Two looks at war: 'Lone Survivor,' 'Monuments Men'
Owls Head — Lone Survivor (Universal, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 122 min.). Sometimes a fact-based movie lacks a true dramatic arc and becomes more episodic (see "The Monuments Men" below), but that is not the case in "Lone Survivor," the story of the four Navy SEALS who went on a failed mission in the mountains of Afghanistan to kill Taliban leader Ahmad Shah in June of 2005. Even though we know the conclusion from the beginning (and the title), the getting there is packed with visceral action and the viewer literally feels he is on the scene, wincing at every gunshot and bruising fall. There is one unexpected twist, which actually is quite beautiful in a way.
Writer/director Peter Berg has outdone himself this time, with arguably the best war film since "Saving Private Ryan." The scale is much smaller, but every detail breathes accuracy. The film is based on the book by Marcus Luttrell, who was the lone survivor of the mission. He is portrayed by Mark Wahlberg. The other three men on the mission are Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch, who starred in the TV version of "Friday Night Lights," which Berg developed from his film of the same name and directed the pilot episode), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Matt "Axe" Axelson (Ben Foster). All four actors are excellent in their physically-demanding roles.
The film opens with a montage of SEAL training; then the story opens with a wounded Luttrell being taken back to base by helicopter. Time then jumps back three days and the viewer gets to learn a little about each man's life and the mission ahead of them. Shah (Yousuf Azami) is the al-Qaeda operative responsible for killing 20 United States Marines the previous week. Once on location in the mountains, the team has eyes on Shah, but spotty communications leads to costly delay, and instead of killing their target, the four SEALS are faced with a moral dilemma that leads them into the deadly ambush that takes up most of the film. Greatly outnumbered, and unable to call for help, the quartet holds its own for a while, but two tremendous falls down the side of a mountain weaken them. The sound during the firefight is terrific -- the viewer feels like he is on the mountain -- and the falls are stunningly recreated. I could not believe that there was not a back or two broken.
The Blu-ray extras help in the tribute aspect of the film. The main one, "Will of the Warrior" (28:05), begins as a documentary on Luttrell, who had to crawl seven miles while seriously wounded at one point. Shown is the pre-military training of Luttrell and his brother, actual film of his BUD "hell week" training as a SEAL, Luttrell helping to train the actors and interviews with all four sets of parents. Blu-ray exclusives also include featurettes on recreating the firefight (10:27; and no wires were used during the falls); the actors learning combat basics (6:02); and on the Pashtun Code of Life 4:07; (with real-life Mohamad Gulab talking through an interpreter). Both Blu-ray and standard DVD have profiles of the fallen heroes (16:18; Berg spent two to three days with each family prior to making the film) and a brief making-of featurette (4:44). Grade: film 4.5 stars; extras 3.5 stars
Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it
The Monuments Men (Sony, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 118 min.). As mentioned above, true stories often do not make for a dramatic arc. Such is the case here, as the film is very episodic. The viewer does learn a bit about the men tasked to finding, protecting and returning, when possible, art, monuments and even buildings that the Nazis are stealing or damaging during World War II. In all, more than 5 million pieces were recovered. There are elements here, which if played up, could have improved the film. These include a race against time, after the Nazis realized their secret caches of art are being uncovered and decide to destroy the remaining hidden art; and a race against the Russians as to who will reach some of the art first.
Director George Clooney plays Professor Frank Stokes, who asks for and is given the task to create a small quad -- seven men and a liaison -- that will travel in both recently liberated parts of Europe and eventually behind the lines of combat in Germany to find out where the stolen art has been trucked and sent to by train. Joining him are MET museum curator James Granger (Matt Damon), architect Walter Garfield (John Goodman), art connoisseur/ballet company head Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban), Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), Frenchman Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin) and Brit Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville). Along the way, they pick up a soldier (Dimitri Leonidas as Sam Epstein) as an interpreter. In part due to the team being split up into pairs sent to different locations and also due to Clooney's direction (he says 80 percent of the film is true, but the names have all been changed), the dramatic drive is too scattered.
