Tuesday, January 28, 2014

CRACKER? When Trumpets Fade (1998)



                ‘’When Trumpets Fade” is the best movie ever made about the Battle of Hurtgen Forest.  It is also the only movie about the battle.  Anyone familiar with the battle knows it will be bleak if realistic.  That was one fucked up battle.  It is the type of movie that could not have been made before its time.  It is one of the best examples of what I call the VioLingo School of modern war movies.  Vio refers to realistic violence and Lingo refers to realistic soldier life and language.  This school also often features an anti-hero.  “When Trumpets Fade” has one of the most memorable.  The film was directed by John Irvin (“Hamburger Hill”) for HBO.  This was before HBO became the creative force that it is today.  The film was a preview of great things to come.

                The movie opens very strongly with Pvt. Manning (Ron Eldard) carrying a buddy through a burned out landscape on his back.  The mortally wounded soldier begs to be put out of his misery and Manning complies.  Manning is an odd mixture of Audie Murphy  and John Yossarian (“Catch-22”).  He may be a bit anachronistic because he realizes he is suffering from PTSD and is not ashamed to admit it.  When he tries to get a Section 8 (mentally unfit due to combat stress), Capt. Pritchett’s (Martin Donovan) counter offer is to promote him to squad leader and hand him replacements.  One of them is a fat guy with glasses named Sanderson (Zac Orth) who in a typical war movie is the deadest of meat.
If you are smoking a cigarette in a 1998 war
movie you are either bad or a badass

                On their first patrol, through a foggy forest, Manning puts Sanderson on point seemingly to get the cliché accomplished as fast as Gardner in “Platoon”.  Sanderson gets separated from the squad, but does encounter the face of Nazism in the form of a German sergeant.  Manning, ever the self-preservationist, leaves Sandy behind.  Sandy (having never seen a war movie) does the WTF move of surviving. 

                The big picture is the Americans have to take a bridge crossing “at all costs”.  The big push starts with the cannon fodder gingerly moving through the mine-laden forest until…  Plus the German artillery opens fire.  Tree bursts.  Graphic wounds.  Decapitations.  Chaos.  There are now some openings in command.  Manning keeps getting promoted in spite of himself.  You’ve heard of the Peter Principle, I suggest the Manning Principle defined as “being promoted despite not wanting it”.  Manning is promised his Section 8 if he takes out a battery of 88s.  When one of his charges panics and it catches, Manning shoots him. This is the right thing to do, but only adds to his reputation of being a dick.  Sandy goes all flame-thrower on the battery - mission accomplished.  Unfortunately, Pritchett has snapped due to a hellacious river crossing assault, so no deal.  In fact, how about another promotion?

Never give a fat guy a flamethrower
                Manning has fought the system unsuccessfully and now it’s time to play the game.  He assembles a crack trio that includes Sanderson and the fighting medic Chamberlain (Frank Whaley).  The idea is to eliminate some German tanks so the next brainless frontal assault on the river crossing will succeed.  Better to die on a suicide mission.  Who will be the “Lone Survivor”?

                “When Trumpets Fade” is a great movie and yet relatively unknown.  It got lost in the tumult over “Saving Private Ryan” and “The Thin Red Line”.  While not as good as SPR, it is definitely superior to TRL.  Factor in the low budget and the film is amazing.  There are few war films that are this sincerely anti-war and anti-authority. 


The acting is outstanding with Eldard the quintessential anti-hero.  He could be the poster boy for the archetype.  He is dislikable and does not care.  Manning is in my top five all-time war characters.  Eldard does his best work as does Orth.  The supporting cast is eclectic and includes Dwight Yoakam as the loathsome Lt. Col. Rickman.  You know what kind of film it is when Manning’s buddy at the beginning is played by Jeffrey Donovan.  We also get Timothy Olyphant and Frank Whaley.  The film is the anti-all-star epic.  (I’m looking at you “Thin Red Line”.)  The cinematography is noteworthy with a blend of hand-held, low angle, and plenty of close-ups.  The colors are muted to fit the mood.  The action is much better than most war movies.  The film is violent, gritty, and graphic.  This is very much a guy movie (although I know at least one discerning female who loves it).  The soldier talk and behavior are authentic.  The men are scared, not confident, and clueless.  The movie admirably and surprisingly avoids clichés.  It is not really a small unit movie as the men aside from Manning and Sanderson are not developed much.  It sets up nodding expectations and then does not go there.  The only thing predictable is it will not have a happy ending.  The tactics are realistic for small units in WWII Europe.  The tactical decisions reflect the unfortunate lack of creativity that made the Battle of Hurtgen Forest such a tragedy.

