Tag Archives: war movies

The Yellow Birds

Sean and I have been sharing the 90s movies we’re nostalgic for, movies that I so treasured in my youth that they still make me feel young to this day. I wondered if there was a specific movie that made me realize I’ve crossed over to old. Does such a movie exist? I do remember watching a not very good movie called Better Off Dead and realize that rather than empathizing with the young John Cusack character, I actually sympathized for the dad. Gah! And lately, because we’ve been able to binge-watch 30 years worth of The Simpsons on Disney+, I’ve realized that when that show first came on the air, I was Lisa’s age, and now I’m older than Homer and Marge. Oof. But today I stumbled upon the real answer: war movies. I’ve never been more acutely aware just how young 18 is than watching war movies.

Daniel Murphy (Tye Sheridan) is 18 and still has no need for a razor when he enlists in the army. He makes fast friends with Bartle (Alden Ehrenreich), who is barely older than he is, but just barely is enough for Murph’s mom (Jennifer Aniston) to make Bartle promise to look after him. Then, before they can fully lace up their boots, they’re shipped to Iraq.

I think 18 is young to choose a major in college. Not necessarily for a lack of maturity but at 18 you’ve hardly seen the world, you hardly know the choices, or what that degree actually means, and whether it will actually translate into a well-paying job you won’t immediately hate. Eighteen is certainly too young to make a commitment that could get your limbs blown off – or worse. It’s too young to really understand what you’re getting into, and what’s truly on the line. It’s too young to understand the politics of war and whether all engagements are worthy (and even seasoned politicians don’t understand, but nor do they care – it’s not their asses on the line). It’s too young to really understand the sacrifice; the teenage brain still believes itself to be invincible. Statistics are just things that happen to other people who aren’t and never could be you.

It’s achingly young; Murph sees some shit that no kid should ever see. He’s not supposed to think for himself. Orders are orders. But killing people is killing people and young Murph just can’t make that right in his head. And I don’t need to tell you how very scant the mental health resources are in the army. The army eats up young people and spits out mangled bodies and mangled souls. Murph becomes a lost soul, disconnected and disillusioned. Bartle is haunted by that promise to Murph’s mom.

When Bartle returns home, his mother (Toni Collette) finds him changed, disturbed. But Murph’s mom finds that her son is missing. Bartle knows the answers but might be too broken to tell.

The Yellow Birds has uniformly stellar performances. It’s a little familiar, perhaps not a very distinguished addition to the war movie canon, but I do think its message is worthy. We all know that war is hell, but this film reminds us that the hell extends beyond the battlefield.

Thank You For Your Service

A trio of buddies and U.S. soldiers return home from the war in Iraq. Their group used to be bigger but one guy went home early with a couple of inches missing from his brain, and another didn’t return at all. His wife (Amy Schumer) accosts Adam (Miles Teller) as soon as his feet hit the tarmac, begging to know how her husband died. Adam’s wife Saskia is upset that his welcome home is ruined, but she doesn’t know yet that nothing about his return home will go as she planned.

Adam, Tausolo (Beulah Koale), and Billy (Joe Cole) are all having trouble adjusting. Haunted by the things they’ve seen and the things they did to survive, they are shamed for seeking help from the army and their brave persistence only means their names are on a 6-9 month waiting list. Twenty two veterans a day are killing themselves and Billy is soon one of them. His mother knew he needed help beyond what the army was providing and had arranged a treatment facility out of pocket. Since he’s no longer around to take it, there’s one spot open, and two remaining friends. In a game of “who needs it the most” there truly is no winner.

Adam and Tausolo are both putting their families at risk reliving the war in real time; their dead comrades not just visiting their dreams but their waking life as well. This is hallmark PTSD but veteran’s affairs are backlogged and useless. Of course there is no cure. The only way forward is to talk through all of the things they’d rather forget, and learn to manage the pain. Even people with ‘Support our troops’ magnets on their cars forget them as soon as they return to American soul, but in truth that’s when their own personal war begins.

Based on Adam Schumann’s memoirs, Thank You For Your Service is an incomplete picture since thankfully Schumann was still alive to tell it. But it paints a very sobering portrait of a complete lack of support for warriors turned civilians. The film retreads some familiar ground and if anything, director Jason Hall deprives the movie of some well-deserved righteous anger.

