Act of Valor and Special Forces Compared

I watched Act of Valor and Special Forces recently and reviewed them both (here and here). While I liked them both, I have a clear preference for Special Forces. I will remember it much longer and will certainly watch it again. Both movies have flaws but the sources of those flaws are very different. I thought it would be interesting to look into the details and analyse why I liked one movie so much more.

The French movie Forces Spéciales and the US movie Act of Valor are strikingly similar. Both show the special forces of the respective countries in action, displaying the amazing gear and weapons and showing some of the tactics. While the rescue mission takes the whole 2hrs of Force Spéciales, in Act of Valor it is over after the first third of the movie and the story adds other missions. The most striking  difference however is the fact that Special Forces uses famous actors while the Act of Valor cast consists mainly of real Navy Seals.

Realism

While both movies have been supported by their respective military and the gear and weapons displayed make them look authentic, the fact that the cast of Act of Valor are real Navy Seals makes it more realistic. Additionally all the missions which are said to be based on real missions came across as more realistic. After the journalist has been freed in Special Forces, the movie starts to incorporate a few elements which are a bit questionable and some reviews I read criticized them a lot.

Story

Special Forces tells one chronological story. A journalist has to be freed and after that has been achieved, the group must flee which takes up 2/3 of the movie. In Act of Valor, different missions are shown which are interlinked. The story telling is rather episodic with each part having its own climax.

Music

I’m a sucker for film music that’s why I paid special attention. The music in Act of Valor is supporting and quite discreet while in Special Forces it’s dramatic, very present and influenced by a lot of very familiar scores. It’s, to be completely honest, a tad corny.

Cinematography

Decent in Act of Valor and absolutely stunning in Special Forces.

Actors and Characters

The cast of Special Forces is the big strength of the movie. The cast and the characters. Most of them are famous and play likable characters. It’s easy to care for them and we are not indifferent to their fate. Some of the scenes are particularly dramatic and emotional because the one or the of the likable characters is wounded or dies.

The characters in Act of Valor however are flat. I couldn’t tell them apart and since the dialogue was so wooden, I didn’t care for them at all. The movie emphasizes the missions, emotions are not so important.

Emotions

While Act of Valor may be entertaining and exciting, it left me ultimately cold. I wasn’t moved while I had quite strong emotions when watching Special Forces.

It was interesting to see how important it is for me to care for characters and their fate. If a movie leaves me completely cold emotionally, I simply don’t like it that much and am bound to forget it very easily. As I said, both movies have flaws, in Act of Valor it’s the actors and the characters, in Special Forces some elements are not realistic. Overall I can forgive (minor) unrealistic elements when the characters are believable and the story triggers an emotional response.

Has anyone seen both movies? Which one did you prefer?

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Is There Too Much Emphasis on Film Music in War Movies?

Comments on two of my recent reviews (The Front Line and Special Forces) made me question the use of music in war movies. I remember that I was once not so keen on music in films and that I had liked some, like The Army of Shadows, especially because they hardly use any music at all. When it comes to more action-driven movies, I think that the music is to a large extent the reason why I like them so much. I couldn’t imagine Black Hawk Down, Gladiator, King Arthur, The Last of the Mohicans and many more without music.

On the other hand I’ve seen a few movies who would have been good with other or no music. In those cases the choice was so bad, it really damaged the film. One of those examples is The Killing Fields.

I think one of the problems is whether the score has been composed especially for the film or whether they just added known songs and pieces of music. This can work as well, as we can see in some of the Vietnam movies, but often it doesn’t.

Should a movie not be excellent without music? How important is it? Is there a overuse of music, particularly in US productions?

What do you think?

Let’s find out but share your opinion as well and name some examples in which the music was used especially well or others in which it damaged the movie.

The Most Terrible Weather Conditions in Infantry Combat Movies – 4 Examples

Combat is hell. We all know that. But some combat situations are made even worse because of the weather. I have seen four movies and episodes of series in which the depicted weather conditions made me think: “How utterly awful this must have been”. The terrible weather conditions are a great means for film directors to enhance how horrible combat is and how utterly futile some battles when facing not only a strong(er) opponent but the force of nature.

