12 posts categorized "war drama"


'Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,' an intoxicating war drama

Lance Cpl. Andrew Coughlin (Evan Jonigkeit) and Kim Baker (Tina Fey) use their weapons of choice in a "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" firefight. (Paramount Pictures)

Here’s my only real beef with Whiskey Tango Foxtrot: It’s a witty, gritty war-correspondent drama posing, or more appropriately being marketed, as a comedy, which it is not.

Is it because Tina Fey, one of our most gifted comedians, is out front as a stateside cable news producer thrown into the explosive turmoil of the Afghanistan war zone in the early 2000s?

Could it be because the co-directors, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, co-wrote the hilarious darkly comic Bad Santa and aimed for something like the late Robert Altman’s comic-war drama MASH of 1970?

Well, “Atten-hut,” film-making soldiers. What you have marched to the screen here is a superbly nuanced drama (with occasional comic turns, granted) about a cable news desk jockey.

Kim Baker (Fey) is a producer so mired down in a life where she “writes news copy for dumb pretty people to read” that she’s willing to venture to a war-torn country where fecal matter actually permeates the air. She’s not quite as emotionally bottomed-out as Tom Hanks’ character was when he agreed to leap into a fiery volcano in Joe Versus the Volcano (1990), but she’s close.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is based on print journalist Kim Barker’s 400-page The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Screenwriter Robert Carlock, an Emmy winner for his work on NBC’s 30 Rock, which also starred Fey, focuses on the author’s sometimes horrifying adventures in war-ravaged Afghanistan.

Baker, asked point blank by fellow war correspondent Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie of Focus and The Wolf of Wall Street) if she can borrow Baker’s video crew for sex, is tossed first into the Fun House, a sex, booze and caustic comic dormitory of sorts for war reporters, then the war itself. Fitting in as a seasoned journalist is out of the question at first. She marches off to war with a bright orange backpack and fatigues that still have a store label on the pants leg.

But a funny thing happens once Whiskey Tango Foxtrot gets past all the slightly irritating stabs at dark war comedy. A beautiful drama emerges. Fey, as so many comedians are, turns out to be a superb dramatic actor. She plants her feet solidly in this conflicted character who becomes a seasoned war reporter in a hurry and may just become a little too intoxicated by the rush of real explosive danger.

In fact, this is a film overflowing with funny folks who are also gifted dramatic actors. Billy Bob Thornton, who played (and will play again next Christmas) the title character in Bad Santa, is outstanding here as Marine Col. Walter Hollanek, a leader with a constant 2,000-yard stare and a devotion to his men and duty.

Even though this film was shot in New Mexico, it captures the filth, the poverty, the desperation and the conflict of the Middle East extremely well. One of the things it does best is reveal Baker’s view of what she witnessed there as a journalist embedded in the chaos.

Extremely gifted actor Alfred Molina (Love is Strange) is so immersed in his character of budding government official Ali Massoud Sadiq that he’s almost impossible to recognize. Up-and-comer Christopher Abbott (A Most Violent Year) might just find that his performance as Fahim Ahmadzai, Baker’s fixer (interview arranger) is a catapult to stardom.

Martin Freeman (Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit series), as flirty, quick-witted photographer Iain MacKelpie, and Fey create some real screen magic as two lost souls flailing about trying to find some direction in their lives amid the madness of war.

Despite the fact that the filmmakers even make a feeble inside joke with the first letters of the military lingo title, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (You get it, right?), this film excels as what it is; an extremely well-acted drama about flawed humans fighting to keep even a loose grip on humanity.


MPAA rating: R (pervasive language, some sexual content, drug use and violent war images)
111 minutes
Jalapeño rating: 3½ (out of 4)


The Russians are coming!

Routine in some aspects, the gritty war-drama "5 Days of War" stands out as an example of the positive power of real-simulated action over computer-generated effects.

If you're anything like me, you'll want to keep your head down as bullets fly in this dramatic recreation of the brief, but bloody David vs. Goliath five-day conflict between Russia and the Georgian Republic in 2008.

