Tuesday, December 1, 2015

NOW STREAMING: Beasts of No Nation (2015)

                “Beasts of No Nation” is based on the acclaimed novel by Uzodinma Iweaga (2005).  The book is about a child soldier in an unnamed west African country.  Cary Joji Fukunaga wrote the adapted screenplay and directed the film.  He spent seven years on the project.  It was filmed in Ghana and the thirty seven day shoot was fraught with problems including Fukunaga contracting malaria.  The movie was a sensation on the international awards circuit and the world distribution rights were bought by Netflix.  When Netflix decided to stream it on their service simultaneously with releasing it to theaters this caused the major theater chains to boycott the film.  Netflix was being punished for violating the traditional 90 day wait before a movie can released after its appearance in theaters.  I have to go with the theater chains on this one. 

               A narrator tells us the country is at war.  Schools are closed and children are looking for things to do.  Oh oh.  Agu (Abraham Attah) and his family are living a decent life in a buffer zone protected by Nigerian peace-keepers.  This will change when the government’s military forces enter the zone.  Agu’s mother and siblings are sent away in the mass exodus, but he has to stay behind with his older brother and father.  Agu’s father and brother do not survive the cleansing process.  Agu escapes to the jungle where he is captured by a motley crew called the National Defense Force.  The creepily charismatic, but dangerously demented leader is “the Commandant” (Idris Elba).  He sees something in Agu and adds him to his band. Training montage intercut with indoctrination from the Commandant.  Initiation via a gauntlet.  Agu has found a new family.  He strikes up a friendship with a mute soulless comrade named Strika (Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye).  The commandant insists Agu prove he belongs by executing a captive using a machete.  In an indelible scene in slo-mo and soundless, Agu complies and then some.  He is all in now.

                The NDF attacks a bridge and the Commandant uses his charisma to fire up his boys.  This charisma goes from sinister to demonic when the Commandant’s special interest in Agu turns sexual.  Fortunately, not graphically.  A village massacre is ill-timed because the supreme commandant Dada Goodblood is in the “we’re not thugs anymore” phase of his political evolution.  The Commandant is now a political liability and is demoted.  The high fives have turned into a dagger in the back.  So to speak.  He takes his force off to carve out his own domain.  Things do not go well.  The salad days of murdering, raping, and looting are sadly over.  And charisma can only carry you so far when your men are starving, diseased, and getting their asses whipped.  How long will Agu remain loyal to his molester?  Will he ever get to have that childhood?

                “Beasts of No Nation” is the best movie about child soldiers in Africa, but I found it a bit disappointing.  I read the book a while back and was disappointed in it as well.  It is hard to say what is missing.  The acting is stellar.  Obviously the big draw is the wonderful Elba and he is worth the price of admission (or a Netflix subscription).  He is perfect for the Commandant and may get some Academy Awards consideration.  His transformation from Machiavellian to Mephistophelian is intriguing.  Attah is excellent, but Agu’s arc is problematical.  He is not a typical child soldier (like Strika) because he does not lose his humanity.  He does not become hardened and a coldblooded killer.  This does not strike me as realistic.  Strangely, the plot sets up the expectation of a conflict between Agu and Strika as Agu becomes the new pet, but does not deliver. I give the film credit for being unpredictable.  There is no losing virginity scene, for instance.  The film can’t avoid the obligatory child play scenes.  In contrast, the movie pulls its punches on atrocities.  Well, not on the one where Agu earns his stripes.  But that is the only time Agu kills anyone. 

                “Beasts of No Nation” is a very good tutorial on child soldiers.  Unfortunately, it did not have the guts to tell it like it really is.  It is an interesting movie and has some great acting and some amazing cinematography.  It is well worth the watch, especially if you have Netflix and can stream it free.  I could get used to watching new quality war movies from the comfort of my study.  It’s just that after you have seen so many war movies that accurately portray the dehumanizing effect of war on adults, it’s a bit hard to swallow a happy ending for an impressionable boy.