The first movie is Stalingrad. To watch those troops in the icy cold snow of the Eastern Front is harrowing. Countless men who survived the battle died from hunger and cold.

Horror weather example number two is also due to snow and cold. It is shown in the episode “Bastogne” from Band of Brothers.

As brutal as the winter in Europe and the Eastern Front was, the constant rain the troops had to face in The Pacific was no less demoralizing. Example number three is the episode number 4 “Cape Gloucester” from The Pacific which takes place just after the battle of Guadalcanal. Humidity and the constant noise of the torrential rain lead to stress and illness.

Another really harrowing example was shown in the Australian movie Kokoda. The mud, rain and dirt of the Kokoda trail has to be mentioned among the worst experiences any troops have undergone.

I just realized that all these are examples from WWII. Makes it look as if there hadn’t been any terrible weather conditions during other wars but that is of course not the case. I remember a few WWI movies in which the mud and rain played an important role but I’m not able to pick a perfect example. Additionally I would like to add an example in which scorching heat proved to be fatal.

Which is the worst weather you have ever seen in any war movie?

Some Thoughts on The Lord of the Rings (2001 – 2003)

I don’t think I need to do a proper review of the The Lord of the Rings. Too much has been written about it already and I assume the story is well-known but I’m still in the mood to write about a few of the aspects.

The Blu-Ray version

Never has Blu-Ray made more sense than with this movie. I’ve seen it before but watching it on Blu-Ray is really something. It has an amazing 3D effect that stunned me. The colors are amazingly intensive and all the creatures come to life much better. It’s like another movie almost. I’m not sure that if I ever watch it again I will always watch it in Blu-Ray as it’s occasionally almost too impressive and very surreal. The Blu-Ray I watched was the extended version.

The three parts

The way this movie is constructed is pure genius. While all the main characters get together in part I The Fellowship of the Ring, they are going different ways in part II The Return of the King and three The Two Towers and we have up to 4 parallel story lines. If you are like me, and have your favourite bits, then every time the story moves away from them, you eagerly await until it returns to you favourite characters.

The characters

The Lord of the Rings is action-driven but without those great characters and the “Band of Brothers” feel, it would never have been the success it is. I always liked the idea that the fellowship included not only humans but also Hobbits, Dwarves, Elves and a magician. It’s typical that of the initial group only the second human dies.

While Orcs and Uruk Hai are creatures of the dark forces, hobbits, elves and dwarves are good, only humans can choose and their decisions can be fatal for the world or – as can be seen in Gollum’s case – for themselves.

I’m not sure which was my favourite character the first time I watched it but I think – the elves in general. This time the four characters I liked best were Aragorn, Boromir, Haldir and Legolas. I’m not saying they are the most important, they are the ones I like best.

Pairing Legolas, the elf, with Gimli, the dwarf was another strike of genius and adds humour to the movie, just like the pair of silly hobbits Pippin and Merry. Pippin is particularly important as his foolish actions are the motor behind many important scenes. He triggers more than one major fight or battle.

The actors

I can’t think of any movie like The Lord of the Rings in which the actors are so well-chosen. I wouldn’t change one of them. Readers of this blog know that I’m no Orlando Bloom fan but that wasn’t always the case. The first time I saw him was as Legolas and he is amazing in this role, he is cut out for it.

My two favourite actors in the movie are Viggo Mortensen and Sean Bean. I like many of their other movies as well. Sean Bean is an actor who is famous for his dying scenes. There aren’t many movies with him in which he doesn’t die. I can’t remember that any of the scenes is as dramatic as this one here.

Another incredibly great choice was Liv Tyler as Arwen.

The special effects

I’m not too fond of special effects and CGI in war movies in general but there wouldn’t be any believable fantasy or sci-fi movies without them. The Lord of the Rings raises the bar extremely high. I didn’t even notice how high in my previous viewings. What the Blu-Ray disc manages to convey particularly well are the buildings and cities. They are stunning. The two abodes of the elves as well as Minas Tirith make you sit in front of the TV like children in front of their christmas presents.

