Friday, September 12, 2014

Middling "Lone Survivor" Disappoints Despite Great Craftsmanship

The actors in Lone Survivor do some heavy lifting to make up for
thin characterizations.
Given the fact that director Peter Berg got Universal to bankroll Lone Survivor by making Battleship in a “one for me, one for them” deal (as mentioned in my review of that train wreck), I’m kind of surprised at how middle-of-the-road a film it turned out to be.

I was expecting something with a bit more bite, something that was character focused and challenging, but Lone Survivor is basically a jingoistic love letter to Navy Seals. It’s a lot more Act of Valor than The Hurt Locker. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s certainly a disappointing one.

Based on Marcus Luttrell’s book of the same name, Lone Survivor details how he and three other Seals came across some sheep herders while on a mission in Afghanistan and, instead of killing them or leaving them for dead, decided to let them go. This humanistic act compromised their mission, cost three of them their lives, and led to the death of 16 others who were attempting to rescue them. Luttrell made it out alive, but only due to the protection of some brave Pashtun villagers who helped him due to their traditional belief in Pashtunwali, a code of honor that grants visitors refuge from enemies.

The film kicks into high-gear right when the foursome comes across the herders. The debate over how to handle the situation is given proper weight, and the 40-minute firefight that follows is a truly visceral experience, an all-time example of battle depiction on film that manages to capture the harrowing tension and confusion of the moment all the while maintaining a plausible choreography. 

The problem with the film has to do with everything outside this extended sequence. I’ve often heard critics take issue with Saving Private Ryan, acknowledging that although it has classic battle scenes at the beginning and at the end, everything else is sentimental bullshit.

More on the concept of Pastunwali would've been welcome given it's
importance to Marcus Luttrell's survival.
A movie like Lone Survivor really illustrates how ridiculously off base that argument is. Saving Private Ryan does indulge in some ill-advised schmaltz with its graveyard denouement, but it also has a script that works to tangibly develop its soldiers into believable people.

Lone Survivor does not. Its setup is all cookie cutter, with most of the early screen time dedicated to scatter-shot rah rah initiation rituals in lieu of authentic character moments. That’s understandable given the fact that the film wants to honor all the men who sacrificed their lives, but such an approach ultimately leaves things feeling half-baked.

The film also would've benefited from devoting more time to the concept of Pastunwali, which is really only highlighted by a sentence or two at the end of the movie. We never see Luttrell’s discovery of why these people helped him, an odd decision given the intriguing circuitry to the fact that his salvation was brought about by the same type of stick-your-neck-out compassion that caused the death of his fellow soldiers.

Although their roles are thinly written, a special note has to be made of the central quartet of actors. Mark Wahlberg anchors the film nicely as Luttrell, and he really sells the desperate confusion during the Pashtun village scenes. Meanwhile, Emile Hirsch, Taylor Kitsch and especially Ben Foster do a great job with what they’re given here, implying all sorts of humanity that’s simply not on the page.

In all, I’m OK with Lone Survivor. I appreciate the craftsmanship, think the actors perform admirably and love the way Berg and his crew put you in the moment. However, I feel like this adaptation is ultimately a missed opportunity. In real life, this is a moving, thought-provoking and life-affirming story. On the screen? Not so much. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

"Muppets Most Wanted" Plays to Brand's Strengths

The Muppets agree to make a world tour their next adventure.
Early on in Muppets Most Wanted, Kermit encourages Miss Piggy, Gonzo and the rest of his pals to play it safe and stick to their strengths. He argues that even though they are relevant again due to the success of the Jason Segal-led The Muppets (a fact that is emphasized by the opening number “We’re Doing a Sequel”), they are still in a perilous spot popularity-wise, so they shouldn't do much to shake up a formula that works.

He’s talking about the on-stage acts they’ll be delivering during their world tour, but it’s also a meta moment that aptly describes Muppets Most Wanted, a film that doesn't do anything innovative but coasts along amiably on the strength of some giddy puns, a zany energy, a slew of celebrity cameos, and (most importantly) a helping of charming original tunes.

The film focuses on the evil plot of Constantine the frog, a master criminal who looks like Kermit with a mole on his cheek. With the assistance of his number two (Ricky Gervais), Constantine escapes jail and then kidnaps and replaces Kermit, all the while using the cover of a Muppets World Tour to pull off a number of heists culminating in the theft of England’s Crown Jewels. Constantine makes for a poor Kermit, but none of his pals notice (except Animal) because the less structured impostor allows them to do whatever they want with the show.

Meanwhile, Kermit is trapped in a Siberian gulag, helping prisoners like Big Papa (Ray Liotta), Prison King (Jermaine Clement) and Danny Trejo (Danny Trejo) put on a revue at the behest of the warden (Tina Fey). And CIA agent Sam Eagle is working with a Clouseau-like Interpol agent (Ty Burrell) to track down the thieves behind the growing number of heists.

This gag single-handedly justifies this whole movie. 
The narrative is predictably disposable, but the film shines in similar ways to its predecessor. Director/writer James Bobin and co-writer Nicholas Stoller once again deliver fun that's amusingly meta, sneaking in some pretty big laughs  (the appearance of Rizzo and Robin and the sight gag of Kermit and Miss Piggy’s future kids) amidst the mostly knowing chuckles.

Although there’s nothing here that approaches his Oscar-winning “Man or Muppet” or even “Life’s a Happy Song,” Bret McKenzie has littered the soundtrack with some really clever and fun songs, especially “I’ll Get You What You Want” and “Interrogation Song.”  Likewise, while none of the celebrity cameos work as well as the Jim Parsons scene in The Muppets, three or four of the 20 or so included here come close.

As I said, the movie plays to the strengths of the Muppets. Nothing overly special to see here, but a comforting adventure with some old friends – the type of family film that doesn't hit the heights of something like The Lego Movie, but that will play well on repeat viewings with the kids. B-