1917

Time is the enemy, the tag line reads. But also mud. And also Germans, but time first, and mud second. Oh the mud. They trudge through it, slipping and sliding, it squishes between their toes and claims the corpses of men. I worry one of the men will lose his footing in the slippery, unforgiving mud and accidentally bayonet himself, or someone else. The sludge is real. You feel the dirt viscerally just as you feel the time urgently.

Oh the time. Time is the enemy you see. Two young soldiers on the Western front are given an impossible task. Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) has a brother in another unit, an isolated regiment about to walk right into a trap. He and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) need to get to them before dawn to save the lives of 1600 men, but the journey to prevent their massacre is likely a suicide mission.

Director Sam Mendes executes this film with such mastery and technical prowess that it induces a state of anxiety, dread and hyper-vigilance in the viewer, immersing us quite brilliantly in the ethos of the battlefield. Most of the film feels like it’s done in a single take, and because we’re experiencing this nightmare in near real-time alongside the soldiers, the urgency and gravity of their mission infects us with constant tension and foreboding. Inevitably this sounds like a harrowing cinematic experience and it is, but one that’s deeply moving and conscientious and frankly impossible not to admire.

Cinematography by legendary Roger Deakins highlights the horror of war, the monotony of the mud, the pitted landscapes, and is particularly effective at night, when a village burns and is intermittently lit by flares. But his work with Mendes to seamlessly knit together shots to create a visual single take is surely worthy of the Oscar. And Thomas Newman’s score is similarly haunting, some of those trumpet swells literally responsible for a tightening in my chest.

My adrenaline was so successfully engaged that it wasn’t until the very end of the film that I finally indulged in a tear. My nerves were so keyed up that I probably didn’t take a full lung’s worth of breath until I was in the parking lot. 1917 is not easy to watch but boy is it easy to praise.

TIFF18: Peterloo

2018 doesn’t need this movie. Arguably, the whole world at large doesn’t need another movie about angry white men emancipating themselves from tyranny while – without a trace of irony – refusing to bring anyone else along with them.

Director Mike Leigh, himself an old white man, clearly believes every florid word uttered by his forefathers is precious. Why else allow for so many agonizing extended speeches, spit-shoutingly reproduced at full length? Peterloo feels less like a movie and more like a scrap book that speechifying white men made as an ode to themselves. Not that there aren’t any women at all – someone needs to pour the water when all that edifying leaves the men cotton-mouthed.peterloo_0HERO

Peterloo is about that time in England’s history, after Napoleon is defeated at Waterloo, when nothing seems to have improved for its people. In fact, the poor are getting poorer, thanks to bread taxes, crop shortages, and insufficient wages. And not content to merely get richer, the rich oppress their countrymen, sentencing an old woman to whipping for being “loose and idle”, a man exiled to Australia for being too good at gambling, and another to the gallows for stealing a coat when he had none.

Though the people are starving and can hardly stand upright after a day’s back-breaking labour, the Reformers organize their best orators to rally the people toward rights and representation. Parliament is not only afraid to lose even an iota of power, they’re downright enraged that anyone should feel so entitled. So they make lengthy, impassioned speeches too. Mike Leigh throws in a scene of the women getting in on the action too, clearly meant to reassure us that the egregious sexism isn’t nearly so bad as we’re thinking, but in fact accomplishes just the opposite. The women’s meeting is full of illiterates and in-fighting. That can’t have been an exclusively female problem but that’s the way Mike remembers it.

I suppose Peterloo is technically well-made (though the opening Waterloo battle scene looks especially unconvincing – old wagon wheels and bugles just weren’t meant to be captured in such crisp detail). I have to believe this is why TIFF has invited so many more female and minority critics this year: so we can call crap when we see it. Of course, I’m going to keep it classy, unlike a male critic in Venice this year who called the festival’s only female director a whore when he didn’t like her movie.

Standing in line to pick up my press credentials, the guy in front of me told the guy behind me (both were bearded middle-aged white men, it probably goes without saying) that last year’s must-see film for him was the Louis C.K. one, with no embarrassment or chagrin. This is why diversity in criticism is important. While plenty of white male critics also manage to be human beings, many do not. And the obsolescent opinions are always the loudest, as this movie admirably (and unintentionally) proves. Loud and wrong, on the shitty side of history.

