The White Helmets

Release: Friday, September 16, 2016 

[Netflix]

Directed by: Orlando von Einsiedel

Syria is a nation currently being torn apart at the seams as a multitude of political actors continue to wrestle control of its future away from one another. The better part of the last decade has been spent in bloodshed as coalitions of rebels, extremist groups and other armed entities not exactly sympathetic to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have set their sights on total upheaval. What began in the capital city of Damascus as peaceful protests for democratic reform and the release of political prisoners escalated into a hostile and bitter conflict when al-Assad used brutal force to try to quash the potential uprising. These events, of course, have all contributed to the growing refugee crisis.

Orlando von Einsiedel’s The White Helmets offers a window into this struggle, providing viewers access to ground zero as they follow around a group of Syrian civilians who have taken it upon themselves to search for and recover bodies — dead or alive, friend or foe — from the carnage created by aerial attacks that have been decimating heavily populated cities like Aleppo and Idlib on a daily basis. The 41-minute film won the Oscar for Documentary Short Subject at the 89th Academy Awards, marking the first win for Einsiedel and his second nomination, following his previous feature-length documentary Virunga in 2014.

Incorporating footage compiled by the activists themselves, such as Khaled Khateeb (who was one of several prevented from attending this year’s Oscars by President Trump’s travel ban), into a rather straightforward procession of testimonies delivered directly to camera by a handful of volunteers, The White Helmets proves an unsurprisingly sobering watch. The footage captures the men working in conditions that are bad turning worse. In the wake of Russian intervention — a development since September 2015, one that has sparked humanitarian outcries across the globe on the assertion that their involvement has proven more destructive than the action taken by Syria’s own government and even ISIL — the White Helmets appear to be the last bastion of hope that people living in targeted areas truly have.

While the preservation of hope is what fundamentally galvanizes us to keep watching, if only through our hands, von Einsiedel is careful neither to exploit nor romanticize the role these first responders play. Even still, you should know that the footage is presented in a raw and unedited form, and is often graphic and upsetting. Not that that isn’t obvious, but it bears repeating as it is, to be brutally honest, what makes the film such an essential watch. The savagery that’s been going on for over six long years needs to be acknowledged.

The implications of the violence are also, somewhat sickeningly, more complex than they first appear. While the initial justification behind the bombings was to eliminate rebel and jihadist groups from Syria, over time Russia has become increasingly more involved in the state’s fight to reclaim territory, which has necessarily meant becoming more active in eliminating the opposition, all splinter cells and groups coming to their aid — groups like the Syrian Civil Defense, the White Helmets. It is explained how their presence has actually incentivized Russian and Syrian aircraft to carry out what are called “double-tap attacks” in which an initial strike is delivered, followed swiftly by a second, the goal being to specifically target the White Helmets. Such is the reality these men face each time they “go to work.”

Amidst the barbarity, from underneath piles of concrete and rebar ultimately emerges a powerful testament to real-life heroism, courage and sacrifice. In fact the film metamorphoses into a thing of beauty when it addresses the positive impacts the first responders are making and will continue to make for the foreseeable future. It’s not simply the lives that are being saved, but the relentless determination and indiscrimination of the search itself. The rescuing of a one-week-old infant who had been trapped under a collapsed ceiling for over 16 hours is a scene that defies description — in part due to the incomprehensible hatred that created such circumstances, but mostly because the service that the White Helmets provide couldn’t be any more dramatically expressed.

Of course it’s a film without much in the way of closure. The work of the White Helmets shall continue as long as there is conflict. And at least one in the film makes it clear that their commitment is lifelong. That’s really where the story lies. It’s not about the war and the suffering. It’s not about hatred or religious extremism. It’s actually about the exact opposite of what the bombings are trying to achieve. This is about ensuring that the cycle of life can and will continue, even when the future is this uncertain.

The White Helmets have been credited for saving over 70,000 from the fallout from airstrikes. It has been estimated that since the Russian bombings began in late ’15, over 150 White Helmets have lost their lives as well as nearly 3,000 innocent civilians.

Recommendation: Equally heartbreaking and life-affirming, these will be perhaps some of the toughest 40 minutes you’ll experience in some time. There’s no hiding from the devastation in Syria in The White Helmets, nor should there be. Because of the opportunity it provides us to get an understanding of the victims’ perspectives of the bombings, this becomes a short film that you simply have to watch. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 41 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com; http://www.vox.com 

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

'Whiskey Tango Foxtrot' movie poster

Release: Wednesday, March 4, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Robert Carlock

Directed by: Glenn Ficarra; John Requa

The civilian translation of this film’s odd title applies to this strange concoction in more ways than I’m sure the filmmakers intended. I left the picture feeling more confused about American relations with the Middle East than I did entering it. Perhaps that’s the point? There’s also the pressing question of what Tina Fey is doing in a war film (oh, that’s right — this is a war comedy).

