Just Checking In…

Hey guys, I know this month has been a little light on reviews but I’ll be picking it back up here in the next few days. I’m sorry I couldn’t impart my wisdom on such cinematic classics as “Legend of Hercules” and “I, Frankenstein” but with January almost over, the darkest movie days of the year are nearly behind us.

In the meantime, check out my little YouTube project “Movies That You Should Be Able to Say That You’ve Seen” where we review some of the biggest films of the past. Right now we are doing Man Law Movies and we’ve covered “Die Hard” and “Tombstone” so far. Feel free to drop a request or give us some feedback on the show. Happy viewing.

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Review: “Lone Survivor”

Lone Survivor

When it comes to war movies, it feels like Hollywood never wants to make a film that promotes anything nice about our current struggle in the Middle East. It’s just so much easier to have Hitler be the bad guy for the millionth time. While that’s understandable (he kinda has it coming), we shouldn’t forget about the military heroes born after WWII and Vietnam.

“Lone Survivor” does what only few movies about the War on Terror are capable of: show the horror of war without making the association, implicitly or explicitly, that American soldiers are wrong for being there and/or are bad people.

The film is based on the account of Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell concerning the failed 2005 mission of Operation Red Wings. Tasked with the job to track down a known Taliban leader, a four-man team is compromised when an enemy force much larger than their own interrupts their plan. Stuck in rugged terrain without backup or communications, the men must fight their way out.

Since the film mainly covers the days that Operation Red Wings took place in, there isn’t a lot of time given for character development. One of the best decisions in the film was to play real footage of SEAL training over the opening credits. Much more intense than your average Army TV ad, the video and pictures help the viewer to understand both the price that these men pay to be what they are and the honor that comes with that. Although it doesn’t involve the actors portraying the four main characters, it provides backstory in a roundabout way.

Director Peter Berg makes a perfect recovery here after the travesty known as “Battleship” hit screens in 2012. Though that was also a military movie featuring Taylor Kitsch, it’s safe to say “Lone Survivor” is more accurate and also benefits from not being as bad as this. As a passion project for both Berg and Mark Wahlberg (who plays Luttrell), the film does very well in respecting its subject matter while still remembering to entertain audiences.

The four main actors are very convincing in their roles as Navy SEALs, even Kitsch as Lt. Murphy, who has been one of my least favorite actors with consistent work the last few years. As he usually does, Ben Foster steals pretty much every scene he’s in as Matthew Axelson. From the film’s perspective, he’s the toughest of the group and Foster gets the best material of the four to work with. Like Kitsch, Emile Hirsch got off of my naughty list with an impressive performance as Danny Dietz, the SEAL team’s communications officer. He has said that he passed on multiple roles while training for months/years for this role, so if you were missing him, now you know why.

As in any war film, “Lone Survivor” has some great action sequences. Unlike most action films, however, these scenes don’t feel like a glorification of war. Each RPG blast or bone-crunching fall reminds those of us in our comfy chairs that war is not all fun and games. The closest viewing experience I can equate with the fighting scenes in “Lone Survivor” would be “The Passion of the Christ”. Between 45 minutes of bullets figuratively whizzing past my ear and the memorial at the end of the film, it was a little difficult to get up and leave the theater.

As with any film based on real events, there have been challenges made to the film’s historical accuracy. One small fight scene near the end of the film is said to have not taken place and the number of enemy combatants varies in reports from 20 to over 50. Honestly, who cares? It’s not like “Lee Daniel’s The Butler” where half the characters or storylines are made up.

It’s also worth mentioning that the film portrays the people of Afghanistan as a diverse collective. They are not the simple equation of Middle Eastern = terrorist. Anyone who complains that that isn’t driven home enough either wasn’t watching the film or has forgotten that this film is about Navy SEALs, not the pleasantries of Afghanistan.

“Lone Survivor” is a moving tribute to Navy SEALs and those who serve in any military capacity overseas. While delivering a quality film, it also says a lot about the nature of war and the many stories that can come from such a terrible place.

Grade: A-

Happy viewing.

My 25 Favorite Films of 2013

Already 2014, huh?

Like always, my end of the year list is comprised of the films I personally liked the most rather than which films are the best from a scholarly standpoint. There are already smarter people than me writing that kind of calculated piece and, honestly, most of these “best of” lists put out by major publications are the same criteria I’m using here.