the make-up that gave Jeffrey Donovan the idea
for the title of his TV show
As far as accuracy, the movie is dedicated to the American soldiers who went through the meat grinder of the Hurtgen Forest.  It was fought from September – December, 1944.  It was the longest battle in American History.  Although it resulted in 33,000 casualties, it has been completely overshadowed by the more glamorous Battle of the Bulge. However, it makes no attempt to instruct about the battle. In truth, the film could be about any WWII battle where the general decides to use frontal tactics to bludgeon his way to an objective.  In some ways, it reflects the “American way of war” as enacted by incompetent, uncreative leaders.  Not every American Army commander was George Patton.  Some were Courtney Hodges.  Hodges determined that the Hurtgen had to be taken at all costs to pin down German forces and to avoid a salient threatening his drive into Germany.  Any basic understanding of the principles of war would have called for by-passing the hellish terrain.  Any foot soldier (Manning) could see the tactics were futile.  The Germans could hardly believe anyone would launch an offensive through terrain that they had incorporated into the Siegfried Line and which was so densely forested that they could not even consider it for threatening the American drive on Germany.  The movie does a fair job of replicating the terrain, but the Hungarian locale is not quite as dense and creepy as the real deal.  With its low budget, it attempts to recreate the dragon’s teeth, but its low scale.  It is more realistic in the mud and grime department.  It also does a fair job with the tree bursts and mines.  I could find no evidence that what the characters in the movie went through was based on any particular part of the battle.  Their experiences were generic, but Hollywood enhanced.  Enhanced to the point where the movie is among the most anti-war films ever made.  What better battle to advance the theme that war is Hell?

In 1998, three significant war movies came out that were set in WWII.  “Saving Private Ryan” used the talents of Steven Spielberg to take war movie entertainment into the 21st Century.  “The Thin Red Line” brought  an environmental and philosophical approach to war plotting.  And “Where Trumpets Fade” helped develop the anti-hero, anti-cliché, truly anti-war film.  One of the trio is in the Greatest 100 and does not belong and one is unheralded and does belong among the best war movies ever made.  Guess which.

Cracker?  Hell, yes.  Possibly in the top twenty.

 grade =  A
 
the opening
 
 
Sabotan's "Unbreakable"
 

Thursday, January 23, 2014

#9 - Platoon (1986)




BACK-STORY:  “Platoon” is the semi-autobiographical account of Oliver Stone’s experiences in Vietnam.  It came out seven years after “Apocalypse Now” and was followed soon after by “Full Metal Jacket” and “Hamburger Hill”.  More than those other films, it impacted the movie-going public and Vietnam War veterans.  It was cathartic.  It became the definitive Vietnam War movie.  The film was a big hit with audiences and most critics.  Produced for only $6 million, it made $138 million.  It was awarded the Best Picture Oscar and also won for Director, Sound Mixing, and Editing.  It was nominated for Original Score and Cinematography.  Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger got Supporting Actor nods.  The movie is ranked #86 on AFI’s Top 100 list.  The shooting was done in the Philippines (the Pentagon refused to support the film) and took only 54 days.  The film was shot in sequence and this began immediately after the boot camp for the actors.  Stone meant the film to be a counter to John Wayne’s “Green Berets”.

OPENING:  The film begins with a quote from Ecclesiastes:  “Rejoice O young men in thy youth…”  (The loss of youthful innocence is a major theme.)  Cherries, including Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen), come out of the womb of a transport plane and are confronted by body bags.  “All right you cheese dicks, welcome to the Nam.  Follow me.”  We know we are in for a metaphor-laden movie when our rookie warriors are sneered at knowingly by some vets.

Chris Taylor (Charle Sheen) wondering
why he came to the Nam
SUMMARY:  It is 1967 and Bravo Company, 25th Infantry is stationed near the Cambodian border.  The platoon is humping through some thick jungle.  Taylor is on point and suffering from heat exhaustion.  Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger) does not care.  Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe) does.  Dynamic established.  Taylor’s narration explains that he is a rich college boy who dropped out to find himself and do his patriotic duty.

