By using four or more hand-held 16 mm cameras, Bigelow gives “The Hurt Locker” a documentary feel which makes it seem all the more real. You are down in the dirt and heat with these troops as it sears away at their bodies during their tour of duty. Their current tour lasts about a month, but when this movie is finished, it will certainly feel like a long month. Bigelow also shows the majority of the action from the soldiers POV and, like them, we are not able tell for sure whether the Iraqis staring at them from a distance are friendly or if they are terrorists waiting to push a button to set off a bomb which could very well be under our feet. She is clearly more interested in seeing how American troops survive in a land overwhelmingly hostile to their presence. Every moment these soldiers are out there is a matter of life and death, and the unpredictability of it all keeps them on their toes and at full attention 100% of the time.

The script was written by Mark Boal who also wrote the script for Paul Haggis’ “In the Valley of Elah,” another film dealing with the Iraq war and its effect on those who fought in it. Boal also spent some time in Iraq embedded with a real military bomb squad which became the source of this screenplay. What makes this unique among other Iraq war movies is it’s, thank god, not concerned with the politics of it all. Neither Boal nor Bigelow are interested in getting into a debate over whether or not we should have invaded Iraq, but instead in getting the detail to the letter of how this army squad does its job, and they appear to have captured this line of work perfectly. There is an authenticity here we cannot and should not question in the slightest.

Jeremy Renner is perfectly cast as William James, a military sergeant who seems to have gotten far past the realm of fear. The way the movie is designed, it could have tumbled into the clichés of “Top Gun” with Renner “grinning like an idiot every 15 minutes”. The fact it doesn’t descend into the kind of a film you’ve seen a hundred times is a credit not only to the filmmakers, but the actors as well. Renner gives us a character who is not entirely trustworthy, but not without a soul. His character perfectly personifies what Hedges talked about when he said war is a drug. He succeeds in showing us without words what effect this war has had on him. It has given him a strong sense of being alive he has not previously experienced anywhere else. But at the same time, he soon realizes how destructive it is not only to himself, but to others around him.

Another great performance comes from Anthony Mackie who plays Sergeant J.T. Sanborn. He is actually one step away from wearing that bomb suit William wears, but the more he comes close to human life lost so horrifically in this war, the more it brings him into full view of the things he really wants in life. What William takes for granted, Sanborn wants for himself. This could have been a role where Mackie could have easily become that drill instructor who is by the book and one dimensional. But instead, he gives us a character who is almost intimidated by what his new leader is able to accomplish as he is angered at his insubordination.

It’s amazing to see what Bigelow pulled off with “The Hurt Locker.” With a budget of only $11 million, she made a movie more intense, exciting, and thrilling than male directors could have made with multimillion budgets. The answer is not to give audiences tons of special effects with no discernable story or characters, but to give us a movie which draws us in emotionally no matter what the budget is. Perhaps if Hollywood ever bothered to realize this, then maybe there wouldn’t be so many bad movies or unnecessary remakes constantly being hurled at us.

* * * * out of * * * *

 

‘Dunkirk’ is Yet Another Brilliant Masterpiece from Christopher Nolan

Dunkirk movie poster

Dunkirk” is the first Christopher Nolan film since “Insomnia” where you see the movie’s title on the screen at the beginning instead of at the end. This surprised me as Nolan always seems determined to suck you right into the movie instead of having you think about its title until the screen fades to black. When it comes to “Dunkirk,” however, I imagine he wanted audiences to have this title firmly implanted in their brains as this particular World War II story is one of character and bravery in the face of such agonizing defeat.

The title refers to the beaches and harbor of Dunkirk, France where thousands of allied soldiers were trapped like sitting ducks as the German army closed in on them during the Battle of France. Now World War II has been a historical event which filmmakers have visited as often as they have the Vietnam War, but “Dunkirk” has a different angle than other films of its genre. There are no American troops to be found here, we never see Germans but feel them closing in on the allies throughout, and the allies are at a complete loss in terms of being able to fight back. What happened at Dunkirk was not at all about victory, but about survival, and sometimes surviving a war is all a solider needs to do.

Nolan, who also wrote “Dunkirk’s” screenplay, tells the movie from three different perspectives: the land, the sea, and the air. On land, we meet British Army Private Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) who barely escapes a German ambush and arrives at the beach of Dunkirk where he befriends Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), another young soldier with whom he desperately tries to escape Dunkirk with on any boat that will take them. On the sea, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) sails his boat out to Dunkirk in an effort to bring stranded soldiers back home, and he is joined by his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and Peter’s friend George (Barry Keoghan) who is curious to see the war up close. And in the air, Royal Air Force Pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) and two other Spitfire pilots battle enemy fighters in the sky who are determined to destroy any boat going away from Dunkirk. Everyone is busy as can be as they fight to keep their fellow allies out of harm’s way, and this is even though the situation is growing increasingly dire.