War

I have included Lord of the Rings on this blog for a few reasons. Without the topic of “war” there would be no Lord of the Rings. The movie offers so many incredible fight and battle scenes which justify including it. The most famous and longest one The Battle of Helms Deep is usually mentioned in Top 10 battle scenes, right along battles in real wars. It is an amzing scene and I found it quite scary when I saw it for the first time. And particularly one of the deaths got to me a lot (if you’ve seen it you know who).

The message of course is clear as well. War isn’t good. The dark forces bring war and it is a battle of good versus evil. I think this also is part of the appeal. In real life, in history, it’s so rare, especially in the last decades, that good and bad can been named so easily, that a war is nothing else than the good forces fighting the bad.

What I like as well is that it is a fight for the good, mankind and other positive forces but most of all also a fight for the survival of nature. This reminds me that whenever people fight for trees in our world, they are made fun of.

Book versus Movie

It’s been a long time since I’ve read the book and I loved it at the time. I even remember that I was disappointed when I saw the movie for the first time because two scenes were more impressive in my mind but by now the movie has completely eradicated the book and I’m not even sure I could read and enjoy it again without seeing the people from the movie.

I could write much more but I’m going to leave it at that as anything else would contain too many spoilers. If you haven’t seen it yet, don’t waste anymore time. You could alos re-watch it as a warm-up for the upcoming The Hobbit.

On the Tolkien Gateway  you can find more info, on the upcoming Hobbit movies as well.

How about you? Is it one of your favourites as well? Do you prefer the book?

Defiance (2008) The Bielski Partisans

After having moaned about the accent situation in Defiance (which you can read here) it’s now time to get to the review and I must say, all in all, I didn’t think the movie was all that bad. And we have to bear in mind that it’s based on a true story, the story of the Bielski partisans or Bielski brothers.

After having found that their parents had been killed by the Nazi’s who systematically exterminated Polish Jews, the four Bieski brothers flee to Belorussia and hide in the woods. The two older brothers Tuvia (Daniel Craig) and Zus (Liev Schreiber) have both lost their wives and children as well. While hiding in the forest they are joined by a group of Jews and decide to stay together and try to survive in the forest. After a while, more people seek refuge in the woods and the Bielkis take them up. Tuvia in particular brings back people from every food searching expedition which creates huge tensions between the brothers. It is clear that Tuvia is the leader and this is another source of tension as their leading style is different.

After a few weeks or months the camp in the forest is almost a little village, there are now hundreds of people who need to be fed, who need shelter and protection as the Germans swarm these woods. On the other hand there is strength in the number as they have people with all sorts of professions among them. Nurses, carpenters, teachers. After a few more months the tension between the brothers escalates and Zus leaves the group and joins Russian partisans. This is initially ideal for the group as this means additional and armed protection.

The movie shows how they struggle. The winter is particularly hard for them, many fall ill. It’s incredibly difficult to find food for so many people and they are surrounded by enemies. They have to fight quite often and there are combat situations as well. There are also a few love stories that will lead to relationships that last a life time. We also see them execute different missions, like saving people from the ghetto before they are sent to the camps.

I found the movie interesting and fascinating because it is a true story. In the end the Bielski brothers saved at least 1500 people. That’s quite amazing. I’m quite fond of Daniel Craig and thought he was a good choice for Tuvia.

While I wouldn’t say this is a must-see movie, it’s not bad at all and when you are not familiar with the story, it’s quite interesting. In any case what these brothers achieved is amazing.

Here is a photo of the real partisans

If you want to read about them here are a few articles The Bielski Partisans and Tuvia Bielski and a wikipedia article Bielski partisans.

Why It’s Occasionally Necessary to Watch the Dubbed Version of a Movie – The Case of Defiance

While I will write a proper review about the US movie Defiance, starring Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber, in a day or two, I feel like writing about fake accents here because that is something that bothered me while trying to watch the movie.

Nothing drives me up the wall like fake accents or illogical accents. And no matter how much some people try to convince me that it’s not important, it is. I’m a linguist and a translator. Languages are important to me. If it isn’t important to you, that’s fine, but some will feel like me, I’m sure.

