Saturday, June 7, 2014

Movie Reviews: Lone Survivor, Bad Blonde, Baggage Claim

Lone Survivor
directed by Peter Berg
There is a scene from the book Gates of Fire which captures what I think of as the elite warrior ethos which is displayed so magnificently in Lone Survivor. In the book scene a feared Spartan warrior has caught a recruit making an unforgivable mistake in weapons handling. So he smacks the recruit across the face with a handle, cutting the man's scalp and breaking his nose, before continuing to harangue him about all the things he was doing wrong. 

After a moment the recruit tries to wipe the blood off his face and out of his eyes. This was an even worse error as his captain inquires sarcastically if the youngster thinks that during battle everyone will stop to allow him time to wipe blood from his face so that he will look pretty. He also hits him again. 

Things go downhill from there for the recruit. I was reminded of that scene because of Lone Survivor's reveal of real SEALs training and the fact that its heroes are indeed pushed far beyond their previous already hardened levels of endurance in their desperate battle to stay alive and complete the mission. They have no time to wipe the blood off their faces. Whether you've been shot repeatedly, are drowning on your own blood, have limbs shot off, or are coping with broken bones as long as there's life there's fighting to be done. Because the enemy certainly won't stop. And neither should you. SEALs and associated Special Forces units are operating at the tip of the spear, just as Spartans did so long ago. By definition most people won't ever get anywhere close to that sort of excellence in their everyday endeavors but the never give up never say die can do spirit can inspire everyone in whatever their mundane day to day business might be. 

Lone Survivor then is both a sort of hagiography to this sort of excellence in action as well as one of the most effective war movies I've seen in a while. There aren't any political statements here, which makes the heroism shown something above and beyond petty little partisan squabbling.

Fortunately never having been in war I can't say flatly whether the film was realistic or not but it certainly did a good job of raising my blood pressure. This is a film I might purchase and watch again.

I think it might have been realistic because not only was the film was based on eyewitness stories but also SEALs and other military personnel acted as technical advisers. The film is based on a real life military operation. 

Lone Survivor is so far distant from the movie Battleship it's hard to believe the same director helmed both films. Lone Survivor is an action movie. You don't really get to know a whole lot about the four primary characters. This isn't an in depth emotional talkie. The men love their wives, girlfriends or children. They will kill and die for each other. They are painted in broad swaths but that's ok for this sort of flick. In Afghanistan, a Taliban bad guy, Ahmad Shah, is running around killing Marines, American sympathizers and anyone else who's gotten on his nerves. Shah has certainly gotten the attention of the American military command.

The decision is made to kill or capture him along with his eye-shadow wearing right hand man, who likes beheading people. To this end, Lieutenant Commander Kristensen (Eric Bana) is tasked to oversee this operation. He plans out all the details and contingencies. The front line folks will be a four man recon team who will avoid contact with the enemy, identify Shah and then summon more troops and more firepower for extraction. 

The recon team is traveling light and has nothing but rifles, radio and phones, sidearms, magazines and a few grenades. No machine guns, no medical kits, and no heavy weapons are being carried. This SEAL recon team includes cool headed team leader Lieutenant Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), intense Matt Axelson (Ben Foster), worried Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), and easygoing Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg). The recon team gets inserted into hostile territory easily enough but as you can guess from the title the mission starts to go badly. Communications are spotty and even when they aren't, Commander Kristensen's superior officers have their own problems to deal with and emphatically don't want to hear about setbacks. 

I mean if your boss answers your phone call with "WTF are you calling me for? I thought I told you not to do that!" you can guess the conversation will be short and unpleasant. When Murphy makes a moral decision that Ned Stark would no doubt applaud, before too much longer the four men must make a desperate stand in the mountains against what seems like an entire brigade of Taliban fighters. And these guys brought their big guns. Literally. They've got machine guns, bazookas, and rocket propelled grenades. They know the terrain much better than the Americans do. So if you're outgunned, outnumbered and surrounded, what do you do? Well if you're an American Bada$$ you attack, that's what you do.

Again, utilitarian principles raise their ugly head. What is the value you place on your own life and those of your fellow soldiers? In war obviously you care more about yourself and your fellow soldiers or citizens than you do enemy soldiers. You're trying to kill them, after all. But what about enemy civilians? What about enemy children? How important are they if they get in the way of mission success? 