This is a film where an audio commentary, even one specific to the art shown on the screen, would have been a very good idea, but there is none. The standard DVD has a five-minute look at Clooney's work on both sides of the camera and a 7:54 look at assembling the cast. The Blu-ray edition (not seen) adds two deleted scenes and a 12-minute look at the real men who made up the squad. There also is a closer look at Kate Blanchett's character, a French woman who worked with the Nazis in cataloging the art, but fed information to her brother, a member of the Resistance, who was shot down trying to take over a truck of art. Grade: film 3 stars; extras 2 stars
Endless Love (Universal, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 105 min.). This is the rare teenaged romance that I enjoyed a lot, probably because the odds were so stacked against David (Alex Pettyfer), the son of a mechanic (Robert Patrick) and who is not going to college, in the form of his girlfriend's father (Bruce Greenwood as nasty as he can be), who is wealthy, connected and obsessive. The girlfriend is Jade (Gabriella Wilde), who is on track for a summer internship, Brown University and then medical school. In their different ways, her whole family is obsessed with the consequences of the death of her older brother two years previously. Rounding out Jade's family are Joely Richardson as her mother, who sides with the young lovers, and Rhys Wakefield as her other brother, Keith.
While David has yearned for Jade all through high school, he has never had the courage to speak to her until graduation day. After a couple of dates, including a graduation party at her house, which did not go as her father planned, David convinces her to spend the next 10 days with him, even if it might be their last time together. It goes so well that Jade changes her summer plans, only to be yanked to the family's lake house. However, rebellion has been sparked in her, and she invites David to the lake house as well.
The two leads capture young love wonderfully and the film has an unexpected twist that proves satisfying, even though it does not quite go the way one would expect.
Blu-ray exclusives are an extended ending (a bit more to the scenes and the voiceover starts in earlier) and 19 deleted, extended or alternate scenes (29:45), including a bizarre version of the opening. Both versions have the making-of featurette. Grade: film 3.25 stars; extras 2.5 stars
Pompeii (Sony, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 105 min.; 3D version also available). One of my favorite pictures as a child was "The Last Days of Pompeii" (1935). It is great to see director Paul W.S. Anderson's new film, as special effects have come so far, and Anderson certainly knows how to destroy a city. The hero is Milo (Kit Harrington), the lone survivor of the Roman massacre of the Celtic horse tribes. Captured, he eventually is turned into a gladiator and brought to Pompeii.
The slave-to-gladiator arc is an old trope, but Harrington pulls it off adequately, aided in great part by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as fellow gladiator Atticus. The two initially are on a path to fight to the death in the day's final battle. However, Milo has sparked the interest of returning noblewoman Cassia (Emily Browning) with his kindness toward horses (their love is too quick to be believable). However, Roman Senator Corvus (an unconvincing Kiefer Sutherland -- probably because he is back on TV as Jack Bauer) also has his eye on Cassia and orders Milo to be killed in the day's first fight, a group combat with several gladiators, including Atticus, versus some soldiers. (it is supposed to be a reenactment of the massacre of the horse tribes, which Corvus had been responsible for). The action sequence is quite good and I love that the crowd is so anti-Rome in sentiment.
The rest of the film is dominated by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. which is preceded by an earthquake and causes a tsunami. The extended disaster sequence is a marvel of modern technology, with impressive sound. Extras on both versions include audio commentary by Anderson and producer Jeremy Bolt; an overview of the cast and characters; and a look at the special effects. Exclusive to Blu-ray are 20 deleted and alternate scenes (23:32); a making-of feature that also looks at the real Pompeii disaster (24:06); and brief looks at stunts, production design and costume design. Grade: film and extras 3 stars
Pompeii: The Doomed City (2002-05, History/Lionsgate DVD, NR, 135 min.). This disc has a main feature and two bonus ones. In "The Doomed City," Josh Bernstein leads a look at the disaster in 79 AD, when the eruption of Mount Vesuvius buried Pompeii and other Roman towns along the Bay of Naples beneath layers of ash and pumice, killing thousands. The documentary then wonders if the area is headed for an even bigger disaster, as now 3 million people inhabit the area that is built on ancient volcanic rock. The bonus features are "History's Mysteries: Pompeii" and "Mega Disasters: The Next Pompeii," which bring the overall content to more than two hours.