Director Renny Harlin, once known for mainstream thrillers like "Die Hard 2:  Die Harder" and "Cliffhanger," hits the cinematic war zone with the full cooperation of the Georgia military and citizens.

That means when you see hundreds, perhaps thousands of attack-ravaged refugees fleeing their homes ahead of the Russian tanks, you are really seeing live humans instead of five or six folks multiplied by computer into the masses.

British actor Rupert Friend ("The Young Victoria") is out front as Thomas Anders, an American TV correspondent.  Along with fellow journalists Sebastian Ganz (British actor Richard Coyle of "Coupling"), The Dutchman (Val Kilmer) and Zoe (German actress Antje Traue), they treat war as nightly drinking binges with dangerous duty during daylight hours.

"5 Days of War" maintains its "Black Hawk Down" desperate feel throughout, as Anders repeatedly steps into active combat zones to get the story and, in this case, the girl; a schoolteacher named Tatia (Emmanuelle Chriqui of "You Don't Mess with the Zohan" and "Entourage" on HBO) cut off from her family during a bombing raid.

Harlin, while quite adept at using powerful images and sound, is not quite equal to Ridley Scott ("Black Hawk Down" director) when it comes to keeping it real and believable.

As powerful as the war scenes are, drama becomes melodrama at times.

Still, for those who enjoy war dramas that push them to the edge of their seats with heavy artillery and tank fire, "5 Days of War" keeps the action blasting throughout.

An added plus is Andy Garcia as Georgia President Mikheil Saakashvili and Harlin's determination to make a modern-day war picture the old-fashioned way with real actors and effects.


The normalcy invasion

An odd combination of sci-fi alien invasion thriller and grunt soldiers on the ground facing seemingly  impossible odds, "Battle: Los Angeles" excels at neither.

It does, however, provide enough rat-a-tat action to keep action-hungry film fans on the edge of their seats.

What is first thought to be small clusters of meteors heading toward Earth turn out to be alien invaders, of course.  Driven, and perhaps even fueled by sea water, they pummel Los Angeles and other major cities of the world with extreme firepower dished out mostly from the air.  

So who does director Jonathan Liebesman ("The Texas Chainsaw Massacre:  The Beginning") and screenwriter Chris Bertolini (co-writer of "The General's Daughter") send in to take on the invasion filling the sky over Santa Monica with drone gunships?

A platoon of Marines, that's who.  There's no "Pork Chop Hill" to climb, but a platoon buoyed by Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart) turn this nearly two-hour barrage of us-against-them into a modernized version of "The Big Red One," plus or minus few hundred mechanical/humanoid soldiers from who knows where.

And, by the way, Aaron Eckhart as the battle-weary Marine who signs his retirement papers, then is brought back into the fray when the aliens stage their own Normandy invasion on the L.A. beach front?

Yep, that Aaron Eckhart.  It's the strong actor who used to grace sophisticated, gritty Neil LaBute dramas like "In the Company of Men" before he went mainstream as Harvey Dent/Two Face in "The Dark Knight."

Actually, Eckhart's not bad.  The notion of a platoon of gradually bonding Marines ("Retreat, hell!") taking on an invading air force is so far-fetched that at least acting with depth takes the audience's mind off the obvious shortcomings.

I had plenty of time to ponder one notion, though.  Given a jet fighter and the urgency Will Smith displayed "to get up there and whip E.T.'s ass" in "independence Day" (1996), this could have all been handled in about half the time.

Instead, "Battle:  Los Angeles" drags on and bogs down in its own smog; a smokescreen of elongated firefights mixed with mostly clichéd attempts to humanize the small circle of key characters.

Michelle Rodriguez ("Lost" on TV) and Michael Peña ("World Trade Center") add some credence as a displaced Air Force operative and a father desperate to protect his young son.

