Lone Survivor (Movie) Review

Lone Survivor (Movie) Review

Has there ever been a more difficult time to make an inspiring American war film? Sure, the Vietnam era had embarrassingly patriotic John Wayne movies crashing onto screens between protest marches, but at least someone like Robert Altman could make a film like M*A*S*H* to compensate. These days, there’s really none of that. Making an anti-Iraq or anti-Afghanistan war film in America will just make you a whipping boy for Fox News morons if you can even get the film made without the involvement of the US military. All of which brings us to Lone Survivor, a white-knuckle action film that also tries to double as an inspiring love letter to the modern soldier. In theory, there’s nothing wrong with a movie like that. But in practice with Battleship military porn director Peter Berg in charge, there’s something about the project that just makes you feel icky and used when you walk out of the theater. It’s an interesting movie to review for a game-focused publication because the problems with the film are also the problems with the gaming juggernaut Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare series. Back when COD (and Hollywood) were trotting out WWII epics, there wasn’t much room for moral criticism given that there’s no real cause to support the Nazis and worry about the ethical implications that Nazi-killing media has on its viewer. But set an identical story in Iraq or Afghanistan and things get much trickier. What’s the difference between a Taliban terrorist and a local insurgent who is rather justifiably fighting against US military occupation? It’s tough grey zone and certainly neither Berg nor the folks behind Call Of Duty know how to paint in colors other than black and white.

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Lone Survivor is one of those ripped-from-life true stories of military heroism. Mark Wahlberg stars as one of a group of soldiers along with the lines of Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, and Ben Foster. We know they’re just good ol’ American boys because we see scenes in which they talk about buying horses for weddings or picking house paint with their girlfriends. They’re just like us, you see. The only difference is that their job is to kill Afghan threats in the desert using the finest military hardware available. After we learn about how peachy keen American these boys are, they’re sent off on a mission to assassinate a Taliban terrorist leader in the mountains. They quickly find their target and set up shop awaiting orders. Then a gang of Afghan goat farmers who might be innocent peasants or might be Taliban supporters stumble onto their hiding hole. The soldiers tie them up and try to get an order from their base as to what to do, but can’t make radio contact in the mountains. The choice comes down to killing possibly innocent men or abandoning them and the mission to avoid unjust murder. As I said before, these are good ol’ boys, so obviously they don’t murder the civilians. Unfortunately they’re also far from their base and without radio contact and wouldn’t yam know it? Those prisoners were dastardly Taliban jerks after all, alerting the hidden terrorists and kicking off a heavily outnumbered firefight against the four American soldiers.

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What follows is about an hour of non-stop action, suspense, and turmoil. As an action movie, there’s no denying that it’s all very well and viscerally handled. As a director Peter Berg might rely a little too heavily on shaky cam shenanigans, but he knows how to pace an action sequence breathlessly and can deliver high-impact violence with ease. The film is truly an intense ride that makes an almost physical impact on the audience and it’s backed up by strong acting. Mark Wahlberg suffers from the movie star disease of too often being underrated as an actor, but he delivers some extraordinary work to ground the movie here as does Emile Hirsch who suffers from a similar career misconception. Taylor Kitsch is solid enough that you’ll hope he’ll get another crack at movie stardom after the twin summer movie failures of Battleship and John Carter derailed his career last year. Then of course there is Ben Foster who is one of the greatest actors of his generation and is fascinating to watch in anything. Viewed on a purely technical level, Lone Survivor is an impressive accomplishment. Unfortunately this subject matter can’t and shouldn’t simply be viewed that way.

uncomfortable film to watch for anyone who doesn’t cheer a rah-rah cry of military support without any thought to the other side of modern warfar

The film is full stop geared towards the Call Of Duty crowd, with Berg constantly using cross-hair POV shots and night-vision bombing cameras pulled straight out of the game. It’s a movie that exists purely because that franchise created an audience and it’s just as politically uncomfortable as a film as those games can feel. Yes, it’s all very tense and exciting, but the Taliban soldiers are presented as purely evil villains who deserved to be vanquished in a way that feels propagandistic and will make any viewer who thinks outside of a militaristic perspective feel very uncomfortable. Like a COD game, the bad guys are faceless drones who deserve to die and their actions against our heroes are always considered horrendous. Late in the film, Wahlberg does encounter some kindly Afghan citizens, but they are still presented as alien beings that no American soldier could dream of understanding and the way Berg divides the Afghan population into psychopathic villains and saintly heroes with no middle ground is almost as morally reprehensible as if he hadn’t even bothered to show a positive side.

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Lone Survivor is a very uncomfortable film to watch for anyone who doesn’t cheer a rah-rah cry of military support without any thought to the other side of modern warfare. Granted the movie is from the perspective of the soldiers who don’t understand that culture, and the fearless heroism with which the actual soldiers depicted in the film gave up their lives is admirable and worthy of praise. However, the way Berg directs the tale is too simplistic to be anything other than propaganda and watching the film for entertainment value is enough to make you feel dirty. It’s a deeply disconcerting blockbuster that just like the COD series is destined to make viewers cheer for as many wrong reasons as right reasons and will act as a bit army recruitment propaganda in a way that just feels manipulative. I wish it were possible to watch Lone Survivor or play Call Of Duty as straight action/adventure experiences because I know they are well done as works of entertainment. The trouble is that the subject is too complex and divisive for that form of simplification and in the end that makes these big blockbusters feel like irresponsible vehicles for entertainment. Maybe it’s just me, but regardless of everything that was done right in Lone Survivor, the whole project feels wrong and I can’t in good conscience recommend it to anyone (especially those already indoctrinated into the COD cult, even if they are beyond help).