What’s fascinating is how Nolan ends up using very little dialogue throughout a good portion of the film. These characters are too shell-shocked to speak in full sentences after all they have been through, and Tommy and Gibson end up connecting in a way not only wordless but also totally believable. As “Dunkirk” goes on, more dialogue is featured, but Nolan has already managed to set up the atmosphere to where no one needs to say much because their faces and eyes say so much more than words ever could.

Watching all the soldiers on the beach, waiting for a boat, any boat, to take them, I was reminded of Tom Sizemore’s dialogue from “Saving Private Ryan” when he said, “I want plenty of feet between men. Five men is a juicy opportunity. One man is a waste of ammo.” These soldiers are stuck together in bunches, desperate to escape Dunkirk at the earliest opportunity. I felt horrible for them as they all just sitting ducks for German bombers who can pick them off ever so easily. All these soldiers can do, other than shoot back, is to play dead in the sand, but even this may not be enough to save them.

Much of the movie is focused on the endless ordeals of Tommy, Gibson, and another young soldier named Alex (Harry Styles) as they get on different boats to escape from Dunkirk. However, their successes are often thwarted by attacks which sink the ships they are on, and they soon find themselves in even worse situations. Like Adrien Brody in “The Pianist,” these characters are caught up in unthinkable circumstances and are just trying to survive by any means. Many will consider them cowards for trying to flee, but considering the dire situation they are trapped in, it’s hard to hold much of a grudge against them.

With Mr. Dawson and his two young companions sailing out to sea, we see the need these men have to help those in harm’s way. While Dawson is supposed to give his ship over to ship over to the Navy as they are commandeering private boats to help in the Dunkirk evacuation, he simply sails off as he feels it is his duty to rescue as many soldiers as he can since it was his generation who decided to send young men out into the battlefield. As for the two boys, both want to do something noteworthy in this war instead of just staying on the sidelines. In wartime, it doesn’t matter if you are a soldier or not because everyone is involved in one way or another.

For me, the moments in the air were among the most fascinating, and not just because of Hoyte van Hoytema’s beautiful cinematography. Once those pilots and their planes came up on the screen, I figured it would all play into the clichés of war movies or be something like “Top Gun” with characters infinitely eager to be seen as heroes and taking giddy pleasure in shooting the enemy down. But this is not the case in “Dunkirk” as these pilots are simply men doing their job without any fanfare, and they are well aware of the risks and of what could happen if the enemy wins. Farrier, in particular, has even a bigger risk to consider as his fuel gauge is cracked to where he can’t tell how much fuel he has left. He should turn back, but with the allies having little to defend themselves with, his concern for their well-being overrules any thoughts he has for his own safety.

With these three divergent plot points, Nolan has the Dunkirk evacuation surrounded brilliantly. This is not a story about victory in the slightest, but instead one of character and of what people will do in a most precarious situation. Some stand around as others suffer helplessly because they can’t save them, others are desperate to escape by any means as the miracle they pray for doesn’t look to be delivered to them any time soon, and there are those who sail out to the most dangerous place not because they want to, but because they have to. Like I said, “Dunkirk” is a movie about the character of a person and how that character is tested in wartime.

Nolan also ratchets up the intensity throughout as the situation these characters are in becomes increasingly dire as the Germans close in on them. This is especially the case when Tommy, Alex and Gibson join a group of Scottish soldiers who have discovered an abandoned boat in the intertidal zone which they plan to use for their escape when the tide rises. The Germans, however, have already begin using it for target practice, and the holes they put in the boat soon have water coming through them. To stay on the sinking ship is suicide as they will certainly drown, but to go out into the open is no different as they will be shot once they are out in the open. But Nolan squeezes even more intensity out of this scene as it is suddenly revealed one of the soldiers on board might be a German spy, and it becomes a question of not who will survive, but who will die first.