Barnes (Tome Berenger) and Elias (Willem Dafoe)
discuss which is better - marijuana or whiskey
                In camp, the men do assorted soldier stuff.  Setting up claymores and trip flares, caring for their feet, cleaning weapons, digging fox holes.  A command conference makes it clear that Barnes runs the platoon with the green Lt. Wolfe completely cowed.  A night ambush is assigned with Barnes in charge.  Before they go out, a fellow FNG shows Taylor a picture of his girl.  And he’s fat.  He also has “dead meat” stapled on his forehead.

                The ambush scene is our first inkling that we are in a new age of Vietnam War movies.  Taylor freezes on guard when the enemy morphs out of the foliage.  A wild firefight ensues with a friendly fire casualty, the killing of a wounded “gook”, and Taylor ending up with an M written on his forehead with blood.  Wow, I’ve read about all of this stuff.

                Taylor returns to find that the platoon is divided between the dopers (led by Elias) and the boozers (led by Barnes).  Doper bunker:  Ho Chi Minh poster and acid rock (“White Rabbit”)  Boozer hootch:  Confederate flag and country music (“Okie from Muskogee”)  The platoon is divided like America, get it?  Taylor pledges Phi Dopa Kappa.  “The worm has definitely turned for [him].”

                The seemingly dysfunctional unit goes back out into the bush and finds a tunnel complex.  Elias plays tunnel rat so you know that although he is a hippie, he is not a pacifist.  You can cut the foreboding with a k-bar.  The intercutting enhances this.  A booby trap and a mutilation death put the men in a foul mood when they storm into the nearby ville.  The huge amount of rice and cache of weapons clearly indicate the villagers are pro-VC.  Barnes insists they admit it verbally for the record which results in a mini-My Lai and one kick ass fight between Sgt. Good and Sgt. Evil.  Check out the acting by the villagers.  None are professionals.  Significantly, Taylor goes to the brink, but pulls back.  He turns from the dark side by stopping a rape resulting in the jibes that “she’s just a dink” and “you don’t belong in the ‘Nam”.  The platoon caringly shepherd the relocatees with the burning ville as a fiery background.  The schizophrenic nature of the war on display.

Barnes wins a heart and mind
                The platoon is now further divided between the Barnes and Elias supporters.  Elias plans to prefer charges against Barnes and Capt. Harris (a dyed Dale Dye) promises to get to the bottom of it.  The war must go on and the unit is sent into an enemy complex.  This time the bunker is occupied and all Hell breaks loose.  Taylor has come full circle as a warrior and combat euphoria kicks in.  Wolfe calls in a “fucked up fire mission” that results in friendly fire.  That’s what you get when you let the LT run his platoon.  Barnes decides that military justice is not for him and Elias gets one of the best cinematic demises.  Previous references to him being a “water walker” and thinking he’s “Jesus fucking Christ” culminate in his cruciform death.  (Check out the wires so Dafoe can set off the squibs - which ended up malfunctioning.) 
In case you did not figure it out -
he's Christlike

Taylor knows the role Barnes played in Elias’ death.  Barnes confronts Taylor in the bong bunker and sneers that Elias was a troublemaking cog in his machine.  “There’s the way it ought to be and there’s the way it is.”  Barnes points out that he is “reality” and puts an exclamation point on it by scarring Taylor (who had brought naïve umbrage to a knife fight.
 
It’s search and destroy time again as the platoon is part of a multi-company operation.  They are the bait.  The enemy swarm comes after dark and the fighting is lit by flares.  The combat is intense and all the main characters get their moments in the flickering light.  Bunny (Kevin Dillon) mentions Audie Murphy, but it’s actually Taylor who emulates him.  Oliver Stone makes a brief cameo as the company commander and sapper magnet.  Things get so hairy with “zips in the wire” that Harris calls in “snake and nape” on their position.  “It’s a lovely fucking war.”

Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) as Audie Murphy (Audie Murphy)
 
CLOSING:   Morning breaks with a corpse strewn landscape.  Taylor finds the wounded Barnes and decides military justice is not for him either.  The confrontation book-ends the Barnes/Elias trial settlement.  We never get to find out if Dale Dye was prepping for his role in “Casualties of War”.  It’s clean-up time as reinforcements arrive led by a tank with a Nazi flag on it. (Give it a rest, Stone!)  Taylor is medevaced along with Francis (with his bandage on the opposite thigh from his self-inflicted wound).  The narration concludes with “we did not fight the enemy, we fought ourselves and the enemy was in us.”  He refers to the battle for his soul between Barnes and Elias  (which is weird because he was clearly an Elias accolyte the whole time).  Those who survived the war have an obligation to teach.  (One way to teach is to make a movie about the war.)  The film concludes with a dedication to the men who fought and died in Vietnam.  (Some of whom have thanked Stone and others of whom have not.)

Killing an American with an AK-47 means you
can not be held responsible by American justice
WOULD CHICKS DIG IT?  It made a lot of money and it could not have been all from men.  Although it is definitely a guy film, it is a master work on the subject of Vietnam and should be seen by most Americans.  The battle scenes are violent and graphic, but not stomach-turning.  There is only one significant female character and she exits rather suddenly.  There is no romantic subplot intended to attract females. I have noticed that modern war movies have moved away from that sexist trope.  Thank God.  You’ve come a long way, baby.

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  The film does not claim to be a true story, although Stone made no secret of it being autobiographical in spots.  Stone was a grunt along the Cambodian border in 1967.  Taylor stands in for him.  The narration reflects Stone’s situation when he entered the service.  The letters to his grandmother appear to be at least paraphrases of the young Stone’s experiences and attitudes.  The characters in his screenplay are supposedly based on several of his mates in the several platoons he was in.  There are obviously some composite characters which is standard for a film of this type.  Barnes and Elias were based on two of Stone’s sergeants, but they were not in the same platoon.  Stone did stop a rape as did Taylor and he was wounded in the neck in his first ambush, but the rest of the vignettes can be classified as based on incidents that happened to someone somewhere.

                The accuracy comes in the realism.  Stone was very serious in getting the details right.  For that reason, he brought in Dale Dye as his main technical adviser and Dye’s input was impactful.  Significantly, Dye tried to rein in some of Stone’s creative license (ex.  drug use in the field) – unsuccessfully by the way.  I think “Platoon” was the first use of his boot camp method of training actors to realistically portray soldiers.  This is another reason why “Platoon” was significant in the development of the VioLingo school of war movies.  With Stone and Dye working together, the film is a tutorial on grunt life in Vietnam.  Here is a list of facts you can learn from the movie that will save you from reading the numerous books I have read on the war:

1.         Replacement soldiers (i.e. Cherries) were treated like dirt.
2.        Sergeants ran the platoons.
3.        Every soldier knew how many days that they had left in their tour.
4.        If a Vietnamese civilian ran, it was assumed they were the enemy and you could shoot them.
5.        Villages were burned if they were considered sympathetic to the Communists.
6.        Some soldiers injured themselves to get out of combat.
7.        Volunteers felt they were fighting for our society and freedom.
8.        Latrine waste was burned using kerosene.
9.        Drug use was common in rear areas.
10.     Young Americans sometimes committed atrocities due to stress or revenge.
11.     The Vietnam War gave some sociopaths an outlet.

CRITIQUE:  I can still recall the impact “Platoon” had when it was released.  Numerous articles examined the effect the film had on the Vietnam veteran community.  Many vets claimed it was as close as anyone had gotten to what they had gone through.  It was cathartic for many and caused many to open up for the first time.  Most critics latched on to the film as the first true depiction of the war.  “Platoon” became the first combat film to win Best Picture since “All Quiet on the Western Front”.  Add to this the effect it had on the public in general.  The entertaining nature of the film made it the definitive portrayal of the war for average Americans.  Since that initial onslaught, the film has had a polarizing effect and has strong detractors. 

                Stone can claim truthfully that he is a much better director now than he was in 1986, but this is still his opus.  It was personal for him and the passion shows.  You can fault the agenda, but not the craftsmanship.  The movie had a low budget and no support from the Pentagon (no surprise there).  It does not show.  Dye made sure the details were correct.  The gear is spot on and the behavior, language, and life of the men are realistic.  Stone got enough military equipment from the Philippine government to give the film some scale.  The cinematography is not obstrusive and exchews bells and whistles.  However, the night scenes in particular are amazing and show boldness in a genre that often avoids night actions.  The music is memorable, especially the usage of “Adagio for Strings”.  No one who has seen the movie can hear the tune without flashing back to the movie.  In contrast to that, there are long stretches where there is no music.  For instance, the final battle.  Stone does not dilute the battle noises with mood setting background music.  The three battle scenes are among the best in war movie history.  Edge of your seat.  The movie reminds of "Glory" by mixing the human interaction with great combat.

