Friday, November 18, 2016

Worth Mentioning - Born to Risk, Trained to Win

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

Wahlberg precedes Phillippe, SEALs speak to a sibling, horror goes viral, a slasher stalks Holland.

SHOOTER (2007)

Created by author Stephen Hunter and introduced in the 1993 novel Point of Impact, literary man of action Bob Lee Swagger is a character I didn't learn about until the release of Shooter, a film adaptation of Point of Impact, in 2007. If I had known about Swagger before, I might have been iffy about the casting of Mark Wahlberg as a character who was, on the page, a Vietnam veteran that was already nearing fifty year old when Hunter first wrote about him. Online trivia assures me that Wahlberg was not the first choice to star in the film; rather, the decision to age the character down was made only after Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford, and Harrison Ford had turned down the offer to play Swagger. With the character's military history changed and his birth date pushed back some decades, the filmmakers then considered Keanu Reeves for the part before securing a deal with Wahlberg.

Directed by Antoine Fuqua (the reboots of The Magnificent Seven and The Equalizer), the film introduces us to Wahlberg's Swagger the USMC sniper is taking part in a covert mission in Africa. When hostile forces start firing back on Swagger and his spotter, the higher-ups abandon them in the field and his spotter is killed. After avenging his friend's death, Swagger retires from the military and gets a house hidden deep in the Wyoming mountains.

Swagger's retirement is disrupted when Colonel Isaac Johnson (Danny Glover, lisping because he had just gotten braces) shows up at his door and asks him to help prevent the assassination of the President of the United States by a mysterious sniper who is capable of making the kill shot from a mile and a half away. Swagger agrees to help, but it comes down to the moment when this sniper would be taking their shot, it all turns out to be a set-up. A set-up he should have seen coming as soon as he laid eyes on Johnson's right hand man, a sleazy scumbag played by Elias Koteas.

A man who was making a public appearance with the President - an archbishop from Ethiopia - is assassinated instead of the POTUS and Swagger is framed for the murder. Swagger was supposed to then be killed on the spot by a crooked cop, but that cop botches the execution because Swagger is a movie hero and manages to escape from the scene.

From that point on, Swagger is on the run with a manhunt on his trail that's just as intense as you would expect for someone who's accused of killing someone who was standing beside a U.S. President. As he tries to clear his name and expose the "who, what, and why" of it all, he gets help from two allies - Michael Peña as FBI agent Nick Memphis, who is able to deduce Swagger's innocence but is too much of a hapless rookie for anyone to believe, and Kate Mara as Sarah, his spotter friend's young and attractive widow. Hello, potential love interest. This movie has several exciting action sequences, but the most popular bit of marketing for it was a set picture of Mara wielding a shotgun while shirtless, an image there's not even a full shot of in the film.

A large portion of Shooter's running time is dedicated to fitting together the puzzle pieces of the mystery, which I find does have a negative impact on its rewatchability, but overall it is quite an enjoyable action movie that should have kicked off a feature franchise.

Mara puts on an unnecessary accent, Glover, Koteas, and Ned Beatty (Ned Beatty is in this movie! I haven't seen much of him in the 21st century) make for some great villains, and Peña does his best to steal the show, as he often does. Swagger isn't the most interesting character as presented here, a rather stoic fellow who can shoot really well, but Wahlberg does well in the role and I would have been glad to see him play Swagger in multiple films.

They had plenty of material to work with for a franchise. Hunter has written nine Swagger books, plus three books about Bob Lee's father Earl and two about his son Ray. They could have been pumping sequels out at a steady pace. In mid-2012, it was announced that another Bob Lee Swagger movie was in development, and it sounded phenomenal - Robert Mark Kamen, writer of The Karate Kid and many a Luc Besson-produced action movie, was working on an adaptation of the fourth Swagger novel, The 47th Samurai. The film would have been called The Sword and would involve Swagger being "tasked to find a sword his father won during the Battle of Iwo Jima. When he delivers it to its owner in Tokyo, it's discovered the sword is actually a priceless and historic katana, with shadowy forces willing to kill to retrieve it. Swagger is thrown into a byzantine Japanese culture and the yakuza underworld and, in the words of the book, needs to learn that 'in order to survive samurai, you must become samurai.'" It's not clear if Wahlberg would have starred in The Sword if it had happened, but can you imagine how amazing that would have been? Wahlberg as Swagger learning to be a samurai?! How did this not get made?

