Wednesday, March 30, 2011

MARCH MADNESS: Inglorious Basterds (3) vs. The Great Raid (14)



ACTING: “Inglorious Basterds” is a Quentin Tarantino film with his usual eclectic cast. It stars Brad Pitt as Aldo Raines who leads a special commando squad behind enemy lines. The character is over the top and Pitt takes a deep bite into the role (as well as the foreheads of Nazis). He is not even the best actor in the film. That honor goes to the amazing Christophe Waltz as the charmingly malevolent S.S. Col. Hans Landa. The female leads, Diane Kruger as actress Bridget von Hammersmark and Melanie Laurent as the Jewish cinema operator Shoshanna, are amazing. “The Great Raid” has a B-list cast headed by Benjamin Bratt as Col. Henry Mucci and James Franco as his subordinate Bob Prince. It also has a beautiful blond (Connie Nielsen as Margaret Utinsky) who plays the nurse helping the Filipino Resistance. The cast is capable, but unspectacular.


Score at the end of the first period: Basterds – 10 Raid – 7

REALISM: Did I mention Basterds is a Tarantino film? ‘Nuff said. It is one of the most unrealistic war films ever made. It makes the “Dirty Dozen” look like a documentary. It would be hard to find anything that happens in the film that is plausible. But that is not the point. It is meant to be outlandish. For this reason, I give it a default 6. Raid does a good job portraying life in a Japanese prison camp and the difficulties of a raid behind enemy lines. The romance is, of course, unrealistic and you have some other Hollywood contrivances, but on the whole most of it rings true.

Score at half: Basterds – 16 Raid – 15

ACCURACY: Did you know that we killed Hitler and his high command when he attended a movie premier in Paris after D-Day? Did you know that during WWII we had an elite commando unit in occupied France which slaughtered and scalped Nazi soldiers? If you did, you think like Tarantino – get to a psychiatrist immediately! Default 6 again. Raid is based on the books The Great Raid on Cabanatuan by William Breuer and The Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides. I have read Sides’ book and it was one of the best books I have ever read. The movie does not live up to it, but none could. I was prepared to be severely disappointed. The movie is actually quite true to the book, other than the romance. Surprisingly, the Utinsky character is faithful to the truth. The raid itself is close to what happened, but with the typical Hollywood bullshit that insists on a showdown with the evil camp commandant. The little touches are right. For example, the fly-over to distract the Japanese. If you did not want to read the books, the movie retells the story in an educational way.

Score after three periods: Basterds – 22 Raid – 24

ENTERTAINMENT VALUE: Basterds was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture and Waltz won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. It has some amazing scenes, especially the French farmhouse opening, the basement bar showdown, and the explosive and fiery mass assassination. Several deaths are shocking in a good way. Tarantino’s style and homages to familiar movies are mesmerizing. Raid looks like a made for TV movie. A good one, but it lacks the pizazz a great war movie has. The raid itself is one of the best action war scenes in recent memory. It deserves credit for reviving a story that was huge in 1945, but had been forgotten over the decades.

Score at the end of regulation:  Basterds - 31  Raid - 31

FINAL SCORE: Raid 32 Basterds – 31

*** In overtime, Raid wins because it is a pure war movie and honors the most successful rescue mission in American History.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

MARCH MADNESS: Black Hawk Down (4) vs. Kingdom of Heaven (13)




ACTING: Kingdom has an all star cast headed by Orlando Bloom as Balian of Ibelin. He is adequate in his portrayal of the saintly blacksmith turned warrior. The supporting cast includes Jeremy Irons (bringing gravitas), Liam Neeson (dead too soon), and Brendan Gleeson (chewing scenery). Strangely, arguably the best member of the cast (Edward Norton) spends the whole movie in a mask as the leperous King of Jerusalem. Black Hawk has a cast that would become all-stars. You will see many actors before their careers exploded. No one dominates and all are very good. It is obvious they went through some type of movie boot camp to prepare for their roles. Stand-outs are Eric Bana (the cynical warrior), Tom Sizemore (reprising his SPR role), and Sam Sheppard (as the brow-furrowed general). Interestingly, Orlando Bloom appears in both movies. In Black Hawk, he plays the cherry Blackburn whose fall from a helicopter starts the string of bad events. It’s the best performance of his career.


Score at the end of the first period: Black Hawk – 9 Kingdom – 8

REALISM: Kingdom really struggles with plausibility. Balian is a blacksmith and yet with one lesson from his warrior father, he becomes a kick-ass swordsman. He is the only survivor of a shipwreck. He saves the life of a Muslim who turns out to be a noble who later returns the favor. When Saladin’s army arrives outside the dastardly Templar (Gleeson) castle, the King’s army arrives at the same time. Guy (the other villain) kills Saladin’s sister to ramp up his villainy. These are just a few examples of reality defying plot developments. I won’t mention that all the Muslims are good. Black Hawk is admirably realistic in its depiction of modern urban warfare. It is chaotic and hard to know what is going on even one block away. It is hard to hit a moving target in a combat situation, even the good guys miss a lot. The soldiers talk like soldiers and run the gamut of emotions common for units in combat. It also shows the modern command and control structure.

