Tuesday, December 6, 2016

CRACKER? Windtalkers (2002)

                What would motivate Chinese director John Woo to make a movie about the Navajo code talkers of WWII?  Woo, noted for his cartoonishly violent movies like “Broken Arrow” and “Face/Off”, even sunk his own money into it as a producer.  He must be a huge history buff.  And had a strong desire to bring the story of the “windtalkers” to the general public.  Kudos to him for that.  Unless he botched the job.
                Woo spent an unbelievable $115 million on a movie about a footnote to history.  The movie was shot on Hawaii and had cooperation from the Department of Defense.  The DOD allowed Woo to use Kaneohe Marine Corps Base for a boot camp for the actors to learn how to be Marines.  For authenticity, the movie included actual Sherman, Sheridan, and Japanese Hago tanks.  The tanks fit the war, the actors and script did not.

                Meet Ben Yahzee.  He’s a Navajo Indian who is leaving the reservation to serve his country and represent his tribe's contribution to winning the war.  But wait, he’s going to have to share the screen with a white man.  How ironic!  Sgt. Joe Enders (Nicholas Cage) is the only survivor of a fire fight in the Solomons in 1943 that reminds of the fire fight in “Tropic Thunder”.  Except that this scene is even more ridiculous.  Enders returns to Hawaii with loss of hearing and PTSD.  Ben is sent to Camp Pendleton for communications training in a new program using the Navajo language to send messages that the Japanese will be unable to decode.  The men will be used mainly as artillery spotters.  Because of the importance of the code, each Navajo is paired up with a regular Marine for protection of him and the code.  To protect the sanctity of the code, their body guard has been instructed to not let the code fall into enemy hands.  Since the code is in their heads, this means the partner must make sure their charge is not taken alive. 

                Enders is paired up with Ben.  Their Hollywoodesque relationship starts rocky, but they eventually bond to the point where you question whether Joe will be able to carry out his orders in the eventuality (actually, certainty) of Ben being on the cusp of captivity.  To double the chance of a dilemma scene, the movie has another partnership involving Ben’s buddy Charlie Whitehorse (Roger Willie) and Sgt. Pete “Ox” Henderson (Christian Slater).  And there is a Pvt. “Chick” Clusters (Noah Emmerich) as our requisite racist.

                The unit’s first action is on Saipan in 1944.  Our quartet are in the thick of a charge on a Japanese-held hill.  Apparently, the valuable Navajo artillery spotters are also needed for suicidal shock charges.  Ben radios coordinates to the USS California.  The Japanese intercept, but they are perplexed by the gibberish.  The system works!  We’re going to win the war!  Later, the unit suffers from some friendly artillery fire and wouldn’t you know their one radio is hit.  Following their training, Ben disguises himself as a Japanese soldier and takes Joe “captive” so they can get to a Japanese radio.  I am not making this up.  If you think the movie has jumped the shark (Navajo code for destroyer, by the way), you don’t know John Woo.  We still have more exposition between Ben/Joe and Charlie/Ox.  And Chick is in need of redemption.  And the audience is not combat porn sated yet.  Queue the gasoline explosions.

                If you are wondering why it took a war movie fan so long to review a war movie, it’s because I like good war movies and I am reluctant to watch movies that give off a stench of suckitude.  Sometimes my sense of smell is off, but usually my pessimism is warranted.  Of course, you don’t have to be a seer to predict a war  movie by John Woo is going to be bad.  Not to mention that Nick Cage is the star.  Cage is the Razzie Cage in this film.  He drags the rest of the cast down with him.  Even Mark Ruffalo disappoints.  Beach keeps his dignity and continues his reign as the greatest modern portrayor of Native Americans in war movies.  I’m not sure he wants to show up at the Navajo Reservation any time soon unless he has a well prepped excuse for his involvement in this historical travesty.
                I have recently been ruminating on the two types of combat movies since ‘’Saving Private Ryan”.  One type attempts to be just as realistic in its depiction of combat as the Omaha Beach scene in that film.  The other type attempts to show extreme combat as armchair cinephiles imagine it to be.  “Windtalkers” is squarely in the second category.  Or should I say categorie.  It has all the traits.  Lots of flaming bodies.  Grenades give off flames.  A flamethrower goes up in flames.  Are you noticing a popular image in these films?  Let’s not forget unlimited ammo without reloading.  Blood splatters on the camera lens.  Hip shooting.  Trampoline deaths.  You know – John Woo does WWII.  Throw in a laughable score and a predictable and clicheish script and you have one of the worst war movies ever made.

