Hollywood has a history of journeying down Vietnam’s rivers and through its jungles to heal the heartbreak shrouded in the ruins of war. Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods (B) starts innocently enough with a quartet of affable modern-day African-American veterans reuniting in a Ho Chi Minh City hotel to embark on a search for the buried bones and bullion left behind by a fallen platoon leader, played in flashbacks by Chadwick Boseman. This memory film’s twisty heist plot is also a bit of a Western, as in a commentary on Western Civilization, always urgent even if occasionally overreaching or delving into myriad detours of flourish. Delroy Lindo gives a forceful, hot-headed performance as the primary old timer, the MAGA hat wearing Paul, who like his comrades, also plays himself at an earlier age without the magic of de-aging special effects. Lindo gives an astonishing muttering monologue after a critical series of action sequences that’s career best. He’s like a land mine one step away from self-actualization, and he’s fascinating to watch in his masterclass of acting. Lee’s crisscrossing techniques through history gracefully bridge past transgressions to a tableaux of modern topics ranging from imperialism to contemporary class and racial politics. The movie comes most alive in its celebrations of brotherhood and fatherhood; Jonathan Majors is memorable and moving as Paul’s estranged college son. Terence Blanchard’s music is stirring accompaniment to action and ache, with occasional soothing echoes of Marvin Gaye. After his brilliant BlacKKKlansman, Lee’s follow-up is a bit more narratively sprawling but thematically daring. The thoughtful director’s change of venue from American soil enables no less a promised land of issues to travel and unravel.
The World War I film 1917 (B+), directed by Sam Mendes and photographed by Roger Deakins, relies on an enormously effective and immersive magic trick of appearing like one continuous camera take, achieved with a mix of practical action and digital sleight of hand. It’s an incredible adventure spectacular even though the parade of set pieces and escalating stunts feel a bit too convenient at times. George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman are very empathetic as lance corporals in the British Army tasked with getting a message to a fellow battalion to thwart a German trap. The film’s you-are-there aesthetic is nothing short of masterful even though it shortchanges character development and deeper themes in service of its technical priorities. Still, the action sequences are visceral and propulsive, as if the journey of Apocalypse Now were given the lilt and momentum of Run Lola Run. Mendes marshals splendid elements ranging from majestic music to earthy atmosphere and gorgeous shots of Northern France in various stages of terror. Go for the war movie, stay for the action ride.
Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky (A-) is a spectacular meditation on the costs of wars waged with drone spies and unmanned planes that can drop missiles with perfect precision and why the human element is still so powerful in waging a fair battle. There is a lot of waiting game and bureaucratic bickering that weighs down some of the film’s most cinematic possibilities, but the moral dilemma at the movie’s heart as an international coalition determines how to capture or destroy suicide bombers in Kenya without significant collateral damage will prompt some fascinating discussion. Helen Mirren is magnificent as a war room commander, and Aaron Paul is solid as the U.S. soldier with his hand on the trigger. While underused in much of the film as a British commander and negotiator, the late Alan Rickman gets some brilliant parting words. Barkhad Abdi is also effective a heroic accomplice on the ground, deeply humanizing the depths of the danger to friends and neighbors when terrorism strikes cities. The sheer voyeurism of the drone plots makes for some suspenseful sequences, but it’s the human cat and mouse game at the movie’s center that makes the narrative gripping. It’s an intellectual thriller that condenses one of the great debates of our time into a satisfying story.
The general “WTF” sensibility exuded by a new film on the scene is actually the marker of something singular and subversive. Co-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa help inject their wry war comedy Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (B) with moments of delirious adrenaline, but it’s leading lady Tina Fey who shoulders the load of a magnificent against-type role as an embedded TV correspondent in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom. The underlying tone isn’t always sustained, but it’s a thrilling contact high watching Fey wrestle the plum part with such dexterity. Her sarcasm suits the heroine’s outlook, and she mines some unexpected depths to get to the heart of material based on the real-life memoirs of journalist Kim Barker. Sparring well with Fey are bombshell beauty and budding frenemy Margot Robbie, unconventional romantic interest Martin Freeman and a pair of actors who just played comparable parts in the thematically similar Our Brand Is Crisis – Alfred Molina as a sleazy political figure and Billy Bob Thornton as a swaggering operative, in this case of the Marines. More seasoned directors would have likely tightened some of the principal plot points into a more propulsive narrative, but their bet on an accomplished comedienne to master such a challenging dramatic role is the coup de grâce in the face of a sometimes spiraling storyline. There was also a nice recurring bit about war as an opiate and conversations with a doctor that paralleled the protagonist’s experience as someone who gets sucked deeper and deeper into the “Kabubble.” You can viscerally experience the lure of something that is simultaneously dangerous and intriguing. Fey’s proto-feminist musings and acerbic humor in the face of adversity ultimately make the movie.
Behind the Adaptation:
From The Taliban Shuffle to Whiskey Tango Foxtrot: The Movie
The movie Whiskey Tango Foxtrot was written by Robert Carlock based on the memoir The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan by Kim Barker. My friend and fellow blogger Ashley Williams of The Book Fetish Blog has collaborated with our Silver Screen Capture site to help describe the book to film translation. Let’s call her the Siskel to my Ebert in lending dueling viewpoints to the film at hand. You can read her review now available on her site, and we answer a few questions about the film together here:
Question: What made this an important story to tell?
Stephen Brown: Although the characters and contours could be sharper, the film depicts men and women driven by destiny to be superb stewards of their craft, be it military peacekeeper or crusading journalist. The protagonist’s strong POV offers an unusual portal into the story and a meaty, unapologetic female lead role.