The Conjuring (Movie) Review

The Conjuring (Movie) Review

In the midst of summer blockbuster season, there are weeks when little projects come out hoping to squeeze out a few dollars between the next Jerry Bruckheimer or Christopher Nolan rip off epic.

And so this week James Wan’s The Conjuring slips in for the calm before the storm of Wolverine. It’s a classic haunted house that doesn’t rely on big CGI effects or even buckets of rubbery, runny gore. Wan, of course, helped usher in the torture porn era with Saw and already did the haunted house thing with the Poltergeist remake Insidious. He’s always been a work-in-progress director who seems to get better every time he steps behind a camera. This time he made a haunted house picture that got an R-rating from the MPAA not due to any particularly harsh content, but simply because the ratings board felt it was “too scary” for anything else. That’s a big claim that works well in marketing departments, and WB has rightly been flaunting that. However, in Canada, the film got a 14A because that’s what the decent if unspectacular movie deserves. There’s nothing here any kid who likes scary movies won’t have seen before, it’s just executed competently, unlike most of the Hollywood horror trash the MPAA sees.

The film takes place in the bad hair era of the 70s and more specifically in the world of late 70s/early 80s supernatural horror films like The Amityville Horror, The Changeling, Poltergeist, and The Exorcist, which Wan constantly apes and references (even going so far as to use the font of The Exorcist’s title). The story unfolds in two overlapping plot threads. The superior half is the simplest, dedicated to a family of Ron Livingston’s trucker father, Lili Taylor’s warmhearted mother, and their five daughters who make the common mistake of moving into a haunted house. The weaker half follows a husband and wife pair of 70s ghost busters in Vera Farmiga’s psychic and Patrick Wilson’s amateur exorcist. The film borrows the old horror conceit of presenting the supernatural shenanigans as being “based on a true story” and crafts the Farmiga/Wilson plot as a biopic of sorts. The trouble is that since ghosts and psychics aren’t real (sorry internet conspiracy theorists!), it’s hard to take that material seriously. Thankfully, most of it is limited to an awkward wrap-around plot, with the bulk of the film dedicated to spook-house jump scares. It’s here that Wan essentially weaves together 90 minutes of haunted house set pieces and that material is a blast to watch, especially in a packed theater of sweaty-palmed viewers.

The Conjuring (Movie) Review

The Conjuring has already earned an uncommon amount of critical praise for a horror movie and most of that can simply be chalked up to the fact that it’s a classically and slickly produced horror flick, the likes of which rarely gets a wide Hollywood-endorsed release anymore. Wan relies on none of the gross-out gore tactics of Saw or the minimalist jump scares of Paranormal Activity (which got tiresome halfway through the first movie even though three sequels were squeezed out of the limited concept). Instead, he uses his budget and resources to “make ‘em how they used to.” Long tracking shots follow characters through shadowy corridors with a bump in the dark inevitable when least suspected. Creepy props like a rotting doll and a rusted Jack-in-the-box are used to maximum atmospheric effect. And, most effectively, Wan has his child characters playing a variation on hide and seek using blindfolds and hand clapping that already feels meme-worthy. The scare sequences pile up on each other with limited repetition so consistently that the audiences rarely have a chance to catch their breath. Make no mistake, if you’re the type of person inclined to jump in their seat from a well timed “boo,” you’ll be getting a workout. Yet, it’s all tastefully and artfully crafted at an impressive level. The Conjuring is kind of like a multi-million dollar, Halloween, haunted house attraction. You know exactly what you’re in for when you walk through the door and even while in the midst of the ride, and yet you still end up squealing like a banshee because, well, that’s why you bought the ticket in the first place.

Even though James Wan has been steadily improving as a genre craftsman since his low-budget franchise-launching debut, he still has a major weakness as a filmmaker. Wan might be a skilled cinematic technician, but his ability to craft an unpredictable narrative with believable characters has yet to catch up with his showman gifts. That’s certainly true in The Conjuring, which starts to feel like a TV-movie anytime the characters open their mouths. Fortunately, Wan gets away with that weakness here thanks to two things. First, he cast an uncommonly good group of actors who add emotional realism not present in the script. In particular, Vera Farmiga’s psychic is believable even to skeptics, Ron Livingston’s flannel clad Dad is charmingly truthful, and Lili Taylor’s haunted mom is heartbreaking thanks entirely to the work of the talented actors. You need only to sit through the painfully cardboard delivery of some of their cast-mates to see what a difference a good actor makes. The other element that helps is more accidental. The Conjuring’s biggest weakness is that it is humorless, which is a problem in a supernatural romp like this since a little levity is necessary to alleviate the relentless tension. Many of the worst lines and performances will get laughs from the audience at The Conjuring screenings and not because they are that terrible, but because the audience needs the release. The filmmakers might not have intended that effect, yet it honestly helps.

What we have here is a film that succeeds thanks to modest ambitions. It wants nothing more than to make audiences tense up and scream and thanks to James Wan’s skill with such things, it does exactly that. Now, the flick also does it in a very conventional way. Since those conventions haven’t been used in years (if not decades), that gives the movie retro cool that it doesn’t necessarily deserve. It’s still a meaningless and even dumb movie that will win no points for originality. However, The Conjuring’s dirty little audience manipulating tricks work and work well. As long as you aren’t expecting anything more than that, it’s even a pleasant surprise. This is a good old time-y haunted house picture, the kind worth seeing with a packed crowd for all the gasps, hoots, and hollers. This should be an average, Hollywood horror experience that’s expected week after week, but standards have fallen so low in the genre that it plays like an unexpected retro treat. Take that for what it’s worth and enjoy your jumps and yelps. Who knows, if the film does well, maybe this will become the new Hollywood horror standard. Wouldn’t it be nice if horror movies were actually scary again?