GRADE  =  B        

Thursday, November 19, 2015

CLASSIC or ANTIQUE: War Hunt (1962)

                “War Hunt” is another mediocre Korean War movie.  I have to constantly remind myself that there are a lot of bad World War II movies, too.  In fact, I have a collection of 50 of them.  It just seems that the percentage of inferior Korean War movies is the highest of any war.  My theory is that most of the movies were produced during the waning days of Old School style.  This makes most of them seem stodgy.  The war itself did not help matters.  The war was not popular with the public and the studios realized this.  For this reason, they seem to have not put much effort into the movies.  Movies aimed at drive-ins are not going to be high quality. 

                “War Hunt” attempts to defy the stereotype by being provocative.  It was directed by Denis Sanders who had a reputation for taking chances.  As you can imagine, the studios were not that interested in his outside the box ideas.  He only had $250,000 for his budget and made the movie in only 15 days.  Much of the filming was done at night due to the budget.  No surprise that the filmmaker got no help from the Pentagon because the script was not exactly aimed at boosting recruiting or the military image!  This is in spite of the opening narration that mentions that the combat infantryman was the “tip of the spear”.  Unfortunately, the Army read the rest of the script.

                The movie is set in the closing months of the war.  A small unit is part of the U.S. effort to inflict pain to hurry along the peace negotiations.  This is actually a cogent analysis of the strategy of that time.  A replacement named Loomis (Robert Redford in his screen debut) arrives.  The unit is regaled by loudspeaker proclamations from Radio China and the Dragon Lady.  Loomis is introduced to the unit’s resident psycho serial killer named Endore (John Saxon).  Endore goes “AWOL in the wrong direction” each night.  He uses a knife to kill enemy soldiers.  The rest of the squad leaves him alone and the CO condones his actions because it’s a dirty little war.  Endore has adopted an orphaned little Korean boy named Charlie who is part of the fine tradition of “Short Round” from “Steel Helmet”.  Loomis decides to challenge Endore for the soul of the boy.  Things come to a head when the war ends and Endore is suddenly a murderer, not a dedicated warrior.

                “War Hunt” is a strange movie.  It plays like an American Playhouse drama.  This is especially evident in the lack of action.  This was undoubtedly due to the low budget.  There is a scene when Loomis is on outpost duty.  The Chinese attack.  The bombardment is not bad for a small movie and the sound effects are good.  Since it is necessarily at night. flares and lights are used effectively.  The assault is more of a human ripple than a human wave. but it’s not a bad effort.

                The best thing about the movie is the cast.  It includes Gavin McLeod, Tom Skerritt,  and Sydney Pollack.  Pollack and Redford began a friendship which led to collaboration in seven movies directed by Pollack.  Redford acquits himself well in his debut.  He definitely comes off as a future star.  Even then he had a clause in his contract that his hair could not be messed with.  Saxon underplays Endore effectively.  The movie uses eerie flute music and snare drums and some POV to depict how unhinged his character is.
                You have to give the movie credit for being different.  The theme reflects the fact that some Korean War movies anticipated the Vietnam War movies in their cynicism.  In this case, the statement is that killing is fine as long as there is a war on, then what?   


Friday, November 13, 2015

FORGOTTEN GEM? Sergeant Rutledge (1960)

                “Sergeant Rutledge” is a John Ford Western / court room drama / war movie.  It was filmed in Monument Valley and in a court room.  Sergeant Rutledge (Woody  Strode) is a member of the 9th Cavalry – the famous Buffalo Soldiers.  Ford cast Strode in the title role because they were good friends.  (When Ford was dying, Strode slept on his floor for four months as his caretaker.)  But when you think about it, who else could have played the role?  Jim Brown was still playing football and Sidney Poitier would have been miscast.  Point is, there were not that many black actors that could anchor a war movie in 1960.  Woody deserved this role and it came during the greatest streak of his career.  “Pork Chop Hill” was released the year before and “Spartacus” came out the same year.  Those were supporting roles, whereas “Sergeant Rutledge” is more meaty.  However, he still does not get top billing.  Jeffrey Hunter and Constance Tower appear above him in the billing.  (Check out the poster and then push your jaw back up.)  Shame on you, Hollywood marketing! 