Half-time: Black Hawk – 18 Kingdom – 14


ACCURACY: Kingdom is actually based on a true story, but much of that story has been Hollywoodized. The inaccuracies are too numerous to mention. Here are some samples. Balian was not a blacksmith (he was an important noble) and did not hook up with Sibylla. Guy and Reynard were not Templars. Nothing happened to Saladin’s sister. Sybella was happily married to Guy. However, much of the seemingly bogus elements of the story were surprisingly close to the truth. The Battle of Hattin is handled well. The siege of Jerusalem, while not as short as depicted, was correct in that Balian was in command and did negotiate the surrender after threatening to destroy the city. The big complaint has been with the implication that there was peace between the Christians and Muslims that was shattered by Reynard and Guy. Black Hawk is based on the book by Mark Bowden. The book is highly acclaimed in its retelling of the Battle of Mogadishu. Bowden was hands on in the screenplay and the movie sticks to the book for the most part. It is about as accurate a portrayal of a battle as you can find. The Army was pleased with the final product. It accurately reflects the strategy and tactics of that mission. There are a few minor Hollywood revisions. For instance, Eversmann (Josh Hartnett) actually was evacuated before the night. Blackburn did not fall because the helicopter dodged an RPG.

Score after three periods: Black Hawk – 27 Kingdom – 21

ENTERTAINMENT VALUE: Both these films were directed by Ridley Scott who knows a little about giving audiences what they want. They differ greatly in how they attempt to entertain. Kingdom is more well-rounded in that it includes a romance, politics, villainy, and action. Black Hawk is a pure war movie. Not a single female speaks in the film. The action is exhilarating. It is suspenseful. It also has emotional moments (like the death of Smith). There is no romance (not counting bromance, of course). Since I am a guy, I would say Black Hawk is much more entertaining. I could see where a female might prefer Kingdom, even though it is not as good a movie.

Final score: Black Hawk Down – 36 Kingdom of Heaven - 28

Friday, March 25, 2011

MARCH MADNESS: "Flags of Our Fathers" (5) vs. "Enemy at the Gates" (12)




ACTING: “Flags” does not have an A-List cast. The main characters: Ryan Phillippe as James Bradley, Jesse Bradford as Rene Gragnon, and Adam Beach as Ira Hayes, are very good. Director Clint Eastwood made an excellent decision to not load the story down with famous stars. Beach is especially poignant in portraying the troubled Hayes. “Enemy” has showier leads. Jude Law as Vasily Zaitsev and Joseph Fiennes as Danilov are fine with Danilov being less believable. Bob Hoskins brings the proper bombast to the role of Nikita Khrushchev. Rachel Weisz as female sniper Tanya is too well-coiffed and beautiful for the role. She also makes no attempt at a Russian accent. Ed Harris steals the acting honors with the coldly efficient and malevolent Major Konig.


Score at the end of the first period: Flags – 9 Enemy – 8

REALISM: “Flags” attempts to authentically depict the terrors of combat in the Pacific and the media circus on the home front that confronted the flag-raising heroes. The combat has the feel of “Saving Private Ryan” and is appropriately chaotic, explosive, and graphic. The fighting is vicious and sometimes hand-to-hand with bayonets. The bond drive on the home front is a mixture of cynicism and ultrapatriotism. It’s laid on a bit thick, but not in a ridiculous way. “Enemy” has chosen to set a love triangle in the middle of the greatest battle of WWII. It’s small world approach to the character’s encounters defies credulity. The city of Stalingrad, while appropriately a shambles, appears to be empty save for the maneuverings of the featured characters. It also relies on some amazing pieces of luck to advance the two main foes to their final confrontation.

Score at half: Flags – 18 Enemy – 14

ACCURACY: “Flags” is based on the book by James Bradley and Ron Powers. The movie takes few liberties with the narrative. It is about as accurate as you can find. I could find no major flaws in it. The landing is true in its depiction of the Japanese allowing the Marines to come inland a bit before opening fire. Marine tactics are true to their style. The deaths of the three flag-raisers who did not survive are accurate. Even the small touches like Harlon Black’s mother recognizing his butt in the picture are true. “Enemy” has numerous problems with historical accuracy. The movie was inspired by a small portion of William Craig’s study of the battle. Craig added the legendary duel between Zaitsev and Konig to his story basing it on Soviet records which obviously were subject to communist propaganda. The movie takes this already dubious legend and ramps it up to a love triangle/snipers duel. I was surprised to find that there actually was a Sacha who was a double agent and was hanged by the Germans (of course not in the way depicted). I was stunned to find that there was a female sniper named Tanya and she apparently had a relationship with Zaitsev (although even the Soviet historians did not go as far as having them live happily ever after as the movie implies). Generally speaking, the movie does a poor job as a tutorial on the Battle of Stalingrad. You get no idea what the big picture is. It also goes overboard in showing Russian soldiers being forced to make suicide attacks.