They had to burn the village in order to save it.
 
                “Platoon” on the surface seems to be your typical dysfunctional heterogeneous small unit movie.  Stone does use the platoon to delve into the theme of divisiveness, but this is not a WWII or Korean War movie where each member represents an archetype.  No one is from Brooklyn, Italian, a ladies man, a hick, etc.  The dysfunction  is created by the division between the dopers and the boozers.  There is no bonding on the horizon.  For this reason, the actors are not acting out stereotypes.  Instead, they are written as individuals.  Because each is a moon in either the Barnes or the Elias orbit, character development is subtle.  The movie rewards repeat viewings to really get to know the men.  A character like Lerner (Johnny Depp) can get lost in the tumult.  With that said, the acting is top notch.  The ensemble is of up-and-comers and they show great promise.  Sheen evinces the proper naivete and eventual loss of innocence.  The showier roles of Elias and Barnes are nailed by Dafoe and Barnes (both of whom were nominated for Best Supporting Actor; both robbed by Michael Caine for “Hannah and Her Sisters”).  Special mention to the two most loathsome characters:  Dillon as the psychopath Bunny and John McGinley as the ass-kisser O’Neill.  All of them went through Dye’s boot camp and their performances reflect immersion over the usual emoting.  They are not playing soldier, they seem to be soldiers.

I just had to mention the awesomely named Rahr
played by Anthony Quinn's son Francesco
                What sets the film apart from the standard war film is the metaphors.  Stone is not subtle in his themes.  Barnes and the boozers represent the right wingers in America during the war.  Elias and the dopers represent the doves.  Within this metaphor is Barnes as the win at all costs warrior and Elias is the disillusioned believer who now feels the war is unwinnable.  Most of the platoon represents the lower class cannon fodder sent by rich people to fight their ideological war.  Taylor stands out as the rarer idealistic volunteer fighting out of duty to American society.  Much of this is heavy-handed, but Stone does not seem to care about making it subliminal.  For example, the boozers play poker (competition) while the dopers do singalongs (cooperation).  By the way, I have seen the deleted scenes and the movie could have been much more bludgeoning.

                The movie flows smoothly.  This is partly due to the fact that it was shot sequentially.  The plot moves from soldier life to combat in an ebb and flow manner.  The dialogue is a strength and the soldier talk is not dumbed down for the average viewer.  “Snake and nape”?  Anyone good at context clues should not be too lost.

CONCLUSION:   To do this review, I watched the movie (for the fifth time, at least) and Stone’s commentary version and Dye’s take on the film.  Plus the making-of documentary and the other extras.  All this confirmed my original view when I saw the movie in a theater in 1986.  This is a great movie and still the best Vietnam War movie.  This is coming from a reviewer who admires all the other serious contenders (The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket).  I have to say that in the case of Vietnam War movies, Military History magazine has not upset me.


My favorite war movie character





                I am aware that there are some ranters against the movie.  Stone is partly to blame by making comments about it being the realistic depiction of the war, instead of a realistic depiction of the war.  Some veterans and pro-war types took offense to the negative portrayal of the soldiers and their actions.  They assume that Stone was implying the platoon was typical.  Stone was not apologetic about that impression.  On the other hand, anyone who has argued that the incidents and personality types did not exist in Vietnam is being naïve.  For instance, My Lai did happen and the incident in the movie was nowhere near the scale of that event.  Besides, I do not feel the movie demonizes the American soldier in Vietnam.  I cannot imagine people spitting on vets coming out of theaters. Empathy must have been the most common emotion.
 
             "Platoon" deserves to be in the Top 10.  I think the editors of Military History magazine put a premium on the importance of the choices.  Unfortunately, some of the films that they deem important are not very good.  "Platoon" is not only very entertaining and admirably realistic, but it is clearly an important movie. 