Bottom line, though, this has all been done before and better.  But when it comes to popcorn action-thrillers designed for mass, mainstream consumption, I've seen worse.


Onward Jewish soldiers

Four young Israeli tank soldiers, overgrown Jewish boys, really, rumble across a border, onto an unfamiliar road and into a life-changing war.

"Lebanon" is a riveting war drama unlike any I've seen.

In Hebrew with subtitles, "Lebanon" takes us inside the cramped, clanking tank as the Shmuel (Yoav Donat) the gunner, Assi (Itay Tiran) the tank commander, Herzl (Oshri Cohen) the ammo loader and Yigal (Michael Moshonov) the driver try to survive a world suddenly gone mad.

Their only connection with the outside war zone comes via increasingly distraught visits by Jamil (Zohar Strauss), the commander on the ground.

"The Hurt Locker," the reigning Best Picture Oscar winner, captured the angst, fear and madness of American bomb de-activators in the current Middle East conflict last fall.  

This is 1982 and Israel's first war with Lebanon.  As these young men rattle down a dusty road and into a bombed-out village, they take the audience with them in the tank.  If you're anything like me, you'll almost be able to feel the heat, feel every jerky movement of the armored tin can with a huge gun attached.

Writer-director Samuel Maoz is making nothing up.  This terrifying ordeal (or something very similar) is what he experienced inside a tank as a shell-shocked young Israeli soldier 28 years ago.  Almost all of "Lebanon" is viewed from inside the tank; through the green-hued cross hairs of a gun sight.

This is not a scenic journey or view.  Terror and horror will be seen from there, as are a mesmerizing shot in extreme slow-motion of rapidly approaching gunfire.  

It took Maoz a quarter of a century to look back in horror and find the fortitude to transfer his tortured soul into screenplay form.  He captures it extremely well.  In fact, well enough to win the Golden Lion Award at last year's Venice Film Festival.

I often wonder why we as movie-goers line up for intense war dramas that rip out our emotional guts as they blow up the guts of others.

Movies like "Lebanon" are why.  Extremely well-crafted good ones like this and "The Hurt Locker" convey the physical and emotional pain soldiers endure so that others don't have to.

Except in the safety of a darkened movie house.


'The A-Team': On the rogue again

Welcome to '80s Reboot Week at your neighborhood movie house.

Film-goers might just feel like they're in a time warp as they stroll multiplex hallways and see the re-imagined "Karate Kid" in one theater and a reconfigured "A-Team" in another.

It should surprise no one that "The A-Team" is a B-movie.

The campy TV action series that occupied NBC prime time from 1983 to 1987 provided an action fix, not logic.  The redux tones down the campy nature a little.  You'll never hear B.A., Mr. T's old character, growl, "I pity the fool," for instance.  Audiences are more sophisticated these days, according to the "A-Team" words of wisdom spun in the film's press notes.

This time we get nuance, if you'd like to call it that.  The first time B.A. batters bad guys with his fists, we notice the word "Pity" tattooed on the fingers of one hand and -- don't get ahead of me -- "Fool" on the other.

Mixed martial artist Quinton "Rampage" Jackson steps in as B.A., the A-Team wheel man who's in the wrong line of work to have a serious fear of flying.  At the center, though, is Liam Neeson as cigar-chomping leader and tactician Col.  John "Hannibal" Smith (the George Peppard role).  

Rising star Bradley Cooper ("The Hangover," "All About Steve") is Face, designated ladies man and sm-o-o-o-th talker.  Sharlto Copley, who sprang to the forefront from nowhere as Wikus in last year's "District 9," steps into the role of crazed-genius pilot "Howlin' Mad" Murdock.

Co-stars include excellent actor Patrick Wilson ("Watchmen") as mysterious CIA weasel Lynch, Jessica Biel ("The Illusionist") as Capt. Sosa, a former love of Face's, and somewhat laughable lines like this:

Face to Capt. Sosa during a heated confrontation:  "I forgot how beautiful you are."