There’s not a weak performance to be found here as every single actor in “Dunkirk” brings their A game to the table. Mark Rylance remains an impeccable actor, and he makes Mr. Dawson into a man determined to do his national duty not just out of necessity, but out of guilt as well. I’m not familiar with Fionn Whitehead, but his work here is exemplary as he doesn’t have much dialogue and instead has to spend most of his performance showing the turmoil Tommy endures through his eyes and actions. Cillian Murphy also gives a strong supporting turn as a soldier who has seen the worst war has to offer, and it becomes clear he will never again be the man he once was. Harry Styles, whom many thought would stand out like a sore thumb, fits perfectly into this ensemble of actors without ever overshadowing them. Even the great Kenneth Branagh shows up as Commander Bolton who oversees the evacuation of soldiers, and the moment where his eyes water up at the sight of those private boats sailing towards the soldiers is a moment of beauty as I wanted to cry with him. To quote the movie’s tagline, these soldiers couldn’t get home, so home came for them.

But one performance I want to point out in particular is Tom Hardy’s as Farrier. Watching the actor here reminded me of his work in “Locke” as, like the character in that movie, Farrier spends the majority of the time in a moving vehicle with only his fellow pilots and his own sense of duty to keep him company. Not once does Hardy try to portray Farrier as some hotshot pilot like Maverick in “Top Gun” or Captain Steve Hiller in “Independence Day,” but instead as a soldier like any other. Even with his face covered by an oxygen mask, Hardy deftly shows the stoicism and determination of his character as he continues to battle his foes in the sky even as his gasoline supply continues to dwindle, and he makes Farrier into the hero this movie very much deserves.

Another big character in “Dunkirk” is the music of Nolan’s frequent collaborator, Hans Zimmer. The German film composer has given us some of the most thrilling music scores of the past couple of decades, and his music here helps to make an intense motion picture experience even more intense than it already is. It essentially acts as a ticking clock, reminding the audience of how time is running out for the allied soldiers as the German forces get closer and closer to their location. Even in its more hopeful moments, Zimmer provides ominous sounds reminding us how the danger is always around the corner, ready to strike without much warning. When Zimmer’s music breaks into a cue scoring the arrival of boats to take the soldiers home, I could help but let out a sigh of relief as he finally had a reason to slow things down a bit and revel in the heroics of those who came to rescue the stranded men.

Does “Dunkirk” stand as one of the greatest war movies, let alone World War II movies, ever made? You bet. Nolan continues to give us one brilliant cinematic masterpiece after another, and whether or not you think this film is his best, it is certainly the most important he has made to date. The story of the Dunkirk evacuation is one the British people were raised on, and the world needs to be reminded again of how important a story this is. On one hand it is a story about military defeat, but it is also about a nation’s character and of how citizens stood up in the face of disaster to help those trapped. All the characters featured here endure different fates, but what they endure says more about them than words ever can. And the movie also reminds us sometimes all you need to do in a war is survive. You may come out of a war not feeling like the hero everyone makes you out to be, but surviving really is more than enough. At the very least, it gives you a reason to carry the story on to the next generation so the sacrifices made by so many will never be lost in the backroom of history.

* * * * out of * * * *

Hacksaw Ridge

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I want to start off first by applauding director Mel Gibson for using the term “A True Story” as opposed to “Based on a True Story” when he starts off “Hacksaw Ridge.” You all know how much I have come to despise the term “Based on a True Story” as it has long since lost its meaning, and I have to give credit to Gibson for altering this phrase here. As a director, you know he’s not about to take the easy way out or give us something which feels emotionally false. This continues to be the case with “Hacksaw Ridge,” his first directorial effort in ten years.

This movie tells the story of Desmond Doss, a Seventh-day Adventist Christian who joined the Army in World War II to serve as a medic. The only thing is, he joins as a conscientious objector and refuses to carry a weapon of any kind into the battlefield. At the Battle of Okinawa, he succeeded in rescuing 75 wounded soldiers without firing a single shot, and he was later awarded the Medal of Honor for his acts which went above and beyond the call of duty.

Desmond is played as a young adult by Andrew Garfield, and he is very deserving of the Oscar nomination he received for his performance. From start to finish, the British-American actor imbues Desmond with an unshakable faith in a higher power, and I never saw this faith waiver for a single second. Seeing him square off with a fellow soldier who assumes he is a coward for not picking up a rifle is fascinating as Garfield’s eyes emit a hard-won bravery the others around him only think they possess. This even comes across as he pursues Nurse Dorothy Schutte (the luminous Teresa Palmer) as obsessively as Dustin Hoffman chased Katherine Ross around town in “The Graduate” to where you wonder if anything could stand in Desmond’s way at all.

