Generation Kill

Generation Kill poster

 

The HBO miniseries Generation Kill comes from David Simon and Ed Burns, the masterminds behind the superlative series The Wire. Simon himself is a former journalist, the state thereof being a primary preoccupation of the fifth season of the The Wire. So it makes sense that he would be drawn to a war story seen through the eyes of a fellow writer. Generation Kill is based on the nonfiction book by Evan Wright, a Rolling Stone reporter embedded in the US Marine Corps 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, the first boots on the ground during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Actor Lee Tergesen plays Wright as a wide-eyed innocent among perverse killers, delightedly scribbling the marines’ colorful boastings in his notebook, when not dodging sniper fire. The most quotable is the manic driver Corporal Josh Ray Person, well-cast as James Ransone, basically reprising his character Ziggy Sobotka from The Wire season two.

The marines’ lingo flashes back to pop culture circa 2003, which already seems so very far away. A rumor spreads that J-Lo is dead, reminding us of the brief period when Jennifer Lopez was the most desired woman on the planet. Everyone’s a “dog” or “bra” (not as in the undergarment but as in “bro”). In between harrowing battles (which the warriors long for but hate when they arrive), much of their experience is comprised of long stretches of boredom. They supply their own soundtrack, recollecting what lyrics they can and recreating every part of a song a cappella with great enthusiasm.

Generation KillCpl. Josh Ray Person: “When my band opened up for Limp Bizkit in Kansas City, we fucking sucked. But then again, so did they. The only difference is that they became famous and I became a marine.”

After exhausting the conversational value of their bowel movements and each other’s alleged sexual orientations, there’s nothing but time to talk about the origins and motivations of the war. One popular theory is that it is a nothing but another race war. As one soldier puts it, it’s “White man’s destiny to rule the world” and “White man won’t be denied.” Or is it to clear the ground for more Starbucks franchises? Or maybe it’s a war over the scarcest resource of all: virgins.

Marines are trained to depersonalize and vilify the enemy, all with the aim of being effective killers. So they are essentially ill-equipped for a 21st century war in which they are expected to request permission before engaging any target, and for situations in which they must deal diplomatically with the civilian population – some of which may be threats in disguise, but most often are just people who either need their help or would rather they just leave. When the marines do wish to offer compassion, they are thwarted by their command or by cold hard reality – oftentimes there’s nothing they can do. They’re also fatally underequipped in a literal sense: they’re issued less body armor than Wright was able to purchase on eBay, they have state-of-the-art nightvision goggles but no batteries, and as if they didn’t stand out enough, they’re clad in the wrong camouflage style. They subsist on only one M.R.E. (Meal, Ready to Eat) each day, supplemented with copious caffeine pills, Skittles, Hustler, and Skoal. But as one marine quips, “Semper Gumby – always flexible.” As characterized here, these Marines never miss an opportunity to bitch, but pride themselves on being able to “make do.”

Generation KillLt. Col. Stephen ‘Godfather’ Ferrando: “What’s foremost in Godfather’s mind? We’re still very much in the game, gentlemen.”

Aside from the frustratingly elusive Iraqi army or suicide bombers, there are few antagonists marines hate more than Reservists, the Army, and their own incompetent command. But they gradually learn that their superiors are often far wiser than they realized. Lieutenant Colonel Stephen “Godfather” Ferrando (Chance Kelly) (so nicknamed because of a hoarse voice derived from lung cancer) nearly causes a mutiny by refusing to aid a fatally injured Iraqi boy. In a rare deference from a man that has no need to explain himself to his subordinates, he explains in detail why he made his decision: it was literally impossible to save the boy. Later, he reveals to the reporter that he is always fully conscious of ineffective commanders like the grossly incompetent Captain Dave McGraw (Eric Nenninger), known to his detractors as “Captain America.” Godfather can’t always act on every single infraction, lest policing his people become his entire role in the military machine. Even the reprehensible Sergeant Major John Sixta (Neal Jones) turns out to be more canny than anyone suspected; he knows his job is to make himself into a cartoon villain against which the men can direct their frustrations. His role is part of the time-tested marine tradition: a morale-building figure. And for audiences of this series, a bit of comic relief (“That helmet is the proppity of the Yoo-Ess-of-Ay!”).

