Green Zone

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In March 2003, all of America was worked up into a lather — half slavering to bomb Iraq and the other half struggling to restrain the first half. On the ground, soldiers did what they could and the facts trickled slowly into our consciousness back home. Green Zone benefits from seven years of hindsight and “new intel” and somewhat from a more receptive and disenchanted audience as well. Matt Damon plays the chief of an army unit whose missions are to find and dispose of all those super double confirmed for sure WMDs. You remember those, right? So does director Paul Greengrass. Damon’s character is in a position to really see the value of the intelligence reports that sent us into Iraq, and you might not be shocked to find that he’s not buying it.

Green Zone dares to fictionally find the source of the reports and have Damon go after it, action hero style. I’m not meaning to say that this film sacrifices the already-plenty-heroic vérité of our armed forces for cinematic slickness. By no means does it do that. Bourne sequels helmer Greengrass merely continues his grand tradition of You! Are! There! camera work which can occasionally artificially elevate a stroll around a smooth road into something very exciting. At times, this makes the film feel gritty and real, like the footage from an embedded press corps, but at other times it flows like a latter-day James Bond film with choppy editing and overly tight shots, covering up the lack of purpose with adrenaline. Even the pencil pushers Greg Kinnear and Brendan Gleeson exist in a clippy and exciting world. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (United 93 and The Hurt Locker) lets the camera roll, bounce, jitter, and get up his actor’s noses. In the claustrophobic horror of United 93 (also Greengrass) or the nerve-jangling inside of a bomb-wired car, that makes more sense than in a war movie in open terrain with trained soldiers. One of my companions got seriously motion sick, so if you had trouble with the Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield, maybe you should wait for video.

That said, the pacing was strong, the casting was perfect, and the Message made for an interesting premise. The Moroccan and Spanish locations felt real and aquiver with danger. Is it a true story or wish fulfillment/justice fantasy? Screenwriter Brian “spotty resume for an Oscar-winner” Helgeland based the story on Washington Post reporter’s Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s book Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone, which does not have a story like this in it. Helgeland clearly got the tone and environs and political disconnect from here but Damon’s heroic chief? The fiction is embedded deeply in a very real story, which makes for fun storytelling. I enjoyed it from my mournful “we told you so” perspective as the salute it was; as an action movie it delivered what I needed but did get a little tight on the shots even for my taste. Green Zone is probably not for everyone, but it is a solid piece of entertainment.

MPAA Rating R- violence and language

Release date 3/12/10

Time in minutes 115

Director Paul Greengrass

Studio Universal Pictures

iPhone goes to war

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So you’re a squaddie shipping off into battle, you might not think that your iPhone is the go-to-tool for war. Raytheon, the US defence contractor, is looking to change that with a suite of battlefield apps for Apple’s touch-screen golden child. First up is the One Force Tracker (OFT) which allows squad members to track the positions of allies and enemies on a map in real-time, something that might give US troops an edge in a battlefield situation. Ratheon explained it like this:

“We have developed a situational awareness application based on military messaging standards that provide multimedia access, audio and textual point of interest, free text messaging, collaborative planning, spot reports and emergency call for fire”

The app will reportedly use accelerometer controls, GPS and cellular data to provide effective coverage and battlefield use including augmented reality overlays. I hope that they refine the accelerometer controls a bit because if they’re anything like Monkey Ball, I’m not sure I could pull off that kind of delicate movement whilst being shot at. Of course they’re not limiting it purely to the military and have put forward use scenarios for first responders including Fire crews and disaster response units. Ratheon went on to say that they’ve built in safe guards to prevent hacking and service disruptions, lets just hope they’ve ironed out all the bugs before sending the app into the field, sure wouldn’t want it crashing just at the moment I needed it, booting it back out the home screen. I wonder whether it’ll have integrated iPod controls?

[Via TerraNet]

The Messenger

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War movies — they’re everywhere. The terror of battle, the difficulty reintegrating after battle, man’s inhumanity to man, the heroism, it’s all been explored in film in different eras, different political climates, but we have never seen anything like the Messenger. The details are contemporary, but the heart of the story could be the same for any war.

