Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Netflix This: Hell and Back Again

     It's unbelievably easy to forget that men and women of every nationality, color and sexual orientation are coming home from war--even to this day--with deep metaphorical scars that harm the emotional thought process of the brain or real scars that dig deep into flesh, muscle and bone. Luckily, for people sitting in the comfort of their own home who want to know what exactly is happening with the wars or returning soldiers, for every few hundred brave troops there is a brave journalist or filmmaker capturing the humor, patriotism and atrocity that transpires in any war. Just take a look at Dexter Filkins' incredible nonfiction book, The Forever War, or watch some of the wonderful and inspiring (and sometimes sickening) documentaries that have graced our television and theater screens in the past few years: namely No End in Sight and the outstanding Restrepo. Add Hell and Back Again to the list.
     Marine Sgt. Nathan Harris is nearing the end of a 6-month tour in Afghanistan. He's in the way of a sniper bullet that gets fired by the enemy, and it shoots him on the side of his ass. He eloquently states that the bullet blew "half his ass off." Hell and Back Again is one of those documentaries that focuses more on the aftermath of getting brutally wounded in war than the war itself. This isn't a film about a group of hunkered down soldiers trying to survive in a trench in a mountain range in Afghanistan; it's about one man trying to survive physical therapy and a trip to Wal-Mart after leaving the only career that he's ever been good at. The career of killing people.
      To be nice, any chance Nathan gets he shows off his scar to the concerned folk around his neighborhood. The bullet, as one can imagine, had no trouble searing through Nathan's skin, fat, muscle and the bone of his hip socket. From there, it bounced around a little bit, fragmenting a portion of his leg in the process. He spends a lot of time in a motorized wheelchair or on the couch, trying to stretch his injury through therapy until tears slowly fall down his cheeks. Other time is spent with film that was shot during Nathan's deployment. You can tell that Nathan believes in the United States' mission, whether he's crawling across a dangerous field, trying to spot rogue Taliban fighters, or speaking with Afghan elders through a translator.
     The mission, while deployed, is clear. The mission, when he's wounded and at home, is much harder to decipher. His wife Ashley is the type of woman who every soldier hopes to have his corner, a girl who would lovingly fill your pain medication subscriptions and change your diaper at the same time with no fear in her face and only love in her heart. Addiction to painkillers always looms in the viewers mind: how can someone sustain an injury like this and not be reliant on drugs (especially drugs that cause euphoria in high doses). Nathan has to fight much different battles than when he was deployed. He just wants to go back and fight.
     As Hell and Back Again continues, Nathan's situation becomes clearer. He always seemingly has an obsession with guns--cleaning them, loading them, pointing them at things. He always seems ready to aim and take another shot, whether it's towards a burglar in the night or a Taliban fighter in his dreams. Unfortunately, in his new life, there is nobody to shoot dead. There is only his wife, left to deal with his broken state, waiting for the day in which Nathan will overcome his lost love: war.

(Available on Netflix Instant Watch)

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Never Netflix This: Meek's Cutoff

     I was actually super excited for Meek's Cutoff. For one, I love modern westerns. Any film that deals with the trials and tribulations of the Old West or prairie life always catches my eye (and attention). I rank Unforgiven, Open Range, Appaloosa, The Proposition and 3:10 to Yuma among some of my favorites of the past 15 years. Meek's Cutoff, which is available to view through Netflix Instant Watch--though I wouldn't waste your time, unless your idea of a good time is watching paint (very) slowly dry--is a recent and low-budget look at a portion of the Oregon Trail journey starring indie-it-girl Michelle Williams.
     Meek's Cutoff is an incredibly realistic look at what this small group of travelers went through as they wandered across an unknown land with unknown danger. Too realistic. The film, with a very small amount of dialogue (not that it's a detriment), shows a band of settlers who are not quite sure if their leader, Stephen Meek, has any clue where he is going. What was supposed to be a two week journey soon turns into five, sort of like going to the DMV to get your licence renewed.
     The group moves across the terrain like old people fucking: slow. Wagons become stuck in the mud, wheels fall off, and threat of Indian attacks always looms largely in the groups' mind. But nothing exciting ever really happens, unless your idea of exciting involves watching people slowly die of dehydration because of dwindling water supply. The men make all of the important decisions, and the women slowly knit their way towards death as their husbands try to decide where to go to find water. Soon they capture a lone Indian. Instead of killing him with knitting needles, the group (the men) decide to keep him alive so he can lead them to the neighborhood swimming hole. Typical questions arise: Is Mr. Indian leading them into a trap? Does Meek have any clue where he is taking the band of survivors? Will this movie ever end so I can play Halo?
     Some people like to say (when a film is shitty), "Wow, look at the cinematography! It's so gosh-darn gorgeous!" And some of the scenery and film angles are quite beautiful. But--unfortunately--that can't help Meek's Cutoff from being an exercise in boredom. There's no payoff: it's just the real experience of some settlers who take the wrong path. Like most anyone's daily life, it's generally not worth getting excited about. Yeah, these unfortunate folks had a rough go of it, but while watching Meek's Cutoff, I felt like I was getting cutoff--at the bar.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Marvel's The Avengers, an Expected Summer Spectacle

