Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Quiet killer, quiet movie, quiet Clooney

I can’t remember the last time a George Clooney movie arrived in the marketplace with less buzz than The American, a purported thriller about a hit man in the midst of an existential crisis. Filmed mostly in Italy – with a European supporting cast – the movie’s title misleads: The American, couldn’t be further from the Hollywood noise machine. It plays like a deliberately paced foreign film.

Nothing wrong with that except that the script by Rowan Joffe (28 Weeks Later) seldom digs beneath the surface. Credit director Anton Corbijn with taking a non-exploitative approach to potentially volatile material, but subtract points for Corbijn’s inability to sustain tension, a vital part of even the most cerebral of thrillers.

Despite its pretensions, The American doesn’t measure up to the kind of work we’ve come to expect from Clooney, a movie star with the sort of adventurous taste that has attracted him to movies such as Up in the Air, The Men Who Stare At Goats and Michael Clayton.

The American provides us with little background about Clooney’s Jack, an assassin who knows how to modify weapons for use in nearly any situation. Clooney deadpans his way through most of the movie. That fits the socially isolated character he’s playing, but also holds an audience at arm’s length.

To complicate matters, Jack’s background is hardly fleshed out. Tattoos suggest military experience. That’s about it. If this is a character study, it’s one without a character.

Jack (sometimes called Edward) might be working for a government agency. He might be an independent contractor. He spends most of the movie in an Italian mountain village. Presumably, we’re not supposed to care too much about the past. We’re expected to occupy ourselves with the question that persistently intrudes on Jack's life; i.e., can a man who takes lives ever hope to build one?

Not surprisingly, Clooney’s graying character has grown tired of the hard life. To succeed at his job, Jack can’t have friends or lasting relationships with women. He lives a monkish existence. He sustains an interest in butterflies, creatures that symbolize the transformation Jack wants to make: from killer to a man who’s able to live normally.

To make the obvious even more blatant, Clooney’s character engages in transparently “deep” conversations with a kindly village priest (Paolo Bonacelli). To give himself a semblance of human connection, Jack visits Clara, a local prostitute (Violante Placido).

For all their attempted realism, the filmmakers don’t exactly go hardcore on Placido’s character, a woman who looks none the worse for the wear of a profession that usually tends toward rougher edges. Can Jack and Clara find happiness together or must he pay the bill for past sins? How heavy are the sins? Consider this: Jack kills three people before the opening credits have even rolled.

When the movie reaches its climax, plot developments don’t seem entirely credible. That’s more forgivable than an inherent confusion at the movie’s core: Listlessness is not the same as quiet intrigue. For a long time, though, I found myself appreciating the movie’s approach: a parsimonious use of music, Clooney’s emotional minimalism, the monastic quality of the hotel rooms Jack occupies. But after a time, it becomes clear that this kind of heightened attention also suggests an absence of urgency.

Corbijn also, I think, overestimates our interest in the mechanics of assassination, turning Jack into a kind artisan of murder. He’s very precise in his labors, machine tooling various parts of the rifle he’s assembling for that one last job. He’s building the weapon for a woman (Thekla Reuten) who has been hired to assassinate an undisclosed target.

True to its butterfly symbolism, The American seems to want to transform from a genre piece into something more significant. As you probably have gathered, the movie takes itself quite seriously – which in this case proves less of a virtue than you might suspect. Clooney fans, thriller fans and art-house fans all may experience a mild letdown from a movie that seems to want to say something profound, but can’t quite get to it.

The American takes admirably careful aim, but ultimately misses its target.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The unexpected chills of 'The Last Exorcism'

Before a recent preview screening of The Last Exorcism, a surprisingly taut new horror film, two representatives from a local paranormal society spoke about their experiences observing the fine art of banishing demons. Their take: Many exorcisms prove to be shams; at least one they knew of seemed distressingly real.

When they took questions from the audience, someone toward the rear of the auditorium began with a declaration of belief in “God, Satan and what-not,’’ surely one of more colloquial ways of expressing one’s belief in the fundamental forces thought to grapple for supremacy in the cosmos.

“God, Satan and what-not?”

How about “Good, evil, and whatever, man?”

Given the palpable nature of such forces, the questioner continued, how did these investigators of all things paranormal find the courage to put their souls at risk?

“Someone’s got to do it,’’ responded one of the investigators.

“Why?” I thought to myself, believing that there are better ways to spend one’s time, say trying to find an explanation for those lost socks that keep vanishing in the dryer.