"The A-Team," lensed north of the border with the Vancouver area of Canada doubling for Mexico, Baghdad, Germany, Los Angeles and other locales, rattles the theater speakers and singes the screen with plenty of fast-paced adrenalin-pumping explosions and near-cartoon-like action.

These special ops experts survived combat in Middle East conflicts.   The '80s quartet cut their teeth on napalm and treachery of the Vietnam War era.  Both sets of misunderstood soldiers of fortune were wrongly accused of walking off with war booty (robbing the Bank of Hanoi on TV/ stealing $100-bill U.S. currency plates from Baghdad in the current skirmish).

Director Joe Carnahan ("Smokin' Aces," "Narc") co-wrote this screenplay with actor/writer Brian Bloom (who plays Black Ops leader Pike) and Skip Woods, who co-wrote "X-Men Origins:  Wolverine" and penned the sly action-crime saga "Swordfish."  

There's just a hint of retro in this adventure that culminates in a big, explosive finish at the L.A. harbor.  Anyone who saw "MacGruber" recently might have slight "MacGyver" flashbacks.  The "A-Team" is plenty adept at warrior arts and crafts at a moment's notice and at grabbing odds and ends for parts to homemade weapons of mass destruction.

Quickly forgettable, "The A-Team" is like a carnival ride that briefly thrills and is fun, but won't linger long in the brain.


Slightly off the robust entertainment target

When Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott re-team for the umpteenth adaptation of the Robin Hood legend, we get a fair dose of "Gladiator," a little "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," major sword-clanking battles in Sherwood Forest and, by Scott and Crowe dark standards, Merry Men merriment.

"Robin Hood," which co-stars Cate Blanchett, William Hurt, Max Von Sydow and other fine actors, is the fifth collaboration for the New Zealand born movie star and his prolific British cohort in the director's chair.

Move often than not, the modus operandi has been tough guys in seriously dangerous situations.  "Gladiator" earned an Oscar nomination for Scott and a Best Actor golden statuette for his leading man.   Crowe and Scott reunited for "American Gangster" in 2007 and the thriller "Body of Lies" a year later.

In between, the duo took a little wine and cheesy movie break in France.  With Scott calling the shots, Crowe drank a little wine, wooed a pretty damsel and fell into an empty swimming pool.  That was "A Good Year." (2006)

"Robin Hood" begins in France as well, but there's little time to sit around sipping Chardonnay.  It's 1199 and archer Robin Longstride (Crowe) is among King Richard the Lionheart's (Danny Huston) troops laying siege to a French castle.  

Here we go again.  It's obvious from the spectacular opening sequence that the tag-team of Scott and Crowe are ready to rumble on a very large scale again.  If you were awake in high school history class, you may recall that the king doesn't walk away from the battle (despite winning).

It's nothing new for legends that loom large on our movie screens to be kneaded more than a little for mass market consumption.  "Robin Hood" screenwriter Brian Helgeland, who shared an Academy Award with director Curtis Hanson for "L.A. Confidential" in 1997, has no restraints when it comes to a legend that began in 9th century medieval oral history.

So forget what you know about Douglas Fairbanks as the hooded crusader in 1922 ("Robin Hood"), Errol Flynn in 1938 ("The Adventures of Robin Hood") and Sean Connery in 1976 ("Robin and Marian").  I trust you've already filed Kevin Costner's wobbly British accent in "Robin Hood:  Prince of Thieves" (1991) so far back in your memory bank that it couldn't reemerge even if you wanted it to.

This "Robin Hood" is essentially a prequel; Robin the Hood back story.  Once the skilled archer gets out of the stocks (for mouthing off to the king) and bonds with a handful of loyal rowdy followers (the Merry Men), the mission begins to return the fallen king's helmet to the Queen Mother (Eileen Atkins).

Robin, who grew up without a father, also agrees to return a dying prodigal son's sword to the doomed soldier's father.  That may seem like a lot of chores for a future hero of Sherwood Forest to bog himself down with.  But since this movie ends where most Robin Hood flicks begin (Sequel anybody?), there's no plot-point agenda.

