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On Blu-ray/DVD: SHOCK AND AWE (2018) and THE YELLOW BIRDS (2018)

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SHOCK AND AWE
(US/UK - 2018)


There's a strong and critical indictment of a film to be made of the journalistic lapses and outright cheerleading in the run up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq based on the false claim of Saddam Hussein having WMDs, but SHOCK AND AWE isn't it. It wants to be another ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN or, to use a more recent example, SPOTLIGHT, but it loses its way when it constantly has to stop to hammer home the political leanings of director Rob Reiner and use its characters to spout ham-fisted talking points and gratuitous, clunky info dumps. Too frequently, SHOCK AND AWE feels less like a film utilizing a screenplay and one that instead just has its actors reading old transcripts of COUNTDOWN WITH KEITH OLBERMANN. Shot back-to-back with Reiner's 2017 film LBJ, SHOCK AND AWE reteams the veteran director with that film's screenwriter Joey Hartstone and star Woody Harrelson, the latter cast as Knight Ridder reporter Jonathan Landay who, along with Warren Strobel (James Marsden), became the unintended Woodward & Bernstein of the WMD story. Unlike Woodward & Bernstein, their work wasn't fully recognized until after the fact, when the media--particularly The New York Times, who infamously issued an apology for their kid gloves coverage--took a lot of criticism for essentially being derelict in their duty and, as Knight Ridder Washington Bureau chief John Walcott (played here by Reiner) puts it, "working as stenographers for the Bush Administration." Landay, Strobel, and Walcott, along with weary, cynical Vietnam War correspondent and We Were Soldiers author Joe Galloway (Tommy Lee Jones), dug deep into the Bush White House's false claims of Iraq having weapons of mass destruction, leading to the invasion of a country that had nothing to do with 9/11.





SHOCK AND AWE has the potential to be a fine movie about investigative journalism, but Reiner succumbs to polemics and seems content to coast on everything he remembers from ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN. There's numerous scenes of Landay and Strobel on the phone with sources who give them bombshell information, prompting them to incredulously ask, wide-eyed and jaw agape, "OK, wait a minute...so you're telling me...?" The film even has its own Deep Throat, with Galloway having clandestine meetings over pad thai at a hole-in-the-wall Asian restaurant where he gets classified intel from a high-ranking intelligence official known as "The Usual Suspect" (Richard Schiff). Jessica Biel has a few fleeting appearances as Strobel's girlfriend (their first date, where she wows him by going into the history of the Shia-Sunni conflict, makes her sound like a Manic Pixie MSNBC Host), and Milla Jovovich is badly-utilized as Landay's Yugoslav-born wife, who has nothing to do but drop heavy-handed talking points with clumsy dialogue about The New York Times being "propaganda." There's also an inept attempt to put a human face to the WMD lies, with periodic cutaways to a young black man (Luke Tennie) compelled to enlist after 9/11 only to end up a paraplegic in a roadside IED explosion. But Reiner can't even do that without having the kid's dad intently watching HANNITY & COLMES (which he calls "the news") and nodding along in agreement with what Sean Hannity says as his wife yells "Stop calling that the news!" That's the problem with SHOCK AND AWE: even if you're in agreement with Reiner's political stance, it grows cumbersome and tiresome when the story is put on pause every few minutes so someone can get on a soapbox and deliver speechifying talking points. The barely-released SHOCK AND AWE dropped on VOD and just 100 screens a month ago for a box office gross of $77,000. I missed LBJ and in fact, though he's stayed very busy, I haven't seen anything Reiner's done since 2007's THE BUCKET LIST until this. Anyone see FLIPPED? THE MAGIC OF BELLE ISLE? BEING CHARLIE? Remember when Rob Reiner movies were a big deal? (R, 91 mins)



THE YELLOW BIRDS
(US/UK/China - 2018)


An intermittently intriguing Iraq War drama, THE YELLOW BIRDS is based on a 2012 novel by Kevin Powers but still feels like it should've been made a decade ago around the time of THE HURT LOCKER or STOP-LOSS. There's some powerful moments and strong performances, but it never seems to be building to anything even as its mystery is revealed at the end. Completed in early 2016, the film was released straight to DirecTV with a cursory VOD and very limited theatrical dumping to follow, and in the home stretch, it exhibits the ragged feel of something that's been recut or cut down from something bigger (it ran 15 minutes longer when it screened at Sundance in early 2017), with the arc of a key character feeling rushed and incomplete in a way that diminishes the impact. Told in a non-linear fashion, THE YELLOW BIRDS focuses on two soldiers who become friends in boot camp: 20-year-old Brandon Bartle (Alden Ehrenreich) and 18-year-old Daniel Murphy (Tye Sheridan). Bartle seems to have a troubled background, doesn't respond to his single mother's (Toni Collette) attempts to reach out, and he joined the Army out of bored aimlessness, while "Murph" is shy, quiet, and comes from a stable home, is doted on by his loving mother (Jennifer Aniston) and ex-Marine father (Lee Tergesen), and has plans to follow his military service with college. Taken under the wing of tough-as-nails Sgt. Sterling (Jack Huston), Bartle and Murph see extensive combat, but as the film jumps around, we see that only Bartle returns home, suffering from debilitating PTSD--even attacking his mother at one point in a fit of rage--and taking off when an Army CID investigator (Jason Patric) comes snooping around to ask him some questions about Murph, who never returned home and disappeared without a trace.





A replacement brought in when screenwriter and intended director David Lowery (AIN'T THEM BODIES SAINTS) bailed to do Disney's PETE'S DRAGON remake, French-born filmmaker Alexandre Moors, best known for directing music videos for Kendrick Lamar and Nicki Minaj and helming his first feature since the 2013 Beltway sniper chronicle BLUE CAPRICE, brings the expected visceral intensity to the combat sequences. These sequences recall Iraq War standard-bearers like THE HURT LOCKER and AMERICAN SNIPER, but having come along in such a tardy fashion, they can't help but suffer from an overall familiarity. The non-linear arrangement keeps things generally compelling, but the film only starts to stumble when all of the pieces begin to coalesce. Murph starts thousand-yard-staring out of nowhere, and what happens to him is confusingly conveyed and the decision made by Bartle and Sterling doesn't seem plausible. It feels like both Patric and Huston had their roles significantly hacked down in the editing room, but Collette and especially Aniston--one of 41 (!) credited producers--are excellent in their limited screen time. Ehrenreich and Sheridan are also good, and it's obvious that this grim drama was a tough sell that Lionsgate probably sat on since early 2016, waiting patiently to time its belated release with Ehrenreich's turn in SOLO (Sheridan also had READY PLAYER ONE in theaters a couple months earlier). Some strong moments and solid performances, but in the end, THE YELLOW BIRDS just comes up a little short. (R, 95 mins)


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