Ashley Williams: This is a great question because there are two broad aspects with which to answer it. The first is understanding the drive of someone to put themselves in a war zone and continual danger. Kim essentially becomes a junkie – addicted to Afghanistan, seeking out ever more dangerous assignments – until it nearly destroys her. And in the book, we get so much more backstory about Afghanistan and Pakistan and why our military efforts have been so protracted. It really highlights how much the American mentality is ineffective in dealing with the cultures of Afghanistan and Pakistan
Question: What about this work is effective on the page? What makes it cinematic?
Ashley Williams: The visuals in the film really bring this story to life, but there is a humanity in the story told on the page that really made this an interesting read to me. Kim really came to care for many of the people she met in these countries. She is also able to talk a lot in the book about the seeming contradictions in the culture. It’s this next layer, of really being able to glimpse what day to day life was like, that kept me turning the page.
Stephen Brown: The you-are-there quality is dialed up to great effect, with several of the close encounters with deadly assaults among the most jarring. I did feel more could be done with the atmosphere of the “fun house” where all the journalists were lodged and that some of the relationships with locals could have been more vividly developed.
Question: What were the biggest changes made from book to film?
Ashley Williams: I laughed when I saw this question. Because SO MUCH! First, in the book, there’s Kim was a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, not a TV reporter. Aside from that, though, the film focuses specifically on Afghanistan. During the years Kim was over in Asia, she was based in India, and shuffled between Afghanistan and Pakistan with some regularity (hence the book title, The Taliban Shuffle). The whole Pakistan experience is missing from the film; but in the book, we get a good glimpse of the political climate in both places during the War and how that impacted our military effectiveness. Also, the Billy Bob Thornton character isn’t in the book.
Question: What did casting bring to the experience?
Ashley Williams: Tina Fey was spot on. Farouq, too. No one else really matters in going from page to screen because the other film characters are amalgams of people in the book.
Stephen Brown: Tina Fey owned the part with such command that I could imagine no one else in the role. I’m delighted she went out on this limb.
Question: Memoirs are notoriously tricky to adapt. They can range from cerebral (think My Week with Marilyn based on The Prince, the Showgirl and Me: Six Months on the Set with Marilyn and Olivier by Colin Clark) to adventurous (such as 127 Hours based on Between a Rock and a Hard Place by Aron Ralston). Where does this adaptation of The Taliban Shuffle fit in?
Stephen Brown: Despite the fact that it is very entertaining, this film won’t go down as among the best of this genre. I will say it compared favorably to Eat, Pray, Love and was an interesting examination about what an unmarried single woman in mid-life can do to shake things up considerably. These memoirs seemed destined to get the movie treatment.
Ashley Williams: I agree that the book won’t go down in history the way a memoir of say, Sandra Day O’Connor or Ruth Bader Ginsberg might. And I admittedly haven’t read many other memoirs of reporters embedded in Iraq and/or Afghanistan. The film and book are so different, I really am not sure they are comparable. But comparing this memoir to the book Eat, Pray, Love or the inexplicably popular Wild, the difference for me is that Barker doesn’t come out of this with an amazing epiphany or self-actualization moment. She’s an ordinary woman who ended up in this extraordinary situation and she learned a lot about herself, but I read this more as an exploration of how running from something can take us to places we never expected. That circumstances can drag us more deeply into something than we desire, and at some point, we have to decide how we want to live.
Did you have favorite plot points?
Stephen Brown: There weren’t that many standout moments, but I actually liked a sequence in the last fifteen minutes when a minor character is re-introduced, and a moment of catharsis ensues.
Ashley Williams: It’s so funny that Stephen mentions his favorite fifteen minutes at the end of the film, because this was glossed over in the book, awarded three to five sentences max. For me, in the book, it was Kim’s going away party, the resolution of her friendship with Farouq.
Question: So was it overall something you’d recommend?
Ashley Williams: Yes, both the book and the film. The book because it’s a perspective I don’t think we have seen a lot of in a tense region that is so different than our own. And the film because I was thoroughly entertained.
Stephen Brown: Absolutely. I was very pleasantly surprised and entertained. This isn’t one of those film experiences that stays with you a long time, but it is far more accomplished than expected.
For a film ostensibly about the preservation of art, it’s a shame that The Monuments Men (D+) is about as compelling as watching paint dry. George Clooney has oceans of resources to pull off an ensemble; and as star, co-writer and director, he tackles the tale of an elite force in WWII responsible for saving famous works of art from falling in the hands of the Nazis or from being destroyed. From the opening moments, the tone is just wrong: a strangely old-fashioned Hogan’s Heroes style pervading with clunky lighting and art direction and slow fades from preachy, pedantic exchanges by a cast of talented and woefully underused actors. Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett are among the ensemble members given very little material with which to work. What’s left is episodic. The high stakes heart of the mission seems oddly intellectual when it should feel urgent. This is a good premise that fell into uneasy directorial hands. It’s as if there were enthusiasm for the notion of the film followed by two hours of the air letting out of the balloon.
Some great counterprogramming for those who like matinee idol Mark Wahlberg in a role that doesn’t involve mind-numbing transforming robots is Lone Survivor (B), the true-life tale of a military raid in Afghanistan that takes some surprising, perilous and deadly turns for a group of heroes. Director Peter Berg is basically the anti-Michael Bay, serving up action undergirded with subtle characterization and vivid detail. Along with a sharp Wahlberg, there are other strong performances by Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch and others in a film comprised largely of a re-creation of the stunning skirmish. The set-up for the mission and camaraderie of the characters creates a nice arch for the events to come; and even though the format doesn’t leave a lot of room to paint outside the lines, Berg applies a signature you-are-there vibe to the proceedings. It is high on action and suspense with an excellent epilogue reinforcing the themes of brotherhood and singularity of purpose.