You may think in advance about what you would do to survive but if you stand around thinking about it while the s*** is hitting the fan you won't survive long enough to think about anything else. The person who goes home is the person who is reacting, not thinking. This movie is so exciting because there are multiple times (really the vast majority of the film) where the four men must make split second decisions to survive. As I mentioned before where there is life there is hope, even if survival means jumping off cliffs, pulling shrapnel out of yourself without benefit of morphine, or making a last stand to save your brother-in-arms from being flanked. 

This was a really good film and will be enjoyed by anyone who is partial to war or action flicks or for that matter Wahlberg, Kitsch or Foster. The way the film was shot makes you think you were there.

Bad Blonde

directed by Reginald LeBorg
Contrary to popular perception Hammer Films was not a schlock horror production company solely dedicated to gothic dramas, technicolor and truly astounding amounts of cleavage. Those characteristics may have been among my favorite things about the company but Hammer Films actually produced a pretty wide variety of film genres and styles. One such style was film noir. Some time ago my brother sent me a DVD four pack of old school Hammer Films that were all about morally conflicted heroes, dangerous dames and seemingly hopeless situations. The package included the 1953 film Bad Blonde. 

I just got around to watching it. This film was perhaps art imitating life. It starred American Hollywood actress Barbara Payton, who after a very brief time near the top of the starlet food chain, burned out just as quickly. She had affairs with everyone from Howard Hughes to Woody Strode, inspired two other actors to assault and near murder, and compulsively cheated on her husbands. She allegedly even tried to blackmail studio execs. Both of her parents were alcoholics. Maybe she was congenitally prone to substance abuse. Who knows. As her career stalled due to scandal and unreliability Payton succumbed to alcohol and drug abuse. She eventually fell into prostitution. She declined from a $300/hr upscale escort to a $5/transaction streetwalker who was robbed and beaten by customers and police.

She drank herself to death before her 40th birthday. Even today her story remains among Hollywood's most infamous and tragic. Bad Blonde was filmed around the beginning of Payton's commercial decline though her physical collapse was not yet noticeable.

It amused me that this film, which depicted adultery and murder, still conceded to the mores of its time by showing a husband and wife using separate beds. Although I thought the two leads lacked chemistry this film still worked for me because of the setting, lighting and writing, which were all good. 

There's something to the complementary claims that women who marry for money end up earning every penny or that there's no fool like an old fool who thinks he can marry and satisfy MUCH younger women. There are countless books or films based on a trophy wife getting bored or irritated with her older husband and deciding to get rid of him. The nearest comparison to Bad Blonde is obviously The Postman Always Rings TwiceBad Blonde opens up in England with former boxing manager Sharkey (Sid James) hustling carnival rubes to go a few rounds with his stable of pugilists. If they win they make money, otherwise they don't. No one accepts the offer so Sharkey gives the high sign to a plant to enter the ring and win on purpose to make people more willing to gamble. 

But the plant is deliberately tripped by the blond Adonis Johnny Flanagan (Tony Wright) who takes his place in the ring. Flanagan beats Sharkey's fighter like a rented mule. Sharkey doesn't like this and doesn't want to pay Flanagan. But all is forgiven when Sharkey meets Flanagan's trainer Charlie Sullivan (John Slater). Sullivan and Sharkey go way back together. They're old friends. The whole thing was a set up to let Sharkey see how Flanagan can handle himself. Flanagan could be the middle-aged Sullivan's and Sharkey's ticket back to the big time.

As a trainer and manager with a fighter all they need now is a promoter. They choose to work with Giuseppe Vecchi (Frederick Valk), a cliched extroverted bighearted loudmouthed Italian who sweats a lot and wants everyone to be his friend. Vecchi is a man who would walk into a dark alley on the bad side of town and be honestly surprised and emotionally damaged that someone would rob him. It's not that he's dumb. He simply can't comprehend anyone deliberately trying to hurt him. His circle of trust almost includes the entirety of humanity but is centered on his icy blonde wife Lorna (Barbara Payton). 