Score at the end of three: Flags – 28 Enemy – 20

ENTERTAINMENT VALUE: “Flags” is an excellent blend of exciting action and character development. It manages to tell the story of the flag-raising while also giving a clear picture of what Iwo Jima was like and what the home front in 1945 was like. Eastwood examines the question: what is a hero? He indicts the government’s manipulation of heroes for morale-boosting and fund-raising purposes. He does not glamorize war and shows the randomness of death on the battlefield. The most respected soldier (Make Strank) is killed by friendly fire. The movie also explores post traumatic stress disorder through the tragedy of Hayes. Its nonlinear structure is effective. “Enemy” is stronger as pure entertainment. It is obvious the producers sacrificed accuracy for entertainment. The set pieces are well done. It has a strong female character. (There is a very erotic scene that has no nudity in it.) It has some very suspenseful cat and mouse scenes. It concentrates on snipers – the coolest of the cool. The soundtrack by James Horner fits the scenes perfectly. Unlike “Flags”, it is not trying to enlighten its audience. It is fun in a cliché-ridden, good guy wins, sort of way.

FINAL SCORE: Flags – 36 Enemy - 29

March Madness rules
Jarhead (8) vs. 300 (9)
We Were Soldiers (7) vs. Defiance (12) 
Master and Commander (6) vs. Troy (11)

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

CIVIL WAR READALONG: "White Doves at Morning"

     “White Doves at Morning” is James Lee Burke’s foray into Civil War fiction. It does not star the ancestors of Dave Robicheaux, but it does have some of Burke’s relatives and is set in the same area of Southern Louisiana. It also displays his trademark style of writing and his distinctive characters. The book covers the period of the Civil War and ends during Reconstruction.


     The book opens with a powerful passage involving an escaped pregnant slave who is being tracked. She hides the baby before being caught and brutally beaten to death by one of the novels villains – Rufus Atkins. Atkins is your typical redneck plantation overseer and as though he is not villainous enough, he comes packaged with his toady Clay Hatcher. The baby is found and raised by another slave. Flower later finds out that her father is her master Ira Jamison. She develops a love-hate relationship with him.

     The book leaps from the opening scene to 1861 and we meet the main character Willie Burke (an ancestor of the author). He is poor, idealistic, and impetuous. Although not a slaveowner (in fact, he has taught Flower to read) and not a fan of secession, he goes off to war. One of his officers is, of course, Atkins who he hates. He participates in the Battle of Shiloh. Burke describes the battlefield thusly:

“The ground was littered with Springfield rifle muskets, boxes of percussion caps, ramrods, haversacks, canteens, torn cartridge papers, entrenching shovels, kepis, bloody bandages, bayonets, cloth that had been scissored away from wounds, boots and shoes, newspaper and magazine pages that men had used to clean themselves.”

It’s a shame his description of the battle does not match his description of the things they carried. When Willie’s friend Jim is killed carrying the flag, Willie goes Rambo running through the forest wreaking revenge on any blue-belly that crosses his path. We get no clear conception of what is happening in the battle. The book is definitely not for readers who want a taste of Civil War combat.

     Meanwhile, back in normally sleepy little New Iberia, the heroine Abigail (an abolitionist from New England!) is helping the Underground Railroad at great risk since she is the first person anyone thinks of for being involved in this type of activity. She hooks up with a pirate-like Cajun named Jean-Jacques who also deals in gun running. Ira Jamison moves in and out of the book as one of the more mobile individuals in the South. He is in a New Orleans hospital as a prisoner of war being nursed by the conflicted Flower when he escapes with the help of cronies who murder a nice Yankee guard. He goes on to convert his plantation to Angola Prison, still finding time to visit New Iberia to woo Abigail. It’s a small world for these characters as their orbits intersect throughout the book.

     Willie’s unit returns to the New Iberia area and tries to stop the Union campaign in the area, unsuccessfully. The wounded hero is rescued from a pile of dead bodies by Abigail. Later, they make love, but the relationship goes nowhere. It is one of several dead-ends in the book. Flower gets raped by thugs working for Atkins. This leads to the following florid passage: “Since the rape her anger had become her means of defense and survival. She fed it daily so it lived inside her like a bright, clean flame that she would one day draw upon, like a blacksmith extracting a white-hot iron from a furnace. It was her anger and the possibilities of revenge that allowed her to avoid a life of victimhood.” Did you catch the fact that Burke managed to get two similes in one sentence? He is the king of similes!