                It’s highly likely this will be the first and last movie honoring the Navajo code talkers.  That is a shame because they deserved better.  It hopefully will be the last war movie directed by John Woo.

GRADE  =  F-

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  The Navajo code talkers were born from the mind of Philip Johnston.  He was a WWI veteran who had grown up on a Navajo reservation and thus was well-versed in their language.  One of the very few non-Navajos who could claim this.  He suggested to the military that their unique language could be used as a code.  The military was surprisingly receptive to the idea.  Perhaps because Cherokee and Choctaw Indians were used for similar communication in WWI.  The testing phase went well and in May, 1942, the first 29 code talkers began training at Camp Pendleton.  Eventually 421 Navajos were trained.  They were trained to use their language to send messages to other Navajos.  For military terminology, they substituted Navajo words.  “Turtle” meant “ tank”, for instance.  There were a total of 411 terms that had to be memorized for security reasons. The Japanese never came close to reading the messages.  The "windtalkers" first saw action on Guadalcanal.  They also served on Tarawa, Saipan, and Iwo Jima.  They had their greatest success on Iwo where on the first two days they transmitted over 800 messages accurately. Later,  Code talkers were deployed to Korea and Vietnam.  Because of the top secret nature of the program, historians did not take notice until it was declassified in 1968.  Three years later, President Nixon issued a certificate of appreciation.  In 2000, the original 29 were honored by Congress with Gold Medals and the other members got Silver Medals.

                The movie is based on a seed of truth, but goes way off the tracks.  The central premise is that the code was so valuable that no code talker could be allowed to be taken alive.  For that reason, each Navajo was paired with a Marine to not only protect them, but kill them if necessary.  I suppose it’s possible that some audience members might buy this.  However, it’s pure bull shit.  In reality, they were assigned a body guard, but it was a response to several incidents where Marines opened fire on some of them because they looked like Japanese.

                Woo attempts to show their heroism in battle and I could be wrong on this, but I find it hard to believe that they were the warriors depicted in the film.  It would make little sense for such valuable communicators to be in the line of fire.  Being a forward artillery observer is certainly dangerous, but it would seem to me that they would not be leading assaults.  I found no evidence that any died in combat.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

NOW SHOWING: Allied (2016)

                The third in our series of war movies for this month is “Allied” starring Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard.  They bring their star wattage to a WWII spy movie directed by Robert Zemeckis.  This is Zemeckis’ first war movie.  It was filmed mostly in London for $85 million.  The screenplay was by Steven Knight who claims it is based on a true story that he was told when he was 21.  Take that for what it’s worth.

                The movie opens with British spy Max Vatan (Pitt) parachuting into French Morocco in 1942.  A taxi delivers his genuine spy brief case which includes passports, weapons, and a wedding ring.  The taxi takes him to Casablanca where he meets a beautiful female spy named Marianne (Cotillard) who will masquerade as his wife.  Do you really want to remind people of a little old movie named “Casablanca”?  That’s some pretty big shoes to fill.  The script forces Max and Marianne to have a rocky start in their relationship.  Like in every romance ever filmed.  She is condescending and wears the pants in the partnership.  It is established early that she is a brilliant actress.  This will be a major plot point.  The mission is the assassination of the German ambassador at a party.  To get an invitation, Max has to get past a suave Nazi (August Diehl from the bar scene in “Inglourious Basterds”).  The movie actually does the old stunt hands shuffling cards routine.  Apparently Pitt was not willing to go to poker boot camp for his role.  Before the suicidal mission, Max and Marianne consummate their made in Hollywood romance in a car in a sand storm.  Points for originality with that setting.

