Tag Archives: War

“DUNKIRK” Review (✫✫)

SOURCE: Warner Bros.

One week, one day, one hour.

It seems sacrilegious to criticize the masterful Christopher Nolan on film. Still, nearly no one else is going to say this, so I will: Dunkirk sucks. In an age where there is no shortage of compelling war dramas, Dunkirk is confusing, lapsed, and misplaced in its direction. If that was painful for you to read, imagine how painful it was for me to type.

Retelling the events of the Dunkirk evacuation during World War II in 1940, Dunkirk follows British soldiers from three different battlegrounds: the land, the sea, and the sky. Exhausted after weeks of fighting in Dunkirk, British and French troops are cut off and surrounded by the German army, shooting down their ships and any support that can come through to rescue them. By every account, the Allies are in a dire situation. It’s not until British citizens, not soldiers, board their own sea boats and venture out themselves to rescue their soldiers. In a hastily collaborated effort to save their families and friends at war, about 80 sailor boats saved the lives of over 300,000 soldiers during the battle of Dunkirk. That is an incredible story, one that I’m sure the British retell with pride and patriotism.

The film stars Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles, James D’Arcy, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, and Tom Hardy. I identify the cast by their real names instead of their characters because that’s all you’re going to recognize them by. While strong characters are present in most of Nolan’s wider filmography, Dunkirk’s heroes are mostly forgettable on and off the battlefield. That’s because they meander from crisis to crisis, reacting as they go, only rarely having time to slow down for us to care about them or invest in their plights. If you’re going into Dunkirk expecting a lot of buildup to the character’s backstory, chances are you’re going to be disappointed. They’re not as fleshed out as Nolan’s other cinematic heroes are.

That being said, I understand why this is the case in the context of this film. It’s because Nolan wasn’t trying to write compelling characters for Dunkirk. He was trying to write compelling scenarios, and the character’s purposes were more or less meant as surrogates for us to project ourselves onto in order to be more immersed in the chaos on-screen. It’s been done before in film, and it’s been done well. Eraserhead had a mostly silent protagonist so we could more easily digest the confusion and horror the character was experiencing, while Boyhood had a mostly flat lead just so we could more accessibly relive our own childhood memories and nostalgia.

Nolan attempted to use surrogate characters for the same purposes in Dunkirk, and for the most part, he succeeded. That’s because the details he takes away from the people, he invests into the battlefield, and man are the battle scenes visceral. I’ve heard millions of gunshots from hundreds of other films during my career, yet the first time I heard that loud, ear-piercing BANG in the theater from this movie, I immediately forgot everything else I experienced and was immersed in the moment of tension and paranoia during wartime. There’s a lot of scenes like that in Dunkirk, where the action and sound mixing is so sudden and unexpected that it immediately places you in the moment. My favorite scenes probably happened closer to the beginning, where soldiers were in rows quietly waiting to board a life vessel, only to hear a high-pitched hum slowly crescendo into an ear-piercing screech. The soldiers lifted their heads, their eyes widened in panic, and then they ducked down, bracing for impact. I don’t have to tell you what happens next.

The action, the sound, and the production value are all truly the most immersive elements in Dunkirk, and they all need to be praised for their usage in this film. If Nolan had stuck strictly to those elements and put the soldiers through disaster after disaster in a linear path, then he would have a solid, powerful film on his hands.

The problems come in with Nolan’s writing, more specifically with how he chooses to sequence the film’s events. In the film, the three perspectives Dunkirk focuses on all take place in different scopes of time, with the land being one week, the sea being one day, and the air being one hour. If the film followed their stories chronologically, then you would follow these perspectives in descending order from land to sea to sky.

The issue is Nolan starts and ends these narratives at the same time, with each of their stories being intertwined against each other just so they get equal screen time. This makes the film so convoluted, because even though each of the stories takes place at different times, they’re edited to look like they’re all happening at once. Because of this, similar events will repeat twice, the passage of time will go from night to day and then back to night, and then other times essential transitions are cut out altogether. The editing is so jarring and disjointed that it immediately removes us from the picture, forcing us to put our thinking caps on and piece events together like a puzzle instead of simply letting the experience wash over us.

I know, I know, confusing narratives are Nolan’s staple. Except that with his other films, the complexity leads to a point and purpose for their larger narrative. The dreams layered on top of each other in Inception illustrated the scope and stakes of what the characters were really dealing with. The dueling narratives in The Prestige put us in the middle of this warring rivalry between two conniving magicians. And the reverse narrative in Memento put us in Leonard’s shoes to show us the mental instability he dealt with everyday.

Complex narratives led to a larger payoff with Nolan’s other films. With Dunkirk, however, there is no payoff to the nonlinear storytelling. It’s just there to unnecessarily frustrate us and distract us from the larger spectacle going on.

