Saturday, January 20, 2018

NOW SHOWING: 12 Strong (2018)

                Jerry Bruckheimer produced “Pearl Harbor” and “Black Hawk Down”.  Let’s see where on that spectrum “12 Strong” falls.  The full title of the movie is “12 Strong:  The Classified True Story of the Horse Soldiers” and it is based on the book by Doug Stanton entitled Horse Soldiers.  It was Nicholas Fuglsig’s directorial debut.  The movie is the “true story” of the first Americans into Afghanistan after 9/11.

                The movie leads off with footage of previous terrorist bombings before 9/11.  Capt. Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) and his Green Beret team are tasked for Afghanistan to get revenge and stop another 9/11.  It’s time to break the news to the ladies.  Chief Warrant Officer Spencer (Michael Shannon) has the wife who is upset that he chooses his career over his family.  “I’ll love you when you get back”.  Sgt. Diller has the wife that pretends she’s okay with it.  She refuses pre-war sex.  “It’s the only way I can make sure you’re coming back”.  Nelson has the supportive soldier’s wife.  “I don’t care how long you’re gone as long as you come back.”  They reach a secret base in Uzbekistan and are briefed (key word brief) on the mission.  They are to link up with a Northern Alliance warlord named Dostum and his militia.  They will facilitate his assault on the Taliban stronghold of Masar-e-Sharif by calling in air strikes.  Nelson briefs his men on the suicide mission against potentially 50,000 bad guys and they are all on board.  Why not, they got nothin’ better to do.  He promises them “I ain’t losing one man.”  We’ll see about that.  A hairy Chinook ride (“the reason why the Army uses Chinooks is so we’ll be good and mad when we go into combat”) places them at an outpost ominously called The Alamo.  The next day, Dostum arrives on horseback.  Surprise!  He and Nelson have different philosophies of war and will have to gain mutual respect through the crucible of battle.    Although only Nelson is experienced with horses, the Americans ride off into history.  They are only supposed to call in air strikes, but pressure from the audience will result in them getting their hands dirty.  And result in the deaths (but not woundings) of numerous hajjis.

                It is hard to review a movie like “12 Strong” because to truly give readers a feel for its flaws I would have to give away much of the plot.  It’s the type of “true story” that leaves you craving the facts to clear up all the head-scratching moments.  I have seen enough war movies to know that sometimes the seemingly most ridiculous things are actually true.  However, the vast majority of the time that I have shaken my head (or laughed out loud), it was because a scene was indeed too good to be true.  “12 Strong” has a very high WTF quotient.  Obviously, there were horses involved.  There is the book and the statue at Ground Zero of a horse soldier to back that up.  However, it is hard to believe that horse rookies could do what these characters do.  I know people will argue “artistic license” and the non-war movie purists will just go with the Bruckheimer flow.  I assume the intended audience will be entertained.  Unless you are discerning about war movie clichés.

                The movie certainly does not break any new ground.  In fact, it assumes we are familiar with old ground.  Some of the clichés are cursory because we know them so well why bother wasting screen time.  The three wives represent the three stereotypes.  They get their minute and then bookend the movie with another minute. One of the men gets a sidekick but he is just there to remind us of “Short Round”.   At least the unit is not stereotyped, because the movie has no time to develop any other than Nelson, Spencer, and Diller.  I assume one of the others is from Brooklyn, but all I know is one wears glasses and another is black.  Nelson is the stereotypical green officer who will have to earn the respect of his battle-hardened crew.   Spencer is the wise noncom.  Diller is the flippant everyman.  Dostum is a fairly interesting character.  He gives us the Afghan perspective and you understand why he is skeptical of the American sticktoativeness.  Unfortunately, the screenwriter makes him a sage.  He’s like a Native American in a modern Western.  In fact, the horses are not the only element that reminds of a cowboy movie.  There is a charge straight out of “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon”.  There is a villain like Magua from “Last of the Mohicans”.  To establish his extreme hissability, he executes a teacher of girls.  This Bin Laden lookalike wears a very redundant black and sticks around for the classic showdown with Dostum.