I found the series to be disappointingly fractured, no rival at all to Simon and Burns’ masterpiece the Wire. Only the sublime final scene rises to the vaulted heights The Wire regularly reached. One marine had spent weeks shooting and editing a home movie of the invasion. When the company finally reaches Baghdad, they find they literally cannot watch the completed movie. Each walks away, in silence, one by one. In the tradition of The Wire, this closing montage is set to a perfectly chosen piece of music (Johnny Cash’s apocalyptic “When the Man Comes Around”) and sends shivers down the spine.


Official site: www.hbo.com/generationkill

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Vantage Point

Vantage Point

 

Vantage Point is an awesome technical achievement, and I don’t mean to damn it with faint praise. Director Pete Travis and writer Barry Levy demonstrate excellent plotting, spatial sense, editing, logistics, and continuity. As a thriller it moves forward relentlessly, and feels comprehensible, self-contained, and very satisfying.

Vantage Point is structured around a single gimmick, but it’s a good one. As one of the cinematic children of Rashomon (including The Usual Suspects and Courage Under Fire), it retells the same event from multiple points of view. An assassination attempt on the US president in Spain is foiled by veteran Secret Service agent Thomas Barnes (Dennis Quaid) and civilian Howard Lewis (Forest Whitaker). The advantage of the structure is to withhold information and create suspense. The first time we spot Lewis, from the hyper-cautious Barnes’ perspective, he seems to be acting fishily. But when we soon see the events from his point of view, we learn he’s an innocent. But the structure works the other way; almost a full hour passes until we see fellow Secret Service agent Taylor’s (Matthew Fox) side of the story, and the simple fact of his prolonged absence causes the audience to suspect him. At about the one-hour mark, the rigid, neat structure breaks down and we begin to see slivers of each character’s experiences mixed together, as they all draw to a single time and place for the climax.

Vantage PointA turkey in every pot and a thriller in every multiplex

But the crucial falling-down point of the movie is the trumped-up assassination plot itself, which is seemingly crafted for maximum storytelling drama and not real-world terrorist efficacy. Would an actual successful assassination be so hi-tech and complex? This plot relies on lots of wireless technology, split-second timing, blackmail (coercing someone to perform key tasks better off done by someone the plotters could count on) and at least two inside men (one of whom must have spent almost a lifetime preparing). This is how terrorism works in the movies. Real-life assassins tend to be lone gunmen who manage to slip through security with their sheer unpredictability, and terrorist attacks like Oklahoma City and 9/11 didn’t depend on technology more complex than fertilizer and box cutters. While we’re on the subject, what are these particular assassins’ motivations, exactly? It becomes clear they don’t wish to kill the president but to capture him. Whatever they hope to accomplish, they seem quite pleased with themselves.

Vantage PointOK, everybody skootch in a little… say cheese!

All of these questions are negated in the end by a news broadcast that claims that a lone assassin has been shot and killed. This conclusion plays to the public’s lust for conspiracy theories than continues to plague 9/11 (an inside job? please, spare me) and the JFK assassination.

Extra observations:

• One of the biggest plot twists is spoiled in the trailer.

• Barnes is a cliche we’ve seen before, played by Clint Eastwood in In the Line of Fire.

• There’s an oddly tiny role for Sigourney Weaver as television news director Rex Brooks. Was there more intended for her character? Perhaps she took the role for an opportunity to spend a few days in Spain.

• Hey, it’s Hollywood’s go-to middle eastern guy, Saïd Taghmaoui (from The Kite Runner and the Iraqi torturer in Three Kings). He does turn out to be a villain, but so do two white dudes, so the movie totally isn’t racist.


Official movie site: www.vantagepoint-movie.com

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9/11-ploitation: J.J. Abrams’ Cloverfield

Cloverfield movie poster

 

First of all, let me just say I get it.

I get that Cloverfield is meant to be a modern day analogue of Godzilla. I get that postwar Japanese moviegoers witnessed an enraged giant lizard borne of nuclear technology stomp Tokyo flat in an unstoppable pique, and I get that Godzilla became a classic for that very reason. I get that we Westerners were long due to be attacked on film by own very own allegorical creature as pop therapy for our terrorism anxieties.

Perhaps we need that movie some time. But significantly more advanced than Godzilla in terms of visual style and special effects, I don’t think Cloverfield is that movie.

As a longtime fan of J.J. Abrams from Alias and Lost, and made a helpless sucker by the film’s clever marketing, I very much wanted to love Cloverfield. However, I found it extremely difficult to watch and to like, for two basic reasons both related to my being a New Yorker for a decade & change: I. unlikeable and unrealistic characters, and II. what can only be described as 9/11-ploitation.