We all know Gibson is a devoutly religious person, and not just because he made “The Passion of the Christ.” Indeed, “Hacksaw Ridge” could have easily looked silly if it took its subject far too seriously or tried to indoctrinate us or push some agenda, but Gibson doesn’t make those mistakes. The director treats Desmond with the respect he deserves, and he was clearly determined not to make him look like a joke. Desmond was the real deal, and he found the perfect actor to portray him in Garfield.

Gibson also wades through a wealth of war movie clichés which do take away from the final cut, but the scenes are elevated by a number of strong performances from a well-chosen cast. Hugo Weaving of “The Matrix” and “Lord of the Rings” fame (“Welcome to Rivendale, Mr. Anderson”) is a big standout as Desmond’s father, Tom. Being a war veteran himself, Tom has seen the vicious damage it has done to the soul and the psyche. Weaving makes Tom more than the average abusive drunk you see in cinema as he shows his character’s pain over the memories he can’t drink away, and of the terror he wishes to keep his sons from experiencing themselves.

Rachel Griffiths provides the yin to Weaving’s yang in her performance as Desmond’s mom, Bertha, who enforces in her son the importance of God’s commandments, especially the one which states “thou shalt not kill.” She also gives Bertha a strong gravitas which Garfield benefits richly from as the movie goes on, and you can see how her presence remained a strong one in Desmond’s life.

Then there’s Vince Vaughn who gives his best performance in quite some time as Army Drill Sergeant Howell. While his work may pale in comparison to R. Lee Ermey’s brutal performance in “Full Metal Jacket,” at least Vaughn invests Howell with a strong dose of human you wouldn’t often expect characters like these to have in war movies.

But the real meat of “Hacksaw Ridge” comes in the last section during the battle sequences. Now Gibson might not be able to match Steven Spielberg’s powerful realism when it came to those unforgettable opening minutes of “Saving Private Ryan,” but he tops him when it comes to bloody carnage. Bullets fly everywhere, limbs are blown off and guts are laid out for rats to chew on. This should be no surprise as this movie comes from the director of “Braveheart,” “The Passion of the Christ,” and “Apocalypto,” and like those movies, it features a protagonist who has to wade through body parts and blood in order to receive any kind of salvation.

Along with director of photography Simon Duggan, Gibson gives us some of the most visceral and best war movies I have seen in a long time as he shows you the damage war leave in its wake as well as what it does to the souls of those in the front line. It also gives a real-life superhero who selflessly risked his life to help those who could no longer help themselves. While certain sections are undone a bit by an innate corniness which comes with unavoidable clichés, Gibson gives us a war movie for the ages which, in the wrong hands, could have become silly and heavy-handed, but in his, it becomes a celebration of a man who saved so many without even firing a bullet.

“Hacksaw Ridge” had been in development hell for 14 years, and the rights to it were at one point in the hands of Walden Media which wanted to turn Desmond’s story into a PG-13 movie. Something tells me this would have been a mistake as sanitizing the struggles of war would have been an insult to those who fought for our freedoms. Yes, this is an ultra-violent motion picture, but for good reason. Could we have appreciated what Desmond without having a clear view of the chaos he and other soldiers put themselves into? I think not.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: Empire of the Sun

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Empire of the Sun” is one of the few Steven Spielberg movies which has eluded my watching it for far too long. I remember when it was released back in 1987, and my brother and I watched a documentary on its making. What we saw did not make it look like the typical Spielberg crowd-pleasing movie people had come to expect from him back then. It also dealt with a young boy who is separated from his parents, and separation anxiety was a HUGE thing for me back in the 80’s. But with it now at its 30th anniversary of its release, and having the opportunity to see it on the big screen at New Beverly Cinema in 35mm, the time had come to give what is largely considered to be one of Spielberg’s more underrated films a look.

Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by J.G. Ballard, “Empire of the Sun” takes us back to the days of World War II where we meet Jamie Graham (Christian Bale in his film debut), a young schoolboy who lives a privileged life with a wealthy family out in the Shanghai International Settlement where he sings in the school choir, rides his bicycle everywhere and anywhere, and has a love of airplanes which knows no bounds. A key shot for me comes early on when we see Jamie taking some food out of an overstocked refrigerator which is filled with goodies as it shows how easy things come to this young lad to where he can boss the Japanese maid around like his parents do.

Of course, this all changes when the Japanese invade the settlement following their bombing of Pearl Harbor, and Jamie and his family are forced to flee their home and escape with their lives. In the process, Jamie gets separated from his mom after he picks up his metal toy airplane which he dropped on the ground, and he is forced to fend for himself as he is swept into a conflict far beyond anything he could have imagined.