                People will go to see the movie for two reasons:  Chris Hemsworth and combat.  A teenage girl walked into the theater and at first I thought she was in the wrong place and then I remembered who the star was.  He is pretty good, but the role is unchallenging.  He suffers no real command anguish and is always right.  The combat is surprisingly unengaging.  There is plenty of ammo expenditure and plenty of hajji slaughtering, but I think we are beyond cheering that.  Do we also have to be reminded that Special Operatives are killing machines?  Hell, these guys not only are able to ride horses competently with little instruction beyond point its head in the direction you want to go, but they can accurately mow down bad guys while charging.  They don’t need to be able to reload at full gallop, thankfully.  It’s a movie!  Bruckheimer must have looked over Fuglsig’s shoulder to make sure even the kitchen sink got in.  There are certainly lots of explosions.  In fact, the big “here we go” moment comes when a B-52 is brought in, but this results in a very underwhelming air strike for anyone familiar with how devastating those could be.  But then, what fun would it be if all the Taliban were vaporized from above.  Strangely, the movie gives the bad guys tanks and then only one round is fired.  You see what I meant by WTF?

                 For a war movie lover, fidelity to the facts can overcome clichés and silliness.  I have not read the book yet (so I’ll be reposting in the future), but my research has so far confirmed my concerns.  Basically, the gist of the story is true.  ODA 595 was inserted with the mission outlined in the movie.  The Americans did call in air support that was instrumental in the capture of Mazar-e-Sharif.  They did travel on horses and face terrible odds.  The names of the team members were changed (for no good reason), and only Nelson (Mark Nutsch) and Spencer (Joe Jung) were in the unit.  Dostum is a real person and although probably not a sage, is pretty close to the side-switching warlord.  I seriously doubt the villainous Rezzan killed his family.  Nutsch has stated that the movie is close enough, but his description of the action as “artistic license” is a big red flag.  I don’t question the bravery and accomplishments of the men, but the combat is unbelievable and unrealistic.

                 In conclusion, I will remind you that my reviews are of war movies by a war movie lover.  Some will see this movie and find it entertaining, which is fine.  But I warn war movie lovers that they may find it disappointing.  It does a service by telling the story of the first heroes of Operation Enduring Freedom, but it lays it on too thick.  No matter what your feelings are about artistic license, war movie lovers may also be disappointed by the lazy reliance on clichés. Still, it is the rare war movie that makes it to the screen these days.  We have to take what we can get.  It would be nice if the theater-going matched the anticipation.  Come on “Seven Days in Entebbe”, don’t let me down!


Tuesday, January 16, 2018

NOW SHOWING: Darkest Hour (2017)

                Well, I finally got around to seeing the new Winston Churchill movie.  You may have heard of it – “Darkest Hour”.  It is garnering a lot of awards buzz and has already pocketed the Best Actor Golden Globe.  The movie covers the first few weeks of Churchill’s first tenure as Prime Minister.  The title alludes to the fact that those weeks coincided with the lowest moment in the war for Great Britain.  The Norway debacle was underway and France was being pummeled by the Wehrmacht.  Dunkirk takes place during the movie’s time frame.  It is directed by Joe Wright (“Atonement”) and written by Anthony McCarten (Oscar nominee for “The Theory of Everything”).  Gary Oldman stars as Churchill.  He spent over 200 hours in makeup.  He smoked over 400 cigars during the filming at a cost of over $20,000.  He was the sixth actor from the Harry Potter movies to portray Churchill.

                The movie opens with newsreel scenes to set the time as May, 1940 with the Nazis on the rampage.  Parliament is looking for a replacement for the appeaser Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup).  In a raucous Commons, a Labour Party Member makes a fiery speech demanding that Chamberlain step down.  Cries of “Go! Go! Resign! Resign!” cascading upon Churchill’s empty seat.  Chamberlain reads the mood and wants Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) to replace him.  The only other choice is Winston.  Egads!  When Halifax declines,  King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) summons Churchill to an awkward meeting at the Palace.  Not a fan. We are introduced to Churchill’s new secretary, a comely mousey Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) and we empathize with her as she deals with the irascible Winny through the stress-laden next few weeks.  While the soldiers are facing the stress of the Nazi juggernaut, Churchill is having to deal with cabinet dysfunction.  Chamberlain and Halifax are plotting his demise based on his refusal to negotiate a peace deal with the unbeatable foe.  Will Winny cave to the pacifists?  Go see the movie or go back to school to find out.

