Sunday, September 25, 2016

SHOULD I READ IT? Katyn (2007)



                “Katyn” is a Polish movie about the infamous Katyn massacre of WWII.  It was based on the book Post Mortem:  The Story of Katyn by Andrzej Mularczyk.  It was directed by acclaimed Polish director Andrzej Wajda (“Kanal”) who was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Oscar by the Academy Awards in 2000.  Wajda, whose father was a victim of the massacre, was 83 when the film was made.  The film was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film.  The production was encouraged by Polish President Lech Kaczynski for political purposes. 

                The movie opens in the aftermath of the German/Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939.  Refugees are caught between the two invading armies.  Anna (Maja Ostaszewska) and her daughter are searching for her husband.  She finds Andrzej (Arthur Zmjewski) in a prisoner of war encampment.  He could easily escape, but is honor bound to stay with the others.  He and the other officers are sent eastward by train. Andrzej keeps a diary that will later be crucial in determining the Soviets were to blame for the massacre.  It is not just the Polish officer corps that is purged.  Andrzej’s father is a college professor who is part of the round-up of the intelligentsia and sent to a work camp. 

                Both the Germans and the Soviets use propaganda to blame the other for the massacre.  Poles are pressured to go along with the communist version. Poles in the know, like Andrzej’s friend Jerzy, are faced with accepting the lie or trying to get along with the Soviets.  Anna is one who is trying to get to the bottom of the mystery.  She eventually receives her husband’s diary which becomes crucial evidence as its last entry is in 1940 and the execution site was in Soviet territory at that time.  Queue flashback to the executions.

                “Katyn” is a great history lesson.  Most Americans are uninformed about the Katyn massacre.  And Americans from the Greatest Generation were misinformed about the event.  For the good of the alliance, Roosevelt and Churchill basically swallowed Stalin’s version of what happened to avoid rocking the boat.  It was not until 1990 that Gorbachev admitted to the lie.  The truth is that after the Soviets conquered eastern Poland, the NKVD under Beria (with the approval of Stalin) liquidated Polish officers, police officers, and members of the intelligentsia like college professors.  Basically, the Soviet government attempted to eliminate people who might lead resistance to communist rule after the war.  The executions took place in 1940 in the Katyn Forest and prisons at Kalinin and Kharkiv in Russsia.  About 22,000 men were murdered.  Although the movie is fictional, there was a diary kept by a Maj. Solski.  The movie accurately depicts the dilemma the Polish people were put in.  The movie is sympathetic towards the Poles who chose to cooperate.  However, the heroes are the ones who tried to resist.

                I have to admit that until the flashback kicked in I was wondering what the big deal was.  The sequence on the executions is mesmerizing and gut-wrenching.  The killings are chilling (and accurately depicted).  It caused me to reassess the entire film.  It is well acted and is noteworthy for its strong female characters.  The movie concentrates on the effects of the massacre on several Polish women. It interweaves the characters well.  Andrzej is actually a framing device as his tale opens and closes the film.  And cements the theme that the Soviets were bastards.  This is one of the few movies where the Nazis are the lesser of two evils.  The movie was obviously directed by a master.  The cinematography is excellent, especially in the executions scene.  The movie is unpredictable and thought-provoking.

                “Katyn” is a must see because who’s going to read some book by a Polish dude?  Yet, we should all be aware of one of the greatest atrocities in history.  Plus you’ll learn that communism is bad.

GRADE  =  B

Sunday, September 18, 2016

SHOULD I READ IT? Devils on the Doorstep (2001)


       “Devils on the Doorstep” is a Chinese film co-written, directed, and produced by Jiang Wen.  It premiered at Cannes and was awarded the Grand Prix.  This was quite an accomplishment considering the Chinese Film Bureau did not want the film shown anywhere, much less Cannes.  The Chinese authorities were upset with the depiction of the Chinese peasants.  The movie was loosely based on the novel Survival by You Fengwei.  Jiang opted to film in black and white to recall old time war movies.

                The movie is set in a Chinese village during the Sino-Japanese War in 1945.  The village is in Japanese occupied territory.  A mysterious stranger drops off two prisoners at the home of Ma Dasan (Jiang).  Ma is told to hold onto the two for a while and interrogate them.  Ma goes to the village council and they argue what to do.  One of the council members calls Ma a “turtle fucker”.  They decide to do as the stranger demanded.  They interrogate the two in a comic scene.  Hanaya (Kagawa Teruyuki) is a belligerent sergeant and Dong Hanchen (Yuan Ding) is Chinese collaborator who interprets for the Japanese.  During the questioning Hanaya tries to provoke the villagers into killing him, but Dong translates what he says into pleasantries.  Dong tells them that “Japs sound the same whether they’re happy or angry.”  The stranger does not show up and after six months the council orders Ma to kill the prisoners.  He hides them instead.  Eventually a hired beheader is brought in named One Stroke Liu who used to be an ace executioner.  He promises that the heads will roll nine times, blink thrice, and smile.  In a Keystone Cops scene, he botches the job.  Ma then proposes to exchange the men for some grain.  The Japanese agree to the deal and this leads to a celebration with the Japanese garrison partying with the villagers.  It ends in an atrocity as the movie turns from black comedy to just black.