RATINGS

ACTING  =  A
ACTION  =  8/10
ACCURACY  =  B
REALISM  =  B
PLOT  =  A

GRADE =  A+

the trailer

 
the ambush scene
 








  

Thursday, January 16, 2014

BEST and WORST: 2013


 
 

                Another year has passed by and since I have no social life I managed to watch 95 war movies.  That means there were 95 times this past year that I sat and watched a movie without doing school work – pretty amazing.  It was a polarizing year in war movies because I am getting to the end of the Greatest 100 list which means that the movies have been better, with some notable exceptions (ex.  “Soldier of Orange”).  However, I also managed to watch some incredibly bad war movies.  So bad that I expanded my “worst” list to ten.  Keep in mind that I am referring to movies that I watched this year.  Most of the great ones, I had already seen, but not for this blog.

THE BEST

10.  Lawrence of Arabia -  an epic in every way, but especially in vistas and score  / great acting  /  fairly accurate portrayal of a fascinating personality

9.  300 -  it has its flaws, but it is so ballsy (the one part of the body we don’t see) and visceral that I love it /  plus it is actually more accurate than most war movies!

8.  Apocalypse Now-  a flawed masterpiece with a weak closing act, but when you factor in the back-story it is a fascinating work  /  the best take of the Vietnam War on drugs

7.  Full Metal Jacket -  see above  /  two movies for the price of one – part 1 is the best boot camp movie ever made and part 2 is a well-done (but not great) combat sequence

6.  Zero Dark Thirty-  similar to the above two in that it has two parts, except that in this cases it closes strongly;  a movie that has its haters, but they are wrong.  A movie was going to be made about the killing of Bin Laden and the fact is that the topic could not have been done better than this movie.

5.  When Trumpets Fade -  the only made for TV movie (HBO) on the list.  Features one of the great anti-heroes in war movie history and it is one of the most clearly anti-war movies I have seen

4.  The Longest Day -  the granddaddy of the all-star epic battle movies and still the best

3.  Black Hawk Down-  probably the movie with the most action I saw this year.  Admirably accurate retelling of a battle that would have unrecognized by most Americans if not for this movie.  A tour de force in movie making.

2.  Platoon -  it has its detractors, but it is the best Vietnam War movie and that is with strong competition.  A great study in unit dynamics and leadership so it goes beyond the usual war movie plotting.  Great ensemble acting.  People forget what a huge splash the movie made when it was released.

1.  Glory -  what’s not to like -  fantastic acting, an iconic score, two great combat scenes, amazing dialogue, etc.  Most importantly, it tells a story that needed to be told and it does it with admirable accuracy and its very entertaining
 
 

THE WORST

10.  Warbirds – a made for ScyFy creaturette which manages to integrate Japs, babes, dinosaurs, and the atomic bomb and yet still sucks!

9.  Attack on the Iron Coast -  a lame addition to the suicide mission subgenre with wooden acting, preposterous scenario, and plenty of clichés

8.  Shining Through -  Melanie Griffith as a spy in Nazi Germany – ‘nuff said!

7.  Battle of the Bulge -  the Ardennes without snow, now you’re just messing with us.  One of the most inaccurate battle movies ever.

6.  Anzio -  another epic-wannabe that gets it all wrong.  And I don’t mean just the history.  Plus, who wants to see a movie on this battle?  Are there that many Albert Kesselring fans?

5.  Hellcats of the Navy -  Ronald Reagan and the future Mrs. Reagan – their courtship would have been more entertaining.  Has every submarine cliché imaginable and all are poorly done.

4.  Welcome to Dongmakgol -  Korean War movie made by a Korean hippie.  Tarnishes the excellent reputation of Korean war movies.  The opposite of Tae Guk Gi.

3.  Darby’s Rangers -  a terrible disservice to the unit.  About ten minutes of unrealistic action.  More than one pitiful romantic sub-plot.

2.  Pathfinders:  In the Company of Strangers -  sometimes you can not overcome a low budget, unprofessional actors, a script typed by a monkey, lack of knowledge of warfare, etc.  However, there are some truly (unintentionally) hilarious moments in it

1.  The Black Brigade -  Before there was “The Miracle at St. Anna”, there was this abomination.  The worst of the “Dirty Dozen” rip-offs.  An offensive portrayal of African-Americans.  Painful to watch and not even campy.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

NOW SHOWING: Lone Survivor (2014)




                Well, it was one of those rare days when I got to go see a war movie in a theater.  That happened only twice last year – “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Phantom”.  Hopefully 2014 will be a banner year for war flicks.  It is off to a grand start with “Lone Survivor” which is based on the best-seller by Mark Luttrell (and ghost-writer Patrick Robinson) and written and directed by Peter Berg (trying to get into Heaven after “Battleship”).  Luttrell was the only survivor of a four man SEAL recon unit that was part of Operation Red Wings in Afghanistan in 2007.  The ill-fated mission was to capture or kill a Taliban leader.

