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Films I Neglected To Review: The Dog Of War
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Beirut," "Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero" and "Wildling."

As ''Beirut'' opens in the titular country circa 1972, U.S. diplomat Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) is doing what he does best--smoothly offering up an unending line of glib patter to one and all that suggests that he could personally solve the crisis in the Middle East if given the chance to negotiate between Lebanon, Palestine and Israel. Things go badly very quickly and when we next see Mason a decade later, he is negotiating minor-league labor skirmishes in a state of near-permanent intoxication when he is unexpectedly invited to return to Beirut for a speaking engagement. It is a ruse, of course--a former colleague (Mark Pelligrino) from the old days has been kidnapped by Palestinian terrorists who have specifically requested that Mason take part in the negotiations for his return. While under the watch of CIA agents (including Rosamund Pike and Shea Wigham) charged with making sure he is sober and at the negotiations, Mason tries to get to the bottom of why he has been pulled into this (and why yes, it does have something to do with that tragedy from ten years before) while getting his colleague, who may know more about too many things than even his bosses may be comfortable with, back in one piece.

''Beirut'' seems to have everything going for it on paper--a subject that, despite its period trappings, is as relevant and topical as anything currently on display at the old multiplex, a good director in Brad Anderson, a strong screenwriter in Tony Gilroy, who wrote and directed ''Michael Clayton'' and has worked on everything from the Jason Bourne films to ''Rogue One'' and a talented and charismatic star like Hamm leading an undeniably solid cast. And yet, despite all of those considerable assets, the film never really grabs viewers in the way that a better thriller along these lines like ''Syriana'' managed to do so effortlessly. The scenes in which Mason is seen in his true element, at the negotiating table doing everything he can to keep the others around and interested in continuing talks, are fairly gripping thanks to some good writing and Hammís smart and focused performance. However, the non-negotiating scenes never really catch fire and wind up dragging everything else down--the film wants to be a slow-burn thriller but ends up being just slow instead. The intentions of ''Beirut'' are good and to have the chance to see an adult-oriented drama that is not simply about car chases and shootouts is refreshing but it never quite manages to turn this corner from being a movie that sounds like a good idea to one that actually is one.

There really was a Sergeant Stubby, a Boston terrier who wound up in the trenches during World War I with the platoon of American soldiers who made him their mascot, not only serving heroically in 17 battles but even once helping to capture a German spy. After the war, he became a national icon and even served as the mascot for the Georgetown Hoyas before dying in 1926, an event commemorated with a full obituary by no less of an authority than the New York Times. Now his story has been brought to the screen in the new animated film ''Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero'' and while the end result is no classic by a long shot, it proves to be a modestly entertaining work that is somewhat better than the lackluster promotional campaign might lead you to believe. Rather than try to make its subject into some kind of four-pawed Rambo single-handedly winning the war, director Richard Lanni (whose previous efforts have included several straightforward war documentaries) takes a more even-handed approach in his recounting of Stubby's story--there are no talking animals, musical numbers or extended slapstick sequences to be had at all and while the film does soft-pedal some of the more grotesque details of the horrors of war, it handles the conflict with a surprising degree of seriousness for a movie aiming for family audiences. (That said, parents of younger and more sensitive kids may want to think twice before bringing them to see it.) Additionally, the visual style of the film resists the urge to go in a more cartoony direction and is instead rendered in a reasonably realistic manner and the vocal casting has likewise been done with restraint--instead of a distracting all-star cast, the film offers Logan Lerman as the new recruit who ends up caring for Stubby, Gerard Depardieu as a garrulous Frenchman who joins up with the Americans in the trenches and Helena Bonham Carter in the relatively thankless role of the soldier's sister who winds up narrating the entire story. If you do decide to watch ''Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero,'' though, make sure that you and yours stay in your seats through the end credits, which include vintage photos and newspaper headlines that illustrate just how many of the events depicted actually occurred.

It has been twenty years since the debut of ''Buffy the Vampire Slayer,'' the groundbreaking TV series that, among its other triumphs, brilliantly found ways to use its supernatural trappings to explore the anxieties and concerns that its core audience of teenagers were experiencing for themselves in the real world. The new horror film ''Wildling'' is clearly trying to do the same thing for contemporary audiences, the key difference being that it is really terrible at it. After spending her entire childhood locked away from the outside world by someone she calls ''Daddy'' (Brad Dourif), supposedly to protect her from the clutches of a child-eating monster known as the Wildling, 16-year-old Anna (Bel Powley) is abruptly returned to civilization and, with nowhere else to go, is taken in by the kindly local sheriff (Liv Tyler--yes, Liv Tyler) and her teenaged brother (Collin Kelly-Sordelet) in the hopes that she can start a new life. Needless to say, this plan doesnít go too well and as Anna finds herself consumed by weird and inexplicable feelings, she becomes plagued with the possibility that Daddy may have had other reasons for keeping her hidden away from the world.

While co-writer/director Fritz Bohm is not exactly breaking new ground here with a narrative that skews more towards an exceptionally grim contemporary fairy tale, the early scenes are fairly compelling and Powley is certainly an intriguing presence as she captures the nervous intensity of Anna as she registers a panoply of new sights, sounds and sensations for the first time. As things progress, however, the storytelling gets more haphazard and by the time it finally fully shifts gears into horror, the whole thing just becomes kind of silly, not to mention pretty sloppy from a technical standpoint, before arriving at a conclusion seemingly designed to leave all remaining viewers alternately frustrated and annoyed. Trust me, there are any number of better films and television shows that have combined horror, myth and adolescent angst, ranging from the aforementioned ''Buffy the Vampire Slayer'' to Neil Jordan's great ''The Company of Wolves'' to even the Fifties-era schlock classic ''I Was A Teenage Werewolf,'' and you would be making better use of your time by watching them and giving ''Wildling'' a pass.

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originally posted: 04/14/18 00:22:44
last updated: 04/14/18 00:32:13
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