"Transcendence" is a serious science fiction movie filled with big ideas and powerful images, but it never quite coheres, and the end is a copout.
Beginning a new column devoted to films available via Video on Demand in all its forms.
● "How to Fold a Flag"● "We Are the Night"
To say that Javorn Drummond, Jon Powers, Michael Goss and Stuart Wilf come from different walks of life is something of an understatement. If they hadn't served together in Iraq in 2003-04, they never would've met. Now they're back home, separated by geography, uneasy peace and haunting memories of what they saw and did during a war they determined to be pointless. They might meet again someday -- or not -- but they share a bond of life, death and military service that they'll take to their graves.
These are the guys we got to know in "Gunner Palace," the superb 2005 documentary co-directed by the husband-and-wife team of Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein. They defended America as soldiers in the Army's 2/3 Field Artillery Division, never quite sure what they were killing or dying for. There was a fifth "star" in the film, Ben Colgan, who sacrificed his elite Delta Forces post to join the artillery unit in Baghdad. Then he sacrificed his life to an IED.
To make "How to Fold a Flag" (an all-digital premiere "presented by" filmmaker Morgan Spurlock as part of a co-op distribution deal), Tucker and Epperlein revisited the soldiers five years later, in 2008-09, for a stateside follow-up. They visited Colgan's still-grieving parents in Washington state (a finer couple you'll never meet), and coincidentally spent the same timespan making this film (15 months) as Drummond, Powers, Goss and Wilf spent together in Iraq. Another coincidence is that both films run for 85 beautiful, eloquent minutes, not a single minute more or less than is required to make us love these guys, warts and all.
Javorn's still in Fayettville, NC, not far from Fort Bragg, studying for a degree in criminal justice (for good reason, we learn) and living in a rotten trailer unfit for human occupation. Constantly swigging Coronas and puffing on spliffs that might contain tobacco, he's not exactly a pillar of virtue, but he's smart, funny and optimistic in his quest for "normal." He's also got charisma to spare; in another life he could be Snoop, Jay or Kanye, drawing hefty paychecks. Instead he got beaten by cops within hours of coming home.
Democrat underdog Jon Powers is running for a 26th district congressional seat in Clarence, NY, which bears uncanny resemblance to Ron Kovic's hometown scenes in "Born on the Fourth of July." Here, too, indifference and ambivalence greets the returning soldier: Disillusioned with Washington after his wartime leadership, he's promising change against well-heeled Republican opponents who promise little beyond unjustified smear tactics.
Mike Goss is battling personal demons more than most, and who could blame him: He did something in Iraq (just following orders, mind you) that could, upon reflection, tear the strongest man to shreds. Mike's a cage fighter now, struggling to raise four kids while honoring his fallen brothers in the ring. When we hear his confession about the fate of an eight-year-old Iraqi girl named Mirvet, you just want to hug him 'til the hurt goes away. And yet, for all of his troubles and obvious PTSD, Mike was dishonorably discharged and lost his V.A. benefits.
Stuart Wilf was the cut-up in Baghdad, his exploits entertaining enough to earn him a centerfold spread when TIME honored "The American Soldier" as its Man of the Year. The reason he enlisted is as hilarious as it is typical in the Army-recruitment scheme of things; now he's back in Colorado Springs, CO, playing death metal in a band called Pestiführ and enduring "all the dickheads" as a clerk at the Circle K. He may be a screw-up, bursting with cynicism and poised to go postal, but probably not: He loves his mom (who's got a younger son in Afghanistan), loves his war buddies, and embraces a philosophy that makes perfect sense (as Obi-wan Kenobi once said) from a certain point of view.
None of these guys share screen time; they've moved on, but their connections inform everything they do. Are they better men for having served and sacrificed? That's for viewers to decide for themselves.