When it comes to “Empire of the Sun,” it was no surprise to learn David Lean was originally going to direct this adaptation as Spielberg certainly made it look like a Lean movie with scenes filled with crowds of people struggling to survive in life during wartime. Spielberg ended up putting together scenes which must have made Lean proud as it brings to mind the epic shots the director pulled off in his masterpiece “Lawrence of Arabia.” Today, most of those shots would have been accomplished with the use of CGI effects, but “Empire of the Sun” was made back in a time where they weren’t so readily available.

Watching this movie reminded me of how brilliant Spielberg is at taking us back to a day and age many of us were not alive to see, and he does it so vividly to where we can never doubt his authenticity to the period. Spielberg has visited the era of World War II time and time again to amazing effect whether it’s the Indiana Jones movies or “Saving Private Ryan,” and he never seems to miss a detail in the process.

And then there’s Christian Bale who made his film debut in “Empire of the Sun,” and he brings to this role the same kind of intensity he would later bring to his work in movies like “American Psycho” and “The Fighter” among others. I could never take my eyes off of him as he takes Jamie from being a privileged young man to one who struggles for even the smallest reward like a Hershey chocolate bar. Was there another young actor who could have pulled off such a brave and emotionally honest performance as Bale does here? I think not.

Another great performance to be found here is from John Malkovich who plays Basie, an American ship steward stranded in Shanghai who befriends Jamie in his most desperately hungry state. Basie looks to be the Han Solo kind of character who befriends a young innocent who has yet to learn how cruel the world can be, but he turns out to be more of a manipulator than a hero in the making. Malkovich makes Basie into a fascinating study of someone who seeks to benefit themselves more than anyone else, and he constantly leaves you wondering if his character can rediscover whatever humanity he has left.

In addition, there are fine performances from Miranda Richardson as a neighbor of Jamie’s, Nigel Havers as a doctor who desperately tries to teach Jamie about humility, Joe Pantoliano has some choice moments as a companion of Basie’s, and Burt Kwouk, best known as Cato from the “Pink Panther” series, shows up in a small role which he is almost unrecognizable in. Heck, even Ben Stiller shows up here as an American soldier. Seeing him at first is a bit disorienting as he has since become a big comedy star to where he now seems out of place here, but I’ll chalk that up to one of the disadvantages of watching this movie at a later date.

Looking back, I feel “Empire of the Sun” was Spielberg’s first real foray into darker material which would soon pave the way for films like “Schindler’s List,” “Saving Private Ryan” and “Munich.” While it feels like he was taking baby steps here, as those aforementioned films proved to be much darker than this one, it was a giant cinematic leap for him to tackle something like this back in the 80’s.

Still, part of me wonders if he played a little too nice with the source material. Being that this was an adaptation of a J.G. Ballard novel, the same writer whose controversial books “Crash” and “High-Rise” were adapted into deliriously dark motion pictures by David Cronenberg and Ben Wheatley, I can’t imagine “Empire of the Sun” was any easier of a book to read. Ballard wrote some pretty dark stuff, and it makes me wonder just how dark his novel “Empire of the Sun” was compared to Spielberg’s film.

All the same, “Empire of the Sun” is an amazing achievement to watch today as he managed to pull off many epic scenes long before the use of CGI effects. Part of me wishes I had watched it when I was younger as it would have had a more powerful effect on me emotionally, but better late than never with a film like this. Along with cinematographer Allen Daviau, composer John Williams, writer Tom Stoppard and editor Michael Kahn, Spielberg created a World War II epic which stands out among the most memorable of them all, and it deserves more attention than it received upon its release thirty years ago.

* * * * out of * * * *

Das Boot

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With it out on Blu-ray, viewers can once again see that “Das Boot” is still the greatest submarine movie ever made. Other underwater sea adventures like “Run Silent, Run Deep,” “Crimson Tide,” and “The Hunt for Red October” may come close, but none of them can capture or match its power in unbearable claustrophobic tension. It remains Wolfgang Petersen’s crowning achievement as a director, and it has lost none of its power in sucking us into the inescapable terror people face in the deep dark sea.

“Das Boot” takes place in World War II as Commander Willenbrock leads a group of boys to sea on a U-Boat, the German version of a submarine, and covers the tedium of life at sea when no battles are fought. You feel the sweat and body odor of the crew quite vividly to where you will want to take a cold shower afterward. But it’s when they face off against destroyer ships when the intensity really goes into serious high gear.