One also might watch The Last Exorcism, which – as far as contemporary horror movies go—beats most of what’s around. OK, I’m straining for a transition here, but aren’t you glad to add “God, Satan and what-not” to your philosophical vocabulary?

Director Daniel Stamm fulfills many of the requirements of the increasingly popular faux documentary genre, adding sprinkles of humor, an acceptable quota of nervous, handheld camera work and a fair amount of creepiness. The Last Exorcism lacks the novelty of a picture such as the trend-setting Blair Witch Project, but it compensates with an unexpected approach to its subject.

To begin with, this exorcism doesn’t involve the Roman Catholic Church, a choice that should come as a relief to those who are sick of seeing Catholicism used as a platform for horror. But that’s only the first in a series of daring choices.

Consider also that the central character, Preacher Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), is a self-proclaimed fraud whose evangelism has more to do with business than belief. Marcus thinks of himself as a “performer,” and he’s good at it. He agrees to conduct an exorcism – his last -- for the movie’s two-person documentary crew so that he can expose a spiritual con game he's perpetrated many times before. He wants to out himself, perhaps to ease a nagging conscience and make himself a better man.

With crew in tow, Marcus travels to the Louisiana home of a stern, believing widower (Louis Herthum) who says that his daughter Nell (Ashely Bell) has been possessed.

When the crew arrives, Nell’s brother (Caleb Landry Jones) tries to warn them off. I won’t tell you more, except to note that the movie’s “paranormal “ events – staged at first by a cunning Marcus -- soon prove to be more than a charlatan’s cheap tricks.

The cast for this low-budget chiller is exceptionally good. Fabian is entertainingly persuasive as a preacher who has been conning people since was a little kid, inheriting the religion business from his father. And Bell’s increasingly unhinged performance as Nell proves seriously unnerving.

Stamm also makes telling use of Louisiana locations, using their damp impoverishment to establish a credibly eerie environment, and he has fun lifting the veil on the tricks Marcus uses to simulate exorcism, a segment of the movie that also serves as a witty expose of movie horror, which (almost by definition) constitutes another form of con. 

To bolster the environment of realism, the script pays homage to reason: At one point, Marcus suggests that Nell receive psychological help. He begins to suspect that there’s something radically wrong with her, although demonic possession isn’t high on his list of possible diagnoses. Marcus is willing to dispense with mumbo jumbo, and make a sincere effort to help the girl.

Now, The Last Exorcism is not without problems. As near as I could tell, the faux documentary gimmick was not consistently maintained, resulting in a couple of unaccountable shifts in point of view. But the movie manages to hold us in its grip right up to an ending that, alas, proves abrupt and disappointing. Too bad. This one gets awfully close to the finish line before tripping.

One more thing: The preview screening was preceded by a filmed introduction from producer Eli Roth, who directed the Hostel movies and who has become a brand name in gory contemporary horror. Roth encourages the audience to spread the word about The Last Exorcism. I could have done without the self-promoting intro.

The Last Exorcism, by the way, is considerably less gore-driven than Roth’s movies, so much so that the movie has been awarded a PG-13 rating.

Alternately funny and creepy, The Last Exorcism is one of those movies that exceed expectation, which may be as good as it gets in these waning days of summer.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Pain at home; culture shock abroad