25. 42

42

Sport movies and biopics are two genres of film that can be lazily put together and still turn a profit based on their subject. “42”, however, did well to capture the spirit of Jackie Robinson and the era of baseball he played in. Throw in a surprising performance by Harrison Ford and you’ve got something worth checking out. My original review can be found here.

24. Still Mine

Still Mine

This was a quiet little film that made roughly $1 million in only a handful of theaters, but the characters and feel of the movie were great. James Cromwell, in a rare leading role, plays an elderly handyman who wants to build
a house for his wife (Genevieve Bujold) whose mind is starting to slowly fade, but realizes along the way just how much the world has changed in his lifetime. The aging romance between Cromwell and Bujold and the rugged Canadian landscape make for a nice, small-scale story.

23. The Great Gatsby

Gatsby

When it was first announced that “The Great Gatsby” would be shot in 3-D and feature rap music throughout, I immediately thought it would be a failure. The new adaptation provided a fresh perspective on the film, though, and made things interesting. Leonardo DiCaprio is almost too easily cast as Jay Gatsby and Joel Edgerton, Tobey Maguire and Carey Mulligan also turn in great performances.

22. The Place Beyond the Pines

The Place Beyond the Pines

“The Place Beyond the Pines” is another cheery tale from “Blue Valentine” director Derek Cianfrance. It runs a little too long and its message about fathers, sons and fate gets muddled because of that. On the other hand, it has a great score, is shot beautifully and features great performances from Bradley Cooper, Ryan Gosling, Eva Mendes, Ben Mendelsohn and Ray Liotta.

21. Pacific Rim

In a summer that featured a lot of misses, “Pacific Rim” was arguably the best blockbuster of the season. I think I fell for this movie roughly around the time that a giant robot warrior swung a shipping vessel like a baseball bat at an alien monster. “Pacific Rim” had great visuals and breathed new life into the alien invasion sub-genre.

20. The Book Thief

The Book Thief

Stories about the Holocaust, much like slavery (spoiler alert), can be a little tiresome after a while because we feel like it’s often the same story re-told over and over. “The Book Thief”, based on the popular bestseller, manages to overcome this fatigue by keeping us from the concentration camps and showing us what life is like in a typical German neighborhood through the eyes of a young girl. Heartbreaking at times, the film features strong efforts from Emily Watson, the always charming Geoffrey Rush and relative newcomer Sophie Nelisse.

19. American Hustle

American Hustle

After the success of David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook”, it should be no surprise that re-teaming with Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence and adding Christian Bale, Jeremy Renner and Amy Adams would lead to one of the year’s best films.

18. Blackfish

One of the best indicators of whether a documentary is effective is to look at the changes it brings to its subject. After indicting the treatment of killer whales kept in captivity at SeaWorld, stories like this and this began popping up everywhere. If CNN ever broadcasts it again, don’t miss a free chance to watch a great documentary.

17. The Wolverine

The Wolverine

Bear with me here. By providing audiences with a more bare-bones superhero story, “The Wolverine” delivered a more personal touch than “Iron Man 3” and “Thor: The Dark World” could have ever hoped for. It wasn’t a perfect film, which you can read more about here, but there were a couple of great fight sequences and the best characterization of Wolverine put on film.

16. Dead Man Down

Dead Man Down

This noir thriller was the first film of 2013 worth seeing outside of a Redbox kiosk and, though it had a few faults, Noomi Rapace and Colin Farrell make up for its shortcomings.

15. Inside Llewyn Davis

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Anything by the Coen brothers is worth giving a watch, but the somber tale of Llewyn Davis is an interesting look into the folk music scene featuring some great songs and a breakthrough role for Oscar Isaac. More on the film here.

14. All Is Lost

This old man vs. the sea drama snuck into the end of the year lineup and may earn Robert Redford an Oscar nomination soon. Its visuals are both haunting and beautiful and Redford does more with his facial expressions than 98% of the other actors this year did with an entire script. You can read more about the film here.

13. Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips

This film has grown on me a little bit since I first reviewed it. Now that I’ve seen what this year has to offer, I think this modern-day pirate tale had the proper amount of suspense and filmmaking prowess to make it to number 13 on my list.

