Sunday, May 30, 2021

Last Flag Flying (2017)


In honor of Memorial Day, here is a review of a movie about a fallen hero.

“Last Flag Flying”  was directed and co-written by Richard Linklater (his only war movie), based on co-writer Darryl Ponicsan’s novel.  The novel is a sequel to “The Last Detail” and the three main characters from that book are carried over into this movie.  However, the movie is not really a sequel.  

The movie stars the trio of Steve Carrell, Bryan Cranston, and Laurence Fishburne as Vietnam war veterans who reunite for the burial of Carrell’s son who died in Iraq.  “Doc” (Carrell) reconnects with Sal (Cranston) and then they guilt-trip Mueller (Fishburne) into going on the trip to Dover Air Force Base to get the casket. When Doc learns the actual circumstances surrounding his son’s death, he refuses a military funeral and burial at Arlington National Cemetery.   He insists on taking the body back home for burial.  This results in a lot of dialogue and some minor speed bumps.  The trio bond along the way, of course. 

There are two mysteries that lurk below the surface:  how did the son really die and what happened to Doc in Vietnam that got him put in the brig for two years?  The movie teases out the Doc situation, but never clearly answers the question.  It is very much a road trip movie with Carrell the grieving stoic caught between the now-pious Mueller (he’s a reverend) and the profane, irreligious Sal.  Sal and Mueller go at it over God, but both are cynical about the Vietnam War and the government in general.

 If you are a Fox News viewer, this movie is not for you.  It is clearly anti-Vietnam and anti-Iraq with a side order of anti-government.  However, it does treat the Marine Corps with respect, in the end.  The main draw of the movie is the trio of actors.   It is very much an ensemble movie. Cranston dominates in a juicy role, but Carrell and Fishburne hold their own.  This is one of Carrell’s dramatic roles and once again he proves that he has been able to overcome his Michael Scott persona.  Although the movie has some tension-lifting humor, it is definitely not a comedy.  It is basically a road trip movie with stock characters, but the underlying mysteries make it intriguing.  Doc’s back-story is shocking and allows Carrell to play him as a damaged soul as well as grieving father. 

“Last Flag Flying” is a worthy addition to the fallen hero subgenre.  It is amiable and clearly aimed at the general public.  War movie lovers may be disappointed by the omission of the flashbacks the subgenre is noted for.  It does not take the standard route like the recent “Da 5 Bloods”.  There are no shots fired.  Only verbal shots.  It is a bit long and emotion-tugging, but it is entertaining and an appropriate homage to the modern fallen and their families. 

GRADE  =  B-

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

LIVE: Navy SEALs (1990)


            “Navy SEALs” was directed by Lewis Teague (after Ridley Scott turned it down).  It was based on a story by ex-SEAL Chuck Prarrer who helped write the screenplay.  The screenplay underwent numerous rewrites.  The actors were put through a two-week boot camp by ex-SEALs.  It looks like they were taught how to shoot from the hip because there is a lot of that in the movie.  Much of the film was done in Spain with the cooperation of the Spanish military.  The U.S. Navy gave limited cooperation due elements like finishing off enemy wounded and the lack of discipline and teamwork exhibited by the unit in the script.  The movie was a modest success, making just $4 million over its budget of $21 million.  Here are my reflections as I watched it. 

            “America, fuck yea!” credits, and we’re off!  //  title card:  JFK created the SEALs in 1962 for counterterrorism  //  is that the USS Forrestal?  -  this must be footage that reflects the Navy’s limited cooperation  //  a burning tanker, a chopper gets hit by a gunboat -  “we have dead” -  cheap special effects  //  Hawkins (Charlie Sheen) wakes up drunk on a beach – no acting talent involved  //  Hawkins jumps out of a jeep crossing a bridge – character development!  //  Curran (Michael Biehn) is getting married when beepers go off -  bros before hos trope  //  some stereotyped jihadists are holding hostages;  the team breaks in and blows them away;  they don’t kill the villain because he plays innocent;  their sniper Dane (Bill Paxton) can shoot through walls!  // cheesy dialogue:  “I hope you paid your gas bill” as Hawkins throws a grenade at gas tanks  //  pulsing electronic music  //  post-op interviews featuring more cheesy dialogue  //  Curran is reamed for not blowing up a warehouse full of Stinger missiles -  did you seriously pass up the opportunity for a huge explosion in a movie?!!!  //  hijinks at a golf course to avoid plagiarizing the volleyball scene from “Top Gun”;  a cover band plays “The Boys Are Back in Town”  //  Hawkins’ car gets towed so he chases on a bike and drives his car off the trailer  //  those missiles are on a ship and they have to get them;  they travel in a sub  // the rubber boats ingress scene  //  no missiles!  //  Curran makes a love connection with a hot reporter (Joanne Whalley Kilmer – Val’s wife at the time) who is an expert on terrorism (another “Top Gun” crib)  //  SEAL training montage that looks like a commercial for joining the SEALs  //  Hawkins makes a move on the reporter  -  he’s obnoxious and racist and thinks she will sleep with him;  Curran is not upset  WTF  //  mission:  capture a CIA informant  //  paradrop -  one parachute malfunction, but he’s okay!  swim to shore;  Hawkins initiates contact which results in Graham’s (Dennis Haysbert) death  -  redemption arc initiated  // funeral which is actually good for recruiting because if you do get killed, you get a kick-ass funeral from a “grateful nation”  // obligatory bar fight scene  //  Claire comforts Curran to sappy romantic music  // mission: those pesky missiles are in a school in Beirut  //  Beirut looks like Stalingrad as far as rubble is concerned -  “the asshole of misery”  //  they find the missiles easily, but the clock is ticking for the submarine egress  //  they blow up the school  //  Hawkins rescues the wounded Curran;  the villain is chasing;  they take a car and are chased by an armored car -  ridiculous, but fun  // they run into the water, suddenly they have flippers on;  the villain comes at them in a boat -  they blow it up;  Hawkins wrestles with him underwater  // the sub, which had left, returns for no good reason and picks them up  //  “America, fuck yea!” 