Petersen does a brilliant job of conveying the terror and claustrophobic nature everyone on the U-Boat is forced to endure. You are right there with the crew and experiencing their frenzied emotions as the destroyers sail over them dropping depth charges which threaten to sink their boat in a heartbeat. The “ping” noises make the suspenseful tension even worse as the position of the submarine becomes easier to determine, and this becomes a film you experience far more than watch.

The director also does a really good job of getting viewers to know various crew members and the important roles they have on the ship. There is Chief Engineer Fritz Grade (the wonderful Klaus Wennemann) who finds looking at pictures of his wife too painful. Then there’s Chief Mechanic Johann (Erwin Leder) who is in love with his engines the same way Scotty loved the Enterprise in “Star Trek.” And there is also Senior Cadet Ullmann (Martin May) who is constantly worried about his fiancée who is French and pregnant. The more viewers know about the crew, the more emotionally drawn they are to their predicament.

There may some people who object to seeing “Das Boot” on the grounds the crew members were Nazis. Truth be told, not all of them are big fans of Adolf Hitler, and they are never seen wearing a Nazi insignia on their uniforms while at sea. But regardless of this, take away the politics of what’s going on and you will realize just how universal this movie is in what it portrays. Had it been the “good guys” instead, they would have endured the same crippling terror and fatigue so this crew could have been of any nationality.

It is also a powerful anti-war movie as well in showing not just the horrors and destruction of war, but also of the victories which become empty ones when soldiers see what is left behind. This is especially the case in one scene when the crew members are on the surface and surveying a freighter they successfully destroyed. They revel in their victory, but then they see survivors jumping off the ship into the ocean. They swim to the submarine pleading for help, but while the German crew members want to assist them, the Captain concedes there is no room for them onboard, and they are left to drown. It’s an emotionally devastating moment which captures the senselessness and the price of war.

“Das Boot” is based on the novel by Lothar-Günther Buchheim which was inspired by his own wartime experiences as a war correspondent onboard submarines. The character most resembling him here is Lieutenant Werner, and he is our guide through the chaos as his lack of experience aboard a submarine mirrors our own. What he discovers about life at sea, viewers discover along with him. Playing him is German singer Herbert Grönemeyer, and he does great work in conveying his naivety while covering the goings on of a German crew.

The best performance, however, comes from the great Jürgen Prochnow who plays Commander Willenbrock, the hardened sea veteran who looks like he’s seen everything war has to offer. The other officers freak out easily during an attack, but he keeps his cool because he needs everyone to do their jobs. It’s when he starts losing it, however, when things get really bad, and then the audience has a reason to freak out. Prochnow creates a multi-dimensional character which feels very much lived in, and he gives the Commander a subtle vulnerability which looks and feels effortless.

Petersen has been known best for making movies about people who are stuck in small places where there’s not much room to hide. He enthralled us when the American President’s plane was hijacked in “Air Force One,” he had Clint Eastwood chasing after John Malkovich during “In the Line of Fire,” and he has George Clooney and company trapped in the rocky sea in “The Perfect Storm.” “Das Boot” is where it all started for him, and it is a seriously intense and emotionally exhausting experience which thrills and terrifies you in equal measure. The accuracy to detail is never in doubt, and the audience will come up gasping for air once the credits roll.

There may be another submarine movie or two coming to movie theaters in the future, but after watching “Das Boot,” you can bet they won’t come close to topping it. Movies don’t get much more thrilling than this one, and it is a must see for those who are fans of Petersen’s work or war movies in general. It is also more preferable to some of the director’s more recent work like “Poseidon” and “Troy.”

* * * * out of * * * *

Note: There are currently many different versions of “Das Boot” available. The original theatrical cut lasts about two and a half hours. The director’s cut of it added an hour of footage which gave more depth to each character. And before it made its way onto Blu-ray, there was the uncut miniseries version which runs for almost five hours. You may want to start off with the director’s cut and then move on to the miniseries which perfectly captures the infinite tedium of the crew that feels endless.

Eye In The Sky

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When it comes to drone warfare, it seems like such an easier way to fight an enemy without having to put “boots on the ground.” But like Snake Plissken said over and over in “Escape from L.A.,” the more things change, the more they stay the same. Just as in previous wars, there will always be much destruction and an inevitable number of civilian casualties. The question comes to this: is war worth it? Is it worth having all these civilian casualties while trying to take out the enemy? Now some might think these are easy questions to answer, but this is not the case at all, especially to those at the front line.