Flanagan first sees Lorna changing a stocking through a conveniently open door. He's immediately both attracted to and repelled by her. Flanagan refuses to train with her around though he sneaks some sharp looks her way every chance he can. The feeling is mutual as Lorna dismissively tells the muscular Flanagan that she's seen better bodies hanging in a butcher shop. But when she watches Flanagan fight she gives indications of erotic rather than martial interest, what with her staring eyes, open mouth, lip licking and leaning forward. 

When Vecchi invites Flanagan and team to live at his home during training, the stage is set for people's worst impulses to take over. This film is shot in glorious black and white. I would hate to think of it in color. There's a lot of shadows and for that matter foreshadowing, what with Vecchi smiling blissfully under a horned stag's head. The film drags slightly in the middle but other than that moved pretty fast. It's about 80 minutes.

Tony Wright's acting was pretty stiff for most of this film. I wonder if the annoyance which Payton's character showed towards him was based on Wright's real shortcomings. Sid James really carries this film. His Sharkey knows all the angles. I also liked Selma Vaz Dias as Vecchi's protective and suspicious sister. I almost expected her to produce a butcher knife and start screaming "Vendetta!!".


Baggage Claim

directed by David Talbert
If About Last Night was a well written funny adult romantic comedy which appealed to both genders and generally avoided stereotypes, Baggage Claim isn't. And that's putting it mildly. The only reason (as a man) to view this film was to watch Paula Patton bounce around in a few revealing outfits. 

And although that's always fun, it's not enough to recommend this film. In fact I think I might have damaged or lost a few brain cells watching this movie. You might as well title this film "Black Comedy 2: The Stereotypes Strike Back!There's the over the top effeminate gay best friend, a crass sex obsessed obese black woman, and an aggressive bossy busybody black mother. 

Of course from a female perspective there's a great deal of eye candy in terms of men so perhaps women viewers may look at this movie somewhat differently. I can't call it. Because of differing biological clocks men and women may stereotypically view the ideal time to get married rather differently. One of my female cousins recently sent around a meme which showed an elderly toothless man grandly announcing to eligible ladies that lucky for them he's finally ready to quit playing the field, settle down and get married. 

That's the spirit which animates Baggage Claim. Montana Moore (Paula Patton) is a thirty something stewardess who is becoming needier and needier for love, real love, that is, not just love that lasts for a few hours of sport sex. And for her real love means something leading to marriage. She thinks she may have found something worthwhile and meaningful with the classy gentleman Graham (Boris Kodjoe) but soon discovers the unpleasant truth of the bromide that "gentleman is simply another word for a patient wolf".

Making matters worse Montana feels that's she's being constantly negatively judged by her abrasive brassy mother Catherine (Jenifer Lewis). Catherine has been married multiple times and is brimming over with unwanted advice for her daughter about men. Montana lives next door to her old high school buddy William (Derek Luke), who has constantly provided emotional support to her over the years but even if William were available Montana generally doesn't think of him in that way. When Montana learns that her kid sister is getting married in a month that's the last straw for her. 

She doesn't want to show up as a bridesmaid to her younger sister's wedding without having a fiancee/engagement of her own to brag about. She's been to enough weddings and is sick and tired of living the cliche, always the bridesmaid, never the bride.
It's the holiday season so Montana and her so-called brain trust, fellow flight attendants Gail (Jill Scott) and Sam (Adam Brody), decide that that the best plan is to arrange for Montana to travel on the flights that her various exes will be on and hopefully restart the flame. 

Obviously this assumes that the breakup was amicable which as you probably know in real life isn't always the case. I mean there's a few women that if I never see them again it will be too damn soon but this is a movie. So for the next 30 days Montana flies across the US, meeting various ex-boyfriends, played by Taye Diggs, Trey Songz, and Djimon Hounsou among others. Comedy ensues or tries to as Montana runs through airports or rediscovers that there was a reason that things didn't work out with boyfriend X the first time around. This movie tries and fails to combine Sleeping Beauty fairytales with you go girl feminist self-empowerment. 

There's a minor subplot with Ned Beatty and a few ham fisted shots at Black Republicans and chauvinists that didn't really add much to the story. Maybe with better writing it might have worked? This is a film for the lowest common denominator. There's nothing wrong with that. Just know that going in. Tia Mowry and Lala Anthony also have roles.
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