Thursday, December 26, 2013

Lone Survivor: A Darker Zero Dark Thirty

Posted By on Thu, Dec 26, 2013 at 11:00 AM

lone survivor movie mark wahlberg
Lone Survivor: I've long given director Peter Berg the benefit of the doubt, because he's spent most of his career making movies that either turn out better than their loglines would suggest, or at least aspire to turn out better. Lone Survivor is Berg's most purely serious movie since Friday Nights, and seems poised to make up for last year's Battleship debacle. But between these two movies and The Kingdom, Berg seems intent on carving out a niche for himself as the go-to chronicler and worshipper of modern soldiers—a more focused version of the Michael Bay he so frighteningly imitated with his board-game robot-alien movie. Berg seems more immersed than Bay in military culture beyond recruitment ads, but he's equally in thrall: Lone Survivor both opens and closes with real-life footage and photos of the Navy SEALS it's based on, an ostensible tribute to fallen men that in its volume doubles as an insistence of the story's beyond-movie legitimacy.

But as much as it doesn't want to admit it, Lone Survivor is a movie—a darker flipside to Zero Dark Thirty, wherein four SEALs (Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, and Ben Foster) head out on a mission to grab a Taliban leader in Afghanistan. They come upon some Afghani shepherds, and are faced with the choice of killing them or letting them go in a dilemma articulated through some clumsy dialogue about the rules of engagement. They decide to follow those rules and let them go; the shepherds tip off the Taliban, and disaster ensues. After cursory set-up (long-distance wives, good-natured manly joshing), a near-majority of the movie is basically a single intense battle sequence in the aftermath of their humane decision. Berg goes less aggressively stylized than usual, depicting the messy brutality of war. It's a viscerally effective and terrifying piece of cinema; it's also numbing, not unlike a slasher movie: the slow-mo SEAL-deaths aren't played for kicks, but Berg does linger on the carnage. It's meant, again, as tribute to their towering bravery: he often shoots the actors from slightly below, making them look huge and imposing even among tall trees, and a surging Explosions in the Sky score lets you know that this is a serious movie. But the movie doesn't feel particularly personal; apart from a few nice mid-aughts period details (the troops love Anchorman and Napoleon Dynamite!), the soldiers have only the barest of personalities.

It hopefully won't spoil too much of a true story called Lone Survivor to say that Wahlberg escapes the firefight. He winds up in an Afghani village whose inhabitants provide unexpected protection, and at this point the movie becomes fascinating, for both that moving turn—Afghanis risking their lives for a stranger rather than turn him over to the Taliban—and for the way Berg has buried the lead all along. He treats the most human and unexpected section of the story as more or less an extended coda—an anecdote on Wahlberg's way home. Maybe some of Lone Survivor's uncomfortable aftertaste comes from its timing. It caps a year of survival stories—Gravity, 12 Years a Slave, and All Is Lost—with one that barely seems interested in survival as compared to honorable, senseless death. This movie works from a limited point of view, not narratively but thematically.

47 ronin movie keanu reeves
47 Ronin: After a year-plus on the shelf, or whatever the honorable 18th-century-Japan version of “the shelf” is, this bizarre would-be tent pole based on the popular, uh, group of ronin finally comes home for Christmas. Some reshoots and the addition of 3D effects have not altered the fact that this is a major studio movie mixing Japanese history with some second-tier fantasy special effects, starring a mostly Asian cast and also Keanu Reeves, who seems to have really taken his Matrix training to heart. It's about a group of samurai seeking long-term revenge on the man who engineered a nasty plot against their master. The finished film is not particularly good; in fact, it's kind of terrible in terms of involving drama, cinematic style, or basic entertainment value. But it is fascinating that Universal gave a ton of money for first-time director Carl Rinsch to spend on a movie that, if nothing else, commits to an 18th-century Japan mindset about its characters, which is to say: not really the happiest of endings for American audiences. Or for American movie executives, it seems like (not to go all Nikki Finke on you here). In the middle of all this, Keanu Reeves is there, going just as monotone as the other, non-native-English actors; it's a pretty eccentric move on his part, but I also couldn't help thinking, “dude, aren't you a little old for this kind of thing?” Moreover, none of this incidental weirdness makes 47 Ronin fascinating to sit down and actually watch; it's neither credible history (because it includes dragons and shit) nor a credible movie about dragons and shit (because the Hobbit movie is out now with a way more awesome dragon). I guess you could call it a nice try?

click to enlarge secret life of walter mitty movie ben stiller

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: In recent weeks, several people have asked me what I thought of Ben Stiller's Secret Life of Walter Mitty movie, and I found myself grasping at straws, trying to articulate the experience of watching it at this year's New York Film Festival, and mostly coming up with a vague feeling of admiring dissatisfaction. I had to go back to my original write-up to recall my exact feelings on the film: it starts off with surprising sweetness and some of the most polished filmmaking of Stiller's career, but eventually repeats itself with too many rich-guy fantasies of how to really live that the movie, somewhat confusingly, actually wants to incorporate into its reality. Its gentle melancholy feels real, but its life affirmations feel decidedly more false. I like Stiller as a director, and Walter Mitty looks great, but in terms of net effect, it's probably the weakest of his films behind the camera. It's also his most heartfelt, which gives it a classic comedian-going-serious vibe. But Stiller is also a credible serious actor, and has eschewed broad comedy in some of his best movies and performances, from the light (Keeping the Faith) to the offbeat (Zero Effect; The Royal Tenenbaums) to the pitch black (Your Friends and Neighbors). It's a bummer to find out that Walter Mitty doesn't stand alongside his late 90s/early aughts work, which I think explains my reticence in explaining the movie: it's something I wanted to like, sometimes liked, but left me surprisingly unsatisfied.

click to enlarge grudge match movie stallone deniro

Grudge Match: Comic masters Sylvester Stallone (Oscar; Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot) and Robert De Niro (Meet the Fockers; The Big Wedding) finally share the screen again after their riotous hit Copland in director Peter Segal's raucous and in no way depressing comedy about old guys who take one last shot… at being hilarious. Fans of Last Vegas will delight at the myriad age-related comical situations, and fans of both De Niro and Stallone will barely be able to contain their delight when watching these two wisecracking comedians riff off of each other's images. And by "wisecracking comedians," I mean Alan Arkin and Kevin Hart, who are also in this movie, which is currently available for your elderly family of all elderly ages to possibly enjoy. Happy Christmas!

August: Osage County: The endless Weinstein award waves seem like they could hit a late-90s-ish ebb with this all-star adaptation of the fantastic Trace Letts play, exactly the kind of sure-thing prestige material that has wiped out in the past. Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts probably still stand a chance in their relatively thin acting fields, and words is this movie isn't the bowdlerized embarrassment that could have been, but there's almost no way that John Wells has directed a movie better than the four-hour marathon of devastation and bleak hilarity. Probably just as well for Harvey: after Django Unchained, Silver Linings Playbook, The Artist, The Iron Lady, and The King's Speech, he needs to be re-humbled before he starts to assume that he can spin anything into filthy awards lucre (though to be fair Django and Silver are good movies and the Weinstein Company's also-rans from last year, The Master and Killing Them Softly are even better—though a lot of that can probably be credited to Megan Ellison). I remember 2008, Harvey: I remember when your big awards movie The Reader barely outgrossed Zak and Miri Make a Porno (which is also, by the way, a much better movie than The Reader). Then again, The Reader was inexplicably nominated for Best Picture back when the nominee limit was five, so clearly Harvey is skilled in his dark magic.

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