Unfortunately, The Sword appears to be dead in the water, but Bob Lee Swagger has returned, now played by Ryan Phillippe on a USA Network television series titled Shooter. I'll be giving it a chance, but it seems unlikely that it can make up for the fact that The Sword isn't in my movie collection.


Sometimes you come across a movie that alters your life in some way, like if you become a huge fan of that movie or if it inspires you to make some changes. I'm fairly certain that the movie Navy SEALs, which was directed by Lewis Teague from a screenplay by Chuck Pfarrer and Gary Goldman (Angelo Pizzo and Kevin Jarre also did some uncredited work on the script), is one that altered my brother's life. He was sixteen when the film was released, just under two years away from his high school graduation, and would have been seventeen and several months closer to graduation when it hit home video. I remember when Navy SEALs came out on VHS, because for the next year or so after that my brother would watch it repeatedly. During this time when he was watching it, he began to formulate a post-graduation plan: he was going to join the Navy and become a SEAL. I don't know for sure, but I have always assumed that this movie fed into his decision to some degree. It would be too coincidental otherwise.

So what goes on in this potentially life-altering movie?

Well, the title is no lie, the movie is about a Navy SEAL team, and Teague assembled a solid ensemble cast to play the SEALs themselves. Michael Biehn plays the team's intense and dedicated leader, James Curran. Charlie Sheen is Dale Hawkins, a guy who is a very typical Charle Sheen character - it's no surprise when Sheen is introduced as Hawkins in a scene where he wakes up from a bender on a beach with no idea of where he is. Nor is it shocking when Sheen's Hawkins decides to jump off a bridge from a moving vehicle rather than condone a friend's wedding with his presence. Dennis Haysbert is William Graham, the friend who is trying to get married but whose nuptials may not be destined to happen. Also on the team are Rick Rossovich as James Leary, Cyril O'Reilly as Homer Rexer, Paul Sanchez as Ramos, and an underused Bill Paxton as sniper Floyd "God" Dane.

The SEALs go on multiple missions over the course of the film, with Teague making sure to show us a variety of different ways the team can enter a location. One mission, they arrive in a surprise raid. Another, we watch them exit a submerged submarine. From underwater we go to the sky, where the team starts a mission with a High Altitude Low Opening parachute jump.

All of these missions are carried out against a terrorist group that has gotten their hands on a shipment of Stinger missiles the SEALs track from the Mediterranean Sea to Beirut, the team being hampered nearly every step of the way by bad intelligence. It gets to the point where Curran has to go around the agencies and gather some information on his own, contacting journalist Claire Varrens (Joanne Whalley-Kilmer), who has interviewed the leader of the terrorist group.

And of course Varrens becomes a love interest for Curran. While they're bonding, he gives her a tour of the SEALs training ground - and when you take into account the different styles of missions we're shown, the tour we take with Varrens, and the good times we see the team having when they're not in the field (Hawkins can get quite wild), I can definitely see how this film could serve as a recruitment video of sorts. It does come from someone who had real experience with the subject - screenwriter Pfarrer was actually a SEAL.

My brother never did become a SEAL, but he did join the Navy, and while serving he did end up at the shipyard in Virginia that's featured in the film, and I visited him there around three years after this movie was first released.

I never really got into the movie myself. I think the 5.5 out of 10 rating it has on IMDb seems about right. This was always my brother's movie. For me, it was just a so-so action flick, but it seemed to be something more for him.

V/H/S: VIRAL (2014)

I was never fully on board with the concept of mixing the found footage style with the horror genre's tradition of anthology films, and the first V/H/S didn't exactly win me over. V/H/S/2 did improve on the idea, and now we have the third film, which seems to have gone over poorly even with full-fledged fans of the franchise. One of the producers has since declared found footage dead, and this movie, along with the domestic box office failures of the most recent Paranormal Activity and Blair Witch sequels, might prove the point.