The critics have more or less made up their minds on this one, however, with many calling Dunkirk one of the greatest war films ever made, with some even saying it’s Christopher Nolan’s best film. I expect moviegoing audiences to be more divided on the topic. Dunkirk sports amazing set pieces and action sequences, and it sure knows how to blow stuff up in spectacular PG-13 fashion. But the investment is gone. The care isn’t present. And no matter how much I want to like this movie, I can’t help but get pulled out of the experience every time another jarring cut removes me from the scene. Better war films, such as Saving Private Ryan or Hacksaw Ridge, understand investment and how to involve its audiences in the tragedies of war. Those films are victories for WWII cinema. Dunkirk is a suicide bomber.

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“13 HOURS: THE SECRET SOLDIERS OF BENGHAZI” Review (✫✫✫1/2)

Hell in half a day.

Here are the facts. On Sept. 11, 2012, the same day as another infamous tragedy, a U.S. compound in Benghazi was attacked. Four Americans were murdered that day, one of them being ambassador Chris Stevens. The rest of the on-site personnel fought for their lives for over 13 nightmarish hours against an enemy as cruel as they were relentless. This much is indisputable.

In the aftermath of the Benghazi attacks, there were accusers from all sides looking for someone to blame. The Republicans blamed the Democrats for being ignorant to the threat in the middle east. The Democrats wrote off the Republican’s criticisms as embellishing the truth. In their accusations against the other party, both forgot about the party that mattered the most: the American survivors. They didn’t care about left-wing or right-wing democracy. They cared about one more gasp of breath, the next plane that was flying out, how soon they could see their families again, maybe even hearing their voices one last time. You can talk politics about the situation all you want, but you cannot deny the 13 hours when someone’s family members were stuck in that hellhole.

I myself do not care about two party politics. They distract from the larger issues at hand, such as the growing anti-American sentiment in the middle east or getting our own citizens back home to us. Michael Bay apparently shares my emotions as he brings us 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, an exhilarating and heart-racing look at the soldiers fighting on the front lines, not the politicians making speeches from behind them.

In this adaptation of the real-life tragedy, 13 Hours follows the Global Response Staff (GRS), a team of ex-military operatives assigned to protect a U.S. compound based in Libya. Keep in mind, this is not an official embassy. Technically speaking, the U.S. isn’t even supposed to be in Libya. But legalities haven’t stopped the U.S. from operating outside the law before, and it’s not very likely to start now.

There are six men assigned to the GRS task force. One of them is Jack Silva (John Krasinski), a father of three with another one on the way. The rest of the team members aren’t so different from Jack. In one pivotal scene before the aforementioned events take place, all of the soldiers are on phones and videochats, talking to their wives, sons, and daughters back home, all whom are eagerly waiting to see each of them again. In this very important moment, we see these soldiers not as killers, but as human beings.

And of course, you already know what happens from there.

The best thing about this movie by far is the action. That’s so unusual for me to say, because most of the time, the action is the most overused part of any movie. Here though, the firefights are so exemplary, chaotic and explosive all at once, throwing our heroes through nearly impossible stakes that keep building as the movie goes on. The one thing Michael Bay is excellent at directing is action, and the firefights get so intense and on-edge that you question if our heroes can make it out multiple times.

But that’s not all Michael Bay does well here. Surprisingly, he exercises excellent restraint in slower-paced moments as well. In one early scene, Jack and fellow team member Tyrone Woods (James Dale) are at a standstill with a Libyan militia. I think I counted eight men training their guns against the two of them in their car. Woods tells them that a drone is flying over, and if anything happens to them, it’ll launch an airstrike against him and his men. After a narrow escape, Jack asks if they really had a drone on this assignment. Woods scoffs. “What do you think?”

I didn’t notice any obvious political motives from the film. I don’t care about them if they are in there. As a film critic, I’m not looking for those. What I am looking for is emotion, pacing, timing, things that help build the mood of the scene and help further implicate the ideas the movie is expressing. The best movies combine entertainment with relevance, and 13 Hours does that stunningly well. Think of a movie blending the paranoia of Zero Dark Thirty with the violence and grit from Black Hawk Down, and you get 13 Hours.

I’ve been very critical of Michael Bay in the past, and I think rightfully so. His Transformers movies have long plagued Hollywood with its stupid writing and absent-minded, overblown action sequences, while Pain and Gain was as offensive to its real-life subjects as it was to its movie theater attendants. With 13 Hours, however, Michael Bay finds himself in the zone, expressing his own style while at the same time spreading awareness on real-life issues. Thank God for those six men that found themselves fighting for their lives in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012. Without them, those 13 hours could have gone a lot worse.

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“IRON MAN” Review (✫✫✫✫)

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Reinventing the modern-day Superman.