Tim (Dylan Riley Snyder) and mom (Allison Janney).
Director Todd Solondz shook up the indie world with 1995's Welcome to the Dollhouse. In one way or another, Solondz has been making similar movies ever since. It's possible to regard Solondz as a true American miserablist, and his movies -- though tempered with dark humor -- inflict all manner of pain on their middle-class characters. Solondz's latest -- Life During Wartime -- catches up with characters from 1998's Happiness, which (among other things) took aim at the darkest underside of suburban living. In the new movie, the characters from Happiness are transported into the present, although they're not played by actors from the first installment. Ciaran Hinds, for example, replaces Dylan Baker, as a pedophile father. Hinds' Bill is being released from prison during the movie's grim opening sequence. Life During Wartime, a middling helping of Solondz, alternates uneasy humor and unrelieved helpings of anguish. This time, though, the tug of yearning (notably for absent fathers) doesn't feel especially strong. I'm not sure Life During Wartime takes us any place that Solondz hasn't been before; it seems more variation on a theme than fresh discovery. I look for a quick exit from art-house venues across the nation.
Alexander Siddig and Patricia Clarkson tour Cairo.
No one is likely to accuse Cairo Time of being misnamed. Throughout this slow-moving look at the experiences of a married woman (Patricia Clarkson) waiting for her U.N.-employed husband in Cairo, writer/director Ruba Nadda allows the city to seep into our senses in ways that sometimes make us feel as if time has stopped. Nadda effectively depicts the ways in which Clarkson's Juliette makes the transition from culture shock to immersion in the city's rhythms. Beautifully photographed by cinematographer Luc Montpellier, Cairo becomes a full-fledged character in the movie. Sad to say, the city proves more interesting than any of the movie's human occupants. Clarkson does the most she can with a character who spends s lot of time alone. Given little to play off, she's left to plumb the depths of her reactions to a series of low-key events, the most notable involving a tentative and largely inconclusive relationship with the owner of an Egyptian coffee shop (Alexander Siddig). Nadda's screenplay tends toward repetition, but the movie sometimes catches us in its sway, much the way an unexpected breeze can dispel the torments of stifling heat -- if only briefly. As one who's not likely to travel to Cairo any time soon, I welcomed this cinematic journey, even as I yearned for some dramatic sparks to fly.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

No switch for Aniston, just another romcom

The Switch is an innocuous bit of summer fluff in which Jennifer Aniston continues to defend her title as queen of the contrived romcom. Don’t believe me: Check out Aniston’s recent output, movies such as The Bounty Hunter, Love Happens or He’s Just Not That Into You. The Switch represents a definite improvement over some of Aniston's worst efforts, but still fails to hit the bull's-eye.

It definitely helps that Aniston receives an assist from Jason Bateman, an actor of proven comic chops. Also on hand is a badly underutilized supporting cast that includes Jeff Goldblum, Juliette Lewis and Patrick Wilson.

As is the case with many rom-coms, The Switch feels a bit predigested. Sensitive piano music cues us to those moments when we’re supposed to feel something, and the movie’s arc follows a familiar trajectory: Two good friends must find their way to a romantic conclusion that arrives amid a flurry of bromides about the wondrous ways in which lasting connections are formed.

Of course, there’s a hook. As much as stars, romantic comedies need hooks, the twist that tricks us into thinking we’re watching something we haven’t seen before.

In this case, the hook involves sperm.

Aniston’s Kassie wants to have a baby. She’s a New York TV producer who hears her biological clock ticking. Kassie won’t allow the lack of a husband to thwart her parental ambitions. She does what any red-blooded heroine of a mildly manipulative romcom would do: She finds a sperm donor (Wilson).

Not content to let matters unfold from there, the script contrives to have Bateman’s neurotic Wally switch his sperm with that belonging to Wilson’s Roland, a smiling, hearty fellow who, unlike Wally, loves the outdoors. Wally, on the other hand, is a hypochondriac, a Woody Allen Lite figure who wallows in indecision.

The great sperm swap occurs at an insemination party staged to celebrate Kassie’s decision to expand the population. (All I can say is that if you receive an invitation to an insemination party, you'd be wise to decline. If you’re not smart enough to do that, at least don’t get wasted.)

Before she gives birth, Kassie leaves town. Seven years pass. Wally remains in a social rut. Offered another job in New York, Kassie returns to Manhattan with her eccentric six-year-old son in tow.

The rest of the movie involves a possible romance between Roland – divorced since his sperm-donating days -- and Kassie, Wally’s inability to tell Kassie the truth about either the origin of the sperm or his feelings for her and the introduction of young Sebastian (Thomas Robinson), Kassie’s son.

It takes a fair amount of jockeying for the script by Allan Loeb (based on a short story by Jeffrey Eugenides) to deal with all this. It's possible that excessive plot-shuffling (along with semen switching) can be blamed for making the movie seem more like a sitcom pilot than a fully enriched comic portrait. This despite the presence of two directors (Josh Gordon and Will Speck), the duo that shared directing chores on Will Ferrell’s Blades of Glory.

With nothing much to do, Goldblum is left to play around with line readings, allowing each bit of dialog to slide from his mouth as if the words were balls tumbling down hill with him racing to catch up. Lewis might as well have stayed home; her role doesn’t rise even to the level of amusing cliche, the acerbic gal pal who offers a steady stream of cynical advice.