     When the war ends, Willie returns as does his friend Robert who spend part of the war in a prison camp, but strangely his story was not worthy of inclusion. Flower and Abigail open a school for black kids earning little more than dirty looks and some threatened violence from Klanesque yahoos. Burke throws in some titillation with the jilted Jamison outing Abigail as a lesbian in a news rag. The book ends with a twist that is unsatisfying and contrived.

     “White Doves at Morning” is a misfire. I do like the writing style of Burke. He can be a bit florid. For example, here is how he describes the death of a eccentric painter.

“Just before the first Federal troops reached New Iberia, he gave all his paintings to his slaves, put on a tailored gray officer’s uniform he had worn as a member of the Home Guards, then mounted a horse and charged down the bayou road, waving a sword over his head, straight into an artillery barrage that blew him and his uniform into pieces that floated down as airily as flamingo feathers on the bayou’s surface.”

That is one sentence and one hell of a sentence! I happen to enjoy his similes. I looked forward to the word “like” (which occurred a lot in this book).

     There are several disappointing things about the novel. Some potentially interesting characters like Jean-Jacques and Robert disappear for long stretches. Too much time is spent on the impossibly pure Flower and Abigail. The looming threats of violence seldom come to fruition. The combat scenes are lacking. Two of the most despicable villains do not get their just rewards.

     In conclusion, Burke fans or fans of his style will probably enjoy this book. However, as a Civil War novel, it is not compelling. I was disappointed with it even though I live in New Iberia. It is a PG-rated soap opera set in the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

TROY (11) vs. MASTER AND COMMANDER (6)




ACTING: “Troy” is a showcase for Brad Pitt as Achilles. However, the rest of the cast is strong and in some cases do a better job than Pitt (Eric Bana as Hector, for one). Each of the main actors portrays the personality of their character in a manner true to Homer. Even Orlando Bloom comes off well as the wimpy ladies’ man Paris. The female characters are weaker. “Master and Commander” is similarly set-up as a showcase for Russell Crowe as Capt. Jack Aubrey. His is ably balanced by Paul Bettany as the doctor and naturalist Stephen Maturin. The rest of the crew is outstanding. There is no scene chewing, which cannot be said for Troy.


Score at the end of one period: Master – 9 Troy – 7

REALISM: “Troy” is of course based on a legend, but in a bow to reality, the Greek gods are taken out of the story. The humans are more real than in Homer’s tale. Pitt’s Achilles may be the best killer, but he does not kill thousands. Achilles relationship with Breisias does not ring true. It’s your typical Hollywood “they hate each other so you know they will fall in love” relationship. Also, Helen is not beautiful enough to have sacrificed a city for. (Apparently Pitt’s contract insisted no one be more beautiful than him.) The armies are obviously CGI. “Master and Commander” is very authentic to life on board a warship during the Napoleonic War. Even the smallest touches are real. Aubrey is one type of British naval commander – the strict, but fair disciplinarian. The friendship of Aubrey and Maturin withstand their differences of opinions. There is no CGI, they used a real wooden ship. They even filmed scenes at the Galapagos Islands

Halftime score: Master – 18 Troy – 14

ACCURACY: The source of Troy is Homer’s “Iliad”, but keep in mind Homer only covers about six months of the war. The movie is more a retelling of the whole war than of just the Iliad. No matter how you look at it, the screenwriters took major liberties with Homer and the legend. Leaving the gods out is acceptable, but changing the deaths of several famous characters is an insult to intelligent viewers. The ridiculous inclusion of a fire ball scene ala “Spartacus” hurts credibility. In fact, most of the combat is inaccurate as “The Iliad” has most of the fighting as duels between warriors whereas the movie shows mainly phalanx battles. “Master” is also based on fiction, but is much truer to the books than Troy is to the legend. Its depiction of naval life and tactics is very accurate. Particularly noteworthy is the separate lives of the officers and the crew. I could find nothing that was not plausible and I have read a lot on Napoleonic naval warfare.

Score at the end of three periods: Master – 28 Troy – 20

ENTERTAINMENT VALUE: If you are not familiar with Homer or don’t care about Menelaus not surviving to bring Helen home (for instance), you will probably find Troy enjoyable. I guess you could argue that the “alterations” to the legend improve the story. Purists beware, however. It is definitely epic and it is probably more female friendly than Master and I’m not just talking about Brad Pitt’s ass. “Master” is more of a male-oriented movie. There are no female characters. However, it is not just action. The film has some terrific battle scenes, but it intersperses them with quieter moments of character development. It is well-rounded which actually means it’s slower moments might turn off action war movie fans. You cannot say that Troy is the best historical epic ever made, but you could argue that Master and Commander is the best movie about wooden warship combat ever made.