Marion, tough and no one's damsel in distress as portrayed by Blanchett, turns out to be the revered old man's (Von Sydow) daughter-in-law.  Only in the movies does a stranger move into a lady's bedroom and pose as her husband to keep peace in the land.  That works fine for a day or two.  But then the need to scratch the old Scott-Crowe itch kicks in, and ferocious battles rage with lives and, in fact, England itself on the line.

"Robin Hood" squeezes in a wee bit of merriment.  Mark Addy ("The Full Monty"), who toned down his British accent a little to star in the U.S. sitcom "Still Standing," earns some laughs as mead-swilling Friar Tuck.  William Hurt plays it serious as Sir William Marshal, though, turning in one of his finest performances in years.  And Mark Strong (Lord Blackwood in "Sherlock Holmes") is about all anyone needs as nasty villain Sir Godfrey.

At two hours and 20 minutes, "Robin Hood" indulges itself too long on screen.  Technically it's on target, though, if you appreciate boiling oil dumped on soldiers and enough flying arrows to block out the sun at times.  Generally, however, Scott and Crowe are both on top of their  game.

And the game here is tweaking a mystery folk hero into a bankable new epic movie franchise.


'Dear John': Cheesy to the letter

The sappiness  almost drips off the romantic-drama "Dear John."

That surprises me a little with established, usually excellent director Lasse Hallström at the helm.

The culprit here for romance dulled by overbearing melodrama is the novelist, Nicholas Sparks.  If you thought the sappy movie versions of previous Sparks novels "Message in a Bottle" and "The Notebook" were just the right kind of tear-jerker, you'll find familiar surroundings in "Dear John."

I'm no genius.  I had a pretty good idea, however, that once preppy Southern belle Savannah Curtis (Amanda Seyfried) started sending letters overseas  to John Tyree (Channing Tatum), her U.S. Army Special Forces beau, that eventually "that letter" would arrive.  After all, every letter in this weepie begins with "Dear John."

The soldier and the college girl meet on a South Carolina beach in the early '00s.  She's on spring break.  He's home to visit his quirky, reclusive father  (Oscar nominee Richard Jenkins). They fall in love quickly, but vow to spend the rest of their lives together, after John's Army hitch is up in about a year.  

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 change all that.  John can't walk away from his duty to country.  Savannah, however, is more of a mindset that a deal's a deal.  Uh, oh.  Who can't feel a certain "poison pen" moment looming?

Can this exercise in pulp friction actually be coming from the same talented Swedish director who orchestrated heart-breaking drama so well in "The Cider House Rules" (1999) and had our hearts on a leash with "My Life As a Dog" in the mid-'80s?

"Dear John," while not quite as silly as novelist Sparks' "Message In a Bottle" or, for that matter, "The Notebook," wastes not only our time, but the time of Jenkins, the excellent actor of "Burn After Reading" and "The Visitor."

Once Texas native Henry Thomas (The "E.T." kid all grown up and doing some good work) shaves the beard and is recognizable, he's pretty good as Tim.  He's the needy single father at the beach house next door who's sort of biding his time when it comes to companionship.  

No pity is necessary for the two young leads.  Seyfried, on screen recently in "Jennifer's Body," and Tatum ("G.I. Joe"), the latest in a long line of stone-faced semi-actors, are simply two young actors looking for work.

With a little luck, their next outings will provide a little more substance for them, and for us as well.       


'Avatar' reignites Cameron's epic movie magic

James Cameron doesn't simply make movies.  He relentlessly innovates and pushes the art form forward.

"Avatar," the Oscar winner's first narrative feature since "Titanic" in 1997, fills the screen as the first perfect blend of computer-generated special effects, animation and meaningful human acting in the history of cinema.