I. THE CHARACTERS

We know the backgrounds of only two characters, Rob and Beth. Rob has recently been promoted to Vice President of an unspecified type of company at an improbably young age, and is about to leave for a long business trip to Japan. In my understanding of lifestyles of the rich & beautiful in New York City, such young execs were more commonly found in the dot-com 90s economy, but even now still exist in scrappy new media companies like CollegeHumor.com. But let’s assume Rob helped invent the next Facebook and move on.

random hot girl in CloverfieldYowza howza! Yes, it’s true, all New Yorkers go to parties like this all the time.

We don’t know what Beth, his one true love, does for a living, if anything. She lives with her family high up in the northern tower of the Time Warner Center (more on that later). Her stunning looks and wardrobe might peg her as model, but she appears to be a socialite born of privilege. But far from the slow trainwrecks that are Paris and Nicky, Beth appears to be a sweet, sober girl. In fact, she leaves a party not unconscious in the back of a limo, but out of propriety, to go home to bed, alone.

Us regular joes are supposed to identify with and care about these people? For all its faults, Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (another monster-attack film touching uncomfortably upon domestic disaster in a post 9/11 world) featured an everyman type character in auto repairman Tom Cruise. To be fair, Godzilla was full of white-coated scientists and teeth-gritted soldier-types, so the genre doesn’t exactly call for comparatively boring lower wage-earners that don’t live in luxury condos and party in downtown lofts.

II. 9/11-SPLOITATION

Godzilla was utterly frank in linking the monster with the horrors of the nuclear age. So if Cloverfield’s beast is a personification of terrorism, how does the metaphor fit? Did US military adventurism in Afghanistan and Iraq unearth the monster? Is the beast a heretofore undiscovered subterranean oil-feeder, angered by our draining the earth’s supply of fossil fuel? Without a clear metaphor, Cloverfield just seems to enjoy alluding to the superficial events and imagery of 9/11 without any depth: skyscrapers “pancaking” themselves flat, streets filling with clouds of debris, ash-coated survivors struck numb. I’m not against popular fiction using metaphor to touch upon raw nerves that maybe need to be tweaked now and then… but is Cloverfield it?

New York City burns in CloverfieldDon’t worry, New Yorkers, it’s only a movie.

One of the film’s key set pieces is set atop the twin towers of the Time Warner Center. The allusion is clear, but it’s a stretch factually. Are there residential apartments in the TW Center? As both a New Yorker and Time Warner employee, this is news to me. I should also add that the geography of Manhattan as seen in the film is just this side of realistic. In a space of about 6 hours, it’s plausible the characters could make it from lower Manhattan to the roof of the Time Warner Center at the southern foot of Central Park (assuming, that is, that their young thighs are capable of the trek).

Invasion of the Bodysnatchers is one example of a sci-fi thriller that has worked well enough to illuminate concerns of the times to warrant multiple remakes. Just to name three: the original took on McCarthyism, the Abel Ferrara 90’s version looked at obedience and conformity in the military, and Robert Rodriguez’s The Faculty found the story useful as a satirical critique of high school peer pressure. But none of the various Bodysnatchers films presented us with recreations of cities pressed flat; were contemporary Japanese made sick by the sight of their horrors anthropomorphized in a giant lizard? Seeing my home city’s skyline smoking and collapsing was not something I would call cathartic.

I saw the film early evening on opening day, with an audience full of kids just out of school. The movie went over like a lead balloon; the conclusion was loudly heckled and booed. I suspect the kids mostly objected to the unconventional structure and ending. Which is, for what it’s worth, what I found best about the film: it provides a very movingly unexpected happy ending.


Official movie site: www.cloverfieldmovie.com

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Red Eye

Red Eye movie poster

 

I had heard Red Eye was a refreshingly unpretentious thriller that played on Americans’ changed relationship with air travel in a post 9/11 world. While technically true, it’s actually a very disappointing runaround decidedly lacking in the most routine pleasures that come with thrillers. Where’s the expected third-act twist? Is the twist that there actually isn’t one?

Stayin’ Alive

Not as in getting funky, but as in not getting blown up on the subway. You know how every time there’s a terrorist attack, the media tricks some rescue worker or unfortunate bystander into using the phrase “body parts everywhere”, which they can then morbidly quote with relish? The next batch of human soup you can hear about just may well be New York chunky style.

So no movie review this time. A little like HtMT, I usually don’t use this blog to talk about me me me, but some shit is goin’ down in New York City right now that I feel like writing about.