To their credit, Tucker and Epperlein do not dwell on the soul-crushing ineptitude of the government and the Veterans Administration regarding the inexcusable neglect of soldiers returning from the Middle East. (As you may have heard, suicide rates among traumatized vets are sky-high and rising.) The abominable conditions are duly noted, and Goss's case has a promising outlook, but "How to Fold a Flag" (from which we learn how to fold a burial flag) never forces the issue. Instead, it gently implies its politics with just the right balance of humor and humanity.
This is most evident in the film's quiet, revealing moments, as when Javorn laments the futility of the war in Iraq while being visited by one of his fellow soldiers, a sweet, fresh-faced kid now working as a recruitment trainee.
"We be over there dyin' for nothin'," Javorn says. His friend clearly agrees, but if he said so out loud he'd lose his job, providing fresh meat for the grinder.
Morgan Spurlock Presents "How to Fold a Flag" premiering simultaneously Monday (5/23) across all streaming and on-demand platforms including Netflix Instant, Hulu, Hulu Plus, VuDu, iTunes, Amazon Instant, iNDemand and CinemaNow.
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"We Are the Night": Sucking in Style
"We eat, drink, sniff coke and have sex as much as we like, but we never get fat, pregnant or hooked. Enjoy it. Billions of babes would kill to be in our place."
That's the fun-loving advice given to street-smart Lena (Karoline Herfurth) shortly after she's been "turned" and recruited (via neck-bite) by a hard-partying trio of sexy vampiresses in German director Dennis Gansel's rip-roaring vamp thriller "We Are the Night". ("Have sex" being a polite translation; these girls drop F-bombs with impunity.)
Lena does enjoy her new life, for a while at least, especially when she's joyriding around Berlin with her new gal-pals, driving stolen Lamborghinis, Porsches and customized Detroit muscle that would earn Vin Diesel's "Fast Five" seal of approval. Cute party girl Charlotte (Jennifer Ulrich) just wants to have fun during their predatory prowls; the burdens of immortality weigh heavily on Nora (Anna Fischer), a German silent film star frozen in her prime for 80-plus years; and the needy, manipulative 250-year-old ringleader Louise (Nina Hoss) -- the oldest of the last surviving 200 vampire babes on Earth -- is still bragging about the extermination of all male vampires some two centuries earlier.
Yep, you got it: These are liberated vampire queens without kings, but there's a catch: Lena hasn't established her loyalties, and she's got a soft spot for Tom (Max Riemelt), the Berlin cop who's been hot on her trail.
There are basically two schools of vampire fans: Those who enjoy mash-ups, interspecies warfare and anything-goes bloodletting, and those who demand a modicum of old-school fidelity to the Bram Stoker rulebook. You know, things like vamp-skin burning under sunlight, gravity-defying super-strength, and absent reflections when you gaze into a mirror.
Armed with a pulsing dance-club soundtrack and adrenaline to spare, Gansel (who co-wrote the script) is an old-school loyalist with a fresh-blood transfusion, and "We Are the Night" has plenty of delicious throwaway details and enough crimson-tide humor to put in on par with Kathryn Bigelow's "Near Dark" (to which it pays homage during a SWAT-team shoot-out) and the best episodes of "True Blood."
"We Are the Night" was a huge hit in Europe, which gave it a fighting chance of at least brief theatrical exposure in the U.S., but times have changed and so have the options of distribution. As a V.O.D. premiere, this is a good bloody movie and a bloody good one, too.
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A Seattle-based freelancer, Jeff Shannon has been writing about film and filmmakers since 1985, for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (1985-92) and The Seattle Times (1992-present). He was the assistant editor of Microsoft's "Cinemania" CD-ROM and website (1992-98), where he worked with rogerebert.com editor Jim Emerson, and was an original member of the DVD & Video editorial staff at Amazon.com (1998-2001). Disabled by a spinal cord injury since 1979 (C-5/6 quadriplegia), he occasionally contributes disability-related articles to New Mobility magazine, and is presently serving his second term on the Washington State Governor's Committee on Disability Issues and Employment.
Presented by IFC, "We Are the Night" premieres May 25th across all major cable and satellite Video-on-Demand platforms.
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