I would agree with the fans who felt that V/H/S: Viral was a disappointment. My opinion of the first movie isn't high, but I would still say Viral is a substantial step down from that one, despite the involvement of some promising talent.

Things go off the rails immediately with the wrap around segment, Vicious Circles, directed by Marcel Sarmiento, who directed the movie Deadgirl and got experience working on anthologies by helming the D is for Dogfight segment of The ABCs of Death. Sarmiento was tasked with wrapping up the mythology of V/H/S that barely creeped through in the previous movies - an idea that horrific events recorded to VHS tape can have a supernatural effect on the viewer. He attempts the wrap-up by blowing the roof off the sucker. His wrap around isn't just about people watching VHS tapes, as the others were, it's a chase sequence through the streets of Los Angeles - a young man pursuing the truck that his abducted girlfriend is believed to be held captive in. As they race through the streets, the truck is broadcasting a video feed that turns people violent. The ultimate goal of this supernatural force is to get the V/H/S videos uploaded to the internet. When they go viral, they'll be causing havoc all over the globe. But I thought their power lie in the fact that they were being watched on VHS? They shouldn't be so powerful when people are watching it on YouTube or an equivalent...

I don't know, it makes little sense, and Sarmiento's segment is marred by some severely annoying editing that made it a chore to sit through.

The first proper segment is Dante the Great, directed by Gregg Bishop, a filmmaker I have been rooting for ever since his fun zombie horror/comedy Dance of the Dead came out in 2008. Unfortunately, Bishop hadn't made a feature since Dance when he was brought on to contribute a segment to V/H/S: Viral. He has since directed a film called Siren, a spin-off from the Amateur Night segment of the first V/H/S that centers on the Lily character played by Hannah Fierman, the best thing V/H/S had going for it.

Dante the Great is presented as a documentary about the story of a rising star magician and the strange, tragic end of his career. The secret to Dante's success is his truly magical cloak, but the problem is that the cloak demands human sacrifice. The Dante segment is fun and has some cool action sequences, while also very nearly breaking away from the concept of V/H/S. These are supposed to be "horrible things caught on tape!", but Dante ditches the found footage style when it gets inconvenient. There is a block of text that says certain footage was shot by the documentary crew, but there's little difference in how it's positioned and cut together and how a non-found footage movie would be shot. I'm ambivalent on this issue: on one hand, it's a strike against something for not being found footage in what is supposed to be a found footage movie, but it's also a check in the pro column for me because I'm not fond of found footage.

Next up is Parallel Monsters from Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo, who broke out with the movie Timecrimes back in 2007 and provided the A is for Apocalypse segment of The ABCs of Death. Parallel Monsters is set in Spain and centers on a man who creates a portal to another dimension. He and his counterpart from the other dimension agree to swap places for a few minutes so they can both take a look around the parallel worlds. Unfortunately for the guy from our world, the other dimension is a strange place inhabited by lascivious, demonic people with monstrous genitalia. This is an odd segment that almost feels like it was put together solely to deliver the punchline of monster hand puppet penises and tentacle finger vaginas.

V/H/S had five segments, plus a wrap around. V/H/S/2 had four and the wrap around. Keeping with the trend of getting shorter and featuring less stories, V/H/S: Viral, which is just 81 minutes long (compared to its predecessors' 116 and 96 minutes), has three segments and the wrap around.

The third and final full segment is Bonestorm, directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Scott Moorhead. It's a simple story about a bunch of skater kids who encounter Satanic cultists in Tijuana, Mexico. In a movie that already had Satanic cultists in alterniverse Spain. This segment is pretty much all action, but the action largely just consists of the skaters swearing and hitting cultists and zombies. It's one of the least engaging actionfests I've seen.

With the segment stories told, the wrap around segment brings things to close and the V/H/S franchise as a whole seems to have petered out.

But wait, there's more. The home video release of Viral contains a "hidden track", an extra segment that starts playing after the end credits play out. Titled Gorgeous Vortex and directed by Todd Lincoln, a filmmaker who first came to my attention because he was attached to direct an adaptation of the comic book Hack/Slash for a while, this 16 minute segment abandons the found footage concept even more than Dante the Great did. There is no attempt to explain how some of the things in this short were shot. I guess that's why it wasn't included within the film itself.