FINAL SCORE: Master and Commander – 37 Troy - 28

Friday, March 18, 2011

WE WERE SOLDIERS (7) vs. DEFIANCE (10)



ACTING: “Defiance” is anchored by Daniel Craig (Tuvia Bielski) and Leiv Schreiber (Zus Bielski). Both are powerful and handle the conflicting philosophies and personalities of their characters well. The supporting cast is also fine. “We Were Soldiers” is dominated by Mel Gibson as Col. Harold Moore. He does his best John Wayne impression. The supporting cast is equally sincere. Madeline Stowe as Mrs. Moore and Greg Kinnear as Bruce Crandall are outstanding. “Defiance” is a little less hammy.


Score at the end of the first period – Defiance - 9 We Were Soldiers - 7

REALISM: “Defiance” tries to convey the hardships of Belorussian Jews as they hide in the forests. It undoubtedly was rougher than the movie conveys. At one point, Zus is badly wounded in an attack on a police station, but shows little ill effects. The defeat of a German unit that includes a tank is certainly very unrealistic. “We Were Soldiers” has been mentioned as one of the most authentic Vietnam War movies. The combat is properly intense and chaotic. Death comes randomly. Americans die in horrible ways.

Score at half – We Were Soldiers – 16 Defiance – 16

ACCURACY: “Defiance” is based on a true story of the Bielski brother s and their Jewish charges who hid in the forests of Belorussia during WWII. Their arrangement with Russian partisans is accurate, but the big battle at the end is fictional. The brothers, especially Tuvia, are portrayed as more saintly than they actually were. Sources say they had their pick of the women, for instance. “We Were Soldiers” is based on a best seller by Moore and war correspondent Joseph Galloway (Barry Pepper). They both approved of the way the book was brought to screen. Although much of the combat seems Hollywoodized, up until the end the battle is actually very accurately depicted. Most of the key incidents did occur. The movie is marred by a ridiculous bayonet charge and gunship assault that was nowhere near the truth. Just feel-good bull shit to have a happy ending.

Score at the end of three periods – We Were Soldiers – 25 Defiance – 22

ENTERTAINMENT VALUE - Both movies are very entertaining. The conflict between the Bielski brothers and the alternation between Tuvia trying to hold together his hodgepodge of civilians and Zus kicking ass with the partisans is interesting. The final battle scenes are intense and well done, if inaccurate. “We Were Soldiers” is a bit hokey and even is overtly religious, but it makes up for it with some great combat scenes. It also has some laugh-inducing clichés including the old soldier looks at the picture of his girl before going into combat (partly alleviated because he’s an enemy soldier) and then dies. The home front scenes of the wives receiving telegrams is powerful. It also deserves a lot of credit for humanizing the enemy.

Final ScoreWe Were Soldiers – 33 Defiance - 30

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Jarhead (8) vs. 300 (9)



ACTING: Both movies have fine casts and are well acted. Jake Gyllenhaal as Anthony Swofford does a good job portraying a Marine sniper who is tested mentally and physically by the stress of waiting for combat and then combat itself. Gerard Butler as King Leonidas gives a powerful performance and captures the arrogance of a Spartan king. The supporting casts are strong in both movies. 300 includes a break-out performance by Lena Hedey as Leonidas’ wife. Jarhead has the ever reliable Jamie Foxx as the gruff sergeant. I give a slight edge to 300.

Score after one period: 300 – 8 Jarhead – 7

REALISM: Jarhead is based on an acclaimed memoir. If we assume Swofford was telling the truth, then the movie should be pretty realistic. However, the book and movie have been criticized for being melodramatic and over the top in its depiction of the behavior of young Marines. It seems unlikely all the wild incidents could have happened to the same platoon. Swofford almost killing a fellow soldier is an example. However, the movie deserves credit for portraying war as a lot of waiting and not a lot of combat. The attitudes of the Marines seem authentic. 300 is not supposed to be realistic. It is true to the spirit of the graphic novel by Frank Miller. Given that qualification, it is surprisingly close to the real story in several areas – Spartan training, weapons and tactics, and attitudes. Under the circumstances it is fair to give it a default 6.

Score after the second period: Jarhead – 15 300 - 14

ACCURACY: It is hard to judge the accuracy of Jarhead. We have to rely on Swofford’s word for some of it. Some of the incidents seem exaggerated at the least. The crucial scene where he is denied his opportunity to get a kill is changed in the movie for dramatic effect. The Highway of Death scene is highly unlikely. On the other hand, 300 is based around the Battle of Thermopylae, but is not meant to be a history lesson. It is surprisingly accurate for a movie that is so extravagant. The basics of the battle are there. Several of the main characters are based on real people. If you throw out the fantastic elements and the subplot of government treachery, it is acceptable as history.