We can add the most effective use of 3-D as well.  Although "Avatar" will be available in both 3-D (for a slight premium, of course) and standard 2-D, I highly recommend spending the extra buck or two in this instance.  The added dimension makes sense for a futuristic sci-fi fantasy adventure that unfolds in 2154.  That's especially the case when the action unfolds on a vegetation-filled lush moon called Pandora 4.4 light years away from a seriously energy depleted Earth.

If you've been anywhere near a television set or movie theater in the past month or so, you already know that "Avatar" features 10-foot-tall blue-skinned indigenous natives who don't take kindly to Earthlings bull-dozing their precious rain forest.  The unwelcome interlopers are in search of a rare mineral that might hold the key to Earth's dire 22nd century energy crisis.

What you might not know going in is that the script, written by director Cameron, very smartly uses all the innovative gadgets, but only as elements of what Cameron calls his "tool box."

The motion capture filming process, where actors perform with sensors all over their body, but enhanced here to include intimate facial expression,  effectively inserts key actors under the alien skin.  Animation makes their tails sway in sync with the bodies, and 3-D -- never, ever used as a jump-out-at-the-audience gimmick -- makes an exotic, animal-filled, vividly colored, computer-generated alien world appear to actually exist.

The story itself is a bit of a pulp fiction sawhorse.  The filmmaker admits as much.  This time, though, when the newcomer (Sam Worthington) rides into a foreign land and mingles with the locals, it's not Kevin Costner going native with the Sioux in "Dances With Wolves), it's a wheelchair bound ex-Marine whose mind is inserted into a lab-created Na'vi body.

Jake Sully (Worthington), or Jakesully as the natives refer to him, is on a scientific mission headed by Grace (Sigourney Weaver) to learn the secrets of communing with nature.  That would make a fascinating little story.  But it that would also deprive Cameron the fun of bombastic conflict, and perhaps some not-so-veiled comments on this country interloping on other lands for precious resources.

Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephan Lang of "The Men Who Stare at Goats," "Public Enemies") and the greedy bottom-line-profit-driven corporate project leader Carter Selfridge (excellent actor Giovanni Ribisi, also in "Public Enemies") set the stage for mortal combat quite effectively.

At the heart of "Avatar," however is a totally believable love story.  And it doesn't merely involve a former Marine who gets a second chance at movable legs, albeit long and skinny and alien, who falls hard for Na'vi princess warrior Neytiri (Zoë Saldana of the "Star Trek" remake).  Saldana deserves an Oscar nomination for a superbly human performance in what amounts to an alien body.

A film this creative, this spectacular, this perfectly performed comes along once in a blue moon, or whenever Cameron gets the itch to innovate on the highest creative scale again.

I hate to be the one to say it, but if "Avatar" catches fire at the box office, Cameron could be headed for another one of those embarrassing Academy Award night outbursts at the winner's podium:

"I'm the king of the other-world, too!"


Onward saddened soldiers

They park down the block.  That way their target has no idea it's their lives that are about to be drastically altered.

Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster don't portray burglars, murderers or even rapists in the riveting drama "The Messenger."

Instead, officers Will Montgomery (Foster) and Tony Stone are assigned to the Army's Casualty Notification service.

They are grim reapers.  Casually, they refer to themselves and others like them as angels of death.  When a soldier falls in Iraq or Afghanistan, the knock on the door comes from these stern-faced soldiers of mercy.

Arriving in theaters in the wake of the Fort Hood, TX shooting rampage, which left 13 dead and over two dozen wounded on Nov. 5, one of this year's most powerful dramas will likely electrify emotional nerve endings with a heavier charge than it might otherwise.

Harrelson, on screen recently in the outrageous comic monster-mash "Zombieland," can also bring it as a dramatic actor.   The veteran actor from Midland is the perfect seemingly hard-edged vet to star opposite Foster's mentally tortured returning war hero.

Will's got three months left to serve.  The fact that his girlfriend Kelly (Jena Malone) hooked up with a new fiancé when he was half a world away taking shrapnel in the eye weighs heavy on Will's heart as he delivers emotional knock-out punches to strangers.

