Which Way is the Front Line From Here? Review

            Two years ago this week photojournalist Tim Hetherington tragically lost his life when he was in the impact zone of a mortar shell while on the job in the middle of the Libyan Civil War.  A photojournalist seems to be an odd person for a cinephile to care about but Hetherington was no ordinary photojournalist.  In 2010, he co-directed Restrepo, an apolitical documentary about the soldiers in the Korengal Valley area of Afghanistan (an area of Afghanistan that is so dangerous that the US army doesn’t even bother trying to hold it anymore).  The film is not only one of the best documentaries in recent memory but it also garnered Hetherington an Academy Award nomination.  Luckily, there are people out there who want Hetherington’s spirit to live on including the man that Hetherington co-directed Restrepo with, Sebastian Junger.  Last week Sebastain Junger released his latest documentary through HBO.  It is entitled Which Way is the Front Line From Here?: The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington.  The documentary serves as a tribute that is worthy of one of the world’s greatest and most daring photojournalists.

            It is quite stunning how Sebastian Junger was able to put this documentary together as it is somehow able to put together a detailed and complete portrayal of an individual that is no longer with us.  This isn’t just a documentary with people close to Hetherington recounting how great of a man he was.  While there is certainly some of that, there are also vivid depictions of Hetherington’s personal dreams and feelings (apparently there were a bunch of one-on-one interviews with Hetherington readily available as if he was already in the process of making a documentary about his life).  Even more shocking though is that there numerous sequences within the documentary that has Hetherington on the frontlines in Africa, Afghanistan and even in Libya in what were some of his final moments.  All of this is crisply edited together, which must have been no small feat considering how many different sources were used for the footage.

            This documentary also has two of the most stunning sequences of the entire television season.  The first occurs when the film gets into the portion of Hetherington’s life in which he was filming Restrepo.  Restrepowas a great film because of how intimate it was.  While this segment of this documentary ultimately serves as a making of, of Restrepo, it also feels like an extension of that film as it maintains the intimacy of Restrepo.  The second sequence is the horrifying portrayal of Hetherington’s death.  Smartly, the documentary doesn’t contain any footage of Hetherington’s death (who knows if any exists but it is conceivable that it does) but instead goes for a more artistic portrayal.  The scene is voiced over by the man who was by Hetherington’s side when he died and his death is visually portrayed through a recreated first person shot of the way the narrator describes his last moments as he fades in and out of consciousness.  The scene was done as artistically and classy as it possibly could have been.

            Which Way is the Front Line From Here?: The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington is a thorough and worthy documentary of a man that only had a short time in the film industry but made the most of it.


Oblivion Review

            Oblivion (which was just released into American theaters yesterday) has received a lot of flack recently for its apparent ripping-off of many of the sci-fi genre’s greatest films.  Throughout it’s two-hour runtime, Oblivion certainly shares similarities to such films as Star Wars, Planet of the Apes, and one other recent sci-fi film that would give away some of this film’s surprises if I revealed the title of it.  Despite that Oblivion is still a good film.  It handles its connections to other films in a professional manner by either doing fun homages or taking different routes to certain plot elements that have been inspired by other films.  Add in a strong cast and a matured directing style from its director and Oblivionis one of the best films of this young year.

            Oblivion follows Jack Harper (played by Tom Cruise), one of the last humans on Earth tasked with securing the safety of the equipment that will one day transport the last remaining resources of a war-riddled Earth to another planet that humanity can live on, as he comes across a spaceship wreckage.  After the drones that Jack works with unexpectedly fire upon the survivors of the wreckage, Jack is only able to save one woman (played by Olga Kurylenko), who turns out to be the woman that Jack has been having dreams and/or faded memories of in his mind-wiped brain.  With the entrance of this woman into his life, everything that Jack thought he knew is changed forever.  The film is directed by Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy) and is written by Kosinski, William Monahan (The Departed), Karl Gakdusek (co-showrunner of the recently cancelled Last Resort) and Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine).