Be honest with me, readers: who was expecting Iron Man to be good? I know I certainly wasn’t. I looked at the film’s poster and consecutively thought three things. 1) Iron Man… isn’t that the robot guy that helps Spider-Man every once in a while? 2) Wait, Robert Downey Jr. is starring? He’s still acting? 2) Directed by Jon Favreau… the actor? Wasn’t he in Daredevil? And he also directed Elf and Zathura… is this a kids movie?

Luckily, I was proven wrong on every single front and then some. Iron Man is an astonishing, spectacular movie, a superhero epic that understands and personifies every aspect of the character alongside the visual effects. It understands his origin story, his motivation, his relationship with other characters. Himself as he experiences guilt, regret, and ultimately redemption for his past sins. This is a movie that can not only stand toe-to-toe with some of the greatest action films of the past decade: in many ways, it exceeds the genre itself to create something much more unique and compelling.

Billionaire and CEO of Stark Industries Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) has it all. Girls. Money. Martinis. All because he is a brilliant scientist and weapons manufacturer that constantly outsources to the U.S. military and anyone willing to pay his high-dollar price. But when Tony is captured by a terrorist organization known as “The Ten Rings” while on a business trip in Afghanistan, he realizes what his weapons are truly being used for: disaster, destruction, and death. Now, the Ten Rings want him to make his most destructive weapon yet for their nefarious purposes. Struck hard by this horrible turn of events, Tony creates a suit of armor capable of flight, strength, and laser-firing technology, and vows to fight the Ten Rings and anyone else who dares to use his weapons for destruction again.

He is no longer just Tony Stark. He has become Iron Man.

For that matter, so has Robert Downey Jr.

I need to talk about Downey Jr. before talking about anything else. Downey Jr. is the direct influence behind this film’s success: the definitive superhero performance that hasn’t been this fulfilled since Christopher Reeve put on the cape as Superman. Downey Jr. doesn’t just play Iron Man: he also plays Tony Stark, and that’s very important to understand. If he was just playing Iron Man, all he would need to do is say a few lines in between action sequences and let the visual effects do the rest of the acting for him. That doesn’t happen in this movie. Downey Jr. and director Jon Favreau smartly observe that the true appeal of the film does not come from its action and violence, but from its character, who is complex and characteristic enough to maintain interest all by himself without needing extra help from the visual effects.

Take the film’s anti-war message as a testament to its emotional weight. In the beginning, Stark is an egotistical, sarcastic, smirking, and wickedly intelligent businessman who could be considered the Donald Trump of modern warfare. He thinks he’s building all of these weapons to protect people, and then his world is flipped completely on his head as he sees all of the damage being done in Middle Eastern countries through his design. There was one great action sequence in the movie where Tony, suited up as Iron Man, fights members of the Ten Rings army in Afghanistan. These soldier’s are tearing through innocent civilian’s homes, shooting blind fire into crowds, and taking families hostage. One child is about to witness his papa’s murder before Tony flies in at the last second to save him. On the surface, this is an exciting and unique action scene, and a rare instance where the world of the superhero crosses over into our world of reality. Can you name another movie where a superhero is fighting terrorists in the Middle East? I wonder. Since the movie carries a very clear anti-war angle to it, could this scene possibly be considered commentary on our involvement in the war in Afghanistan?

Maybe I’m reading too much into it. Maybe I’m not. But the point is that the movie doesn’t see Iron Man as a superhero. It sees him as a person, ridden with guilt and trying to do good deeds to serve as penance for his ignorance. This deepness rivals the complexion of the recently released The Dark Knight, another superhero movie that looks at its hero through a real-world perspective instead of the fantastical, wild panels of a comic book.

And Downey Jr.’s delivery is spot-on. His quick-witted remarks and condescending quips make him every bit an entertaining character as it does an introspective one. Downey Jr. personifies and embodies the role so well that it seems like he’s no longer acting, but simply being. Downey Jr. is a complete natural as both Tony Stark and Iron Man in the film. Even if this weren’t a superhero movie, I think I would still be interested in the movie due to his emotional gravitas and his comedic sense of timing. He’s that great in the role, to the point where we have just as much fun watching Tony Stark as we do Iron Man.

And the action. Oh my word, the action. Normally I don’t like writing about action sequences, because writing about action is boring. You like to experience the action: not hear someone else talk about it. But here, I feel compelled to talk about it. Because again, we understand the character. We know where he’s coming from, and we relate to him. Because of this, a lot of the film’s action sequences carry a lot more weight to them, because we understand these people and why they’re fighting. So whenever we see Tony building a robust Iron Man armor to escape from an army camp, or see him suit up and experience excitement as he’s flying for the first time, or when we sense his determination as tensions rises both in the states and in the middle east, we know where Tony is at and why he is there. This is not mindless action, but action with a purpose: the best kind you can have in any movie.