12 Strong

In the days immediately following 9/11, George Bush believed that Osama Bin Laden was being hid by the Taliban in Afghanistan. He demanded that Afghanistan hand him over, which they refused to do without concrete proof that he was responsible. So because everybody’s blood was up and something had to be done, they declared war. 12 Strong is about the first 12 guys who were sent over there on a special mission that they apparently did well, and quickly, only no one ever gave them the thumbs up about it because it was classified so they got no credit. This movie is their reward, but not a very good one. I would have preferred a sundae or an iguana or that new sunblock that has glitter in it. Instead what we got is yet another war movie, one that does little to add anything new to the conversation or the genre, one that feels derivative of other work and repetitive even within itself. It’s kind of long and boring and just not very good, other than the acting. Since that’s all the review I think this movie deserves, I will now attempt to act it out for you (minus anything graphic, or racist, hopefully) so that you don’t have to sit through it yourself. Of course, you still have my permission to watch it you wish. Or if you must. Or you can watch it without my permission, as may already have done (sorry I’m so late. I really did drag my feet on this one AND MY INSTINCT WAS CORRECT!) – frankly, you guys have done an excellent job of watching movies without my hand-holding, and I’m not sure if I’ve ever really congratulated you about that.

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When I told Sean I’d watched 12 Strong, he asked “The one with the horses?” Yes, yes it is.

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But not that one. Although, if you have a good memory, you know that apes on horses really freak me out. This movie just has soldiers on horses because there weren’t any Jeeps in Afghanistan. Don’t quote me on that. I just made it up, but it does explain the horses.

Chris Hemsworth plays the main soldier guy, who is just moving into a new home when the first plane hits the towers. Sad moment. Cannot make fun of that.

Good job casting the right Hemsworth, and even better, casting that Hemsworth’s wife to play his wife.  I just had to google Elsa Pataky because she had an accent in the movie but it sure wasn’t American or Australian, and yup, turns out she’s Spanish, so that checks out. I clearly don’t know her from much else besides having married into the Hemsworth clan, and she’s clearly too busy pushing out blonde surfer babies to do much acting, other than the Fast & Furious franchise, which I will politely look the other way on.

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This is the real Hemsworth family, not the movie one. I’m 95% sure.

So being a proud American and a keen soldier, Hemsworth volunteers to do whatever is necessary, and so do Michael Shannon and Michael Pena.

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Once they’re over there, William Fichtner tells them they’re going to fight alongside the Northern Alliance leader, Dostum. I know the titles implies that there are 12 guys but I’ve only named 3 actors, so here’s the deal: the 12 get split into 2 groups, the brave and good and movie-worthy group goes to battle, and the other group stays behind in a fortified camp and they are just as important as the alpha group guys, just as good, even if they don’t really do anything. So Hemsworth’s group is a pack of 6, and they just focus on the most handsome 3, which just makes good sense.

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Do I look like the kind of man who gets left behind at base camp?

Anyway, then there’s like 2 hours of fighting.

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Well, no, okay, it wasn’t a dance battle. If there was a dance battle, do you think I’d be dissing this movie? No, there were your standard guns, guns, bullets, guns, rockets, explosions, guns, bullets, guns. The typical war boner stuff.

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Then an Afghani man drives a very hard sheep bargain

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The transaction was not cute in any way and upon reflection, I cannot for one bloody second remember why Michael Pena wanted a sheep so goddamned bad. Anyway, there was at least one truly horrific scene that I can’t make light about, and Dostum and Chris Hemsworth get all buddy-buddy when Dostum talks about his dead family. But then he gets enraged because some other American contingent is back his rival, so he abandons them, feeling betrayed.

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But then he comes back! And there’s more fighting.

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And an email from Donald Rumsfeld, being a dick (is that redundant?). Michael Shannon gets what is described as a “sucking chest wound” and they all act surprised that someone could get hurt out here (no sense of irony for all the Afghans who have visibly been blown to bits). Don’t worry, Michael Shannon definitely survives because he’s already fighting the next war, which is against books.

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Fahrenheit 451, starring Michael Shannon and Micheal B. Jordan, airs on HBO May 19th.

 

 

 

Then there’s some slow-motion explosions (did Michael Bay make a directing cameo?) and some very heroic music and other American propaganda bullshit.