Ben Foster is an Iraq war veteran discharged for injuries who has been assigned to a two-man casualty notification unit with Woody Harrelson. Harrelson is an old hand at this work; he inducts Foster into this sacred, difficult, awful work with a gruff but professional sensitivity and detachment. While Foster is a super creepy casting choice for the role of Sgt. Montgomery, Harrelson is perfect. His Captain Stone is a Desert Storm vet, relatively unmarred by his combat experience. Harrelson has got a beaten up, mean look about him, but the actor’s sweet and squishy center comes out in unexpected moments.

Meanwhile, Foster has a multitude of inner and outer scars that run deep from his tour. Foster can’t even weep for the fallen soldiers he is reporting, thanks to an eye injury. Foster becomes entangled with a young widow (Samantha Morton) and they have some wonderful scenes together that humanize Foster as well as demystify some of the abstraction of Fallen War Heroes.

It’s fascinating to watch them negotiate procedures for sensitivity — acting with feeling but also by the book. Of course Foster has difficulty maintaining the distance he needs, and Harrelson has problems keeping their association strictly professional. It’s procedurally possible but emotionally crippling to squash one’s feelings completely in the faces of the next of kin as they hear the news. The few responses we are privy to are painful and sobering, even knowing nothing about the dead or their families just minutes before. My stomach plummeted when I realized that these guys have a full time job doing these notifications just in their part of the city or state.

Scenes run in long, uninterrupted takes, with little camera movement, just full focus on the actors’ words. At first you might not notice, but then you realize we’ve just been watching one long intense monologue without breaking eye contact with the speaker for a good while. The score is practically invisible — all the feeling and tension is springing from these long, emotional takes. The story is a little aimless, somewhat unresolved, but a worthy subject for examination. This is the kind of film people might skip due to the preponderance of war movies out there, or forget in the wake of flashier end-of-the-year output, but The Messenger is one to watch for great performances.

MPAA R-language and some sexual content/nudity

Release date 11/13/09

Time in minutes 105

Director Oren Moverman

Studio Oscilloscope Pictures

The Men Who Stare At Goats

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While apparently some of the characters in The Men Who Stare At Goats are composites and other narrative short cuts, this film asserts that “more of this is true than you would believe.” I found it fun to keep that in mind as the narrative went from kooky to wacky, from improbable to impossible. You’re never quite sure how much all the characters believe what’s going on either, which challenges your own credulity.

Basically, Ewan McGregor is a journalist who stumbles scross the history of a Vietnam-era black op involving training soldiers to be psychic peacekeepers, gentle warriors of the mind. Regardless of your own level of belief in the possibilities of ESP, remote viewing, telekinesis, and so forth, the fun is watching McGregor run the gamut from sheer disbelief to mostly buy-in. George Clooney is his window into that hippie brigade, relating stories of the training, the complicity of the army, the abuses, and so on. It was clearly a significant time for all involved; the program takes credit for things we commonly know today, which grounds them in Well Maybetown, or else eye-rolls us to No Waysville. Watching Clooney lecture erstwhile young Ben Kenobi on the ways of being a Jedi warrior is amusing but distracting. The real pleasure is watching McGregor interact with Clooney’s demonstrations of his powers, and watching original Jedi Jeff Bridges channel a sort of Fisher King Dude in his character.

Sometimes the movie cannot get past being merely smile-inducing, but it’s a gently funny story of belief in one’s inner potential and in the general goodness of most people. Well,, I guess it’s also about perception on many levels, be it extra-sensory or just interpersonal emotional intelligence. The Men Who Stare At Goats is based on Jon Ronson’s book of the same name which appears to have been written by McGregor’s character, Bob. It sells itself as a mostly true story, but it’s hard to divine which parts are.

I don’t know how faithfully Clooney portrayed his character, Lyn Cassady, but for the sake of the yarn, he’s a perfect choice. Clooney carries that peculiar and charming mix of complete self-confidence, almost cockiness, blended with detachment from those around him, and genuine earnestness. I miss seeing him in funny roles and it was pleasant to travel with him here, mustache and all. McGregor had long ago perfected his naïve, wide-eyed “I want to be convinced” brand of gee-whillikers, and he shines that one up real good for this one. Add in Stephen Root as a vaguely unstable but harmless kook, Jeff Bridges’ groovy alpha male, and Kevin Spacey as a cold, calculating egotist, and the film feels more and more like something you have seen before. In this sense, perhaps not…and then you recall “more of this is true than you would believe,” The yarn starts to get a little long, though it generally clips through its 94 minutes at a pleasant pace. I may forget I ever saw it, but I had a pretty good time nonetheless.