                The assassination scene is surprisingly lacking in suspense and is not even close to suicidal.  In the post-coitaling of the Nazi glow, Max proposes and they return to Great Britain to an idyllic life with Blitz baby Anna.  Max is back to being an RAF wing commander, having apparently been on a spy lark in Morocco.  Time passes until the phone call comes.  It seems Marianne is suspected of being a Nazi agent.  Max must help ferret her out and then execute her if it turns out to be true.  They don’t plan on interrogating her or turning her into a double agent like every other German spy discovered in Britain during WWII.  According to the movie, killing his wife is routine procedure for an “intimate betrayal”.  It’s in the manual!

                “Allied” is not a bad movie, but it is forgettable.  It is too old fashioned.  And credit to the set designer and the costume designer for the period look.  You have to credit Zemeckis for not following the recent trend of defying all logic and physics.  That does not mean the movie does not have moments and plot developments that are fodder for “what was up with that?” or “why did the screenwriter throw that in?” discussions.  The answer to those question is invariably “because the plot needed it”.  I’ve already mentioned Max being put in a position where he may have to execute his wife.  Here’s another example.  In order for Max to be able to make a trip behind enemy lines for a crucial scene, the character has to be a spy / RAF pilot.  This is the kind of credulity straining you get in movies like this.  And then there are the plot developments that make no sense even if you factor in Hollywood.  Why is Max’s sister openly lesbian?  Is that cocaine someone is doing at a house party in 1940s London?

                Considering the stars, the movie is lacking in romantic spark.  The arc from disdain to impromptu proposal is too rushed.  Then we have a similar leap to marital bliss.  It just does not feel right.  The action does not take your mind off the flawed romance.  There are two underwhelming action set pieces.  In neither do you think Max and/or Marianne are in any real danger.  I will credit the movie with introducing enough red herrings to keep you wondering.  However, when the movie is over you will realize you were being manipulated the whole time.  It is a spy movie after all.  I just expected more than the usual. 

                I get psyched to go see war movies in a theater.  I get my clip board with my legal pad and I sit on the floor in the aisle so I can use the floor lights.  It’s not the most comfortable way to enjoy a movie, but I do it for my readers – both of them.  Since war movies are rare (except this month), I don’t get to do this very often.  For that reason I can’t be too harsh with a war movie I get to see in a theater.  It is disappointing when I see a war movie with the pedigree of “Allied” and realize a lot of talent was wasted on a tired story line.  There have been hundreds of war movies made, but there are still good stories to be told.  Including many true stories of actual events and people.  It angers me that the $85 million could have been spent on a movie about a real heroic spy like Vera Leigh, for instance.


Tuesday, November 22, 2016

NOW SHOWING: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016)

                “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” is Ang Lee’s attempt to revolutionize the war movie.  Not content to bring Ben Fountain’s acclaimed novel to the screen in a standard format, he went radical on the filming process.  Normally, cinematographers shoot at 24 frames per second.  Lee (“Ride with the Devil”) went with an eye-popping 120 per second.  This broke Peter Jackson’s record of 48 for “The Hobbit:  An Unexpected Journey”.  Ang Lee must have a very tiny penis.  Because of the necessary technology, the film was shown in its new format in only six theaters worldwide (only two in America).  Based on the box office receipts, don’t wait for more theaters to install the expensive technology necessary to show the film “the way it was meant to be seen”.  I saw the movie in a mortal theater so I did not have to pop my eyes back in (or take a bottle of aspirin for a headache).  I also was not distracted from the plot.  Let’s see if that was fortunate.

                Billy Lynn (rookie Joe Alwyn) and his squad mates (referred to as Bravo Company) have been brought back to the States from Iraq for a bond tour or today’s equivalent of such.  It is a publicity stunt to remind America that we are still at war in Iraq and our soldiers are forgotten heroes.  They are famous for their performance in a fire fight that was recorded by an embedded news crew.  They lost their beloved and loving Sgt. Bream (Vin Diesel) and Lynn was awarded the Silver Star.  The movie centers around their participation in the halftime show at the Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving game.