                 For those hoping for a companion to the recent “Dunkirk”, “Darkest Hour” does not really fill in the macro elements.  As I mentioned, it concentrates mostly on whether Churchill should negotiate peace.  This makes it more of a political thriller than a war movie.  It is also something of a biopic, even though it covers only a few weeks in Churchill’s life.  We do get a vivid picture of his personality and political talents.   All the famous quirks are here:  the love of whiskey and cigars, the dictating while in the bathtub, the late-night work sessions, etc.  Inclusion of the Layton character (the stereotypical war correspondent equivalent from war movies) is effective in depicting his speech writing style.  She also acts as the foil for his curmudgeonry.  Her first day on the job, he calls her a “nincompoop”.  Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas) takes us backstage to see the private “Winny” and we witness his mood swings.  The movie jumps around from the private quarters to the political settings which are filmed in a “West Wing” corridor-maneuvering style.  The highlights are the speeches, of course.  In a nod to current attention spans, they are edited to their rousing parts.  The “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” speech is niftily intercut with its composition. 

                The reason to see the movie is Oldman’s performance.  He is magnificent and will win a well-deserved Oscar come May.  However, let’s not go overboard on the accolades.  Churchill is an actor-proof character.  Can you name an actor who blew the role?   He may be the best yet, but the others were pretty darn good, too.  The supporting cast is fine and Thomas has gotten some Oscar buzz.  Pickup and Dillane do a good job sliming the reputations of Chamberlain and Halifax.  Movies need villains, right?  Mendelsohn does not attempt to out-stutter Colin Firth.  Lily James is something of a weak-link in a stock role, but you have to credit her agent with putting her in this film and “Baby Driver” in the same year. 

                Wright does a nice job directing.  The cinematography has some showiness to it.  He is fond of aerial views to literally give the big picture.  It sometimes comes off as the only time he wants to depict the war is from a plane.  In fact, the movie does not intercut to the boys on the beach.  We do witness a political battle and spend a lot of time following Churchill through the corridors of power.  Speaking of which, someone needed to tell the person in charge of lighting that in the case of the title “darkest” is not literal.  This is one dark movie, and I mean that literally.  The dialogue is what you would expect, especially when Churchill is talking.  He gets the bon mots, which is appropriate, but Clemmy gets to be charmingly snarky.  The music is of the Masterpiece Theater variety.

                The weakness is in the plot.  The decision to concentrate on the peace negotiation issue is a curious one.  It does allow for a standard biopic plot where the protagonist goes through an arc of uncertainty, but for Churchill fans it leaves you wondering about the veracity of his vacillating.  He goes from apparently being the only one against peace talks to almost becoming a hippie.  It just doesn’t ring true.  The machinations of Chamberlain and Halifax seem Snidely Whiplashish. I left the theater scratching my head about its accuracy.  See below to find out if I had reason for concern.

                “Darkest Hour” is a must-see for history buffs.  If you have never seen a Churchill movie (and shame on you if you haven’t), you’ll get the gist of why he was special.  Oldman’s performance alone makes it a must-see.  In this it reminds of “Lincoln”, but the latter picture is superior.  Not because Day-Lewis did a better acting job, but the plot was more interesting.  Lincoln had better enemies.


HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  The movie opens on May 8, 1940.  Parliament is in an uproar over the Norway debacle.  The movie does not make that clear, possibly because Churchill was a major cause of that debacle.  It was basically his baby, but ironically he did not have to shoulder much of the blame.  The blowback squarely targeted Chamberlain, as depicted in the opening speech by an opponent.  The movie makes a point of Churchill being conspicuously absent, but in reality he was there to support Chamberlain and tried to take responsibility for Norway.  Chamberlain and the King did prefer Halifax and he did decline for reasons not really explored in the movie.  It certainly implies his motives were shady, which is a shame because some historians argue it was an act of statesmanship.  Apparently, he felt it was not the right moment for him and he modestly felt that being from the House of Lords would make it uncomfortable for the Commons to have him in charge.  He and Chamberlain did push the idea of opening a peace channel through Mussolini, but I could find no evidence that they were trying to bring down Churchill if he refused to toe their line.  The movie has them absurdly trying to set up Churchill.  The King did not want Churchill and the movie does mention his anger over Churchill siding with Edward VIII in the Abdication Crisis.  Their first meeting was awkward.