Score after the third period: Jarhead – 23 300 – 20

ENTERTAINMENT VALUE: Jarhead suffers from lack of action. The accurate depiction of how most soldiers do not get to kill in combat is admirable, but ultimately unfulfilling. Swofford’s descent into mental breakdown because of his obsession with his girlfriend’s infidelity is not really believable. Several members of the unit show stress related disorders when in fact they had not been through anything particularly harsh. 300 was a revolutionary movie. Nothing like it had been seen before, at least in a war movie. The visuals are stunning and the combat scenes are mesmerizing. The fact that this cinema eye candy was structured around a true story and had strong acting to go with the effects make it a special movie.

Final Score:      Acting     Realism    Accuracy    Enter.    Final

Jarhead                 7              8                 8                 6          29

300                       8               6                6                 10        30

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

"March Madness"

With the NCAA basketball tournament starting this week I got the idea to have a bracket to determine the best war movie made since 2001. I chose the competitors and seeded them based on Rotten Tomatoes. The first round matches will be based on acting, accuracy, entertainment value, and realism. Each category will be on a scale of 1-10. After the first round, victory will be based on my judgment. Here are the matchups:


1 - The Hurt Locker
16 - Pearl Harbor

3 - Inglorious Basterds
14 - The Great Raid

5 - Flags of Our Fathers
12 - Enemy at the Gates

7 - We Were Soldiers
10 - Defiance

8 - Jarhead
9 - 300

6 -  Master and Commander
11 - Troy

4 - Black Hawk Down
13 - Kingdom of Heaven

2 - Letters from Iwo Jima
15 - Flyboys

I will post the "game" summaries periodically starting Thursday. Feel free to make predictions and criticisms.

Friday, March 11, 2011

NOW SHOWING: "Battle: Los Angeles"


If you love war movies, alien invasion movies, and Westerns, “Battle: Los Angeles” is for you. It combines these genres in an entertaining, if unoriginal way. You will recognize parts of “Black Hawk Down”, “Star Wars”, any suicide mission movie, any small unit movie, and numerous hold the fort against the Indians movies. Its plot is old school, but it is given a modern feel with new school hand held camera looks, point of view filming and quick cuts. The violence is also new school in its frenetic and chaotic nature. There are plenty of explosions to sate the American audience. “Battle: Los Angeles” is replete with clichés, but they are comforting for many war movie lovers. These clichés include the heterogeneous unit, the redemption of the leader who lost men on his last mission, the BFF who sacrifices himself, to name a few. Also, if you don’t like surprises, you’ll be able to predict most of the plot turns.


The movie begins with an alien invasion of Earth. Surprisingly, the movie is set in August of 2011. Sgt. Nantz (Alan Eckhart) is due to retire, but of course postpones it to serve his country in this crisis. He is assigned to a new unit headed by the soon-to-be new father Lt. Martinez. (Cliché alert) We are introduced to the members of the squad through brief snippets. One is about to get married, one is a cherry who has not lost his, one is being flagged by the psychiatrist, one is a Nigerian medic, etc. Nantz brings baggage to his new platoon because he left some men behind on his last mission. Will he get redemption?

Their mission is to go behind enemy lines to rescue an unknown number of civilians at a police station. As if it’s not a suicide mission to begin with, they have only three hours before the Air Force toasts the area. Why you would waste valuable warriors for this is not questioned. They naturally run into an ambush as we get our first look at the aliens. They look like the aliens in “District Nine”, only much harder to kill. Strangely, sometimes they move with stealthy speed over roof tops and other times they lumber forward down streets. Their weapons are apparently some type of white phosphorous-like projectile that produces thermal burns.

They hook up with some survivors including a female Air Force intelligence officer (Michelle Rodriguez). Women may not be allowed in combat, but this babe can dish it out when given the opportunity. The unit reaches the police station to find only five civilians. The station becomes Fort Apache for a while. A medevac helicopter gives the director the opportunity to have a spectacular explosion and to prove virgins never survive in a movie like this. Luckily, there is a bus nearby that they can ride to safety. Nantz does “some real John Wayne shit” (do Marines still refer to John Wayne tactics?) to destroy a drone. Things are going well with the alien aircraft apparently unable to spot a moving bus in a desolate landscape. Unfortunately, the joy ride ends with busted tires from shrapnel. An intense fire-fight ensues with the LT sacrificing himself to blow up the enemy which conveniently puts Nantz in command.

They next take refuge in a store (in a Western, this would be a watering hole) so we can have some more exposition and bonding and a touching death scene. They also will wait out the bombardment, which does not come. They continue to the Forward Operating Base, but find that the evil Transformers (whoops, wrong movie) have already been there leaving no one even wounded. They plow their way out in a Stryker and Humvee which allows them to run over some aliens. They reach a heli evacuation site and are on their way to safety when Nantz discovers the alien command and control center and decides to go after it alone. Surprise, the rest of the squad goes with him. It’s a foot bound assault on the Death Star. The rest you can see for yourself.