                The movie is shown with flash backs to their time in Iraq.  These scenes attempt to establish that war is hell and Iraq was its ideal location.  We learn that Billy was your typical Generation X foul-up who turns out to be good at soldiering, but does not really take much pride in it.  He has a mentor in Bream, who is called “Shroom” because he dispenses wisdom as though he is on mushrooms. He tells Billy to not reason “why?”  He also tells him a variation of the old “you can’t avoid the bullet that has your name on it.”  We get the obligatory house search by the arrogant Americans which will breed more terrorists.  This leads up to the fire fight where the adrenaline flows, the training kicks in, the bonding pays off, but leads to heartbreak. It earns the boys a trip away from their real home (the Army) to their underappreciating home – America.  On the plus side, the “dog and pony show” could be financially lucrative if a movie deal comes through (and provided the producers don’t blow the budget on a new filming process).

                Back at home, Billy is reunited with his sister Kathryn (Kristen Stewart playing the literally scarred sister – Oscar please!).  Kathryn represents all the modern hippies who think the war is a big mistake.  She pushes the seemingly normal Billy to see a psychiatrist for PTSD.  A sister just knows these sort of things.  She also wants him to avoid going back.  This will mean abandoning his mates.  What’s a dude who has bonded with his comrades to do?

                The trip to Cowboy stadium is a real trip.  They have an agent named Albert (Chris Tucker playing Chris Tucker) who is on the phone to Hollywood trying to arrange a movie deal.  Meanwhile they are being treated like the heroes America insists they need to be.  Cowboys owner Norm “Jerry Jones” Oglesby (Steve Martin) channels Fox News and so he doesn’t have to do all the heavy lifting, an oily oilman is thrown in as a cherry on top.  This Odyssey includes a press conference where the men say all the right things.  This is a metaphor for the movie as all the characters say the right thing for characters in a war movie of this type.  When asked how he was able to act in a way to deserve the Silver Star,  Billy actually says:  “I did what I had to do”.  Then Billy passes by the island of the Siren when he hooks up with a cheerleader named Faison (Makenzie Leigh, who acts about as well as a real cheerleader).  Several other episodes lead up to the big halftime show which features “Destiny’s Child” with an actress playing Beyonce’s ass.  Why Destiny’s Child?  Because when Lee googled songs about soldiers, their name came up and actresses with nice booties come cheap.  Did it matter that the song is definitely not about soldiers in Iraq?  No.  Unless this is another example of the movie’s theme that America cares more about thugs than grunts.  If so, well played!  As though the booty shaking is not enough sensory overload, how about throwing in a lot of fireworks culminating in a rocket effect?  Give me a P – give me a T – give me an S – give me a D…  The second half goes about as well for the squad as it does for the Cowboys.

                “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” never connects.  Lee’s frame rate may have been revolutionary, but the script was certainly not.  It is full of clichés and very predictable.  The themes are tired.  Their presentation is heavy-handed.  If you want to see these themes presented well, watch the vastly superior “Flags of Our Fathers”.  It even has the football scene.  “Flags” mined new ground by showing that even in the “good war”, the government used soldiers to gin up support for the war and Americans on the home front could be uncaring and clueless.  But “Billy Lynn’s” is not exactly breaking new ground with the Iraq War.  We may not have known in 2004 what dicks we were, but by now it is not exactly a news flash. 

                I have not read the book yet, but I assume it is more competent in advancing its themes.  It surely has better dialogue.  The movie gets the soldier banter right, but the rest is from the “what would this type of character say at this point?” school of screenwriting.  It is replete with gems like:  “I’m not a hero.  I’m a soldier.”  The actors manage to spout their lines with straight faces.  This is especially true for Alwyn who plays Billy as G.I. Joe’s kid brother.  He is adequate (like Ryan Phillipe in “Flags”).  His skills do not include portraying PTSD.  The movie gives little support for his need for a psychiatrist.  In fact, the movie curiously does not make a good case for how horrible the squad’s experience in Iraq was.  It “tells” us, but the scenes set in Iraq do not advance this theme.  The only thing really bad that happens to them is the death of Shroom.  That one combat scene is fine, but you expect more from Ang Lee.  At least he avoids the recent spate of extreme combat scenes like in “Hacksaw Ridge”. 