                 The idea that Churchill wavered on the peace issue is only loosely based on reality.  He did toy with Halifax’s suggestion of sending a message to Mussolini, but he did not go very far down that path.  There was no tipping point moment where he listened to the people in the Underground (note the movie’s inclusion of every demographic in that scene).  The subway scene is pure artistic license and a trite moment in an otherwise serious movie.  The only time Churchill was ever on a subway train was during the general strike of 1926.  The bigger problem with the scene is I am sure the screenwriter would argue that it reflected the mood of the people.  In reality, a typical subway group at that time would have been divided over what to do.  They would not have been unanimously and enthusiastically in favor of never surrendering.  The follow-up scene where Churchill addresses the Outer Cabinet is more accurate, although it accepts Churchill’s memory of vocal support from his peers.  That scene actually resulted not from mingling with the common people, but from an exchange with Halifax in which his insistence on negotiation got Churchill’s back up and this mood followed him into the meeting.  Enough was enough.  No more dilly-dallying.  There was no moment where Churchill switched from considering peace to no surrender.

                 As far as the Dunkirk references, the movie is shaky here as well.  It implies that Churchill defied the generals in implementing Operation Dynamo.  In fact, Churchill was unrealistically aggressive-minded as the crisis developed. The movie does not do a good job of showing how Churchill was brimming with ideas, but most of them were ridiculous.  He did not order the Calais garrison to make a suicidal counterattack to buy time for the evacuation.  In reality, he ordered the garrison to hold out where it was to buy time (which it really didn’t).  His lack of strategic awareness was exemplified by his wanting Gen. Gort to counterattack instead of retreating to the port.  It was Gort’s own initiative that saved the army in the early stages.  Once the siege began, Churchill deserves credit for lighting a fire under the navy to evacuate the army.  He is correctly given credit for encouraging the use of the little ships, but I do not know if he can be credited with the idea itself.  No matter the quibbles, no one better earned the right to give the “we will fight on the beaches” speech.

                The movie gets some minor details wrong.  Layton did not actually come to work for him until a month later, but that is excusable.  Churchill vetoed any talk of the royal family escaping to Canada.  There was no direct phone hookup to the White House at that time.   The conversation between the two heads of state is a composite of discussions.  Strangely, the movie gives the vibe that FDR’s proposal of using horses to pull the fighters over the Canadian border was a silly one when in reality it was a sneaky way to get around Congress and it was implemented.  The movie is bad about implying that FDR did not do enough to help Churchill in his hour of need.  It also implies that FDR turned down the opportunity to give England some destroyers.  The destroyers for bases deal may have come months later, but FDR arranged it as soon as he could.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

CRACKER? Their Finest (2016)

                “Their Finest” is a romantic comedy set in Great Britain during the Blitz.  It was directed by Lone Scherfig and is based on Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans.  It is a movie about the making of a movie.  The movie is about Dunkirk.  It gives an inside view of the making of a propaganda film by the British Ministry of Information.

                Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) gets a job writing scripts for short informational films, at substantially less pay than the men.  She will handle “slob” which refers to women’s dialogue.  She is sent to research a story about two women who went to Dunkirk in their boat to participate in the evacuation.  It sounds like a great morale-boosting film, but it turns out the story is too good to be true.  Catrin lies about the veracity of the tale because she does not want to get fired.  Her writing partners Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) and Raymond Parfitt (Paul Ritter) decide to “enhance” the story and the trio convinces their superiors they can make the movie as a “based on a true story”.  Complications arise as Catrin’s unemployed husband gets a job and insists she quit hers.  She refuses and this opens up the opportunity for the requisite romance with the chauvinistic Buckley.  Production begins on the movie which the Ministry hopes will sway American audiences into supporting Britain.  For this reason they will need an American character.  They insert a flyboy played by real American RAF ace Carl Lundbeck (Jake Lacy).  Lundbeck turns out to be a terrible actor which provides some of the comedy.  Meanwhile there is tension on the set because the main star is a pompous has-been named Hilliard (Bill Nighy).  He does not care that there is a war going on and will provide the redemption arc. 