MPAA Rating R-language, drug content, brief nudity

Release date 11/6/09

Time in minutes 94

Director Grant Heslov

Studio Overture Films

Inglourious Basterds

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I was nervous about seeing Inglourious Basterds because of late, director Quentin Tarantino has been kind of a turn off for me; also the preview looked more violent than even my desensitized action-movie-loving self could stomach. I was pleasantly surprised by a 97% mature, solid, suspenseful, respectful, artistic movie. I’ll go ahead and complain about the 3%, all of which typifies what Tarantino has been doing to keep me away from his movies. He employed his pre-post-ironic random font party titles, metacommentary, severely anachronistic music (no matter how legitimately awesome David Bowie’s Cat People is), and disabled my ability to focus on a key scene with one incredibly distracting casting choice. No, not B.J. Novak (The Office) — Mike Meyers. Now, Mike was great (so was B.J.), and I am glad to see him try his hand at straight acting, but his eyes still sought approval in every take so I still have no idea what that scene was about.

Now: for the rest of it. We’ve seen enough World War II movies to the point that it really is its own genre, with its own shorthand visual language and even clichés. Tarantino pulls out a strong, tension-filled WWII movie and drapes it over a full-on alternative universe revenge fantasy nearly as over the top as Kill Bill, but with — I have to say it — a ton more class. Tarantino keeps his coolness factor up by casting the always naturally hilarious Brad Pitt as Lt. Aldo Raine, the backwoods leader of the titular American vigilante group. They kill Nazis, and one must confess, they do it with a style designed to grow their reputation from infamous to legendary. Showmanship was a major skill of the Third Reich, and the Basterds in their own hardscrabble way are fighting fire with fire.

And then there is the delectable Christoph Waltz as Col. Hans Landa. This guy is an amazing and wonderful oozer of charisma, menace, and sociopathic charm. From his first scene, in a farmhouse in France, to his last (I won’t say where), Waltz is a riveting character and a sublime bit of casting. He’s as unpredictable as the weather, and twice as deadly. It’s a delicious and ironic contrast to see his urbane smoothness contrasted with our good guys’ rough, ignorant crassness. Young Nazi wunderkind Frederick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl) is well cast too, his face balancing boy-next-door with serpentine.

The plot does not, as the previews would suggest, center around the pillaging exploits of the Basterds, to my relief. Instead we have a confluence of a Jewish cinema owner, a Nazi hero infatuated with her, a British infiltration, and a film premiere. Chapter three is a web of agendas crashing together in an exciting and suspenseful climax. It tickles you and terrifies you in turns. Melanie Laurent is wonderful as the cineaste whose humble venue becomes the epicenter of all the plots of the film.

I was surprised and pleased to be so surprised and pleased by this violent, sophisticated, tremulous, funny movie. It is none of these things alone but a heady mix of all four. One forgets, with all the French and German over 153 minutes, that you’re watching a Hollywood movie at all — until a trademark Tarantinoism pops in to remind you. It’s good.

MPAA Rating R- strong graphic violence, language, & brief sexuality

Release date 8/21/09

Time in minutes 153

Director Quentin Tarantino

Studio Weinstein Company

The Hurt Locker

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Jeremy Renner first made an indelible impression on me when he played Jeffrey Dahmer in the film Dahmer.  His boyish face belies the simmering intensity he can produce onscreen.  Sure, that’s a hackneyed way to describe it, but the reality is just that.  He gets you with those baby blues.  Here, in 2004 Baghdad, Renner plays a bomb defusing technician whose job is tense even when performed with maximum caution.  Renner’s character does not bother with such things — he prefers to rock and roll and git ‘er done, and it becomes gradually evident that he is past being just a hotshot, past being an adrenaline junkie.  He’s a pusher.

Renner’s character is a crazy dude, but what director Kathryn Bigelow does is ramp up our awareness of the insanity of these soldiers’ situation until Renner’s approach seems almost reasonable.  The tactical and practical realities they have to deal with are vivid reminders of what is still happening out there, five years later.  Bigelow directed the loathsome Strange Days, but I’ll say this for her there as well as here:  she does not shy away from the ugly side of people and their capacity for cruelty or dismissing of their fellow man.