If a Russian speaks English with a Russian accent I’m pretty sure I may think this is cute but if an American or British actor speaks English with a Polish accent for no other reason than some illogical attempt at authenticity, then it’s not cute. The movie Defiance was one of those bad examples. I tried watching it three times, every time I gave up after half an hour and had to stop it. Yesterday, on the fourth attempt, I remembered that I had a German DVD. While dubbed movies are something I truly do not like, it was blissful to change to the German version. All of the actors were just speaking German and although Russians and Poles would hardly speak German in real life (in their own country among their fellow country men!), they most certainly would not speak English with a Russian or Polish accent. Now I see that this is an attempt of authenticity, but for me it’s plain silly.

While I was thinking about this, I remberered the wonderful Cate Blanchett in The Man Who Cried and that her Russian accent didn’t bother me at all. On the very contrary, I found it admirably well done. So why did Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber annoy me, while Cate Blanchett didn’t? Because Cate Blanchett plays a Russian who meets English-speaking people and it’s logical, or possible that she should have an accent, while it isn’t logical that Daniel Craig’s characters traipses around the Russian forest speaking English with his brother and on top of that with an accent.

To make me prefer a dubbed version it takes a lot. Two other movies which improved greatly in their dubbed versions were Memoirs of a Geisha and Frida. I’m not sure which one wound me up the most but I think the prize has to go to Frida.

I’m aware that watching a dubbed version isn’t an option for native speakers of English. I’m sorry for that.

Whether I liked Defiance in the end and what it is all about will be the topic of my next post.

What do you think of accents and dubbing in general?

The Thin Red Line (1998) Part IV The Actors and the Characters

The Thin Red Line is a movie with an incredible cast. This is not uncommon in war movies but what is unusual is that we have actors from a very wide range in the same movie. Actors you’d hardly ever see together in another movie. I’m pretty sure this was done on purpose. Seeing the actors and the characters gives a feeling of heterogeneity. This isn’t a “Band of Brothers”, these are individual characters thrown together by the circumstances. Of course I will have to mention this again in my most anticipated post of this series Saving Private Ryan versus The Thin Red Line (which is not so much a duel than a simple comparison, to show, that those two movies go together like two faces of a medal).

The actor is one thing, the characters another. This post is meant to explore the characters. Not all of them, of course, not even all those who are included in the opening picture. I don’t want to write a 2000 words post.

Brig. General Quintard aka John Travolta (Pulp Fiction, Love Song for Bobby Long)

Like in every war movie, there are good characters and bad ones, likable ones and idiots. Although it is one of the strengths of The Thin Red Line to show the complexity of human beings, and therefore we do not find black and white characters, John Travolta’s character is the only really negative one in this movies. This is pure asshole material.

We only see General Quintard at the beginning of the movie when he instructs and – in my eyes also debases – Lt. Colonel Tall. Quintard is typical High Command. He most certainly will never see action. He is preposterous and enjoys putting down people. Malick has him stare over the ocean for a while, which means nothing else than that the guy is in an abstract, combat-free zone, somewhere above everything and not really interested in things and even  less in people. An empty shell.

Lt. Colonel Tall aka Nick Nolte (The Prince of Tides, Cape Fear)

There have already been quite a lot of discussions involving Tall in the former posts. I know I argued he is the typical “mad” superior officer, going over dead bodies to achieve what he has been told. He blindly follows orders and believes in the chain of command like in nothing else. While all this is true, to a certain extent, it’s not the whole picture we are given. Tall is far more complex than that, and I agree with a commenter, who stated that this was another proof of how excellent a movie The Thin Red Line is.

When we see Tall and Quintard together we already learn that this is pretty much the last chance for Tall to prove himself. He’s been left out during all the last promotion rounds. One can only suspect why this was the case. Seeing the type of superior he has, we can assume he didn’t have the right contacts. This has made him bitter, this and the fact that his son didn’t want to join the Army but prefers to sell fish bait.

