’71

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Release: Friday, February 27, 2015 (limited) 

[Theater]

Written by: Gregory Burke

Directed by: Yann Demange

The price to pay for sitting through a film fixating on the tensions peaking between Catholic Nationalists and Protestant Loyalists in Belfast, Northern Ireland in 1971 may very well be sacrificing a good night’s sleep.

Titling the experience ’71, Parisian-born Yann Demange strips away pomp and circumstance, electing to pursue a simpler approach to capturing a period in British and Irish history that will at once thrill and disturb willing onlookers. Suffice it to say his film is not for the faint of heart, and it is not for the average thrill seeker. Few films in the last several years have produced tension so unbearable that breathing must be constantly kept in check.

Sensational sell? Maybe.

I find it sort of appropriate to become a little over-excited when talking about a story that so effectively hones its power by depicting wartime atrocity by establishing how so many individuals can become warped by ideological differences. ’71 remains neutral in its depiction of a young British soldier named Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) who one afternoon is fortuitously separated from his company when a riot breaks out in the streets of war-torn Belfast and is forced to fend for himself when pursued by a group of young Nationalists down back alleys and through hostile apartment complexes.

My comment about neutrality shouldn’t be misconstrued as a director afraid to show bias one way or another, nor should it be extrapolated to the film as a whole as a thematic concept. In fact, ’71‘s greatest strength — one of them, anyway — is defining the realities by which Hook is unwittingly psychologically raped time and again. Everyone has an agenda, a purpose for their actions (or non-actions); to some degree every major player is justified in what they are doing to another. And the young soldier, hailing from Derbyshire, has only one interest: staying alive so he might get back to his barracks. Siding with one group or another is something he can ill afford while being hunted.

The ostensible good guys — that is, the British Army — are concerned with Hook insofar as his disappearance poses a threat to their assistance with the Royal Ulster Constabulary and its efforts to stamp out pockets of heavy resistance in hostile communities like Belfast. Indeed, when a near-fatally-wounded Hook manages to survive a bomb explosion just outside a pub, a stronghold for one of several Loyalist factions, he’s reminded by his miraculous savior — a former Army medic named Eamon (Richard Dormer) — that to the government, Gary is but a piece of meat. To consider his plight hopeless on the grounds that he is now physically weaker is to sidestep the small issue that several Nationalist extremists, led by the ruthless, influential James Quinn (Killian Scott) have been enraged by the fact they had a chance to kill him point-blank during the earlier riot but failed to do so.

Nevermind the fact that Hook’s disorientation deep within enemy territory impairs his ability to trust any shadowy figure he encounters at each street corner, in each room he lands in through happenstance or sheer will. The majority of ’71 takes place over the course of a single night on the streets of a place not dissimilar from what Hell may look like; the ghoulish characters interpreted by Irish and British actors haunt with human skin concealing something decidedly less human. Conflicting interests both confound and dismay those who aren’t shielding their eyes from the grotesque bodily injury and breakdown of civil order. ’71 is a terribly violent film, but in that way it’s unforgettable. Cinematography, brooding and menacing in the hands of Tat Radcliffe, contributes mightily to a growing sense of unease. And the acting, particularly from O’Connell, speaks for itself.

This period into which we are thrust alongside Gary Hook are known as the early years of ‘The Troubles,’ a period that endures for nearly 30 years, beginning in 1969. What this young man goes through is certainly harrowing but ’71 suggests something even more troubling: this story is ultimately microcosmic. How many others, soldiers or otherwise, disappeared without a trace, were betrayed by their own and left to fend for themselves but didn’t have quite the same ending Hook’s story has? And we’re still talking about one nation here; a single conflict.

Although Demange doesn’t profess anything radical about how governments react to crises and how it treats those who go to fight for it in times of great need, he doesn’t need to. Simplistic in narrative structure but emotionally complex as any war film that has ever been created, ’71 is brutal, handsomely crafted and potently acted. It will be one of the best films of the year.

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4-5Recommendation: I’d have to dig deep to find the strength to sit through ’71 a second time but if you haven’t seen it and find war films an important staple of cinema as I do, you owe it to yourself to see this — in theaters. I haven’t been this uncomfortable in my chair in some time, a testament to the level of acting, directing and cinematography that work towards this goal of accurately recreating a troubled time in the history of this particular region of the world. Highly recommended.

Rated: R

Running Time: 99 mins.

Quoted: “. . .it was a confused situation.”

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

Lone Survivor

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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