     News broke today that The Avengers, Marvel's newest film that features all of the superhero fan favorites (at least in the Marvel universe) of the past few years, became the highest-grossing opening weekend film of all time--the first film in the history of theater-going to break the seemingly unattainable barrier of $200 million dollars during its first three days. Like The Hulk breaking his foes into little bits, it smashed box office expectations. It's no huge surprise: the marketing for it has flashed across every type of screen for over a year, reaching a fever pitch throughout the past few weeks. But in film, money doesn't necessarily mean quality. (Does anyone remember Paul Blart: Mall Cop?) Luckily, The Avengers will meet your expectations: it's an occasionally great, always-entertaining summer blockbuster that won't change anyone's mind about superhero films (one way or the other), and it will satiate any geek's hunger until Prometheus lands in June and The Dark Knight Rises flies into cinemas in July.
     By now, most anyone can name the main members of The Avengers. Their stories are separate until an end-the-world plot brings them together at breakneck speed. Tony Stark's Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is still a "billionaire, playboy, philanthropist" who dishes out humorous and sarcastic quips faster than he blazes across the sky. Captain America (Chris Evans) is still dealing with visions and the nostalgia of his past life--he's only at peace when he's serving his country with the utmost honor. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) had returned to his distant planet, but Earth is under his protection so he returns with Shakespearean fervor when the metaphorical shit hits the fan. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) has been laying low, seemingly a pro at anger management, never letting the green "other guy" enter into Smash Mode. The Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) is still performing expert martial arts maneuvers in her tight leather suit--don't ask me how the crotch doesn't rip out on that thing. Newcomer Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) rounds out the pack with some impressive archery skills that would make Katniss Everdeen moan with orgasmic ecstasy.
     These are superheroes with super powers, all with different skill sets that prove useful at convenient times. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the leader of SHIELD, an organization that seemingly stops Earth from being destroyed, brings these large personalities together for one reason: Thor's adopted brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), has come to our home planet to steal this thingamajig called the Tesseract, a never-ending source of energy that he wants to use to open a portal to other dimensions or universes (or does it matter?). It's safe to say that what enters through this portal won't be what a military soldier would call a "friendly". Ultimately, they look like monster reptiles that ride easy-to-shoot-down-and-destroy flying spacecrafts. So the Avengers come together to--what else--avenge Loki and his maniacal smile.
     Though the film has some damn impressive battles and gorgeous special effects, much of The Avengers run time is spent examining the tension-filled relationships between our beloved heroes. Their home base is a giant aircraft carrier that can sprout hovercraft wings and fly around and become invisible (don't ask). As one can imagine, personalities clash and insults are thrown and deflected like stray bullets off of Captain America's shield. These folks could learn the old lesson that there is no "I" in "Team". The film is funny and corny, but that's part of the fun: it's hard not to chuckle at Downey Jr.'s never-ending sarcasm, Thor's ancient terminology, and Captain America's unwillingness to participate in the more hurtful and personal banter. Eventually, an event happens that obviously brings The Avenger's close, and it sets up the long and great action-packed finale of the film. They finally learn the lesson that most children know: working together towards a goal is much more efficient. Luckily for the viewer, it's also fun to watch.
     The Avengers is directed by Joss Whedon, the creator of the television version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the visual presence in many nerd's nocturnal emissions. He does a great job with the balancing act of showcasing each character's personal journey, humor and power. The problem with the film is that it doesn't surprise: the basic frame of the story has been told in each of the individual Marvel films--the two Iron Man movies, Thor, and the worst of the bunch, Captain America. Introduce the hero. Introduce the villain. Ultimately, save the world. Now that Marvel has upped the ante and brought all of these characters together, will anyone care about the plight of Iron Man or Thor when their individual upcoming sequels are eventually released into theaters? That's a stupid question. Of course they will. Me: I'm looking forward to the next Avengers film, hoping to be surprised.     (B)

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Never Netflix This: In Time

A little introduction: throughout the past couple of years writing on this blog, I have noticed that it's quite rare when I write reviews on bad or mediocre movies. But it does make sense. Why would I choose to waste money on a movie ticket or waste valuable Netflix-queue space watching something that I don't really care about? After all, I'm not getting paid to do this. But every now and again, films come along that fall short of expectation. From now on, I will incorporate these films into a new blog series: "Never Netflix This:", an incredibly clever play on my world-famous "Netflix This:". Just a paragraph or two, warning you of the epic failures or barely misses of some of the skidmarks on the face of cinema. Let's start with...

     In Time. I should have known, right? It stars Justin Timberlake. But Justin Timberlake was actually good in The Social Network. Not the kind of good that is serviceable or barely noticable, but the kind of good that actually impressed me. I guess director David Fincher can make anyone look talented. And it's not that J.T. is bad in In Time. He's fine: it's the film that suffers from a lackluster script (and--really--story altogether). It had plenty of potential to be a great modern sci-fi film. You know the overused saying, "Time is money"? Well, time literally is money in In Time. By the year 2161, everyone in humanity stops aging once they hit 25 years old. To live past that age, you have to earn time just as one earns money: working for it, borrowing it, or stealing it. Every human's time remaining is shown on their arm, ticking down to their death.
     Essentially, the wealthy and ultra-rich have no problem staying 25 years old forever: they've got all of the "time" in the world. The poor live in the ghettos, barely getting to their next paycheck before their time runs out. When Timberlake's character, who usually only has one day's worth of time ticking away at his wrist, meets a mysterious stranger at a bar who transfers all of his time to J.T. while he is sleeping (116 years worth of time), J.T. has to decide what to do with more-than-a-lifetime's worth of years. The premise is great, and is ripe with opportunity for awesome sci-fi chase scenes and exciting action set pieces. Unfortunately, that's not what the viewer gets. We get the script that over-explains and simplifies every detail for the viewer and shies away from innovative action intrigue. And that's surprising, considering the director and writer is Andrew Niccol who directed Gattaca, wrote the wonderful The Truman Show, and directed and wrote the entertaining Lord of War. Unfortunately, he fires a blank here: In Time is a film with a promising plot but a disappointing execution.