This is made clear in Gavin Hood’s intense thriller “Eye in the Sky.” It stars Helen Mirren as Colonel Katherine Powell who has been tracking a British citizen-turned-terrorist for six years and finally has her tracked down in Kenya. Thanks to local operative Jama Farah (“Captain Phillips’” Barkhad Abdi) and his nifty high-tech surveillance, she discovers this spy is quickly preparing along with others to carry out suicide attacks. As a result, what started as a mission of capture becomes a mission to kill terrorists, and Colonel Powell has drone pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul of “Breaking Bad”) target the safe house the terrorists are in and is prepared to take them out, but then a 9-year-old girl enters the kill zone to sell some loaves of bread, and she won’t leave until she sells them all. This quickly triggers an international dispute as the United States and British governments debate over whether or not to take action.

While most war movies enthrall viewers with bullets and bombs exploding constantly, “Eye in the Sky” leaves us in sweat-inducing suspense as we wonder if and when an explosion will go off at all. What’s great about Guy Hibbert’s screenplay is it never condescends to its characters or give us annoying ones who are out to make bone-headed decisions for their own benefit. Every reason each character gives for firing or not firing at the target makes perfect sense, and it adds to how difficult the question of attacking these terrorists with this little girl nearby is to answer. On one hand, stopping these terrorists will prevent the loss of many lives, but if the little girl is killed it will come back to aid the propaganda wars being fought against governments. Everyone is looking for a way to keep the blood off their hands, but no one gets off easy.

Watching this situation play out reminded me of a scene from “Blue Thunder.” This classic 1980’s movie is about a high-tech helicopter, and the characters see it do a demonstration of a strafing run where red dummies are terrorists and the white ones are civilians. In the course of shooting at the targets, all the red dummies are blown away as well as a few white ones. This leads the government official Fletcher to tell helicopter pilot Frank Murphy, “There’s one civilian dead for every ten terrorists. That’s an acceptable ratio.” To this Murphy replies, “Unless you’re one of the civilians.”

You almost want to laugh at the government officials who keep trying to contact their higher ups to get permission to obliterate the terrorists as it comes across as passing the buck. But whether or not there is an advantage to attacking or not attacking, there’s also how the rest of the population will interpret how their governments act. This is something governments can never fully control, and they are fully aware of the consequences of doing something and of doing nothing.

Gavin Hood has had a tough time in Hollywood ever since he won the Best Foreign Film Oscar for “Tsotsi.” His abduction thriller “Rendition” received a mixed reception, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” proved to be a mess as it was undone by too much studio interference, and “Ender’s Game’s” chances of becoming a franchise of movies crashed as soon as it opened. But with “Eye in the Sky,” Hood is really in his element as he was once a soldier and has a clear understanding of the military’s responsibilities and the conflicts they endure. He’s also smart to not answer any of the questions the movie poses as he is not about to offer easy answers. Aside from the terrorists, there are no good or bad guys here, but instead, professionals trying to win a war against terrorism as well as the minds of the people.

Hood also shows how the drone pilots actually have it even harder than troops who see the action up close. They may be many miles away from their targets, but they can still see their targets up close and still have their finger on the trigger. At the movie’s press conference, Hood told reporters drone pilots have a higher rate of post-traumatic disorder than those troops who experienced armed combat up close. Having an actor like Aaron Paul playing the drone pilot gets this point across very well as we watch him suffer just as much as he did as Jesse Pinkman on “Breaking Bad.”

Mirren remains an impeccable actress, and she follows up her nasty turn as columnist Hedda Hopper in “Trumbo” with a much different character. Eager to stop another terrorist attack from happening, she undergoes tremendous stress while waiting for an answer from her commander. Mirren makes you feel her stress two-fold, and yet she never seems to break a sweat.

It’s also great to see Abdi here as he proves his Oscar-nominated performance in “Captain Phillips” was no fluke. His character is closest to the line of fire, and we watch as he does his best to do his work while under the prying eyes of fearsome soldiers. Abdi perfectly captures Jama’s desperation as he does what he can to save the little girl from a tragic fate, and he is riveting throughout.

The movie also contains the last onscreen performance from the late Alan Rickman who portrays Colonel Powell’s commanding officer, Lieutenant General Frank Benson. Rickman is as impeccable here as he has been in any other role he has played, and he will be deeply missed. He also has one of the movie’s most definitive lines which comes up towards the end, and he delivers it in a truly unforgettable way.

“Eye in the Sky” is one of those rare thrillers which thrills you just as much as it makes you think. The reality of drone warfare is hard to escape, and this is especially the case after watching this movie. As much as many of us want to leave life and death decisions up to others, Hood forces you to question what you would do in the same situation. You may not like the answers you come up with, but you can’t turn a blind eye to it forever.