Renner’s bomb squad is comprised of Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty.  These two men are nearing the end of their tour when they lose their third man (the blaster); tension is high and Renner’s methods don’t make things any easier.  These guys run missions with intensity, while Iraqi life continues all around them, as if to mock their efforts — children run about and get in the way of a patrol, kites fly, women shuffle veiled through the market — it’s bananas.  Despite Renner and some other familiar faces peppering the cast (Guy Pearce, David Morse, Ralph Fiennes), I found it difficult at times to remember that these men are actors.  The tension is pulled to just the right tautness to be sustained over time without having to defuse it with a narrative break.  And the acting is great.

So, OK, we have a war movie, with danger, tension, great performances, a pretty heavy throughline of Renner’s need for hard core everything — but, as my friend pointed out, no Message.  Sure, war is hell, even the hawks will tell you that, but these guys aren’t thinking about politics or parties or re-elections.  They have missions that keep their soldiers and civilians from being blown up, and any day could be their last.  Their whole world is focused on that pinpoint.  War is hell, war is a drug, war is not what the suits think it is when they deploy tanks and battleships.  It’s very, very personal.  The Hurt Locker is excellent, I hope everyone checks it out and rewards the studios for this great production.

MPAA Rating  R – violence and pervasive language.
Release date 7/10/09
Time in minutes 131
Director  Kathryn Bigelow
Studio Summit Entertainment

Has Sony Already Lost The Console War?

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I recently read a user comment somewhere in the depths of the internet that said something along the lines of “It’s obvious that Sony has already lost this generations console war”. At first I dismissed this. However a day or two later it seeped back into my brain. As I went through a mental list of all the things that Sony has done wrong since the PS3 was announced in 2005 I began to ponder if Sony really has lost this generations console war.


It’s fair to say that the PlayStation 3 has been traveling on a rocky road for a while. The announcement of the $599.99 price tag at the 2006 E3 seemed to induce a collective “Really?” through out the video game industry (a very similar reaction came from this year’s E3 when it was announced that the PSP Go will be priced at $250.00)

Fast forward a few years and the PS3 continues to be pounded with bad press. It was announced that Sony lost two of their biggest exclusives in Final Fantasy and Metal Gear Solid to Microsoft at E3 this year. Bobby Kotick, CEO of Activision, made statements threatening to stop developing for the PlayStation 3. Valve has recently said the PS3 is too complicated to develop for and they certainly aren’t the first game development studio to make this complaint.

We can argue the criteria of what it takes to win or lose a console war until we are blue in the face but in reality it all comes down to sales and market share. As of now this is where Sony is failing. However it could very well be another four or five years until we see a new generation of consoles from the big three. Does this mean that Sony has time to make a come back? The PS3 has the release of two of its biggest exclusive franchises on the horizon with God Of War III and Uncharted 2. I also think it’s safe to expect a PS3 price drop some time in the near future. But will a few triple A exclusives and a price drop be enough to reignite consumer interest in the PS3?

Don't worry. If the PS3 does become obslete you can at least mod it to cook hot dogs.

Don't worry. If the PS3 does become obslete you can at least mod it to cook hot dogs.

Author’s note: I am an owner of a PS3 and personally I love it. The idea that this piece of hardware could become irrelevant saddens me. Not because I spent a lot of money on it but because of what it is capable of. From a hardware point of view, the PS3 is certainly superior to the 360 or the Wii. However having the ‘best’ product on the market doesn’t mean jack if your marketing team has their heads up their asses.


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It may have been a mistake to watch Defiance in a double feature with Valkyrie. These two WWII movies could not be more different in tone, though both are portraits in bravery above and beyond reasonable hope. Where Valkyrie is very military and fawning, sort of, Defiance is gritty, earthy, trembling, and intense. The premise, if you’re unfamiliar, is the true story of a group of Jews hiding from the Nazis in the dense Belorussian forest of Lipiczanska. The little commune that built up around the thoughtless survival instinct of three brothers Bielski (Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, and Jamie Bell) grew into a full community. It is more to live than just to survive (as Wall-E also reminded us), so that we know what we survive for.