Bitterness and the fear to fail are powerful drivers and he looses perspective easily. He tries to see the bigger picture and wants to achieve success, no matter how high the costs. He thinks that sacrificing a few to save a lot is justified. He thinks you have to drive the men, despite their hunger and fear. When given the choice, however, he will let them rest and drink. He isn’t sadistic. He is just extremely driven and not inclined to think about the individual need of his soldiers. He shouts and screams and fumes in a totally exaggerated way. That’s why I called him crazy. He is neither abusive nor does he enjoy being mean.

Private Witt aka James Caviezel (The Passion of the Christ)

Witt has the role of the one who questions good and evil. He is also the one character who would – and eventually does – sacrifice himself for others. In this he can be compared to Sgt Elias in Platoon. I mentioned it somewhere else, but I’ll mention it again, I don’t think it was a coincidence that Dafoe who played Elias later got to play Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ, just like Caviezel played Jesus in The Passion of the Christ after The Thin Red Line. They ooze a saviour aura in the war movies that stuck to them and was later exploited by other directors.

Private Witt is teamed up with Sgt Welsh. These are two characters that clash when looked at superficially. If you look at it more closely however, they have a lot in common.

Sgt Welsh aka Sean Penn (Dead Man Walking, Mystic River)

We tend to have our favourite characters in a movie and in this one, my favourite one is Sgt Welsh. Sean Penn is also one of my favourite actors. I would argue that this is one of the most memorable characters in any war movie but you need to watch it at least twice to realize it. He is cynical but out of vulnerability. He is one of those who does the right thing, the good thing at the right moment but he doesn’t want it to be mentioned. He is discreet and calm. The biggest difference between him and Witt is the fact that he is no believer. Nothing makes sense to him, he thinks that all that happens is down to human nature which is inherently bad.

Capt. John Gaff aka John Cusack (High Fidelity, 2012)

Capt John Gaff is one of those young, eager officers that have the words “promising career” written all over their faces. He isn’t a bad sort but distant and withdrawn. He is everything that Tall would have loved his own son to be. At the same time he is probably also everything Tall himself would have liked to be.

Capt Staros aka Elias Koteas (Shooter, Shutter Island)

Capt Staros is the antithesis of Tall. Tall isn’t a completely bad guy, but Staros is decidedly a truly good one. He will always think of his men first, which means he will always think of the individual first. Maybe sacrificing a few would bring the desired outcome of a  mission but that is not the way Capt Staros, a deeply religious man, would ever go. He is also very courageous and, if necessary, disobeys orders. His feeling for what is good and right is so strong that he will not think about the consequences his insubordination will have for him. But he isn’t a Private Witt, he wouldn’t sacrifice himself. He also doesn’t believe that people are inherently good but he thinks they deserve to be protected.

Sgt Keck aka Woody Harrelson (Natural Born  Killers, The Messenger)

Sgt Keck is worth mentioning because his death is so useless and tragic and on top of that his own fault. He gets one of the longest dying scenes of the movie and while he realizes he will die he goes through a wide range of emotions in a very brief period . He is one of the good ones, a good sort who dies, not through enemy fire, but through a tragic accident that underlines futility and the randomness of death.

Private Bell aka Ben Chaplin (Murder by Numbers, The Remains of the Day)

It’s through the character of Private Bell that the battlefield and the home front get connected, the life of the soldier and the life of the civilian meet. All through the movie he is thinking of his wife back home and their love for each other. It’s a bit of a war movie cliché that he is the one who gets a letter from his wife telling him that she found someone else because she was too lonely.

As you can see in this older post, there are many other actors and characters in the movie. Some like Lt Whyte (Jared Leto) and Cpt Bosche (George Clooney) have just tiny roles. One stands for the numerous men who died without anyone ever really knowing them, the other one is one of hundreds of officers that come and go endlessly. Some are good, some are bad, some are remembered, many are forgotten.

If you have seen The Thin Red Line, who is you favourite character?

If you are interested in the other parts here is

Part I The Review

Part II On Death and Dying

Part III Nature and Evil

Part V The Thin Red Line vs Saving Private Ryan is upcoming.