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Blu-Ray Pick of the Week: 12 Strong

“Winchester” and “Peter Rabbit” are also new to Blu-Ray this week

“12 Strong” is about the bravery of soldiers, the worry of their wives, their chop-busting camaraderie during the down time, and their cohesion and care for each other during battle time. In other words, it doesn’t do much to move the needle forward in terms of the standard formula for movies about a gallant group of *insert here (police, firefighters, special forces, girl scouts) who eke out a victory in the face of overwhelming odds. While I will say that the formula is wearing a bit thin, I’m not quite sick of it yet and it still works.

The movie wastes no time. It hits the ground running with a quick history lesson starting with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and ends with the infamous September 11, 2001, attacks. I’ll give it points for not dwelling too long on the events of that day and attempting emotional manipulation on those who lived through it and remember it all too well.

Next thing we know, Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) storms into Army headquarters in Kentucky and demands that his commanding officer,       

Lt. Colonel Bowers (Rob Riggle), take him off of his newly assigned desk duty and move him back out into the field. Specifically, he wants to take his team into Afghanistan, where the Taliban are hiding out, to take them on. Bowers is reluctant to rescind the order, but once Nelson’s friend and warrant officer Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon) tears up his retirement papers and convinces Bowers otherwise, off to Afghanistan they go.

Their mission is fairly straightforward. As laid out by the in-country commander, Colonel Mulholland (William Fichtner), Nelson and his 11 man team need to make contact with a local Taliban fighter named General Dostum (Navid Negahban), gain his trust, and work together with Dostum’s force of over 500 men to defeat the Taliban and re-take control of strategic cities from them.

This simple mission increases in complexity as Nelson meets Dostum and his unit is split in two. Director Nicolai Fuglsig does a very wise thing with his use of subtitles. Every so often, in the left hand corner of the screen, text appears telling us who we’re looking at and where they are. This greatly assists with the clarity of the story so we know where the events we are watching take place and who is involved. It would be easy to get lost in this movie if not for those subtitles, and they are greatly appreciated.

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You’d be forgiven for thinking that this movie looks an awful lot like a western. It does, for multiple reasons. First and foremost, the tagline of “12 Strong” is “The Declassified True Story of the Horse Soldiers.” This name came about because horseback is the only safe way to travel the mountainous roads that have to be traversed. Secondarily, looking at the backdrop with the brown dirt and sagebrush, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a western. I was waiting for a tumbleweed to roll by at any minute. The end credits reveal that this was filmed in New Mexico. That’s when it made sense. I’m not sure how much Afghanistan actually looks like the southwestern United States, so I’m not criticizing the choice so much as I am observing that the movie looks western-like because of it.

The “horse soldiers” go up against the Taliban, who have tanks, rocket launchers, and missiles. In spite of them being better equipped on the ground, the horse soldiers at least have air support. It’s an interesting strategy that Nelson has to contemplate in looking at a map and radioing in on where the bomber flying high above should let loose its payload.

It’s less interesting once the air support is no longer available and Nelson and his team have to charge headlong on horseback into the Taliban forces. The authenticity of the movie slips a bit at that point and it becomes a bit too Hollywood and cliché as Nelson and his team rush through the enemy force, shooting every jihadi in sight to make their way to a troublesome truck launching missiles at their allies.

“12 Strong” sticks with tradition for the way these movies end as well. Once the last image fades, text appears saying what happened to them, there’s a photo of the actual crew of horse soldiers, and then, right on cue, a folksy, down home country song plays over the end credits. It’s all very typical, but that doesn’t make it bad. At least, not yet. Rent it.

Also New This Week

Winchester

I first heard about the Winchester House several years ago, and it has fascinated me ever since. It’s a house in San Jose, California, that was constantly under construction during the late 1800s and early 1900s, with stairways and doors leading to nowhere. The owner of the house was Sarah Winchester, widow of the man who invented the Winchester repeating rifle--an incredibly popular firearm of the 1800s that helped the North win the “War Between the States” and was used by many pioneers during the years of westward expansion. She believed that the spirits of those killed by a Winchester rifle would seek her out for vengeance, so she built the house to confuse the spirits so they couldn’t easily find her when they came.