Here are a people so hounded, so surrounded by hatred and fear and death and loss, yet still able to pull together and retain civilization in the bleak Belarus winter. It’s a story about that, but it is also a story about the Bielski brothers’ relationships with their grief, with each other, with survival – and the legend that grows around their names as a result of their ad hoc protectorate.

As a WWII story, it’s inspiring, and even new. As a film, it’s tense and nerve-wracking and sobering. To witness such conditions, such resources, such fear, such stakes is always harrowing. Director Edward Zwick is no stranger to painting a rich canvas for his actors to stand out upon (Last Samurai, Blood Diamond, Legends of the Fall, for example) and he does not disappoint here. The near-monochrome of the winter, their ever-present grimy and threadbare existence is portrayed with even more depth than the plot points.

Thanks to the consistent but occasionally dense Eastern European accents (a welcome dip into realism after Valkryrie’s British/American flavor), I missed a number of character names for actors whom I wish to praise. The coughing teacher and the Red Army leader were too sparingly used but gave great performances. Schrieber, Iben Hjelje, Mark Feuerstein, and Mia Wasikowska stood out for me as favorites — partially for their open, optimistic faces, and partially for making me believe they were beleaguered Belorussians fleeing Nazi persecution, despite their familiar faces.

It’s a simple, solid movie, worth seeing indeed, but I fear more like a satisfying Chinese dinner over time. See it before the world forgets about it.

MPAA Rating R-violence, language
Release date 12/31/08
Time in minutes 137
Director Edward Zwick
Studio Paramount Vantage

Waltz With Bashir

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Waltz With Bashir is a unique, arresting piece of work. As a documentary, it mostly trucks with events locked in memories, rather than assembling found footage or archival documents. A fellow Israeli veteran of the 1982 Lebanon War recounts his disturbing recurring dream to the writer/director/narrator Ari Folman, who was then inspired in to seek out other’s recollections of that same war of over 20 years ago. The story is almost entirely interviews with men who were there — with Folman directly or not — giving their unique perspectives and helping him try and unlock his own memories. The lack of footage of their specific memories is solved superficially by animating the interviewees and their stories. I found that telling these tales in bold drawings rather than grainy faceless footage of war heightens the abstraction of these terrible times, the unreality and the emotional remove it requires to be in it and also to recall it. It also reduces most of the scenes to their most important elements, making the whole sequence feel like our own unfinished but vivid memory or dream. Folman is given his compatriots’ memories to use while he struggles to recover his own. His whole journey is to dig up his repressed memories of the Sabra and Shatila massacre of September, 1982, at which he knows he was present but remembers only one strange, dreamlike image. To say more about what happens is to spoil the pleasures of the movie.

How reliable are any of these narrators? No more or less so than any interviewee walking down memory lane for a camera. The level of detachment from their own experiences is writ large by the animation. For these young soldiers, not knowing who or where the enemy is, not feeling the traumas as they happen but only later, when it’s safe — it’s discomfiting. Coming from a blessed life where I have not been forced to taste the smoke of war with my own mouth, it is chilling to try and imagine the reality being presented here in such clean, smooth, two-dimensional images. I can connect to some degree with the blank pages of the mind’s scrapbook that our narrator is trying to fill by connecting dots with others’ stories. When Folman does find his own mind, the transition is all the more startling and sobering as reality crashes into the movie. It justifies all the clean simple lines we had been immersed in from the beginning.

The art is gorgeous — it has a smooth, computer-assisted feel to its stark inked appearance. The interplay of light and dark is almost gorgeously hypnotic; the colors are oranges and reds and saturated colors, but in a smooth monochrome that robs them of their brightness. Even in a scene layered with fear or uncertainty. The glide of shadows and glimmers across the scenes is too beautiful to allow yourself to succumb to the practical reality of the situation. Abstraction and surreality are hallmarks of PTSD as well as dreams and memories. The intimate interviews and repetitions of dreamlike images collide in a truly unique and extraordinary way.

Waltz With Bashir’s titular moment is the only one that feels forced, even though you know it’s a true account, but I can hardly issue a demerit over that. Folman’s personal journey to recover/understand his own memories in the context of a great national nightmare is a documentary that will stick with you for a good long while. I was so glad I was able to see it.

MPAA Rating R for atrocities, strong violence, nudity, graphic sex

Release date 12/25/08

Time in minutes 87

Director Ari Folman

Studio Sony Pictures Classices