            “Navy SEALs” is not as terrible as I expected.  After all, it has Michael Biehn in it.  Oh, and Charlie Sheen.  Those two don’t make it a good movie, but they do make it watchable.  Especially if there is alcohol involved.  Actually, the cast is not bad.  Only Hawkins gets any development and that was unnecessary because everyone would have known Sheen was playing Sheen.  Considering the cast, the acting is mediocre.  They may have gone through a two-week boot camp, but they still look like they are playing army man.  The real SEALs did a better job acting in “Act of Valor” than these professional actors.  There is a perfunctory love triangle, but this a guy movie and Kilmer is not hot enough for me to have cared.  The movie does not even bother with the usual dysfunction between comrades chasing the same woman.  Not that it avoids all cliches and stereotypes, but I did not expect it to be ground-breaking.  The soundtrack is terrible and this is one area that doesn’t try to channel “Top Gun”.  The action is generic and is done better on the small screen by the TV series “SEAL Team Six”.

            In conclusion, “Navy SEALs” is a trifle that will efficiently waste some time if you have some to spare.  It’s got a lot of action and even some laughs, of the unintentional variety.  Just be aware that if you decide to join the SEALs (which some have because of this movie),  they are not actually looking for Charlie Sheen types.  They are not really open to rogue warriors and men who question orders.  This movie is not a documentary. 

GRADE  =  C-

Saturday, May 22, 2021

DUELING MOVIES: The Kingdom (2007) vs. Green Zone (2010)




                    Recently in my “War Movie Lovers Group” on Facebook, we had a discussion about whether these two movies are war movies.  I will weigh in on that later, but I thought I would do a comparative review on the two after viewing them (again).  This will be my first reviewing of the two because up until recently I had not considered either to be a war movie.  It makes sense to pair them because both are set in the war on terrorism 

                    “The Kingdom” was directed by Peter Berg, who went on to do “Lone Survivor”.  (In fact, he got Marcus Lutrell to agree to him making that film by encouraging him to watch this one.)  He was inspired by the 2003 bombings of several western compounds in Riyadh and the 2004 Khobar Massacre.  The movie had a budget of $70 million and it made $87 million.

                    The film leads off with an informative time-line of Saudi Arabian history with special emphasis on the role of oil.  This tutorial goes all the way up to and beyond 9/11.  What follows is fictional, but it helps to know the background of the conflict.  The movie leads with a softball game at a supposedly secure base for oil workers and their families.  This typical American pastime is shattered by a terrorist attack that is brutal cinematically and clearly establishes the jihadists as the villains.  An FBI investigative team led by Ronal Fleury (Jamie Foxx) schemes to get around the State Department’s reluctance to put American sleuths on the ground in Saudi Arabia.  The implication is the Saudis are too stupid or corrupt to bring justice for the deaths of Americans.  Fleury is aided by a sympathetic Saudi police officer named Al-Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom).  Al-Ghazi is contrasted with a torture-minded Saudi general.  A Saudi prince agrees to let the team off their leash a bit and the story develops into three arcs.  Fleury and Al-Ghazi follow leads, Sykes (Chris Cooper) and Leavitt (Jason Bateman) inspect the crime scene, and Mayes (Jennifer Garner) does the autopsies.  They come back together for the final set piece that involves rescuing one of them from captivity and the hunt for the jihadi leader.