Sarah is played by Helen Mirren in “Winchester,” and the portrayal is less eccentric and more matter of fact. This is due to the fact that at its core, “Winchester” is less of a biographical piece and more of a ghost story. The shareholders of the Winchester company are less sure about there being actual ghosts and want Sarah’s sanity checked. For this, they hire San Francisco psychologist Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke) to evaluate her mental condition. Luckily for Sarah, Price practices what was then relatively new advances in psychology, meaning that he sits with her and asks probing questions rather than just writing her off and committing her to an asylum.

Not too much is learned about Sarah from her interaction with Price. This is mainly because: ghost story. Silly things like character development can’t get in the way of bodily possession and jump scares. Of course, Sarah is not insane and is totally correct—spirits are after her and she builds her house not to confuse them, but appease them. She goes into a trance and draws a picture--given to her telepathically by the spirit--of the room they died in. She then recreates the room in her own house, apologizes to them profusely, and thereby helps them move on into the next world. Upon this revelation, skeptical wisenheimers like myself will surely ask the obvious question of “What if the person died outdoors?” but that question is never asked by Price or anyone else in the movie, so apparently it’s an issue to be completely avoided.

The scares in “Winchester” are relatively mundane and mostly predictable. The movie is more psychological than visceral, so not a lot of thought was given to the fear factor of the movie other than to have some jump scares now and again. The intensity ratchets up a few notches for the final act, but by then we’re so used to the rhythm of the movie and de-sensitized to it that the scare tactics become ineffective. The real Sarah Winchester strikes me as an incredibly complex and interesting woman, and she deserves a movie less chintzy and by the numbers. Skip it.

Peter Rabbit

When I think of words to describe beloved children’s heroes, the phrase “cold-hearted sadist” rarely springs to mind, but I couldn’t help but feel that way about the title character in this movie of “Peter Rabbit,” based on the much beloved children’s books by Beatrix Potter. In it, Peter (voice of James Corden) pokes the eye of his recently deceased nemesis Old Mr. McGregor (Sam Neill) to make sure he’s dead before casually walking away. In another scene later in the movie, he has one of his rabbit cohorts purposely shoot a blackberry into the mouth of McGregor’s nephew Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson), knowing that he’s allergic. Peter Rabbit is all too happy to celebrate the demise of this man. Too bad for Peter that Thomas had an epi pen on him. Otherwise, that would have been two dead McGregors in one movie. Ho ho ho. Great lesson for kids too: Kill your enemies and laugh about it; life is cheap and what’s important is that you get your way—even if you’re the one invading someone else’s property and stealing the fruits (and vegetables) of their labor.

This is only the attempted murder. It doesn’t even get into Peter and his gang setting steel claw traps in McGregor’s bedroom, or electrifying his house so that he goes flying backward violently every time he touches a doorknob. This isn’t to say that the McGregor’s are totally innocent. In a beautifully animated flashback, we see Old Mr. McGregor kill Peter’s father. Thomas also tries to kill Peter with a hoe and with explosives. Here’s the key difference between the two: The McGregor’s are defending their property from invasion and theft. Peter is the invader and thief. He has no moral upper hand and claim to self-defense. He is the aggressor.

On the plus side, the computer animation is phenomenal and blends well with the live action environment and players. There is also plenty of wry, cheeky, British humor for adults to enjoy. That is who I recommend this movie for: Adults who (hopefully) already have a clearly developed sense of right and wrong and can take this movie for the silly, fun, cartoonish, escapist entertainment that it is. I am very concerned, however, about showing this movie to impressionable young children due quite simply to the violence played for laughs and the horrible message that sends to young minds that don’t know any better. They’re not going to understand all of the “If this was a typical movie…” in-jokes anyway. Keep them away from “Peter Rabbit” (this movie of it, I mean), and for fans of British wit, Stream it some day when the kids aren’t around.

More New Releases: “In the Fade,” starring Diane Kruger as a woman seeking vengeance for the death of her husband and son after a bomb attack; “Nostalgia,” a mosaic of stories about love and loss, exploring our relationship to the objects, artifacts, and memories that shape our lives, starring Jon Hamm, Catherine Keener, John Ortiz, Nick Offerman, James Le Gros, and Bruce Dern; and “Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell,” with Michael Gross once again returning as Burt Gummer and combating Graboids and Ass-Blasters.

Andrew Hudak is a lifelong film lover. His column on Blu-Ray new releases appears every Tuesday. He lives in Connecticut.

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