                Jiang has made an entertaining movie.  The cinematography uses a variety of shots which adds to the fun of viewing it.  The acting is fine, especially Jiang.  However, a lot of the acting is of the Oriental screaming style.  There are some funny moments, but it does have a tendency to be on the silly side.  And yet, the atrocity scene is jarring.  The movie can give you whiplash.
 
                I don’t normally side with the Chinese Film Bureau, but I think they may have been right about this film.  The fact that it was made in black and white led me to believe it would be a propaganda piece.  It certainly is not.  It has the look of a Soviet film like “The Cranes Are Flying”, but even in the Khrushchev thaw, you did not see movies that made fun of the Soviet people during the Great Patriotic War.  “Devils at the Doorstep” portrays Chinese peasants as stupid, na├»ve, and cowards.  They befriend Hanaya and can’t bring themselves to kill him.  It does not give a realistic impression of how hard the occupation must have been for Chinese villagers.  Until the atrocity, the Japanese are not demonized.  They give candy to the kids.  They honor the deal for the prisoners.

                In spite of the caveats, “Devils on the Doorstep” is a must see for foreign war movie lovers.  It is certainly unique and entertaining.


GRADE  =  B

Thursday, September 15, 2016

CRACKER? The Sea Wolves (1980)




                “The Sea Wolves: The Last Charge of the Calcutta Light Horse” is an action adventure movie directed by Andrew McLaglen (“The Devil’s Brigade”).  He also had directed “The Wild Geese” and the original plan was for him to reunite with Richard Burton and Richard Harris.  Instead he got Gregory Peck and David Niven.  Ironically, they had been passed on for “Force Ten from Navarone” because of age two years before “Sea Wolves”.  Peck was 63 and Niven was 68.  Watch the movie and decide for yourself whether they were too old for action.  The movie was based on a true story of a mission that was classified until 1978.  The movie was originally going to be titled “Boarding Party” after the novel by James Leasor.  The movie had four German survivors who gave advice and Lewis Pugh was a technical advisor.  The film was dedicated to Lord Mountbatten who had been assassinated by the IRA a year earlier.

                U-boats have been sinking merchant ships in the Indian Ocean based on information being provided by a German freighter in a neutral port.  The British military cannot go after the freighter because of the neutrality.  Col. Pugh (Peck) is the head of Special Operations Executive in New Delhi.  He and Capt. Stewart (Roger Moore) hatch a plan to use the old coots from the local Calcutta Light Cavalry chapter to participate in a mission to destroy the ship.  Meanwhile, Stewart is having a Bondesque tryst with a German spy named Agnes Cromwell (Barbara Kellerman).  They hijack a boat and sail to the site.  They arrange for a big soiree for the German officers and a carnival with free whores for the crew to distract the freighter.  All this leads to the boarding of the ship and our geriatric tumult.

                “The Sea Wolves” is an average movie from the special mission subgenre.  It does stand out a bit due to the casting which could be described as a stunt casting.  It is a hoot to watch the coots, but their wrinkles are distracting and sad.  In this respect it reminds of “The Wild Geese”, but at least this all-geezer affair is true to the story of recruiting old soldiers.  That does not explain the casting of two sixty year olds as the SOE officers.  But aside from my ageist comments, the movie just simply lacks suspense.  The Stewart/Cartwright scenario is straight out of a Bond movie.  Moore wears a tuxedo, gambles in a casino, and has sex with a mysterious female spy. ( He made this movie between two Bond films.)  He even gets to do some Bondian ass kicking.  But the most interesting character is Cartwright.  She was 30 at the time of the shooting.  (Moore was 52.)  Cartwright is a stock character, but she is a Nazi so she brings some nastiness.  The big set piece is a mindless, preposterous excuse to blow things up and set things afire.  Fortunately, the lame-ass plan for the boarding is abandoned for no other reason than it would not provide enough fireworks.  By the way, stick around for the end credits if you want to hear a bizarre romantic song, “Precious Moments”.