The latter is the lesser issue, as it is interesting seeing the former SNL Weekend Update star (and in this reviewer’s opinion, Amy Poehler’s better half) adapting to more serious material. Fey disciplines herself enough to seem 75% believable as Kim Barker, a TV producer (in reality she was a writer for the Chicago Tribune) who one day decides to volunteer as a war correspondent in Afghanistan in an effort to induce some excitement into her otherwise monotonous life. In New York. I’ll pause now to let you ponder the irony of that sentiment. In effect she becomes one of an elite few female embedded reporters in the region, often putting herself in harm’s way to get video footage she hopes will sell back in the States.

The 25% that does not work so well manifests as a combination of Fey’s inexperience in the genre and the film’s complete lack of focus. Schizophrenically it oscillates from championing 21st Century notions of ’embracing the suck’ and ‘living in the moment’ to somberly reminding the viewer of the devastating effects of war. A graphic scene towards the end feels like a clip from an altogether different movie as we watch a convoy fall victim to a short-range missile attack. When she’s not out in the field Fey’s still-adjusting-Barker is avoiding sexual advances from her international colleagues as well as a randy Afghan politician played for some reason by Alfred Molina. As she navigates her own personal minefield, soldiers are elsewhere in the background, maneuvering around actual ones. It’s an odd experience.

Glenn Ficarra and John Requa adapt Barker’s memoir ‘The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan.’ In it, Barker assumed a humorous tone as she relayed the oftentimes clunky process of assimilating to a part of the world where sanitation is a major issue, women have alarmingly few rights and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) litter the arid landscape. The story is fundamentally about orienting one’s self in an entirely disorienting environment but it also contends with a variety of other issues that play upon the psyche such as the presence (or lack thereof) of female reporters in this field — Australian correspondent Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie) rounds out the numbers here — and how those who have had a lot of exposure to this kind of reality begin to view it as a normal routine, a psychological state not even Barker is immune to.

The assignment originally called for a three-month stay in Kabul. As she continues building her portfolio — candid interviews with soldiers voicing their opinion on the effectiveness of Operation Enduring Freedom; a chat with Afghan women who tampered with an American-installed water well in their village because they preferred to walk to the river as it offered them an opportunity to socialize with one another — Barker finds it increasingly more difficult to leave, to dispense with the chaos. (Plus, the parties in Kabul seem really, really fun.)

Generally speaking this is a sympathetic and optimistic portrait of the American presence in the Middle East. It offers viewers a closer look at the realities facing troops in one of the most hostile regions on earth while filtering it through the perspective of an inexperienced female reporter from Manhattan. It’s all too easy to make judgments about Barker’s presence — Billy Bob Thornton’s gruff General Hollanek immediately takes a disliking to her given her choice of brightly-colored travel luggage — but one of the advantages of the film hop-skip-and-jumping around its many themes is that we don’t spend much time focusing on the negatives.

However that’s one of the few advantages. More often than not WTF fails to settle into a comfortable rhythm, its meandering plot stringing together a series of skits without having much of a unifier to hold it all together. Fey is meant to be that element but the film spends so much time trying to address all of these societal issues she gets lost in the (Taliban) shuffle. Additionally, strange casting choices distract — the aforementioned Molina as a high-profile politician actually works fairly well once you get used to seeing the man in this setting and the Connecticut-born Christopher Abbott as Fahim, a friendly local Barker manages to bond with quickly. There are other questionable strategies that attempt to pull the focus back to Barker, though I’m unsure if forcing a potential romantic interest in the form of Martin Freeman’s Scottish reporter Iain MacKelpie was the best way to do it.

All in all, you could endure worse missions than Fey sticking out like a sore thumb in a film that has a difficult time finding its identity. There is quite a lot wrong with the production, there’s no denying it. The film has something to say but it’s such a shame it can’t express itself as clearly as it needs to.

Screen Shot 2016-03-10 at 9.00.46 PM

Recommendation: Though Whiskey Tango Foxtrot never devolves into a SNAFU, it should still provide a more potent watch than what results given its ability to put us right there in the moment but for what it’s worth, Tina Fey makes up for a lot even though she’s out of her element here. The experience is certainly one you will remember but perhaps not always for the right reasons. Should make for a good rental if nothing else.

Rated: R

Running Time: 112 mins.

Quoted: “Oh, that sucks. That sucks for women.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

13 Hours movie poster

Release: Friday, January 15, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Chuck Hogan

Directed by: Michael Bay

Michael Bay visits the Middle East in only his second non-Transformers extravaganza in nearly a decade. Following in the footsteps of Clint Eastwood (American Sniper) and Peter Berg (Lone Survivor), Bay seems to have had an epiphany of his very own: I too can profit enormously from releasing a war film capable of melting America’s heart in the throes of winter. I’ll call it . . . 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi.