                The film starts strong with archival SEAL training footage running over the credits which indicates strong Pentagon support for the production.  This also dispenses with the normal training sequence common in movies like this.  This results in little character development, but the film is more about a quartet of brothers than about four individuals anyway.  As though the title is not enough of a giveaway, our first shot is of Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) being medevaced in terrible condition.  His narration sets the tone.  “There’s a storm inside us… an unrelenting desire to push yourself… into those cold dark corners where the bad things live….”

                Operation Red Wings is outlined efficiently using maps, slides, and even toy helicopters.  The target is a Taliban bigwig who is established as kill-worthy through a scene where he ruthlessly beheads a villager (and not with one clean cut).  The insertion is very “Black Hawk Down”ish.  (In fact BHD is this movie’s closest equivalent).  The environment is the opposite of Mogadishu, however.  Very mountainous and scenic - if it weren’t for the creepy foreboding.  SNAFU rears its ugly head with the lack of communications with their base.  Soon after, they are discovered by three goat-herders and its dilemma time.  The debate comes down to kill them so they can continue the mission to eliminate a high-value target or let them go because it would be a war crime that could put them on CNN and in Leavenworth (Luttrell’s position).  Lt. Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch) makes the call.  They let them go and head for an extraction point.  You don’t need to know the title of the film to know that the decision will have fatal consequences.

                It does not take long for the movie to become a “last stand” scenario.  A large force of Afghans hunt the four in the hillside forest.  Being true SEALs, our boys take the fight to the enemy and give much more than they take, but they still end up taking a lot.  All four suffer numerous wounds.  (Luttrell deals with them by packing them with dirt because that’s what real men do!)  The violence and action is amazing.  It is one of the best combat sequences ever filmed.  There are a couple of breathers fitted in for them men to talk like American warriors and for the audience to unclutch their arm rests.  At one point, they are blown off a cliff by an RPG and proceed to roll down the hillside in a shot that makes you respect stuntmen immensely.  One good roll deserves another as they actually voluntarily repeat the bone crushing feat soon after.  In the only LOL moment in an otherwise grim film, Luttrell ends his second trip face to face with a rattlesnake!  One bad thing about escaping by rolling down a cliff is it gives the enemy the high ground.  Murphy sacrifices his life for the others (a basic theme of the film) and is rewarded with one of the best war movie deaths. 

                The cavalry arrives in the form of two MH-47 helicopters carrying a large force of their SEAL brethren.  The result is shocking.  Only Mark and Matthew Axelson (Ben Foster) remain and they are sieves.  Axe has a head wound that has him pissed.  His subsequent death tops Murphy’s.  This movie does death scenes well.  Mark hides and when he wakes, the battle is over.  He is rescued by an Afghan villager (wearing white) and taken to his home in a village because you can say what you will about their crap culture, they are very hospitable.  When the Taliban arrive to take Luttrell, its shootout at the O.K. Corral time with a touch of the cavalry arriving.  Macho guy warning:  the movie closes with pictures of all the heroic dead with Peter Gabriel singing “Heroes”, so have your hankie ready.

                “Lone Survivor” accomplishes what it sets out to do.  It is a tribute to the American participants.  Obviously, the Navy liked what it saw in the screenplay as the movie had significant military support.  Berg also had the complete support of the families of the four men.  Mission accomplished with a flair for the entertainment potential of the story.  The movie kicks ass for a significant length of its running time.  It has more action than a vast majority of war films and is in BHD territory.  The violence is graphic and adrenalin-fueled.  However, the deaths of Murphy and Axelson dilute the Taliban bloodbath.  You don’t wallow like in some movies.  The movie is clearly pro-SEAL, but anti-war.