                “The Sea Wolves” is nice escapism and it is fun watching Peck, Niven, Moore, and Howard pretend to be dashing again.  And kudos to the screenwriter for sticking fairly close to the historical tale.  Naturally, as you can read below, there are explosions and bloodshed added.

GRADE  =  C

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  Leasor’s novel was based on Operation Creek.  British intelligence determined that the reason why twelve merchant ships had been sunk by u-boats in the Indian Ocean in March, 1943 was due to communications about Allied naval movements that were coming from a German freighter named the Ehrenfels in the harbor of Mormugao in the Portuguese territory of Goa.  SOE took on the clandestine mission to violate Portuguese neutrality to eliminate the transmitter.  Col. Pugh of the SOE was in charge of the operation.  The mission was to board the ship, disable the transmitter, and sink the ship.  Members of the Calcutta Light Horse were asked to participate and a number volunteered under retired Capt. Grice.  The Calcutta Light Horse was similar to a social club and the men, although veterans, were all middle aged and out of shape.  The 18 men sailed from Calcutta on a barge called the Phoebe.  They did not steal the ship.  When they arrived, Jock Cartwright arranged a festival, including loose women, to distract the German crews.  Mission accomplished.  At 2:30 A.M., the commandos boarded the ship.  The death to the captain early caused the skeleton crew to put up a poor defense, but someone did manage to open the sea valves.  When the ship began to list, the boarders returned to the barge and escaped.  The other two Germans berthed nearby were scuttled.  These were the only explosions.  The Brits suffered only minor casualties.  The mission was successful as only one ship was sunk in the rest of the month and only three in April.  The old vets were not decorated for the mission because of its sensitive nature and the public did not learn of it until the publishing of Boarding Party in 1978.  

Monday, September 5, 2016

SHOULD I READ IT? Max Manus: Man of War (2008)




                “Max Manus:  Man of War” is a Norwegian film about a famous Norwegian hero.  It is a biographical war movie that is based on Manus’ biographies and other historical research.  The film was a major production and used 1,800 extras and 2,000 people behind the cameras.  Parts of Oslo were adapted to represent the 1940s including flying Nazi Germany flags above public buildings.  The movie was a big hit in Norway and won numerous awards.  It was Norway’s submission for Best Foreign Film for the Oscars.

                The movie opens with Manus (Aksel Hennie) fighting in the Winter War in Finland.  He is in the middle of a battle.  The movie then jumps to him in a hospital bed.  The plot is nonlinear and will return to the Winter War battle as a framing device.  When he returns to Norway, Manus joins the Resistance.  He and his buddies form a group and put out a propaganda paper.  They are like frat boys enjoying the adrenaline rush.  Many of those friends will not survive the war.  After being captured by the Gestapo, Max escapes to Great Britain.  In Scotland, he is trained in sabotage.  In particular, the new unit targets German shipping in Oslo harbor.  Operation Mardonius involves sneaking around the harbor after dark to lay Limpet mines.  The mines would be hand-placed below the waterlines.  Every superhero needs a supervillain.  Gestapo agent Fehmer plays this role.  He hounds Manus and his Oslo Gang.  The pressure wears on Max and he shows symptoms of PTSD.  He is still able to go for one last big score.  The target is a munitions ship called the Donau.  Even a Norwegian movie needs a huge explosion, right?

                Based on my research, the movie appears to be accurate.  Of course, much of this depends on the veracity of Manus’ recollections.  Some have called into question whether he actually fought in the Winter War, but the consensus is that he did.  This is fortunate because the scenes flashing back to the battle juice up the film and are a good framing device.  The rest of Manus’ acts are believable.  His superhero actions are balanced with some luck.  For instance, he is lucky that the Gestapo was incompetent.  At one point he is left virtually unguarded in a hospital and he is able to escape.  This in spite of his being one of the most wanted men in Norway.  The sabotage efforts in the harbor take advantage of laughable security.  These missions must have been accurate, otherwise the screenwriter would have added more suspense to the film.  His trips back and forth to England are not fraught with tension.  Most of the tension in the movie comes from Manus’ reaction to the loss of friends.  One theme of the movie is survivor’s guilt.  Hennie does a good job portraying this.  The acting overall is fine.
 
                “Max Manus” is a middle of the road Resistance movie.  It is certainly inferior to its closest relative “Flame and Citron”.  This does not make it a bad movie.  There is some interesting cinematography.  The dialogue is fine, if unmemorable.  As a history fanatic, the accuracy is a big plus, but is also a weakness since the movie lacks suspense.  To tell the truth, after watching the movie, I wondered why Manus is such a national hero. 


GRADE  =  B-