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And then they all shake hands and touch peckers and go home, because JOB DONE. This movie has embarrassingly zero hindsight and very little perspective. This little top-secret mission comprised the first 23 days of the war in Afghanistan, and they really dropped some bombs and shook some shit up, but guess what? That war is ONGOING. As in, the longest war in United States history. But never mind that. Let’s focus on those first triumphant 3 weeks and let our chests swell with pride.

The end.

Last Flag Flying

Doc shows up in his old pal Sal’s bar, unannounced. They haven’t seen each other since they served together in Vietnam. The trio isn’t complete until they pick up Mueller, now a reverend, and only then does Doc confess the true nature of their journey. Doc’s son has just died in Iraq, and they’re on a mission to bring his flag-draped body home.

The kid’s getting a hero’s burial but Doc learns that the circumstances of his son’s death were a little less than heroic – nothing against his kid, just the same tragic junk that the government would prefer to mislabel  – and it’s tearing him apart. So instead of leaving his son’s body in government hands, he resolves to hijack the coffin and he and his buds travel across the country to bring him home.

324633-last-flag-flying-la-derniere-tournee-gagnez-vos-places-2But you may recall that these old guys (Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne) were also marines, and they have their own tragic story that they tiptoe around and unravel slowly. And butting these two wars together, it’s rough; it may be 30 years later, but the senselessness feels eerily similar.

Richard Linklater puts together a really tough movie. It kind of flew under the radar when released so I didn’t have great expectations for Last Flag Flying, but in fact it does a pretty good job handling conflicting themes between grief, friendship, patriotism, service, and sacrifice. While it may suffer somewhat from the shifts in tone from levity to the more somber, it has a really incredible cast that brings warmth and real humanity to what is an otherwise fairly standard script.

Steve Carell: wow. We’ve seen him be extraordinary before, between Foxcatcher and Freeheld and Battle of the Sexes and more besides, there’ more to Carell than just a funny guy. He maneuvers between similar chords and discordant ones like this is some kind of masterclass in acting and fucking Laurence Fishburne has front row seats. And that’s no kind of knock against Carell’s costars, who really make this a tight little dramedy.  Bonding happens during acts of bravery, but also, apparently, in unheroic moments. Men make war, and war makes men. It’s dark, could stand to be darker, but that’s the stuff that works the best, and is deeply moving to watch.

The Zookeeper’s Wife

On Saturday we brought our sweet little nephews to the Capital Fair, where we watched a stunt dog show, rode rides, played games on the Midway, and visited a petting zoo where the kids and I hand-fed llamas. On Monday I watched a llama get shot, point blank.

Do not confuse The Zookeeper’s Wife with We Bought A Zoo. This is no light-hearted tale. It’s about real-life couple Antonina and Jan Zabinski, who used their posts at the Warsaw Zoo to save hundreds of Jews during the German invasion. Of course I’ve read both The a6oYy417yHHP01DGIDZUeEzH7JFZookeeper’s Wife, and We Bought A Zoo, and more recently I was reading another book about a woman who led an underground railroad of sorts to smuggle Jewish children out of the ghetto, wherein the zookeeper’s wife was specifically mentioned. It was an especially brutal place to be during the war. Terrible, unspeakable things happened every day, and it’s kind of a miracle to see\hear these stories about ordinary people who couldn’t live with what was happening, so they didn’t [it’s sort of awful that these words sound very applicable even today].

Glimmers of light do not eliminate all the darkness. The Zookeeper’s Wife is not an easy watch. The film makes the stakes clear, yes for the zookeepers taking enormous risks themselves (they would surely die if discovered), but especially for the people they are helping, who would otherwise be dead – or worse.

Jessica Chastain as the zookeeper’s wife is of course fantastic. There’s no CGI used int he film; those are real lion cubs she’s cuddling, with not a shred of hesitancy. Fitting, I suppose, when she’s sitting in the middle of a war where much scarier things are happening on the streets. WW2-era films always inspire a bout of siderodromophobia in me (the fear of trains).

This movie gets some things right, and some things wrong. In the end, I think it’s just not terrible enough, which I realize is a weird thing to say. What I mean is: it doesn’t have the power to haunt you the way Schindler’s List did (does). It feels a little cold, without the emotional gravitas you’d expect. I expected to cry. What does it mean that I didn’t? Perhaps what this movie needed was a meaningful connection to just one victim. Heroics are all well and good, but they’re only important because they’re necessary. Heroes are only half the equation: both must be compelling.