Here’s the thing, though: the movie isn’t terrible. It’s not great, but I’ve been waiting for years for Bay to step away from the CGI orgies he’s been participating in obsessed with, because his box office behemoths betray a true talent for staging sequences of almost unbearable tension. 13 Hours may be a far cry from memorable, but here comes a patriotic little package that’s almost worth cheering for, if for no other reason than it doesn’t feature Megan Fox or any number of Bay’s usual female muses. (Is muse the right word?)

Mitchell Zuckoff’s novel, ’13 Hours,’ is awarded the big screen treatment in this relentlessly intense and at times graphic account of six security contractors and their courageous efforts to protect an American diplomatic compound and Ambassador Chris Stevens from waves of heavily-armed Islamic terrorists. It’s important the distinction of a compound be made because much of the farce stems from the fact that had it been an Embassy, greater security measures would almost certainly have been taken.

That the attacks, which took the lives of the Ambassador (Matt Letscher), Foreign Service Information Management Officer Sean Smith (Christopher Dingli), Tyrone “Rone” Woods (James Badge Dale) and Glen “Bub” Doherty (Toby Stephens), occurred on the 11-year anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks serves to heighten the drama. Making matters worse was the lack of support, both aerial and on the ground, provided for the small crew of literal guns-for-hire. (Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has since acknowledged the government did in fact mishandle this operation, but if you’re expecting any kind of condemnation on that front you’re in the wrong movie.)

Curiously absent from proceedings is any sort of political commentary in both Bay’s direction and Chuck Hogan’s screenplay. It could be argued that the ostensible neutrality actually shields 13 Hours from becoming the next hotly-contested political drama, a fate Eastwood’s chronicling of the deadliest sniper in American history fell victim to last year — though shots of a topless (and completely ripped) John Krasinski, who plays experienced military man Jack Silva and the montages of substantially muscly men doing substantially muscly-man things like flipping over massive tires and knocking out pull-ups like it ain’t no thang, does nothing but prop America up on a pedestal that the innocent Libyans pictured herein have nary a prayer of mounting themselves.

Bay tries to do the right thing and account for some semblance of goodness in a city renowned for its hostility (Benghazi, along with Tripoli, has long been atop the list of most dangerous cities in the world). Two-thirds of the film centers on the desperate defensive stand the various ex-Navy SEALs and Marines attempt to mount as forces overrun the compound before setting their sights on the CIA annex a mile down the road. Amidst the chaos — the most coherent action set piece Bay has constructed in some time — he attempts to convey the mounting distrust between locals who sympathize with the Americans and those who are clearly anti-western civilization (read: the guys in the background who have a sullen look on their face).

In the end the freneticism, the emphasis on explosions and melodrama simply overwhelms and we, the visually-assaulted paying customers, cannot be held accountable for missing certain details such as who may be aligning with whom. But that’s what all but the most ardent of Bay supporters come to expect out of a film baring his name. Drowning in a sea of action is kind of part of the deal (and hey, at least Bay offers quite a lot of opportunities for stunt men). 13 Hours doesn’t offer particularly incisive commentary; it’s more observation and opportunistic than eye-opening. The performances aren’t worth much either. The best thing I can say about it is that it is Michael Bay-lite.

John Krasinski in '13 Hours - The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi'

Recommendation: Come for the explosions, stay for the headache. 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi manifests as arguably Michael Bay’s best film in years, but does that mean it’s any good? For this reviewer, no, not really. As much as I like the guys from The Office (Krasinski is reunited with David Denman here), they have absolutely no screen presence and the long stand-off gets old fairly quickly. The bravery on display can’t be discounted however, and for that Bay and his crew deserve at least some credit.  

Rated: R

Running Time: 144 mins.

Quoted: “I haven’t thought of my family once tonight. I’m thinking about them now.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.youtube.com

Lone Survivor

lone_survivor_xlrg

Release: Christmas Day 2013 (limited)

[Theater]

Before we dive into an analysis of this film, let’s first get one thing straight: this is no Saving Private Ryan. The critic who made that comparison probably made it in the (understandably) dizzying buzz after experiencing an early screening of Peter Berg’s war film and felt compelled to give it the highest of accolades to kick off the onslaught of promotional efforts that was to come. In so doing, he was pretty successful in spreading the fire. There has been almost no end to people calling this a modern Spielbergian masterpiece.

Here are a few things the two films have in common: blood. Bullets. Blood. Excessive swearing. Blood. Gut-wrenching deaths. Blood. Blue skies. Blood. Americans and their red blood. But there the commonalities run out.