By the way, in the case you were wondering, the Alan Parsons Project song of the same name is not featured in this movie. Bummer.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Lone Survivor

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In a sense, this movie almost shouldn’t work. The title alone flat out tells you only one person will survive the battle we are about to see, and the opening shows doctors working furiously to save that person’s life. From the start, we know how this movie’s going to end even if we haven’t read the book it is based on, so this should kill any suspense it hopes to have right there. But thanks to the tense direction of Peter Berg and a terrific cast, “Lone Survivor” proves to be one of the most visceral war movies I have seen in quite some time.

Like every other movie coming out today, this one is based on a true story. Wahlberg portrays Marcus Luttrell, a United States Navy SEAL who, along with three other Navy SEALS, were dropped off in the mountainous Afghanistan-Pakistan border to conduct a reconnaissance mission on notorious Taliban leader Ahmad Shahd. This particular Taliban leader was said to have close ties to Osama Bin Laden, and we watch as these soldiers keep a very close eye on him.

But during their mission, they are accosted by a group of civilians whom they quickly restrain. Some of the Navy SEALS consider killing them so that their mission can remain a secret, but Marcus manages to convince his fellow soldiers that letting them go is the best option. To kill them would mean standing trial for murder and spending the rest of their lives in prison, and since this has already happened to other soldiers, they agree it is in their best interest to avoid this particular fate. So they let the civilians go and abort their mission, feeling they will be exposed if they stay any longer.

The time these men have to wonder if they made the right choice or not is cut short when they get ambushed by Taliban forces which end up surrounding them on all sides. From there, it is a race for survival as, despite their training, the SEALS find themselves outnumbered and out of communication range with the rest of their unit. From there, “Lone Survivor” becomes quite the blistering experience as you feel everything these soldiers are forced to experience and endure.

Berg starts the movie off with documentary footage of Navy SEAL training which is still considered the toughest military training anyone could endure. It is said 70% of the soldiers who enlist in this training end up dropping out, and from what we see here this is no surprise. I was immediately reminded of Ridley Scott’s “G.I. Jane” which had Demi Moore going through the torturous ritual of becoming a Navy SEAL, but seeing real people go through it here makes it seem all the more brutal.

This opening succeeds in showing us how these soldiers come to form such a close bond with one another, having succeeded in making it to the level of a Navy SEAL. But as this movie continues on, they will soon come face to face with something they are not used to enduring at all: failure.

Berg has proven himself to be a terrific action director with films like “The Rundown” and “The Kingdom,” and he really outdoes himself here. He makes you feel the bullet wounds, the cuts and dark bruises these men are forced to put up with as their chances for survival continue to erode. By the time “Lone Survivor” comes to its inevitable conclusion, I found myself feeling emotionally and physically exhausted by what I had seen. This is a movie which barely lets you come up for air. Even though we know who the lone survivor of the movie’s title will to be, we are still riveted because we still don’t want these soldiers to die.

Berg treats this story with tremendous respect and doesn’t ever try to exploit what these soldiers went through for the sake of entertainment. We get to know these men well enough to where their eventual demise is harrowing to witness. Berg also has quite the cast to help him make this film a reality. In addition to Wahlberg, “Lone Survivor” also stars Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch and Ben Foster as the Navy SEALS, and each actor puts their all into roles which are physically and emotionally draining. Foster is especially a standout as Matthew Axelson who meets his end with sheer defiance.

2013 was a busy year for Wahlberg as he starred in “Broken City,” “Pain & Gain” and “2 Guns” in addition to this. When all is said and done, “Lone Survivor” represents the best work did that year. While watching him, you can tell how deeply he felt about this story just by looking at his eyes. Ever since he blew us away with his performance in “The Basketball Diaries,” Wahlberg has given us one unforgettable performance after another, and he rarely if ever lets us down when he’s onscreen. He has never been the kind of actor who just walks through a role, and I believe him when he talks about the effect playing Marcus Luttrell had on him.

There’s a lot more I would love to tell you about “Lone Survivor,” but I really don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t read the book this film is based on. As much as I want to tell you this was one of the first really good movies of 2014, it was given a limited release before the end of 2013. Oh well, whether you consider it a 2013 or 2014 film, “Lone Survivor” is certainly one of the most visceral movie going experiences we have seen in a while. For those who like their movies filled with intense emotions, this is a must see.

* * * ½ out of * * * *