Before afternoon rush hour yesterday, Mayor Bloomberg and the Chief of Police held a press conference to report the feds had uncovered credible evidence (the feds claim otherwise) of a coordinated attack of between 12-20 bombers on the subway system, perhaps as soon as that day (yesterday). Even better, the plot is tied to malcontents in Iraq (duh), and while military forces are carrying out top secret missions in Baghdad to foil the plot, we’re supposed to go on our jolly way riding the subway as normal.

Just like Bloomberg himself pledges to do. Whereas just minutes before, he said “It was more specific as to target, it was more specific as to timing.” Do the math! So naturally he’ll be riding the subway. It’s when he checks his watch and gets off that I’d be worried.

I walk home through Central Park whenever possible during the summer. It’s reason #384 why I heart NY. By early October it’s dark and chilly before I leave work. So before the news broke, I was already debating whether or not I would take the subway home. And then upon walking out the door of my office building, I saw a caravan of black SUV’s rolling through midtown. Not an unusual sight in a city housing the United Nations, but what was strange this time was their haste, the sirens, and the tinted windows actually open. For once I finally got to see who’s inside those things: imposing muscle men in suits scowling out at pedestrians. I decided right then and there that I would definitely walk home. I had a lovely scenic walk through the park at dusk, but this morning opted to ride the train back to work.

As puzzled media outlets have been reporting, New Yorkers have not been staying away in droves. People need the subway; the city doesn’t function without it. Only rich people live in a strata where public transportation is just something that rumbles beneath your feet occasionally.

But the subway is wide open to attack; I don’t care what city officials claim. Frankly, I don’t understand why anyone hasn’t bombed it already. In a London shocked by the first serious bombing in years since the IRA cooled it, more perpetrators pulled off another one just when you’d think the bobbies would have been more alert than ever. Luckily the bombs literally fizzled.

There are cameras all over the city (traffic cams, ATMs, buildings’ security systems… it’s said any New Yorker is photographed at least once every couple of minutes). But unless there’s some more advanced big-brother surveillance system that I don’t know about, the subway is just sitting there, asking for it. NYC has slowly but steadily been phasing out human-staffed entrances to the subway in favor of Metrocard (disposable smartcards you buy from vending machines) turnstyles. Today there’s a cop at every subway station, but there are usually several entrances to each station, and they are typically at least one block long. There are literally dozens of unguarded entrances where you could enter carrying a giant pink polka-dotted nuclear warhead and a placard reading “HEY LOOK AT ME I’M CARRYING A WARHEAD”.

Bloomberg also urges us to be on the lookout. What for? There’s at least one of everything on the subway. I say that with affection, not out of racism, sexism, sexual orientation-ism or any other -ism. This is New York #%$&in’ City, for #%$&’s sake!

Last night I lived through an extended dream, many details of which fled upon waking, but I do recall some large cataclysmic attack. As on 9/11, I was safely dozens of blocks away, but unlike 9/11, people I actually knew died and my guilt was so overpowering I cried in my dream. It’s disturbing that my brain personalized today’s events so much; I never thought my survivor’s guilt from 9/11 was anywhere near in the leagues of people who were actually there and made it out, or personally knew someone who did. A few weeks ago, I watched a movie that included footage of the planes hitting and the towers collapsing. It had probably been years since I had seen it, and even then I only saw it on TV like everyone else in the world (I was about 70 blocks away). I’m not really sure how to describe how it felt to see again, but it’s a little like I do right now.

11’09″01 – September 11

11'09

 

A series of short films inspired by or in reaction to 9/11 made by directors from nearly every continent.

At first, I thought for sure I would be giving this one more than three stars, but the quality of the short films takes a steep dive after the first two. The first in particular, by Iranian filmmaker Samira Makhmalbaf, is excellent. It opens on an entire Afghanistan village emptying their well in order to manufacture bricks to build shelters for when the US will bomb them. A female schoolteacher rounds up all the children and attempts to explain to them what happened in New York, and why the Americans are about to kill them. Step one: try to illustrate the concept of a skyscraper.

The short from Egypt is quite bad, and almost laughable (dig the ghost of a buff American Marine killed in Beruit, walking out of the ocean, soaking wet and topless). And unfortunately, Sean Penn’s contribution was over-edited into oblivion. But a late high point is Ken Loach’s documentary about the US-instigated overthrow of Chile’s democratically-elected government on… wait for it… September 11, 1973!

And a bit of trivia: Mira Nair’s short was written by an old roommate I had back in film school.