Reviews

'Restrepo': In the Valley of Death

In Afghanistan, US soldiers chase -- and are chased by -- the ghosts of 9-11.


Restrepo

Director: Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington
Cast: U.S. 2nd Battle Company, 503rd Infantry, 173rd Airborne
Distributor: National Geographic
Rated: R
Year: 2010
Release date: 2010-12-07

In the era of reality TV, producers often manufacture conflict and emotional drama in order to titillate audiences. There’s no need to manufacture anything in Restrepo, a documentary shot on the frontline in Afghanistan. Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington begin their stark film as gung-ho GIs shout and joke during their maiden flight to Afghanistan. Their ringleader is strapping John Restrepo, an Army medic. These young men are headed to the Korengal Valley, one of the most dangerous tours in Afghanistan.

Once they arrive, a roadside bomb devastates their ATV. As the stunned GIs climb out, they fall under immediate gunfire. Soon afterwards, Restrepo gets shot in the neck and dies in an Army helicopter, shocking his brothers-in-arms into a grim new reality.

The Taliban are a ghostly presence throughout the film--we never see them, but their handiwork is everywhere. Sniper fire punctuates the film on a continuous basis. Abandoned Taliban camps are discovered during patrols. In one incredible scene, a GI reaches for a water bottle and falls under the scope of a Taliban sniper--the GI begins dancing and hot-footing around flying bullets. The 2nd Platoon christens their precarious new outpost “Restrepo”.

There are no interviews with generals or politicians, Restrepo is tightly focused on the men of the 2nd Platoon, led by Captain John Kearney. “Where the road ends, the Taliban begins,” Kearney says, and it’s an apt statement, for the Taliban controls the countryside.

Yet Kearney’s courage is undermined by his naiveté, like Pyle in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. In his weekly ‘Shura’ meetings with Afghan elders, Kearney lectures them as if they were unruly school children. The Afghan elders communicate their concerns about civilian casualties haltingly, through a translator . Kearney scolds them about the ‘bad guys’. The bad guys in question are probably related to these elders, most likely their sons and nephews and grandsons.

One of the documentary's most telling scenes is what the GIs refer to as the “Cow Incident”. The Afghan elders request a shura meeting, which excites the American command. The elders rarely initiate contact, and the American officers hope for a breakthrough in cooperation. Instead, the elders want compensation for a cow that died while getting tangled in Restrepo’s razor wire. The elders want $500 dollars.

The event is bitterly funny to the GIs, for it crystallizes the hopelessness of the stated objective. In a third-world country like Afghanistan, a cow is more important than the endless War on Terror. One can only hope that a small event like the “Cow Incident” triggers a public reassessment of the entire enterprise.

As if on queue, the “Cow Incident” leads to Operation Rock Avalanche, as American GIs launch a tactical walk-through of Taliban-held territory. A red-hot firefight erupts and the chaos of battle is shockingly and vividly shown. Deafening rifle fire is exchanged amid shouts and screams. This type of filmmaking makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. The 2nd platoon loses another man, and if not for the discretion of Junger and Hetherington, the GI would have died on camera. A young soldier has an emotional breakdown near the body of his dead comrade, yet the firefight continues, for there’s no mercy in Korengal Valley.

An American airstrike on a nearby village has predictably mixed results: women and children are injured, yet Taliban rifles and rocket launchers are discovered amid the rubble. There’s no separating the civilian population from the enemy, for the Taliban are immersed within the local community.

The exit interviews with the men of the 2nd Platoon are sobering. The jaunty cockiness displayed during that initial flight to Afghanistan has disappeared. These brave young men seem to have aged ten years within the span of fifteen months. And one wonders what awaits them in civilian life during one of the worst recessions in decades.

The now abandoned U.S. outpost of Restrepo in Korengal Valley is a bitter reminder of America’s overreaching War on Terror. Junger and Hetherington offer no editorial viewpoint, yet what they capture on film is a powerful political statement. The men responsible for 9-11 were never in Iraq and have long departed Afghanistan. Restrepo could lead to important questions about the principal beneficiaries of an endless war and how they manipulate public opinion.

DVD extras include deleted scenes and additional interviews with the men of the 2nd Platoon. Restrepo won the 2010 Sundance Award for Best Documentary.

8
Music

The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)


In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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Film

'Foxtrot' Is a 'Catch-22' for Our Time

Giora Bejach in Fox Trot (2017 / IMDB)

Samuel Maoz's philosophical black comedy is a triptych of surrealism laced with insights about warfare and grief that are both timeless and timely.

There's no rule that filmmakers need to have served in the military to make movies about war. Some of the greatest war movies were by directors who never spent a minute in basic (Coppola, Malick). Still, a little knowledge of the terrain helps. A filmmaker who has spent time hugging a rifle on watch understands things the civilian never can, no matter how much research they might do. With a director like Samuel Maoz, who was a tank gunner in the Israeli army and has only made two movies in eight years, his experience is critical.

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