                “Their Finest” is a nice little movie.  It is rare to find a modern romantic comedy set in WWII.  I’m not including unintended comedies like “Shining Through”.   Since it is modern, it has a feminist theme to it that is a bit anachronistic.  However, the Catrin character is based on Diana Morgan.  Morgan was a screenwriter and playwright in London in the 1940s.  She went mostly uncredited in the films she helped write, but was recognized for “Went the Day Well?” (1942).   Even though its modern, it does not break any new ground in the romantic comedy tropes.  The Catrin and Buckley characters are destined to get together, but not until there is a bump in the road.  The characters are all clichés, but hey, it’s a rom-com so what do you expect?  The cool aspect to the plot is the movie-making subplot.  It’s played for laughs, but it is not far from the actual making of a low budget propaganda piece.  The actors have fun playing actors and Nighy is great.  The whole cast is fine. They are helped by good dialogue, plus its fun watching the crafting of dialogue by Catrin.  Buckley describes movies as “real life with the boring bits cut out”.

                “Their Finest” is a good choice if you want a light-weight movie that blends comedy and romance with great period touches.  A male war movie fan can watch it with his significant other and get brownie points.         You can pretend it’s a chore, but you’ll probably enjoy it, too.

GRADE  =  B+

Monday, January 8, 2018

CRACKER? Men of Honor (2000)

       “Men of Honor” is a biopic about the first African-American US Navy Diver.  Cuba Gooding, Jr. plays Carl Brashear.  Brashear is a hero of the modern Navy so the Navy cooperated in the production.  The script sat for years before Fox took it on and George Tillman, Jr. directed.  Fox questioned the movie’s appeal and limited the budget to $32 million (from a requested $50 million).  The movie was made after Gooding and Robert De Niro agreed to accept only one-third of their usual salaries.  The film made $48 million.

                Brashear grew up in the rural South.   He is the son of a sharecropper.  He ain’t that keen on book learning and schooling, but the dude sure can swim.  In 1948, he leaves home to follow his dream by joining the Navy.  This being the Navy, he is put to work in the galley as a cook.  Truman may have integrated the Armed Forces, but that did not mean the Navy had to stop being racist.  His life changes when he witnesses a diver rescue a man from a crashed chopper.  This inspires Brashear to apply for the Diving and Salvage School where guess who is the instructor?  The very same heroic diver who had injured his health in the rescue and is now a bitter ex-diver.  Master Chief Petty Officer Sunday (De Niro) is ordered by the bigoted (and mentally unstable) commanding officer to make sure Brashear washes out.  Not that Sunday needs much prodding.  Not only that, but his training mates are uniformly hostile to having a black man in their class.  In a bold move, the script pushes one of the men forward as the main villain.  Never seen that before.  In a training accident, Brashear saves the alpha racist after he panics.  The racist gets the medal for bravery because this is the Navy.  In spite of all the obstacles, Brashear earns respect from his mates and specifically from Sunday.  Brashear’s big moment comes in the recovery of an H-Bomb off the coast of Spain.  Brashear is injured in the process and has to go through grueling rehab to try to return to diving.  Luckily, he has his ex-racist instructor to berate him into bucking the system.

                “Men of Honor” oozes sincerity.  It is definitely an Old School biopic.  This type of movie still existed in 2000!  “Born on the Fourth of July” came out in 1989.  Although made by Fox, you could easily think it is a Disney film.  Numerous clichés sink it and there is no recovery crew.  Sunday rides the redemption train so De Niro has something to do besides play a stereotypical racist and drill instructor type. The man is able to play two stock characters at once!  Without breaking a sweat.  Another well-worn trope is Brashear overcoming odds.  Since you have seen standard biopics before, there is never a doubt that Brashear will succeed.  The movie includes the usual dastardly authority figures.  It has an overarching theme that American attitudes changed because of men like Carl Brashear.  And the Navy changed.  This partially explains why the Navy would have cooperated with a movie that highlights its institutional racism.  Patting itself on the back was part of it, but let’s also give the Navy credit for encouraging the making of a movie about one of its greatest heroes.