Scenes between Bateman and Robinson show promise as the script reveals how much alike they are, and it’s difficult to work up hostility toward a movie that takes a potentially fertile (sorry) subject and turns it into the equivalent of multiplex wallpaper; i.e., another late summer throwaway. And don’t look for Bateman and Aniston to burn up the screen with fresh passion, although Aniston certainly owns the patent on this kind of role. Maybe we should begin to think of her as a Doris Day for the 21st century.

Credit The Switch for acknowledging the sex appeal of TV’s Diane Sawyer (never mind how), offering a few chuckles and drawing on Bateman’s ability effortlessly to shift between glib one-liners and neurotic introspection.

Otherwise, there’s not much to say other than to lament the fact that so many movies these days resemble the sitcoms that for so long were a staple of episodic television.

So here’s the drill: If you see The Switch, laugh on cue, sigh upon request and then return to something equally predictable but less subject to resolution in 101 minutes, our sagging economic fortunes.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Michael Cera in a wild new context

Scott pursues the apparently unobtainable Ramona.
We’ve seen too many graphic novels brought to the screen, and we’ve experienced more than enough movies that strain to replicate the dizzying buzz of video games. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World fits into this over-stuffed category, but still manages to distinguish itself from the pack. The movie is a boldly conceived and wildly creative mash-up of graphic novel tropes and just about anything else director Edgar Wright seems to have thought of while adapting a half dozen of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novels for the screen.

More than a recreation of graphic novels, Scott Pilgrim is a heady celebration of the form, and if you have any tolerance for this kind of youthful filmmaking, you should have a good time.

Once you know that the movie stars Michael Cera, you also know a lot about its main character. Cera plays the title character, brainy young Scott, a guy who can be funny in a self-deprecating sort of way. It’s hardly surprising that resembles most of the other characters Cera has played in movies from Juno to Superbad to Youth In Revolt. Cera may be a one-trick pony, but he performs the trick with skill.

A small confession: I keep looking for signs of Cera’s maturation. Is this guy doomed to perpetual big-screen adolescence or some reasonable facsimile? Will Cera ever have an AARP card or will he remain in this bizarre ageless state forever?

Like some of Cera’s other characters, Scott Pilgrim is entirely of the moment. He lives with his gay roommate (Kieran Culkin) and has only one real aspiration: to win the heart of Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the girl of his dreams. Scott’s also being pursued by the ultra-determined Knives Chu (Ellen Wong).

When the movie opens, Scott’s dating Knives; he’s 22; she’s still in high school. His friends think he should be embarrassed about the gap in their ages.

Scott also plays in (what else?) a garage band. That adds another up-to-the-minute character to the movie’s mix, Alison Pill’s surly, cynical Kim Pine, drummer of The Sex Bob-omb, a band that sounds a little better than its name might lead you to believe.

A plot of sort drives the pyrotechnics, which are served with numerous comic-book exclamations splashed across the screen.

But about that plot: To win her, Scott must fight seven of Ramona's former boyfriends. This daunting task leads to a series of vividly depicted battles with rivals that include a rock impresario portrayed by Jason Schwartzman.

Familiar to American audiences from two more traditional comedies – Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz – Wright handles the mayhem well, although it must be said that the movie’s rampant creativity seldom abates. So, yes, all the amped-up, exaggerated energy can cause you to burn out on Scott Pilgrim before the movie races across its finish line.

Maybe that was inevitable: Scott Pilgrim’s meaning resides in the many gimmicks over which Wright presides. The movie doesn’t have a style; it’s nothing but style, and it thrives on merging various forms of entertainment and popular culture.

I happened to see Scott Pilgrim the same week I saw Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, a documentary about the New York artist who died in 1988 of a heroin overdose at the age of 28. Basquiat’s art – much praised and highly priced – set a standard for energetic fragmentation that I thought about while watching Scott Pilgrim.

For the most part, the movie’s jazzed up, juiced up images amuse, but they also vanish from memory as quickly as spent fireworks fading from a night sky. Put another way: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World can be fun while it lasts. Quite considerately, I think, it doesn't leave much in its giddy, frenzied wake.