I knock off one point, and one point alone for the film’s one weakness: Tony’s last line in the movie. No, I won’t spoil what he says, but I will say if I was a high-flying, armor-weilding superhero like Tony, I would not say what he said in a million, million, million years. The movie is flawless otherwise. I don’t know what I was expecting out of a B-grade superhero, but I ended up getting an A-grade product. Iron Man is to today as Superman was to 1980: it has defined the superhero genre of film, showing us what it can do and demonstrating what it can be. More films should aspire to be as impactful as Iron Man is.

Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly referred to Afghanistan as Iraq. 

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“’71” Review (✫✫✫)

A boy trapped in a soldier’s life. 

We’re always looking for someone to blame in war. Most of the time, the blame is directed at the soldier. Rarely do we blame the military, or the government, or those we are fighting, and even more rarely do we blame the people living stateside, in the warmth and comfort of their blanket and home and far away from the battlefield. No, if we are angered at travesties such as the Vietnam or the Afghan war, we don’t point at the general who gave the order to shoot. We point at the soldier who was following orders.

In ’71, the soldier is treated not as a cold-hearted, emotionless machine, but as a young man, a flesh-and-blood being full of heart and consciousness, but who is equally confused, hurt, alone, and afraid of the people he’s trying to protect. The controversy around another war film called American Sniper released a few months ago argued if we glorify war and the military too much. Those same people need to watch ’71 and realize there is nothing to glorify about it.

Taking place during the height of civil unrest in the Troubles, ’71 follows a young British army recruit named Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell), who gets deployed into Belfast during his first few weeks of training. Him and his squad is warned of the great dangers in entering the territory. Protestant and Catholic Irishmen are living side-by-side at each other’s throats, each with starkly different ideas of what is better for them. The protestants believe that the United Kingdom is their home and it is their best interests to remain with them. The catholics believe Ireland can be it’s own land and wants to secede from Europe. Hook and his fellow soldiers are just looking to keep the peace.

On the day of deployment, Hook watches as both sides come to a boil. The KGB is entering houses, threatening and beating people with their billy clubs, while an angry crowd of catholics gather outside in retaliation against the military. One of the rioting crowd members throws a rock and knocks a soldier out cold. A kid no older than ten grabs the soldier’s rifle and runs. Hook and another soldier chase after him when the crowd assaults them and beats viciously. Hook watches as the soldier is shot in the face. Hook only narrowly escapes with his life intact.

Trapped in Belfast with no way to find his comrades, Hook must fight through the night to survive against the city that’s hunting him.

Functioning more as a survivalist-thriller than as a pure-blooded war movie, ’71 strikes the viewer with sharp imagery and intelligence alike, filling them with a deepening sense of dread as we watch this young man crumble into desperation as he tries to escape from the people who are seeking to kill him. One of the things I love so much about this movie is how expertly it orchestrates itself and its emotions. French director Yann Demange, who before this directed British television shows such as “Dead Set” and “Top Boy”, debuts here as a talented filmmaker, crafting an exciting thriller that efficiently balances action with context.

I am reminded of another film similar in direction and subject, and that is Ben Affleck’s 2012 film Argo. In both films, the main character evades their pursuer through the chaos of a collapsing political climate. The camera captures the essence of both perspectives, with the pursuer desperately chasing their target while the pursued is equally as desperate trying to get away. And through both highly exciting and pulse-pounding features, both directors have deeper things to say about those societies and what impact they’re leaving on the people around them.

To me, ’71 is the British version of Argo, with one big difference: coherency. In Argo, everything is crystal-clear and straightforward. We know who the characters are, why they are there, what they are doing, who is after them, and how and why they plan to get away. In ’71, all of that is focused in towards one character only, and that is Gary Hook. We know everything we can know about a novice soldier, we just don’t know the same of everyone else around him.

For instance, the leaders of both factions, the catholics and the British Military Reaction force, are both skinny gingers with mustaches as thick as their hair. How can you tell who is who under the dim view of the street light? A young boy helps Hook towards a bar after his initial attack, but he’s on the same side as the people who are hunting him. Why is he helping Hook when he so clearly has so much disregard for British soldiers? In another scene, a Protestant seeks to help Hook when minutes earlier he had the cold, direct eyes of a killer with purpose. What inspired him to switch sides so easily? And then, near the end of the movie, there is a twist that didn’t make much sense to me at all.

Still though, the movie is there, and Demange handles the senses of unease and desperation well with the film, especially when trusting Jack O’Connell to portray all of these emotions at once. O’Connell is really having a strong career packing in for himself. In the past year, for instance, he created a very compelling presence in the prison-drama Starred Up and in the Angelina Jolie-directed biopic Unbroken. He makes a very strong case for choosing acting as a career in all of these films, and in ’71 he clearly shows that he can pull off the role of a young, desperate, and inexperienced soldier who just wants to go home. Demange was wise to cast him in this role and trust him with the emotional complexity of the character: O’Connell was the best part of the film.