                If it was not for the cast, this movie would not have been made and would not have had any impact.  Gooding is perfect in a movie that plays to his strengths as an actor.  I doubt they spent much time casting the role.  De Niro is also good, but he could play Sunday in his sleep.  I give him credit for making the movie.  It says something about his conscience.  The big casting head-scratcher is Charlize Theron as Sunday’s wife.  Talk about stretching to reach a key demographic, with no shame.  Plus, the movie could claim to have three Oscar winners.

                Carl Brashear deserved this movie.  I am sure I am not alone in not having heard of him before the movie came out.  He is a legitimate hero and ground-breaker and his story is entertaining enough to not need the extreme Hollywood treatment.  It is the type of movie that you enjoy watching, but you spend a lot of time wondering how much is true.  And there are plot developments that an intelligent viewer will be absolutely sure are bull crap.  For instance, the movie jumps the shark by throwing in a preposterous encounter with a Soviet sub.  If we are already peeing in our pants, do you really have to go for poop?  Overall, the movie is average in accuracy for a movie of this type.  As you can read below, the gist of the story is true.  The screenwriter has enhanced every incident to maximize the racism and odds-overcoming themes.  It tells you something when you research a movie and only the main character is based on a real person.  For instance, Sunday is a composite character based on two different instructors – one of whom was a supporter of Brashear’s efforts.

                I’ll give the movie credit for sincerity, but it is nothing special and certainly not one of the best war movies.  It’s another good example of a movie that encourages some to learn more about the subject. 


HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  The background is accurate.  Brashear grew up as a sharecropper’s son (although he was not an only child).  He was a good swimmer so he did break stereotypes with that skill.  He was unmotivated when it came to school attendance and dropped out to work in a gas station.  In 1948 he ran away to join the Navy.  He was a cook on the USS Hoist when he attended the Diving and Salvage School in Bayonne, New Jersey.  The incident where Sunday rescues the chopper crewman is fictional.  The racist commanding officer is also fictional.  The instructors and classmates did not need to be encouraged to behave like the racists that some of them were.  The treatment was basically the snubbing and note variety.  Some of the notes said bon mots like “we’re going to drown you today, n-----“.   There was no incident involving the rescue of a bigoted mate.  Brashear did graduate as the first African-American Navy Diver.  His first job was retrieving 16,000 rounds of ammunition from a sunken barge.  He then went on to salvaging planes, including a Navy Blue Angel.  He spent some time as a military escort for Pres. Eisenhower who gave him a souvenir knife in appreciation.

                The incident involving the hydrogen bomb is known as the Palomares Incident.  A B-52 bomber carrying four nukes collided with a KC-135 tanker and both went down off the coast of Spain in 1966.  Three of the bombs were recovered on land.  It took more than two months to find the last one which was on the ocean floor at a depth of 2,500 feet.  Unmanned submersibles were used to try to raise it, but complications required divers to attach a cable after a submersible raised it to about a hundred feet depth.  Brashear going down to hook up the cable on the floor would have been impossible since the Navy did not allow divers to go below 350 feet.  There was probably a Soviet sub in the Atlantic Ocean at the time, but there was absolutely no close encounter as depicted in the movie’s silliest moment.  The USS Hoist was part of the recovery effort, but it was the USS Petrel that did the heavy lifting.  Brashear did come out of the incident as the main star and was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal (the highest honor for a non-combat feat).  The movie does a good job covering Brashear’s accident, amputation, and recovery.  There was no trial, instead he had to prove his abilities to doctors.  Part of the testing involved climbing a ladder with a lot of weight on.  He became the first amputee to be re-certified for diving.  Two years later he became a Master Diver, the first African-American to reach that level.