                The movie opens with the rousing song “Captain Buffalo” (also the title of the novel the movie is based on and the working title of the movie).  We jump straight into the trial.  Flashback alert!  It’s the young lawyer Lt. Cantrell (Hunter) vs. the veteran Capt. Shattuck (Carleton Young) with the crusty judge, Lt. Col. Fosgate (Willis Bouchey).  Don’t recognize the actors’ names?  If you’re of my generation or you like John Ford Westerns, you’ll recognize the faces.  (And the stereotyped characters.)  Throw in the obligatory romance between Cantrell and Mary (Tower) which begins with a bumpy stagecoach throwing them into each other’s arms, naturally.  We have no clue what the trial is all about at first.  We just know it has brought the entire local busybody society which makes for a very colorful courtroom until Fosgate evicts the women, including the head hen – his wife (played by Billie Burke in her last role).  In a neat trick of cinematography, the first flashback comes via a fade around the person testifying.
Sergeant Rutledge reporting for railroading
                It turns out that the trial involves Rutledge raping and murdering his commanding officer’s daughter Lucy and then killing him before escaping.  The flashbacks occur as each witness adds to the story.  Mary is not only romantically involved with Cantrell, but also is a witness because she encountered the on-the-lam Rutledge at a deserted railway station.  Will he rape the white woman?  Shame on you, 1960s audience, for even considering that!  In fact, he saves her from Indians. Take that, racists!  Mrs. Fosgate is called to remind us of how it was a male dominated society except for the fact that after you shut your wife up in public, you could expect to pay for it. 

                The plot manages to get some Indian fighting in.  Cantrell takes a squad to the station to arrest Rutledge and they run into trouble on the return.  Rutledge saves another’s life so even if you are moronic enough to think he’s guilty, he’s a hero.  As far as why he was fighting for the same whites who would assume he committed a heinous crime, he says “it ain’t the white man’s war, we’re fighting to make us proud”.  Rutledge takes the opportunity offered by the skirmish to escape, but returns to warn of an Indian ambush.  Why did you come back?  I ain’t a “swamp runnin’ nigger”.  (Sergeant Major Rawlins used that phrase when he reamed Tripp in “Glory”.)  I won’t give away the too pat conclusion, but I will tell you that Cantrell is a better lawyer than Atticus Finch.
Cantrell and his mother - oops, his love interest.
                “Sergeant Rutledge” has its flaws.  You’ve seen all the characters before.  The setting is a John Ford fort with its denizens.  But kudos to the black skin of some.  The film is Ford’s commendable effort to bring some recognition to the Buffalo Soldiers and to throw in a civil rights theme as well.  As a history lesson it is shaky.  For some reason, the screenwriter decided to use the 9th Cavalry when it was the 10th that was stationed in Arizona.   That is just nitpicking, however.  A bit more puzzling is Cantrell’s explanation that the Indians called the blacks “buffalo soldiers” because of their coats when most historians feel the name was a reference to their buffalo-like nappy hair.  In spite of this and the fact that is not meant to be a documentary, the movie is still better than the terrible “Buffalo Soldiers” (1997).  Speaking of which, that Danny Glover made-for-TV movie, had the African-Americans having empathy for their dark skinned foes.  “Sergeant Rutledge” has been criticized by some for depicting Rutledge and his comrades as being just like the white soldiers in their attitude toward the savages.  This is actually accurate as the Buffalo Soldiers showed no enlightened attitude.