I’ll admit, I didn’t understand everything I probably needed to understand in the movie, perhaps the biggest one being more aware of what the Troubles were in the 1970’s. Take that out of it. Take all of the political facets out of the movie, and what do you have? You have a raw, emotionally-charged war thriller that challenges the viewer to see it not from their perspective, but from the soldier’s perspective. Everyone hurts during the times of war. ’71 makes me wonder who war hurts the most.

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“AMERICAN SNIPER” Review (✫✫✫1/2)

And hero, husband, and father.

Chris Kyle was an American sniper. Serving four tours in Iraq, with 160 confirmed kills and approximately 95 more unconfirmed, Kyle earned the title of being called the most lethal sniper in American history. More than being a soldier, though, he’s a father, a husband, and a friend. He was killed in 2013 at age 38. He was shot by a soldier suffering from PTSD that he was trying to help.

We know all these details going into Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper. We already know how it ends, we just don’t know everything leading up to it. Eastwood understands this, and uses it to his advantage as his film not only gives an honorable tribute to one of America’s most committed soldiers, but also foreshadows to a sad fate that we already know is coming. Gee, thanks a lot Clint. I didn’t even bring my tissues.

The film opens on the same startling scene that the book does: with Kyle looking down the scope of his sniper rifle at an Iraqi mother and her child, both of whom were aiming to suicide bomb a battalion of soldiers on the street. Eastwood sets up the tension of the scene perfectly here, with Kyle’s sweaty, darting eyes surveying the scene and desperately trying to see any way out of the tormenting choice he has to make. He soon dreadfully realizes there is no way out: it’s either the mother and her child, or the 15 soldiers and the suffering of their families back at home.

Think about being given that situation, about how devastating the experience must be and how haunting it must be to the person who has to make it. Now imagine having to make that same choice day, after day, after day, with your numbers climbing up until you’ve reached over 250 kills.

That’s the life of a soldier that Kyle has lived.

Kyle is portrayed in the film by Bradley Cooper, and both Cooper and Eastwood do a wonderful job representing Kyle here. They show that before he was a soldier, he was a citizen, an American with strong ideals and opinions and unafraid to show them or fight for them. Before he was shipped out and went on tour, they showed how normal Kyle was.

They showed that before he was a soldier, he was a man.

After having to make those difficult decisions day after day, how do you think that affects a man? In interviews, the real-life Kyle has said that he would not take back a single shot because every one that he took was to defend his brothers in uniform. I believe him when he says that, but I don’t believe that it didn’t leave an impact on him. Some soldiers suffer PTSD from killing just one man. How do you think more than 200 may have impacted Kyle?

Both Eastwood and Cooper do a great job humanizing Kyle here, and show that he’s more than the record kills he’s garnered. They show that Kyle is a man of coarse humor and blunt honesty, a man with a thick Texan accent and ideals, a man who tries to show that he’s strong and dependable, but who deep down is hurting and alone. The film is intimate in the ways that it shows Kyle, both in the chaos of battle and in the quietness of being home.

Cooper especially does a skillful job in portraying the iconic war hero. He expresses trauma and subtlety with the character so masterfully that the only differences I can tell between him and Kyle are minor facial features.

This movie has stirred controversy as of late for being “pro-war,” and for glorifying a man who was essentially labeled a murderer. I’m convinced these same people haven’t seen the same movie I saw, because the movie I watched unabashedly looks at the miseries of war and how the deaths Kyle could and couldn’t prevent affected him. The movie does suffer some slight pacing issues (not to mention the infamous “fake baby” seen in one of the shots), but when Eastwood resurrects a war hero to show the man behind the legacy, how can you look at this movie’s scope and not feel something for all of the physical and moral sacrifices Kyle had to give for his home? When the trumpet plays proudly over the solemnity in the end credits, you know that Eastwood represented a warrior in heart and a human in spirit.

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For The Man Who Died So I Could Write This.

Chris Kyle was not a murderer. He was a hero.

The military sniper’s story came under fire last week after Clint Eastwood’s biographical war drama American Sniper was released in theaters. Critics have called it many things, many of which I am not fond of. Some have called it pro-war. Others have called it “bigoted.” Filmmakers Michael Moore and Seth Rogan also fired shots at the film, with Rogan comparing the film to the Nazi propaganda seen in the third act of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds.

Coming from the guy who almost blew America up with his controversial film The Interview, which fantasized about killing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, I can’t say I care much for his opinion.

Since the conversation sparked intense debate over the nation, Moore and Rogan has since redacted their statements, apologizing and claiming they were taken out of context. Their supporters, however, have not silenced themselves, and continue to persist saying that the film is a dishonest piece of propaganda that glorifies a murderer that shot and killed not only Iraqi men, but also women and children during the Iraq war.

It’s important to note, both sides have merit to their opinions. Both sides have their perspectives, and both have evidence to back up their claims.