                The only thing I enjoyed was the soldier camaraderie.  The squad members have a lot of chemistry and their interaction feels authentic.  Their ragging is not forced.  None of the actors is big league, but they fit together well.  One caveat is there is no dysfunction in the group. So there’s one cliché that Lee eschews.  Compare this to the trio in “Flags” and you can see where dysfunction can be compelling and entertaining.  Lynn and his boys are all on the same page.  There is little tension.

                “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” is a war movie that wants to be more important than it is.  There is nothing special about it except the frame rate and most of us average joes will not even be able to see it in that format.  After seeing the standard version, I’m not planning on booking a flight to NYC to see the “whole shebang” (Lee’s words).

GRADE  =  C-


                “Tunnel Rats” is a Uwe Boll film released in only one theater.  Boll is a famously bad director who is a whipping boy for critics.  He won the Golden Raspberry Award for Directing for this film and two others.  The movie was a German/Canadian production, but really it was a Boll production.  He wrote, directed, and produced it for $8 million.  It made $35,000.  This guy must be independently wealthy.  Supposedly this particular boll effort got some positive reviews.  Let’s see if those critics were right.  I’ll save you the trouble of watching a Boll movie by describing the plot.  So spoiler alert!  And you’re welcome.

                                The movie is set in the Cu Chi area in South Vietnam in 1968.  Cu Chi was famous for its intricate tunnel system used by the Viet Cong.  Some daring American grunts would volunteer to go into the tunnels.  They were called Tunnel Rats.  In the opening scene, one of these men is stabbed in a tunnel – from below!  (That’s the first exclamation point – there will be more.)  Cherries arrive and Lt. (credited as Sgt.) Hollowborn (Michael Pare) warns them against using dope (although viewers might want to disregard that warning).  He orders the hanging of a VC sniper and forces the squad to witness.  “We show no mercy, we take no prisoners”.  (The motto of Boll films.)  The LT boxes a soldier who criticized the execution!  A soldier talks about going home to his sick mother.  Guess who won’t be going home to his sick mother?  The camp is in the jungle – with no fields of fire or any kind  of defense.  The VC could literally sneak up to their tents!  The squad is heterogeneous with the typical mixture.  There is a Bible thumper, a boy from the hood, an intellectual black, a hick, and a cynical white guy. 

                They go out on a mission and find a tunnel.  The holy roller goes in and gets killed.  The cynical white pokes his head out and gets impaled by a female VC!  She then throws a grenade that wounds the intellectual.  When the rest find the cynic, they don’t bring back his body!  They look for intellectual and LT falls into a stake pit and the hick is machine gunned.  Meanwhile the camp comes under assault in broad daylight.  The grunts fire M60s from the hip.  In the tunnel, one of the men has to cut his way by a dead body!  Enjoy your pop corn.  The boy from the hood swims through part of the tunnel to pop up in a bunk room and hurl a grenade.  At this point only three members are alive when the air strike comes in.  The movie concludes with a long and exhausting scene where the Bible thumper and the VC girl are trapped and trying to dig their way out.

                This is not the worst Vietnam War movie.  It actually is fairly entertaining if you are into combat porn and can turn off your brain for a while.  There is a lot of extreme violence and it is preposterous.  There are a variety of deaths, but they are all ridiculous.  Boll is a better director than his reputation.  He uses a lot of hand-held.  He intercuts between the tunnel and the camp for the action scenes.  The music is revved up, of course.  The dialogue is not as stomach-turning as you would expect.  Supposedly the actors improvised their lines.  Maybe they had seen other Boll written movies.  They throw in some Vietnam slang and it does not seem forced like in better Vietnam War movies.  The characters are cliché, but that is hardly a first.  There is even some character development.  Unfortunately, the cast is low rent and does poorly.  One interesting thing about the otherwise inferior plot is the positive spin on the Viet Cong.  The female guerrilla is a nice touch and her linking up with the fundamentalist is a commendable twist.

                In spite of the non-snarky comments I made about “Tunnel Rats”, this is a bad movie.  I had to watch it, you don’t.