            In his debut film Joseph Kosinski created an updated version of the Tron world that was cool if a bit overdone.  World-building is clearly his strong suit and he proves that with this film as his version of a dying Earth is visually stunning.  However, Tron: Legacy faltered completely by the fact that Kosinski had trouble staging scenes and that he couldn’t direct around a convoluted storyline.  With Oblivion, Kosinski’s scene staging has improved (a chase through a canyon is a clear highlight), and he co-wrote a storyline that focused a lot more on atmosphere than it did actual plot.  The real shocking thing, though, is that Kosinski is able to make a slow burn style of storytelling work in an age when he is supposed to be crafting a blockbuster with a lot of battles and explosions.  In fact Kosinski and his writing team’s only hiccup is with the ending.  The film creates such a strong climax that it just needed something to cap it off, but what Kosinski and co. give is an odd reintroduction of a character that we have only seen in one scene as closure to the film.

            The film is also helped out by a talented cast.  Tom Cruise once again proves why he is the best blockbuster actor in the world.  He takes a bare-bones character and gives him a personality with an intense performance that no one else would have bothered giving in this role.  Cruise won’t get any end-of-the-year recognition (nor does he deserve it) but it is nice to see him give it his all here.  Just as strong are his two main female co-stars, Olga Kurylenko and Andrea Riseborough.  Kurylenko has been having a fantastic month (she also gave a strong performance in To the Wonder).  In this film, she takes a character that isn’t introduced until the middle of the film and quickly makes her seem as realistic as the characters that have been built up from the beginning of the film.  Meanwhile, Riseborough brings a coldness to her performance that works perfectly in contrast to Tom Cruise.  Yet she can quickly gather her emotions for a powerful scene here or there.  Morgan Freeman and Melissa Leo don’t get much to do but they bring instant gravitas to the film.

            Oblivion isn’t anything new but it introduces a state-of-the-art cinematic world and uses its visuals and twists effectively.


To the Wonder Review

            Love.  It’s at the center of Terrence Malick’s latest film, To the Wonder, and despite humanity being around for thousands of years, it is something that humanity has never found a clean answer to.  So obviously this film is Malick’s messiest film to date.  Yet that doesn’t mean there is nothing to glean from this film.  Far from it in fact as Malick adds more to his seemingly endless amount of questions about humanity and its role in the universe in an engaging tale of heartache.

            To the Wonder follows a European woman (Olga Kurylenko fitting in perfectly as the graceful woman Malick-ian archetype), who falls in love with an American man (a miscast Ben Affleck in a tough role that demands a lot of use of his body and facial expressions to create the character instead of dialogue).  They elope on Mont St. Michael, an old religious complex built alongside the beach, and it quickly becomes Malick’s physical interpretation of heavenly bliss.  The European woman moves to Oklahoma where she meets a European priest (Javier Bardem in an underwritten and underutilized role) who is now living there as well.  In classic Malick fashion, discussions about faith, commitment, love and nature follow as the relationship between the European woman and the American man falls apart.

            Terrence Malick goes for broke with what he is trying to do with this film.  While Malick isn’t as successful with mixing the cosmic with the intimate here as he was with his previous film, The Tree of Life, this certainly is as ambitious as that masterpiece.  I don’t think anyone has ever attempted to discover the true definition of love, but Malick tries to do just that here.  While it does take a while to get to the bottom of this (including a seemingly unnecessary subplot involving Rachel McAdams as an old flame of Ben Affleck’s character), Malick does find something interesting.  The physical aspects of relationships (the wedding rings or even the warmth of someone else’s body along side yours) don’t have a thing to do with love.  In Malick’s eyes love is emotional commitment, and if you stay committed emotionally, you will always get something from that relationship no matter the trials it endures.

            Malick is less successful with his attempts to relate love to the world of God.  With a character in Javier Bardem’s priest that is hardly developed (far less than Ben Affleck’s lover, who only has a handful of lines of dialogue), the ramblings about needing to find God are a bit difficult to sit through.  Yet I still think Malick is ultimately able to connect love and being in a higher place with a strong final voiceover from Bardem and a powerful visual motif in the form of Mont St. Michael (gorgeously photographed by Emmanuel Lubezki).

            Considering what Malick tries to attempt with this film, it is understandable that he sets up the film with so many clichés from his other films.  The graceful woman, the violent and conflicted man, the seemingly random but gorgeous imagery, the hushed voiceovers are all clichés of Malick films that have caused this film to be accused of self-parody.  While certainly not a perfect film, these claims of self-parody take away from the fact that all of these elements are in service of a film that is trying to do something original and complex, and the answers certainly are worth it for those who go with the flow.


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