Foster, so convincing as  trigger-happy gunslinger Charlie Prince in the 2007 remake of "3:10 to Yuma," doesn't make a single false move or bad acting choice as Will.

Oren Moverman, who co-wrote Todd Haynes' "I'm Not There," turns out to be a first-time director who knows his way around drama.  Moverman also co-wrote this gripping screenplay with experienced producer Alessandro Camon.

Even with such a compelling story to tell, outstanding acting all around and more than adequate work from the director's chair, there's another element of note.  "The Messenger" rises to a higher level every time Samantha Morton enters the frame as Olivia Pitterson, a stunned recent war widow.  

Will and Olivia connect on a level that transcends sexual attraction, or even empathy.  It's complicated, as they say, and Foster and Morton pull off the difficult acting assignment beautifully.

Morton is a two-time Oscar nominee for "In America" (2002) and Woody Allen's "Sweet and Lowdown" (1999).  Anyone who witnesses this deeply nuanced performance as Olivia will have no problem understanding why.


Clooney loony in failed military dramedy

Invest in "The Men Who Stare at Goats" and you'll spend most of your time staring at a dog; a dog of the week.

George Clooney's first starring vehicle of the fall/winter movie season falls flatter than a poorly prepared pancake.  Take heart, though, Clooney fans.  "Up In the Air," Clooney's other '09 entry opening next month, is funny, insightful and pretty much perfect.

But first this offbeat hippie-dippy military intelligence tale that opens with, "More of this is true than you would believe."

Fine.  I only wish more of it was funny, or clever or intriguing enough to hold an audience's attention.

Clooney may have second thoughts about handing off the directing reins for "Goats" to Grant Heslov, Clooney's producing/writing partner in Smokehouse Productions.

I'm not sure anyone could turn Jon Ronson's non-fiction best seller of paranormal activity, "The Men Who Stare at Goats," into anything resembling mainstream movie entertainment.  Rambling and mind-numbing boring most of the time, it follows an Ann Arbor, Mich. newspaper reporter (Ewan McGregor) as he follows former military intelligence guy (Clooney) into Iraq on a bumbling secret mission in 2003.

As this disappointing movie experience slowly revealed itself to be the waste of time it is, I couldn't help thinking of some military comic satires that got it right:  "Dr. Strangelove," of course.  But there's also Robert Altman's big-screen version of "M*A*S*H" and, more recently, "Wag the Dog."  

Clooney has been to Iraq before on the big screen.  He was following a map in search of gold shortly after the first Gulf War in David O. Russell's "Three Kings" of 1999.  Clooney's Lyn Cassady, a shadowy figure who can stare a goat to death, has no clue where he's headed this time.

That's strange since the shining star of an experimental U.S. military unit -- a unit of hippies, really -- led by "shaman" Bill Django (Jeff Bridges, who deserves better) can bust up clouds just by staring at them.

As Clooney and McGregor (as reporter Bob Wilton) wander the Iraqi sands (actually, New Mexico), they encounter key figures in a puzzle without plausibility or sustained interest.  Sadly, Heslov shows no reason why he should hop into a director's chair again anytime soon.

The director even fails to seize an opportunity for an easy laugh.  Clooney's New Age mental soldiers are referred to as Jedi Warriors.  Since McGregor played Jedi Warrior Obi-Wan Kenobi in three "Star Wars" prequels, why not a little wink-at-the-audience fun?

Kevin Spacey, a two-time Oscar winner ("American Beauty," "The Usual Suspects"), takes on renegade psychic Larry Hooper, while Robert Patrick ("Balls of Fury," "Terminator 2"), the nicest cinematic bad guy you'll ever meet, smiles while a firefight erupts around him.

These actors, from Clooney on down, are all near-death wanderers in the desert.  Water would be nice, but the only thing that can really save them is a coherent script.  That never pops up.

Not even as a mirage.