Another thing Gorgeous Vortex eschews is dialogue, following a woman who is stalked and tormented by faceless figures. Her story is intercut with images of other women who have been tortured and killed. As the segment goes on, drugs, riches, and monsters are also worked into the surreal, avant garde proceedings. This short is so strange that Lincoln won't even tell you what it's about or what it means. It was an assemblage of various ideas and images that had been in his head for a while, and the result is left up to personal interpretation by every viewer. Some have hailed Gorgeous Vortex as a masterpiece, but it didn't do much for me. I didn't know what the hell was going on... which may be part of the point, but it wasn't a viewing experience that appealed to me, much like V/H/S: Viral as a whole.

The magic fight in Dante the Great is pretty cool, though, and Parallel Monsters was an interesting idea until the monster genitals were revealed.

The review below originally appeared on


Director Nick Jongerius's The Windmill (formerly known as The Windmill Massacre) is a film that kept me guessing and adjusting expectations throughout its running time. It's presented as being a slasher movie, and it is to some degree. It has a slasher in it; a mute, horrifically scarred man who carries a scythe and commits gory murders. There is a cool back story given to this slasher - long ago, he was a miller in Holland who make a deal with the devil to keep his windmill's blades spinning whether the wind was blowing or not. He was also a serial killer, and the locals were not pleased when they found out he was the one responsible for the disappearances in the area. They stormed the windmill with torches and burnt it to the ground with the killer miller inside.

The story Jongerius came up with for the film, which was then fleshed out into a screenplay by Chris W. Mitchell and Suzy Quid, finds a small busload of tourists being taken around to see the windmills in the lowlands of Holland. When the bus breaks down, the tourists discover that they're near a windmill that isn't on the map. The killer miller's windmill, which has reappeared in the countryside on this night... and the scythe-wielding slasher has appeared along with it.

I went into The Windmill fully prepared to just watch an old school slasher throwback. These people have ventured into the miller's territory and now they'll get knocked off one-by-one while trying desperately to escape. As the characters assembled for that ill-fated bus ride, I was being reminded of Adam Green's Hatchet. There the characters were a group being taken on a boat tour of the Louisiana swamps, the boat sinks, now they're in slasher Victor Crowley's territory, they get killed one-by-one. Where The Windmill's set-up differs from Hatchet is the fact these people getting on the bus aren't just fun-loving sightseers. A young boy aside, each of them seems to be hiding some kind of dark secret. They're tormented by flashbacks and visions. Some take prescribed medicine to deal with their mental issues, others self-medicate with cocaine.

These characters have each done something terrible. They all have sins to atone for, and the supernatural forces at work around the windmill confront them with those sins. This isn't a simple stalk and slash, it's something mentally and spiritually deeper than that. I did not expect this aspect at all when I began watching The Windmill, and as it strayed from my expectations I had to try to balance out ambivalent feelings. On one hand, I was disappointed that this wasn't just a run-of-the-mill slasher. I love slasher movies, and I just wanted to watch people fall by the miller's blades in bloody and inventive ways. On the other hand, I had to commend Jongerius for doing something different with the concept and going for a film with more depth than what I had in mind.

Disappointment won for the most part, because the way in which the story plays out when we start to realize what's going on was not especially engrossing to me. The film has a lot of moments where characters just sit around and talk about their predicament, and I was not invested enough in this bunch to care all that much about their conversations, so I felt that the movie started to drag between moments when the miller got to do his thing.

There are a few great instances of the slasher slashing, with severed body parts and intestines falling to the ground. There's even a drowning that I found thrilling largely because the shrieking strings in the score got very close to sounding like some classic Friday the 13th music.

Given more to work with than the usual slasher fodder, the cast does well in their roles, with standouts including the always reliable Noah Taylor, Tanroh Ishida as the first person to figure out what's happening, and Charlotte Beaumont as our heroine Jennifer, who is not the typical innocent. She is just as troubled as the others on the bus.

In the end, I have to give The Windmill a middle of the road rating. It's got a few good kills, nice cinematography, and it made an admirable attempt at standing out from the pack, but the storytelling wasn't very appealing to me and I found it to be a bit of a letdown even after setting aside expectations.

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