Jula Roberts eats, prays and learns to love

It's hardly news that Julia Roberts can carry a movie. So you won't be shocked that she puts Eat, Pray, Love on her back, pretty much keeping this episodic adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert's best-selling memoir from falling apart. Appealing as she is, Roberts can't elevate this travelogue into something meaningful and deep. I don't blame her, but director Ryan Murphy of Nip/Tuck fame seems to have forgotten that a long-standing internal conflict about life's meaning only can carry a movie so far. As was the case with Gilbert's book, the movie follows Gilbert as she leaves two failed relationships and tries to find herself during a yearlong trip that begins in Italy, continues in India and culminates in Bali. On her various stops, Gilbert learns life lessons, and eventually arrives at a point at which she can take a chance on love. The men in Gilbert's life are played by Billy Crudup (first husband); James Franco (Gilbert's next love); and Javier Bardem (the man who just might be able to persuade Gilbert to risk her heart.) Richard Jenkins portrays a Texan Gilbert meets in an Indian ashram; Jenkins is good, but the movie doesn't really allow any of these characters to flourish. They're like people we meet on a trip, feel a little close to and then forget. Roberts and supporting players do their best to give the movie some easy charm. I enjoyed looking at Rome, and reveled the airy openness of Gilbert's home in Bali, but Eat, Pray, Love offers a cliched view of the world and of its colorful characters, a smiling, toothless medicine man included. I couldn't watch Eat, Pray, Love without thinking how much more I wanted from these characters and from the movie itself. Director Murphy, one of the screenplay's co-writers, attempts to replicate the author's voice by having Roberts supply a narration. But if there's any authentic yearning in the movie, I didn't feel it. I also couldn't help thinking that if Arthur Frommer wrote self-help books instead of travel guides, this is how they'd look.

Get high on 'Get Low'

Most reviewers have spent ample time praising Robert Duvall's work in Get Low, a satisfying drama about Felix Bush, a backwoods hermit who makes a public appearance in order to plan his own funeral. The catch: Felix wants to stage the funeral before he dies so that he can attend. Rather than providing a platform for encomiums, the funeral is supposed to allow folks to say what they really think of the bearded old codger. Duvall plays these kinds of taciturn loners with ease, never feeling a need to peek out from behind the character; he's predictably good. But for me, Bill Murray -- as the undertaker who agrees to stage Felix's funeral -- steals the show. Like Duvall, although in an entirely different way, Murray refuses to ingratiate himself with an audience. He's wry, smart and perfect as Frank Quinn, a man with slightly checkered past. Sissy Spacek offers able support as Mattie Darrow, a woman who seems to know Felix's secrets. Lucas Black excels as Quinn's assistant, and Bill Cobbs has a nice turn as a preacher and one-time friend to Felix. Director Aaron Schneider does an able job with a small movie built around one man's severe expression of guilt. Set during bleak 1930s, Get Low stands as a lovely little drama, even if it seems to have been designed mostly to accommodate Duvall. Thankfully, it does right by just about everyone else in the cast, too.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Police work may be a laughing matter

Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg as hapless cops.

If you don't like Will Ferrell, you'd best run for cover. Not only does Ferrell have a new comedy - The Other Guys - out this week, but he also has two movies in postproduction and seven in development. So says IMDb, the invaluable movie web site.

Ferrell has made his big-screen mark in movies as diverse as the gleefully crude Old School (2003) and the more sophisticated Stranger than Fiction (2006). He also has experienced some critical drubbing, notably for Land of the Lost of the Lost (2009), which scored a dismal 32 out of 100 at the aggregate review site Metacritic.

Ferrell's growing filmography suggests that he has a kind of unstoppable drive, and it's evident in his work, which typically finds him mixing silliness and earnestness in ways that create an absurd incongruence, like opening your door and discovering a naked insurance salesman on the porch.

Although The Other Guys isn't a top-drawer comedy, it makes room for some of Ferrell's funniest work. Presented in the guise of a buddy-cop movie, The Other Guys teams Ferrell with Mark Wahlberg; they play detectives too inept even to pull off a routine good cop/bad cop interrogation.

The Other Guys reunites Ferrell with director Adam McKay, who directed Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. This time, Ferrell and McKay spoof urban cop movies, adding topical gloss with a plot that revolves around a Bernie Madoff-like financial fraud. Steve Coogan plays a British financier who's involved in a scam that has Ferrell and Wahlberg racing around New York City.

Ferrell portrays Allen Gamble, an accountant who works for the New York City Police Department, where he tries never to leave his desk. Wahlberg plays Terry Hoitz, a loose-cannon detective who craves action, but who has been shunted aside because of a whopping error in judgment. (You'll have to see the movie to find out what it is.)

The temptation with comedy is to steal some of the jokes for a review. I'll try to resist. Ferrell has some funny bits, not the least of which involves the way he describes his wife (Eva Mendes). I won't give away more, except to note that there are few red-blooded American men who would regard the sultry Mendes as an eyesore and a burden.