I know I’m being a bit snarky, but I actually enjoyed this movie. You have to take what you can get these days in the arid landscape of war movies. It is an entertaining movie with lots of action and some decent acting. It is very pro-Marines and anti-aliens. If the marines did not give full cooperation in the production, they got a free two hour commercial. It is simplistic in its plot, but competent in its execution. You may get a headache from the intensity of the combat scenes, but that’s what we’re looking for, right?


Monday, March 7, 2011

REARRANGING #100-71

It time to adjust the 100 Greatest list. After seeing 29 of the first 30 movies (still have not seen “Dunkirk”), it is obvious the Military History magazine’s panel of experts was off in its rankings. Here is how they should have been ranked:
 
99. The Third Man (80) (not a war movie)
 
98. Foreign Correspondent (86) (not a war movie)
 
97. Ben Hur (96) (not a war movie)   

96. The Life and Times of Colonel Blimp (87)

95. To Hell and Back  (77)

94. The Thin Red Line (100)

93. Ballad of a Soldier (81)

92. The Guns of Navarone (93)

91. Northwest Passage (97)

90. Henry V (75)

89. Run Silent, Run Deep  (79)

88. Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (98)

87. They Were Expendable (99)

86. The Desert Rats (88)

85. The Desert Fox  (78)

84. The Big Red One  (71) 

83. Battle of Britain (90)

82. Midway (92)

81. Manchurian Candidate (85)

80. Bridges at Toko-Ri (73)

79. Sahara (83)

78. Twelve O'Clock High (72)

77. Ran (76)

76. The Man Who Would Be King (77)

75. A Walk in the Sun (82)

74. A Bridge Too Far (94)

73. Dr. Strangelove (84)

72. Breaker Morant (91)

71. Last of the Mohicans (95)

Based on what I have seen so far, I estimate that at least 20 movies on the 100 Greatest list will not make my 100 Best list. Here is a list of twenty that I feel will be worthy replacements. Feel free to suggest others.

Enemy at the Gates

Master and Commander

Three Kings

The Hurt Locker

We Were Soldiers

300

The Great Raid

Where Eagles Dare

Tora! Tora! Tora!

A Midnight Clear

When Trumpets Fade

84 Charlie Mopic

Hamburger Hill

A Rumor of War

Waterloo

9th Company

Tae Guk Gi

Dances With Wolves

Son of the Morning Star

Hornblower: The Duel

Saturday, March 5, 2011

#70 - Hail the Conquering Hero


BACK-STORY: “Hail the Conquering Hero” is a comedy war movie set in home front America in World War II. It was released in 1944 and is a black and white classic directed by Preston Sturges. It is considered by many to be his best movie. He was nominated for the Oscar for Best Screenplay. Fans of Sturges will recognize several familiar faces from his “stock company” including William Demarest who made ten movies with Sturges. The movie came out a year after another Sturges home front satire, “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” (which also starred Demarest and Bracken).


OPENING: In a bar, the depressed Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith (Eddie Bracken) is drowning his sorrows. His father was a WWI hero who was killed at Belleau Wood and it had been Woodrow’s dream to follow in his father’s footsteps, but a case of hay fever got him discharged from the Marines and now he is too ashamed to return home. When a group of Marines cannot afford to buy any more beer, Woodrow pays for a round thus catching their interest. When Sergeant Heppelfinger (Demarest) learns of Woodrow’s plight and his love of the Corps ( he can recite all the battles the Marines have fought in), he and the others decide to escort Woodrow home.

SUMMARY: The reluctant Woodrow hops a train with the six Marines and when they arrive the guys insist that he don a Marine uniform replete with medals. Heppelfinger insists he will “just slip in”, but there are four brass bands (playing four different songs) and the whole town waiting to greet him at the station since one of the Marines had called ahead. The now very reluctant Woodrow is forced off the train by his buddies. A young boy asks him “How many Nips did you get?” Woodrow is in deep.

The six Marines are put up at Woodrow’s home where his mother is naturally very proud of her boy and is small town hospitable to the Marines. A typical example of Sturges’ sharp satirical dialogue comes when she serves pancakes and the Sarge suggests they would be better with butter. Mrs. T: “Maybe you haven’t heard Sergeant, but there’s a war on”. Woodrow discovers that his girlfriend Libby (who he had written to not wait for him) is engaged to the mayor’s son (who could not volunteer because of – hay fever).

At Mass, the sermon is about our hero and the town has been inspired to pay off his mother’s mortgage. The hole gets deeper. The opponents of the pompous Mayor Noble get a bright idea for a candidate that can oust him in the upcoming election. Can you guess who they decide to run? He’s a war hero and plus he is honest! His attempts to avoid the noose confirm his admirable modesty. The deal is sealed after the Sarge compounds the lie by telling a crowd how Woodrow saved his life in combat. (Why would he do this when he knew Woodrow was already in a deep hole that the Sarge had assured him he would not get in?)