The critics have claimed that Kyle was not as remorseful in real-life as he was depicted in the movie. That he felt no shame in killing Iraqi men, women and children, and would probably kill more if he needed to. This is supported by the fact that he used very blunt descriptions and vocabulary in his book, with one sentence reading “I hate the damn savages.”

He’s been confirmed as the most lethal sniper in American history with an estimated 255 kills, 160 of them being confirmed by the Pentagon. His first few pages in the book opens on him shooting a child and his mother. There is no fighting the horrible things he’s done in Iraq: Kyle has described the events himself in text.

At the same time though, the supporters of Kyle’s story have equal leverage on their perspectives. He felt no remorse with his kills because he was always shooting in defense of his brothers in uniform. The woman and her child that he shot were both going to blow up a convoy with a hidden grenade, which blew up shortly after they dropped it. The many seemingly-innocent Iraqi’s after that were also visibly going to initiate violence against the military, whether they were picking up a bomb, or aiming an RPG.

If you’re focused on how many kills he’s made, think also about how many lives he’s saved. He shot an estimated 255 enemy kills in Iraq. If each one was going to attack a group of military soldiers, how many fathers do you think were able to go home because of him?

We have a much bigger issue at hand here than just who is right. Our culture is so quick to attack and criticize our military, when they’re the ones fighting so that we can have the right to attack and criticize. In the midst of moral ambiguity and political correctness, men and women are on the other side of the world fighting and dying for our rights. Their last concern is being politically correct. Freedom isn’t free.

So if you want to criticize Kyle or the book and movie, American Sniper, be my guest. But understand that Kyle shot from the barrel and died from the barrel so you could have that right.

– David Dunn

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“DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES” Review (✫✫✫1/2)

The predator and the prey are one and the same.

It all started with the eyes.

Looking deeply into them, we see the angry, vicious, relentless energy behind them, as hungry as an animal and as wild as a beast. A somewhat appropriate description, because these are the eyes of the ape Caesar (Andy Serkis), the intelligent primate we’ve come to know from Rise of the Planet of the Apes. As we continue looking at his eyes, his steady, violent stare, we see his army of followers climbing on branches behind him.

He drops his hand, motioning them to attack.

After we see this powerful, expressive opening sequence, we are taken through this epic journey that is Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a compelling and exciting survivalist-drama that looks at the human-primate condition from two different perspectives, as if they are two sides to one coin. The leader of the apes is Caesar, who now has his own family in his wife Cornelia (Judy Greer) and his son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston). The leader of a band of human survivors is Malcolm (Jason Clarke), who also has his own family in Ellie (Keri Russel) and his teenage son Alex (Kodi Smit-McPhee).

Both of these band’s stories take place years after the virus attack that destroyed the most of humanity years ago, which we got a glimpse at the end of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Both sides have lost loved ones in the wake of the disaster. Both sides do not trust the other. Yet, as Caesar and Malcolm share close encounters with each other, they slowly begin to understand and see that their races are not so different from each other. As the human-primate war rages on, Caesar and Malcolm must combine their efforts to protect each of their families, and seek out peace between their established societies.

Remembering fondly of how I enjoyed seeing the ape empire’s beginnings and relishing in the context of human-animal abuse in Rise, I went into this movie knowing it had a strong foundation to build it’s story on, hoping that they wouldn’t fail. Not only did director Matt Reeves not fail in telling his story of Dawn; he expanded further upon the Planet of the Apes story in detail, action and commentary than I estimated him to. His film ended up being better than Rupert Wyatt’s film in spades.

Firstly, let’s talk about the similarities between each film. Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, the writing/producing team behind Rise, returns yet again to contribute to Dawn’s story and to the production of this film. In many ways, I argue that both are better in this film than they were in the last one.. The plot of the first movie was an involving, interesting and emotionally compelling sci-fi thriller, a story that showed the worst of humanity and their cruel mistreatment of animals. Here, this movie has a more of a political facet in its structure, a drama that shows each race as a mirror of the other. It shows a civil anarchy blooming in the heart of each race.

The characters are compelling and have genuine interactions with each other, from Caesar confronting Malcolm on staying away from their home, to intimate scenes when Alex interacts with Caesar’s new baby boy. What I liked so much, however, is director Matt Reeves details not only to these emotions, but the visual display of the story in itself.

Being no stranger to visual effects or emotions with a filmography including Cloverfield and Let Me In, Reeves is skillful in making an exciting action movie while at the same time making a involving apocalyptic thriller. It surprising with this film that the basis of the film wasn’t grounded in action or ridiculous CGI stunts, but rather, in small, intimate moments of conversation and ape-sign-language that characters share with each other. It’s nice to see a big-budget blockbuster movie reaching for more intimate, personal situations, rather than the billion-dollar-sized explosions of garbage you’d see from the Transformers movies.