Lone Survivor is a grisly look at the botched Operation Red Wings, a mission undertaken by four Navy SEALS in an effort to track down and eliminate a high-priority member of the Taliban in the hostile hillsides of Afghanistan. Over the course of roughly 72 hours, the fates of Navy Lieutenant and team leader Michael P. Murphy (here portrayed by Taylor Kitsch), Petty Officers Second Class Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Matt Axelson (Ben Foster), and Hospital Corpsman Second Class Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) would be decided by a combination of poor communication and even worse luck. As the film’s title blatantly informs the masses, only one would be living to tell the tale of these extraordinary days. That man was Marcus Luttrell.

Director Peter Berg (Battleship, Hancock) bases his film off of the written accounts penned by Luttrell in 2007. He apparently benefited from the technical support of former Navy SEALS, including Luttrell, to stage a good chunk of the action sequences. The director set a precedent by becoming the first civilian to become embedded with a Navy SEALs team in Iraq for a month while he wrote the script. As a result, Lone Survivor is more than likely technical perfection. But taken as a filmgoing experience, there is simply something missing from the equation that would have earmarked his film for not only inspirational but educational purposes. For reasons that are about to be explained, and though it’s far more graphic, Saving Private Ryan still seems like the go-to option for classroom use.

This really isn’t intended to be a compare-and-contrast review; it’s coming across that way because the claim that this is “the most extraordinary war film since Saving Private Ryan” is an overly sensationalized marketing strategy for Berg’s picture — one that needs to be put into perspective.

The first thing that should be noted in the differences column is that Lone Survivor severely lacks character development and enough chemistry between these Navy SEALS to make the circumstances truly horrific. In the line of fire they call each other brothers but that word is in the script, not in their hearts. We enter the field with machines, not distinct human personalities that we easily can attach life stories to. However, Berg believes its possible to empathize with the performances since this is based on a real occurrence. Based on his direction, the patriotism on display should be more than sufficient to make an audience care. In actual fact, it’s just barely enough. There’s no denying the emotional impact of the film, yet the question still lingers. If we got to know these soldiers as more than just the rough, gruff American heroes that they most certainly are, the aftermath would be even more devastating.

Berg also can hardly be described as the master of subtlety. Lone Survivor ultimately feels like a blunt instrument with which he may bludgeon us over the head, and the lack of character development makes the proceedings even more numbing. During the protracted (read: violent) sequences of confrontation with members of al Qaeda, bullets and bodies fly at random, and often times it’s not the fact that 180 cajillion bullets pierce through flesh that’s painful to watch so much as the environment is unforgiving. Several times over watch in agony as the four guys tumble down the mountainside, smacking into trees, rocks, animals — you name it.

During any one of these excruciating slow-motion edits it wouldn’t be completely surprising to see Berg pop out of a bush, break the fourth wall and ask those in the audience who are still dubious about our presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, “Well what do you think of our soldiers now?!” We get it — war is hell, and the sacrifices these people make are enormous. If that’s the main take away from the film it’s hardly an original one. We can get the same effect by watching the news. More often than not live footage of what’s occurring is more affecting than a movie can ever hope to be.

A third, and lesser flaw revolves around the casting of Mark Wahlberg. The marquee name is just large enough to ensure the others get shoved to the background and that as many tickets to this event are sold. Marky-Mark’s a likable enough actor, but where Spielberg’s epically sprawling film can get away with so many big names (Hanks, Sizemore, Damon, etc.) Lone Survivor‘s disinterest in developing characters or even a great deal of camaraderie between the guys makes Wahlberg’s presence seem awkward and misjudged. Contrast him to Hirsch, Foster and Kitsch — still relatively known actors but at least these three are relegated to the tragic roles that they play.

This is not a terrible film, but it’s not going to end up being the definitive story about what happened during Operation Red Wings — although that may not be possible. There was so much chaos on this mission, as evidenced by Berg’s storytelling here. Truth be told, it’s probably impossible conceiving a film that truly renders the nightmare experienced by this lone survivor. Though Luttrell was on set, often providing advice to Berg on how to best depict what he saw over these few days, the others sadly weren’t able to offer their input. It’s realistic, sure. But a classic film it most certainly is not.

Film Title: Lone Survivor

2-5Recommendation: Though patriotism bleeds through the film reel, there’s not enough here to show why this disastrous mission really mattered. For those who haven’t heard about this mission (or anyone still undecided about seeing this film), the best route to take would be to track down Luttrell’s written account (of the same name) where, presumably, no detail should be spared. There’s detail aplenty in Berg’s film, too, but much of that pertains to the gruesome way in which some of our beloved soldiers have fallen. That’s not noble; it’s just sickening.

Rated: R

Running Time: 121 mins.

Quoted: “You can die for your country, but I’m gonna live for mine.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com