Woodrow is heading for a landslide win. They are singing songs about him. Libby is having second thoughts about her engagement. The Mayor’s campaign manager decides to see what dirt he can dig up on Woodrow. He discovers the truth. To preempt the tarring and feathering moment in his immediate future, Woodrow comes clean at a campaign rally.

FINAL SCENE: After Woodrow’s confession and exit, the Sarge takes the podium. At the train station, Woodrow prepares to slink out of town. Libby wants to go with him. Suddenly a crowd comes marching forward (to lynch him?). It seems the Sarge convinced the town that love of mom equates to good mayorship. He insisted that Woodrow’s confession was the bravest thing he had ever witnessed. This is coming from a veteran of Guadalcanal. So Woodrow is destined to be the new mayor. In politics, if the populace wants you, they want you. They don’t need reasons. That’s small town politics. The six Marines leave town to the strains of the “Marine Corps Hymn”.

RATINGS:

Action – N/A


Acting – 8


Accuracy – N/A


Realism – 6


Plot – 6


Overall – 6

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? Since this is not really a war movie, it will probably appeal to women who do not like war movies.  It does star every woman's dream - Eddie Bracken!  Actually, a good reason to get your girl to watch this movie with you is hopefully you can compete with Eddie (Brad Pitt, he ain't). 

However, keep in mind it is a 1940’s satire which is not for everyone. Also, much of the humor is lost to anyone not familiar with the home front in WWII (which would be pretty much every woman less than 70 in America). Don’t forget satire requires intellect and old satire requires historical intellect. This is a warning to both men and women. That does not mean the movie is not entertaining for a modern clueless audience. It just means most will not get all the jokes. 

ACCURACY: Accuracy is not really an issue with this movie. With that said, it does a fine job of portraying life in small town America during WWII. Keep in mind that it is a satire so it paints the town and its people in broad and humorous strokes.

The movie does reflect the concern in 1944 that the populace was becoming less patriotic and more lazy as the war effort was waning a bit. Although the government did not encourage Sturges to tackle this problem, it must have been pleased with the film.

CRITIQUE: “Hail the Conquering Hero” is an excellent example of 1940’s comedy and in particular the satirical style typified by Preston Sturges. This makes it more comfortable in a time capsule than a modern movie theater. Check out this exchange in the bar. Woodrow (complaining about a sentimental song being sung): “Why don’t they sing something gay?” Bartender: “Why don’t you acquire a gay viewpoint?” See what I mean. I like old comedies, but this one is not particularly funny. It has its great lines, but seldom is LOL funny.

The movie’s theme of how hero worship can get out of hand is well done and must have struck a chord in WWII America. It appears that Sturges was anticipating post-war America where heroes would be a dime a dozen. The movie also has some sharp things to say about small town politics. The mayor is basically a political boss, but there is still the democratic spirit that allows a hero to come from out of the blue and get elected. Sturges also taps into the American cynicism about the political process. At one point, the Sarge opines “Those ain’t lies, those are campaign promises – they expect them”. Even today, that line resonates.

Most importantly, the movie reflects small town America culture. This is important because American culture was based in small towns back then as opposed to modern America’s big city culture. The word quaint comes to mind in describing Woodrow’s home town. His mother is typical of mothers. He is in love with the girl next door. Everyone knows everyone. People say “jumping jehosofat!” and “holy mackerel!”. People are very patriotic.

Sturges directs with verve and there is snappy dialogue throughout. There are usually lots of people in a scene and overlapping dialogue. His stock company plays stock characters – the blowhard mayor, the cynical campaign manager, the stick in the mud fiancé, the saintly mom, etc. All are funny and comfortably within the box that was 1940s satire. The main actors – Bracken and Demarest – are outstanding. Bracken’s facial expressions are priceless. Raymond Walburn as the mayor is also quite good and some of his exchanges with his wife are hilarious. (Mrs. Noble: "Everett, I just have a feeling you're going to make an ass of yourself and I'm just going to pretend I don't know you." Mr. Noble: "I wish you didn't have to pretend!")

CONCLUSION: First, let me make it clear – this is not a war movie by any reasonable definition of what a war movie is. As my peer (All About War Movies) says, it is a movie set in a war. Of my top three war movie guides, only the most comprehensive (Brassey’s Guide to War Films) includes it. It is my opinion that it does not belong on the 100 Greatest list, much less at #70!

It’s a nice little movie with some good performances and some funny lines. It actually holds up pretty well for a black and white movie that is more than 60 years. However, two similar movies are much funnier and if you want to stretch the definition of war movie, then the Military History magazine panel could have embarrassed themselves less by choosing “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” or better yet, Jack Benny’s “To Have or Have Not”.



Next up:  #69 - Guadalcanal Diary