I do have a criticism in the movie in that the human characters were mostly boring. I have a rule of thumb that if I can’t remember a character’s name by the end of the movie, then that character is mostly forgettable. By the end of the film, I only remembered Malcolm’s name. I called Keri Russel’s character “Keri Russel” in the film while I labeled Smit-McPhee as a Jay Baruchel rip-off. I even looked at Gary Oldman’s character in the film and smirked in my head, “Well, hello there, Commissioner Gordon! Did you end up surviving the nuclear fallout in The Dark Knight Rises?”

What I realize though is that the humans aren’t supposed to be the main anchor of the film. The apes are center focus here, and this is really their story, figuring out their emotions, finding their identities, and realizing their faults as they look at human beings and see themselves deep within.

I think I realized this was a masterful film when it approached its final minutes, when we once again returned to the eyes of Caesar that we saw at the beginning of the movie. Only this time, they weren’t as aggressive as they were before. These were not the eyes of the predator, the hunter eagerly waiting to hunt his prey. No, these eyes were solemn and sad, as if they were looking at a bleak, grim future, one they were powerless to stop.

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“HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON” Review (✫✫✫✫)

Step one: Don’t get eaten by a nightfury.

How To Train Your Dragon is a pure joy, a complete and captivating wonder that reaches the inner child in you, touches it, and fills you with such inexplicable excitement and adventure that you almost feel like you can do anything. I was initially worried about this movie going in to it: how many other movies have attempted the human-pet budding romance E.T. did so wonderfully all those magical years ago, and failed? Well, there’s nothing to fear here, fellow reader. In their long line of successes, failures and mismatches, How To Train Your Dragon easily ranks among DreamWorks’ best work.

We open up on a grand battle on the land of Berk, an island where the vikings are as stubborn and hard-headed as the metal helmets they wear on their heads. But this battle isn’t against other vikings, mind you: it’s against dragons, giant, dangerous beasts that tear through the sky and spit fire like its flu season for them. For the vikings, killing a dragon is like the starting point for becoming a man. It’s their form of puberty I suppose, next to the endless gorges of food and testosterone that they throw and shout about at each other.

One Berk citizen, however, is a little more hopeless than other vikings: Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), a smart, inventive but helplessly clumsy little fellow that will reach for a pencil when he’s supposed to reach for an axe. Fate turned an eye to him when in the midst of the battle, he captured a “nightfury”, a sleek black dragon whose fast speed and blue fire makes him the most deadly dragon out in the field of battle. However, against his better judgement, Hiccup decides not to kill the nightfury after discovering that he was injured during the battle. Now, while slowly helping him back to health and back to being able to fly, Hiccup discovers the truth about the dragon race, and how similar he is to them and their personalities.

Taking a look at the past animated movies DreamWorks has helped produce, you realize how much of a mixed bag they put out there to their audience. Look at the best they’ve had to offer, such as Shrek and Kung Fu Panda. Now look at the worst they’ve had to offer, such as Shark Tale and Shrek The Third. And don’t even get me started on Bee Movie. Looking at their filmoraphy, and looking at how much they’ve done wrong mixed with their right, I was expecting a very artificial, forgettable experience.

Boy, was I wrong, and boy was I glad to be wrong. The very first detail you notice in How To Train Your Dragon is it’s animation, how crisp and refined it is in detail, and how authentic it makes everything look. In the opening sequence, for instance, we shift through the dark clouds and sea as we approach the land of Berk, and it was so atmospheric that I felt like I myself was flying over the ocean surface when I first saw it. Later in the film, you look at vikings talking to each other in the dining hall, and the rock floors and the wood detailing look so real that you can almost reach out and touch it.

But I know what you’re really after. You’re not after what the waves, clouds and wood looks like. Nuh uh. You’re interested in how the dragons look, how exhilarating the fight scenes are and how exciting it is when you see a dragon spread his wings for the first time.

Let me assure you, fellow reader: the action could not be any more exciting. The dragons are all colorful, lifelike and filled with variety, their wings spread out in glorious, anthropomorphic detail. When they fly, they soar at supersonic speeds, dodging mountains, flipping through the air, and skydiving towards valleys like they are swimming in an endless sea of clouds and sky.

I especially liked the chemistry Hiccup shares with the nighfury, who he later names Toothless in the movie. Did I really just say that? That I liked the chemistry between two fictional, fake, animated characters? Yes I did, because these characters are neither fake nor artificial: they’re genuine, sharing real, heartfelt emotions with each other in ways almost no other animated film captures in movies. When Hiccup touches Toothless’ snout for the first time, you feel conflicted emotions between each other as they struggle to trust one another. When Toothless saves Hiccup from certain death from the dangers of the skies, you feel their relationship growing as they form a closer bond with each other. But when an all-out war spawns in between the vikings and the dragons, it’s Hiccup and Toothless that remain strong through it all, their friendship so compelling that it almost feels like connecting with a long-lost brother, not too disimilar to how Boo and Sully interact in Monsters Inc. 