                    “The Kingdom” benefits from a strong cast.  Foxx anchors, but the others are given chances to shine.  It could have used more character development and Berg’s original cut was quite a bit longer than what the studio released.  The inclusion of Garner was wise and she gets the big fight scene.  Bateman adds comic relief in the form of geek grousing.  The best performance is probably by Barhom as the “good Muslim”.  It’s clear his character was designed to dilute criticism in Arab quarters, but it works.  The movie is clearly anti-jihad, but it is fairly balanced and is not jingoistic.  It is actually more anti-politician than anti-Saudi.  With that said, there is no mustache-twirling.  The Saudi prince is meant to show that not all of the royal family were corrupt.  Our FBI heroes have to deal with gutless pols in America and in the Kingdom.  All of this is just an excuse to get to the set piece that shows Berg’s proficiency in staging kick-ass action.  This starts with an ambush on a highway (try to count the number of flips cars do) and ends up in a hostile neighborhood.  It’s the usual high kill ratio for our side.  Terrorist pawns sure are easy to kill.  The ending is marred by a desire to tie things up in a neat bow, but it is satisfying.

                    “Green Zone” was directed by Paul Greenglass, who was reunited with his Bourne star Matt Damon.  He was inspired by the book “Imperial Life in the Emerald City” by journalist Rajiv Chadrasekaran, but it is not an adaptation of the book.  The script was culled from research of articles on the situation in Iraq after the Persian Gulf War.  Several of the characters are loosely based on real people.  The movie cost $140 million (some of went to a reshooting of the too-tame ending).  It was a major bomb as it made only $95 million.

                    The movie leads with the bombing of Baghdad that started the war.  An Iraqi Gen. Al-Wadi (the “Jack of Clubs” among the most-wanted) goes into hiding.  Four weeks later, the country is a mess with looting and lack of government.  Army chief warrant officer Miller (Damon) is head of a WMD-finding team.  He becomes frustrated with the poor intelligence that keeps sending him to dry holes.  It turns out that the whole idea that Hussein had WMDs came from a false source named “Magellan”.  Miller goes rogue to find out the truth.  He is aided by a CIA officer (Brendan Gleeson) who butts heads with the Department of Defense official Poundstone(Greg Kinnear) whose job is to push the WMD narrative.  When both sides determine that Al-Wadi is the key to the truth about WMDs, it’s a race between Miller and Poundstone’s special forces operative Briggs (Jason Isaac).  One of them wants him to talk and the other wants him silenced.  The movie builds to a big set-piece that starts as a chase scene and ends as a race scene.  The cinematography is the new style special forces variety with hand-held and quick cuts.  Much like “Green Zone”.  There is plenty of ammo expenditure and the ammo discriminates very much in favor of entering non-American bodies.  But the bad guys do get to shoot down a Black Hawk.

                    “Green Zone” is an action movie wrapped around a political whodunnit.  It clearly has an agenda.  The movie was not aimed at Fox News viewers.  However, if you are willing to read up on the WMDs story, you will find that the script is on solid ground.  It’s not like you can argue the movie made up the fact that no WMDs were found.  It is a bit shaky in accusing the government of corruption rather than incompetence and the desire to justify an invasion.  “Magellan” is based on the infamous “Curveball” who gave false information about the WMDs.  Poundstone stands in for all the government flacks (like Paul Bremer) who insisted there were WMDs.  The fourth estate’s collusion with the Bush government is personified by Amy Ryan as a reporter named Lawrie Dayne, meant to conjure up Judith Miller.  Unfortunately, Dayne gets the redemption that Miller did not deserve.  Similar to “The Kingdom”, there is a sympathetic Muslim character who aids Miller.  He balances Al-Wadi.  Miller is based on Richard “Monty” Gonzalez, who served as a technical adviser.  He was interested in making sure the soldier experience in Iraq was authentic, not to vet the unrealistic action the characters get into 

                    Which one is better?  I would give the edge to “The Kingdom” as the better action film.  However, “Green Zone” is more balanced with action blended with an historical perspective.  Since I agree with the criticism of our handling of the WMD issue, I enjoyed watching Jason Bourne fight for the truth, but not everyone will buy into that.  At least it is clear what Greenglass is trying to do, although including the Bush “Mission Accomplished” speech was jumping the shark a bit.  Contrast Greenglass’ history lesson with the fictional “The Kingdom” which makes up a story of the American cavalry riding to the rescue and getting revenge for terrorist bombings.  In reality, the FBI did not solve the compound bombings or take out the perpetrators.  A female forensic examiner did not kill a terrorist in a fight.  Do falsely happy endings to frustrating events bother you?

                    Are they war movies?  My general rule on movies like this is “are there men in uniforms killing someone?”  “Green Zone” fits this qualification, although it belongs more in the action genre.  It is possible to be both a war movie and an action movie.  On the other hand, the protagonists in “The Kingdom” are FBI agents.  I would not classify it as a war movie, although some would argue it is because it is set in the War on Terrorism.  I do consider the War on Terrorism to be a war that can be included in the war movie genre, but I would leave this movie out.  In comparison to “Zero Dark Thirty”, which has a similar story, ZDT concludes with a special forces mission that stamps it as a war movie.


The Kingdom  =  B

Green Zone  =  B-