An amusing bit involving the way in which Ferrell's character earned money in college requires him to flip into a strange alter-ego expression of a "dark side" that he struggles to keep under wraps. These collegiate flashbacks make no sense, which, of course, makes them even funnier.

Michael Keaton is spot on but underutilized as Capt. Gene Mauch, boss of this improbable duo, a policeman who supplements his income with shifts at Bed, Bath & Beyond. He needs extra cash to support his college-age son, a character who doesn't appear in the movie but who becomes the source of a repetitive joke about sexual preference.

Wahlberg? At times, he seems to be pushing awfully hard to provide a contrast with Ferrell. But the two keep things humming through a variety of scenes that make for a ragged jigsaw puzzle of a movie. Put another way: The Other Guys is a bit of a mess.

Opinions may differ, but I don't think that McKay has the right chops to handle the movie's action, presumably intended as a send-up of the action in many urban movies of recent memory. But the thing about comedy is this: If you laugh enough, you stop caring about everything else. You feel a little better about saying that no one likely will mistake The Other Guys for a great movie, even as you wish that someone (anyone) could make a comedy that comes close to working on all levels.

Hang around for the end credits, which are designed to raise your ire about the current economic situation and which contain more pointed satire than anything else in the movie. Very clever.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Afghan war up close and personal

Some called the Korangal Valley "the valley of death."

If you want an idea of what daily life is like for U.S. soldiers serving in a heavy combat zone in Afghanistan, you can’t do any better than the riveting and often harrowing Restrepo. Named for a soldier who was killed early in his deployment, this documentary follows the exploits of a company that served 14 months in Afghanistan, much of it in the Korangal Valley, billed as one of the most dangerous places in the world.

Directors Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington risked life and limb to make their movie, and it’s impossible to watch Restrepo without wondering what was going on in the minds of the filmmakers, who did a ton of filming in combat zones before conducting interviews in Italy, the country where the company was sent immediately after its Korangal tour.

Junger and Hetherington don’t tilt the movie in any particular political direction, but it’s very difficult to watch Restrepo without wondering what the hell is being accomplished in Afghanistan. (It’s also important to know that the U.S. military left the Korangal in the spring of this year, part of a declared shift toward counterinsurgency in population-heavy areas.)

The men we meet in Restrepo are determined and brave; their leader – Captain Dan Kearney – seems capable. But it sure doesn’t look as if the U.S. is winning many hearts and minds in a country where residents are fearful of Taliban reprisals for cooperation with the U.S.

We meet a variety of soldiers, and their testimony lends perspective to the combat footage, which tends to be understandably chaotic. During their stay in the Korangal, the company built an outpost, which they named for their fallen comrade. Outpost Restrepo becomes their home for most of the their deployment, and they’re constantly fighting off attacks. We never see an enemy combatant, but the wounded and dead testify to their very real presence.

At one point, the men embark on Operation Rock Avalanche, an attempt to take the fight to Taliban warriors. A Taliban ambush unhinges at least one soldier; the death of another – billed as the best fighter in the company – leaves everyone shaken. As one GI asks, if the best soldier gets killed what chance do the rest have?

Heavy fighting mixes with fraternity-style horseplay, which serves to remind us that these men are young. Pfc. Juan S. Restrepo never saw his 21st birthday.

As is the case with most GIs, the men don’t have time to contemplate the larger reasons for the fighting. In combat, geo-political considerations become a preposterous luxury, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t think about what these – and other young men – are going through, and, beyond that, whether their sacrifices have wrought any tangible results.

I found it difficult to watch Restrepo without concluding that "victory" in Afghanistan -- whatever that means -- may be impossible. Much of the terrain is isolated and impassible, and the promise that the U.S. will enable rural Afghanis to lead better lives seems a hard sell. (The company’s initial mission involved providing security for a road that was to be constructed through the Korangal.)

From the outset, it’s clear that Restrepo is no ordinary documentary. Junger and Hetheringon capture the shock of war, and they deserve credit for their bravery. The same goes for the soldiers, who were brave on two fronts. Not only did they fight a wily and often unseen enemy, but they also allowed themselves to be filmed doing it.

After the film concluded, I found myself shaking my head. Whatever we’re doing in Afghanistan, it had better be worth it. The men who built Outpost Restrepo deserve nothing less than a clearly defined reason for scars – both physical and emotional – they may well carry for the rest of their lives.