My only regret with this movie is that it won’t be the best animated film of the year. With Toy Story 3 releasing just around the corner, and considering Pixar’s track record, it’s doubtful to see How To Train Your Dragon trump years of animated fandom and cherishment, especially when we’ve had years to grow with these characters. Shame, because this movie has great, fluid animation, an involving story, and memorable characters just like Toy Story does. If Toy Story 3 wasn’t coming out in June, I am positive that How To Train Your Dragon would win the best animated feature award at the Oscars.

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“PAN’S LABYRINTH” Review (✫✫✫✫)

The perfect blend of fantasy and reality. 

Now here’s one you’re not going to be expecting.  Here is a spanish-language fantasy film that blends elements of reality and war drama with that of horror and psychological thrillers.  It’s rated R with a healthy amount of blood, violence, and language, it has a child as its lead character, and it is a fantasy film with no cuddly creatures and no misplaced sense of optimism.  It’s also in spanish, one of my most frustrating languages.  And it is also probably one of the best films of its kind.  Maybe the only one of its kind.

Written and directed by spanish filmmaker Guillmo Del Toro, Pan’s Labyrinth is a post-Spanish civil war story about a young girl named Ofelia (brilliantly portrayed by Ivana Bacquero), who is fascinated and enticed by the many stories and fables she finds in her books and novellas.  Her mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil) is pregnant with her unborn brother, and they have been ordered to move to an outpost located on the outskirts of Mexico so the boy can be born next to his father: Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), a cruel and heartless product of war that knows nothing of decency, morality, kindness, or human life.  This is a man who would kill a father and his son thinking that they lied about being hunters, and a second later pulls out their quarry in the bottom of their knapsack.

This is the situation Ofelia is trapped in: the cruelty and strictness of Captain Vidal, and the negligence and weakness of her pregnant mother.  In the stories that she reads, however, Ofelia finds escape: she soon discovers a cave hidden deep within the gardens of the outpost, unnoticed to the human eye.  It is here deep within the cave where she finds odd inscriptions, a plethora of fairies, and even an anonymous Faun (Portrayd by Doug Jones, voiced by Pablo Adan), who informs her of her true destiny: that she is the lost princess Moanna of their sacred kingdom, and she must complete three specific assignments tasked by the Faun in order to become a princess once again.

This is the kind of story Pan’s Labyrinth is: the kind that deftly blends elements of wondrous fantasy with that of tragic reality.  This is rare treasure for foreign-language cinema: a film that while it is visually expressive, it is also a deep and personal commentary on the tragedies of war and its effects on a torn country.  Del Toro has elaborated on such subjects before: his 2001 film The Devils Backbone also took place during the Spanish Civil war, and it also featured a child in great distress.  Here though, I feel that he has a better handling of his premise, and if it is not better, it is at least more creative and dynamic in approach.

The visuals reach out in stellar, gritty, and striking details, the fairies light and whimsical, the faun towering, ancient, and brutish.  There are so many visually stunning scenes in this movie, at times it is overwhelming.  Del Toro, with the help of his cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, do something rare here: they paint a world here as fascinating as it is dangerous, a mesmerizing and gripping world that hypnotizes you with its appeal and its imagination.  One might say Pan’s Labyrinth is an adult version of Alice In Wonderland: I disagree with that.  I think this is the realistic version of Alice In Wonderland.

Why do I say this?  It might be because the movie is very deserving in its R rating.  Besides the occasional F-word uttered in spanish, there is a great deal of gore and violence in the movie, some of it aimed towards children.  I’ll be the first to admit, Pan’s Labyrinth is heavy on violence.  People are shot frequently in the film, often in very bloody manners.  People’s limbs get cut off.  In once scene, a man smashes a farm boy’s nose in with the butt of an alcohol bottle.  And in one terrifying scene, Ofelia is fleeing capture from a pale man-eating monster, who proves his monstrosity by biting the heads off of the fairies assisting her.  Don’t take your kids to this, folks: the movie is extremely violent.

While I would normally take points of a film for using excessive violence, here I believe it is warranted.  Through every gunshot, through every murder, and through every droplet of blood, Del Toro is saying something provocative about war and innocence, most of it being things we need to hear of.  I don’t believe Pan’s Labyrinth is just memorable, stunning, and poignant entainment: I believe it is relevant storytelling.

And at last, we come to the films conclusion, which is so mesmerizing and emotionally overpowering that we don’t know what to make of it.  Did Ofelia complete all of her tasks?  Was the Faun telling the truth?  Did she become the fabled princess?  Was it all a ruse?  Or did she simply become a victim of the earthly world from which she was born of?  The ending is eloquent, vast, and beautiful, open for many possible interpretations.  You decide which one fits you best once you see the movie.

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