12. Nebraska

Alexander Payne is no stranger to these “best of the year” lists as both “The Descendants” and “Sideways” have been very popular in their respective years. This time he tells the story of a son (Will Forte) who is essentially forced to travel with his father (Bruce Dern) across state lines to pick up a $1 million reward he knows isn’t there. Along the way there are the usual discoveries made between a father and son and a few laughs to share.

11. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Walter Mitty

There weren’t a whole lot of family choices at the theater this Christmas (part of the reason why “Frozen” and “The Hobbit” are enjoying a boost in revenue), but “Walter Mitty” turned out to be the best bet for those who didn’t want to suffer through 506 F-words in “The Wolf of Wall Street”. Ben Stiller’s best directorial effort to date (and possibly his best acting) was lost on many critics but audiences are eating it up. It is a heartfelt film that is inspiring, funny, and features some of the year’s best visuals.

10. The World’s End

The World's End

I have been a long time fan of the Simon Pegg/Nick Frost/Edgar Wright combo and they really didn’t disappoint here with the conclusion of their trilogy started by “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz”. Complex characters, hilarious fighting sequences and an alien invasion plot? How could I not be in? Read more of my review here.

9. Philomena

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan are an odd, but perfect, pair in this drama about a woman searching for the son she gave up decades ago. You can read more about this film in my last post before this list.

8. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

The Hobbit The Desolation of Smaug

If you love “Lord of the Rings”, you probably love these movies. That’s basically what it comes down to. It’s understandable why book purists are upset over new characters and such, but when you turn an average-sized book into a trilogy of films it has to happen. This sequel delivers on the action and introduces a handful of new characters better than I imagined it would. A more in-depth review is here.

7. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Two sci-fi sequels back-to-back? Don’t worry, I’m not saying either of these are “The Empire Strikes Back” (although they are new examples of sequels that out-do their predecessors). “Catching Fire” is one of the best book adaptations I’ve seen in recent memory and it is perfectly paced. More glowing words of approval can be found here.

6. Man of Steel

Man of Steel

Is anyone still reading this? Put down that pitchfork. While I understand the many problems people find with the film, I still think it overcame them and then some. “Man of Steel” is the first superhero movie to make me care about a character I previously hated. It’s also one of the most entertaining superhero movies ever made, as scenes like the Smallville fight prove. Here’s more on the film.

5. Frances Ha

Frances Ha

The second black-and-white film on my list comes from director Noah Baumbach and the love letter he made for the great Greta Gerwig. This quirky film about a quirky girl is not just quirky for the sake of being quirky (thanks for helping me win that bet with myself) but actually has a lot to say about growing up and how it affects the relationships around us. For a sneak peek, here’s the trailer. Also available on Netflix.

4. Mud

This was only the first of three films this year where there was Oscar buzz for Matthew McConaughey. A small film featuring a big cast (McConaughey, Sam Shepard, Reese Witherspoon, Michael Shannon), “Mud” gave Arkansas the Hollywood treatment and made an excellent crime drama. Here’s more on the film.

3. Gravity

GRAVITY

I love Alfonso Cuaron’s work as a director so I can’t skip over this impressive film that’s finally pushing him into the spotlight. “Gravity” features the best visuals of the year and manages to keep the suspense up for a solid 90 minutes. Throw in some great performances by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney and you’ve got a winner.

2. Prisoners

Prisoners

I honestly don’t understand how little this film has been talked about the past month or two. Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal are electrifying and its one of the best crime mysteries since “Zodiac”. Just goes to show that the best films aren’t always found in November and December. Here’s more of my thoughts on the film.

1. 12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave

Like I said years ago when you started this list, movies about slavery can often be predictable or feel too familiar. It takes a special kind of film to reinvent the genre like this film has. I had a feeling when I first saw it that it would end up at the end of this list. The performances by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o and Michael Fassbender are arguably the best of the year and the film is beautifully directed by Steve McQueen. Here’s some more reasoning on why I think it deserves the top spot.

If you made it through the end of the list, thanks for sticking around. Though January isn’t known for stellar new releases, I will be covering the Golden Globes and Oscars on here and Twitter at @VC_Reviews. Happy viewing.