Lone Survivor

lone survivorPeter Berg’s last film as director posited the threat of sea aliens attacking a navy ship based on toy, with a pop star as a weapons specialist.

Lone Survivor, mercifully, is not Battleship. Instead, we find the director on significantly more sober ground, with a calculated approach towards authenticity. Berg reportedly embedded himself in a real US Navy SEAL team and lived in Iraq for a month in the run-up to production, as well as having Marcus Luttrell (whose real-life account forms the story) as a close advisor.

Luttrell’s remarkable story of survival is worth telling. Inevitably, the temptation to depict US military as consummate heroes creeps through. Yet it’s a more balanced account than you might expect.

Our introduction to the SEAL team is a by-now-familiar parade of machismo, facial hair, wisecrackin’ about good ol’ gals back home, and the word “hoo-ah”. The main cast (Mark Wahlberg, Emile Hirsch, Taylor Kitsch and Ben Foster) are solid, but virtually indistinguishable.

It’s a slow start. Yet once the disastrous Operation Redwings gets under way – an assassination attempt gone wildly awry – the pace and tension crescendos. As the four-man team comes under heavy fire from an army of Taliban insurgents, Berg pummels the screen with action. Intense, unremitting, taut and brutal, the gunfights paint a grim picture of a grim war.

It’s muscular, gripping, back-to-basics action. Politics takes a back seat. Berg has publicly stated his film is apolitical – and there are those who might wish otherwise. But just when the balance seems skewed, an unexpected ending highlighting the compassion and bravery of ordinary Afghans lends a bit of much-needed perspective.

Admittedly, there’s some mawkish military tributes. An opening credits montage offers real-life training footage; the closing credits feature photos of the real SEALS, complete with a syrupy Peter Gabriel cover of ‘Heroes’.

Both sequences, despite playing well in the States, will sit a little uncomfortably outside of Republican rallies. But the filling of this stars-and-stripes sandwich, the meat of the movie, just about excuses any near-propagandism. Lone Survivor’s impressive battle scenes, feverish pace, and admirable pursuit of realism makes for a hugely well-crafted war film, and one that deserves your time.


The Wolf Of Wall Street

wolfThe Wolf of Wall Street opens with Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) ostentatiously reeling off a list of his various assets, riches, and vices: beachside mansions, private jets, sparkling sports cars and luxury yachts sit perilously alongside gambling, drug-taking, hookers and truly outrageous parties – all funded from fraudulent stock-broking scams.

Told in a montage so fast it could give you whiplash, the whirlwind first five minutes are an apt introduction to both character and film. Belfort’s a man entirely driven by his addictions – sex, drugs, and the almighty dollar – and Martin Scorsese provides, with breathless energy, a deliciously ambiguous portrait of greed.

As Belfort, DiCaprio makes for a superb anti-hero, a tornado of charm and macho ruthlessness. With one hand, he shows no scruples for the gullible investors who fall for his slick sales technique (often silently flipping the bird to the telephone); with the other, he fritters his ill-gotten gains on a hedonistic lifestyle approaching absurdity. DiCaprio’s a marvellous fit for the role, and his slimy charisma could charm even the steeliest of souls.

Such depictions of (apparently authentic) excess – midget tossing and a five-hooker-a-week-habit among the tamer examples – are riotously entertaining, even if they probably oughtn’t be. Scorsese’s arms-length approach, directing with a stonking exuberance that belies his 71 years, passes no precise judgement on his crooked cast. It’s a morality play with a potentially troubling lesson.

Yet Belfort and his team aren’t immoral, they’re amoral: existing in a world of dollar-signs-for-eyes, wholly detached from reality. As Belfort’s narration admits: “it was obscene, in the normal world – but who wants to live there?”

With partying given precedence, Scorsese (perhaps wisely) skirts around the minutiae of Belfort’s financial swindles and, it’s fair to say, plumbs rather shallower depths than his previous work.

But this seems entirely in keeping with its shamelessly shallow subject, as does the indulgent three-hour running time. This is Belfort by Belfort: an unreliable narrator taking us on a chaotic carnival ride of capitalism at its most unfettered. For an exercise in sheer self-indulgence, the actions speak rather loudly for themselves.


All Is Lost

all is lostAt a time when filmmakers are desperately throwing everything at the screen and seeing what sticks, it’s refreshing to see a film like All Is Lost come along and turn the more-is-more formula on its head.

This is pure, minimalist cinema. The plot can be described in a single breath: Robert Redford finds himself lost on a damaged boat in the middle of the Indian Ocean, and must use his resourcefulness to survive a storm.

And that’s essentially it. There’s only one actor, and barely three lines of dialogue – one being “Help!” There is no backstory, no flashbacks, no shots of fretting family members at shore, no Helen Hunt moving on with her life, no CGI tiger posturing theological queries. There is only a man, a boat, and the elements.

It’s curiously radical to have a film stripped to the dramatic basics. (The very first shot sees salty water leak into the boat’s cabin.) Every triumph, every pitfall, every turning point becomes amplified to the nth degree.

Our anonymous seaman does his level best to save his own life, deploying some Macgyver-esque ingenuity to repair the damage inflicted by stray shipping container, and his efforts – workmanlike and sensible – are absorbing to watch. But without navigation or radio, he is effectively doomed.

This pared-down approach does make you wonder if other factors have been skimped on; save for a pre-credits voiceover epilogue, we know practically nothing about the never-named hero, other than his skills at the helm of a yacht.

But this is where Redford shines: communicating noisy emotion behind a veil of deafening silence. Huge sections of the film pass with only the ocean (and Alex Ebert’s eerie soundtrack) for aural comfort, and it’s only the veteran actor’s screen presence that fills the gap. Lean, relentless, and gripping: All Is Lost is, in essence, a perfect disaster movie.


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