The prosecuting attorney attempted to give
Rutledge a wet willy!
                The movie is a forgotten gem mainly because of Woody Strode.  This is probably his best role and it plays to his minimalist acting style.  It was the role he was proudest of.  He is stoically charismatic as Rutledge.  He behaves as you would expect a black sergeant in a white army to behave.  When asked why he ran away from the murder scene, he responds that he had “walked into something none of us can handle – white woman business.”  As you can see, he gets some cracking dialogue.  Being a courtroom drama, the movie is dialogue driven, but there is some well-placed action to keep fans of Indian-killing happy.  The rest of the cast is adequate.  Hunter does well in a stock role, but Bloom is too old for Mary.  There is some nice humor – part of it from the drinking habits of Army officers and part from Mrs. Fosgate.  The cinematography by Bert Glennon (who did “Stagecoach” and “Rio Grande” for Ford) is excellent.  Lots of through the doorway shots and effective use of Monument Valley.  The fade to flashback is a neat effect.  The flashbacks work as a device and the plot is unpredictable until a shocking, but pat ending.

                Watch it for Woody.

GRADE =  B+   

Saturday, November 7, 2015

FORGOTTEN GEM: Too Young the Hero (1988)

                “Too Young the Hero” is the true story of Calvin Graham.  Calvin became the youngest serviceman in WWII when he volunteered at age 12.  The movie was made for TV and appeared on CBS in 1998.  It was the last film directed by Buzz Kulik (“Sergeant Ryker”). 

                The story is told in flashback form.  In 1943, Calvin (Rick Shroder) is arrested for desertion and thrown in the brig at a naval air station.  He has time to revisit key moments in his life.  He and his friends were in a theater when word of the Pearl Harbor attack arrived.  He and his brother leave home because their stepfather is an abusive alcoholic.  They are staying in a seedy hotel and doing odd jobs to survive the Depression when his brother enlists.  A few months later, Calvin forges his mother’s signature and enters the Navy.  He is only twelve and does not look much older than that, but the Navy is desperate for recruits.  Boot camp features the clich├ęd DI and montage.

                Calvin is assigned to a gunnery crew on the battleship South Dakota.  He is wounded in the Battle of Guadalcanal when the ship is pummeled by shells.  Calvin bravely helped with fire control and the wounded.  He himself was wounded, suffering a broken jaw.  When the South Dakota returns to the States, Calvin is given a pass to return home with the understanding that he will turn himself in as underage.  Unfortunately, when he turns himself in, it is assumed that he is a deserter and he is arrested.  A sadistic guard is thrown in because Hollywood requires it.  Only intervention by his sister gets him released.

                “Too Young the Hero” is low budget, even for a made for TV movie.  It looks cheesy and drab.  The music is sappy.  The acting is terrible.  Shroder was coming off “Silver Spoons” so this was his first adult role and he is very shaky.  The supporting cast is low rent.  The film does use quite a bit of archival footage and that is a cool aspect of the movie.  A lot of planes get shot down in this movie.  It’s shoot down porn.  However, the blending of the footage is not seamless. The movie is admirably accurate.  There are no ridiculous enhancements of the true story.  A romance is not shoehorned in (that would have been creepy since Calvin was only 12).  I question the sadistic guard episode, but it could have happened I suppose.
"That's right, ma.  It's a real movie, not a TV show."

                Calvin Graham’s story begged to be covered in a made for TV movie and Rick Shroder was the logical choice to play him so the movie was a natural.  It’s a shame that the production was so lame, but at least it was made and it is truthful.  You do learn the facts behind this forgotten hero.  (That is the only thing that keeps the movie from getting an F.)  This was the first time I saw this film, but for years I have been giving a reading assignment about Calvin Graham in my America History classes.  The movie covers all the events in the reading, which is cool.  All things considered, I would have to say that the reading is a much better use of time than watching the movie.

                The movie’s post script informs you that Graham finally got an honorable discharge in 1978.  What it does not mention is that after being released from the brig, he went back to school for a while.  At age 17, he entered the Marines and was disabled in a fall off a pier.  For years he campaigned to get the discharge rectified and get his medals back.  He did get all the medals back in 1978, except the Purple Heart (for what reason I do not know).  In 1988, he was finally given a disability and back pay, but still no Purple Heart!  Two years later, after his death, his family received the darned medal.