                Berg deserves a lot of credit for climbing out of that “Battleship” hole.  He worked hard to get everything right and the movie shows great craftsmanship.  There is a variety of cinematography that keeps us cinephiles happy.  Lots of hand-held, some POV, a little slo-mo, perhaps too many close-ups.  You definitely think you are with those guys.  Kudos to the music which is understated, but effective.  There are long stretches with no music, which I like.  The sound is also excellent.  Mostly of the gunfire and explosions variety.  I don’t usually mention make-up in my reviews of war movies, but Howard Berger and his crew used the autopsy records to get the details right for the wounds.  The dialogue is appropriate for Navy Seals.  There is not a lot of banter, but it’s not forced.  The comradeship and brotherhood are apparent.  The movie gets the military ethos right, but hammers it in a bit.

                As far as accuracy, the movie reminds me of “We Were Soldiers” except this is based on a memoir so you could question the source material.   I’m not going to go into the possible inaccuracies in the book right now.  (Maybe in a Book/Movie post.)  The fact is that Berg bought the rights to the book and had Luttrell as his technical adviser (he appears in the movie).  Does anyone suggest he should have told Luttrell that he thought he was lying and change the screenplay in his face?  One significant thing is that Berg reduced Luttrell’s disputed estimate of 80-200 enemy to a more realistic 50 or so.  (Imagine that, a director reducing the odds!)  The mission was as outlined.  The communications problems and the goat herders’ incident happened.  Based on my research, I can live with the debate as depicted.  The ensuing fire-fight was as close as one man’s recollection put on film can be expected to be.  The deaths of the three were vetted by the families.  The helicopter disaster was accurate although Luttrell did not actually witness it. 

                The movie goes off the historical path after the fighting ends.  Luttrell did not walk out, he crawled seven miles.  Luttrell’s rescue by Mohammad Gulab and his insistence on protecting his “guest” as part of the Afghani trait of Pashtunwalli is close, but there was no more excitement after that.  The ending battle was like the one in “We Were Soldiers”.  Crowd-pleasing, but the type of thing that makes discerning viewers say “I bet that didn’t happen” and sure enough…  The rescue was actually mundane and Luttrell was not at death’s door.  He did not flat-line.  Why does Hollywood always insist on putting a cherry on top?  The sundae was plenty good already.

                “Lone Survivor” is a very good movie.  It has most of the attributes that I want in a war movie.  It tells a story that deserved to be told and it does it in an entertaining way.  It is reasonably accurate.  The combat is realistic and there is plenty of it.   The acting is stellar (especially Ben Foster), the cinematography is not pedestrian, the technical aspects are solid, and the plot is not an afterthought.  It’s a must see for every male, American war movie lover.

 

Grade =  A-

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Day 12 - Days of Glory (2006)

Here is the full list:
God is My Co-Pilot
The Vikings
The Mark of Cain
Never So Few
El Alamein
The Wild Geese
An Ungentlemanly Act
Bravo Two Zero
The Fighting Seabees
The Cockleshell Heroes
Heartbreak Ridge

 


On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me  -  twelve indigenes invading

            “Days of Glory” is a French movie about French Algerians who volunteered to be Tirailleurs in the Free French army during WWII.  The French title is “Indigenes” which refers to them being indigenous people.  The movie was released in 2006 and won several international awards and was nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Film.  The movie had a goal of achieving pensions for the Algerian veterans.  Admirable.

                The film opens in Algeria in 1943.  We are introduced to the main characters.  Said (Jamel Debbouze) is  a shepherd who is loyal to France and leaves his mom to fight the Germans for French independence.  Yassir and his brother are two thieves who want out, but loot in the meantime.  Messaoud (Roschy Zem) hopes to live in France.  Abelkader (Sami Bouajila) is an intellectual.  They join a unit led by Sgt. Martinez (Bernard Blancan), who turns out to be a self-loathing Arab.  The unit is sent to Italy where it distinguishes itself, but is used as cannon fodder by the French.  They are sent to storm a hill so the French artillery can pinpoint the German strongpoints.  The scene is pretty good with effective sound effects and explosions.  Slightly graphic with some hand-held, but no slo-mo.  From this point on the movie strives to develop the theme of French racism toward its Algerian troops.

                The men are shipped to Southern France as part of Operation Dragoon.  Messaoud makes a love connection with a French woman, but when they move on the French censors stop their letters because she is white and he is Arab.  Neither one knows this.  The unit is not given promotions (or tomatoes) and few leaves in comparison to their white counterparts.  To make up for this treatment, they are “treated” to a ballet!  They walk out in disgust.  As would I.

                The big pay-off is a suicide mission into a forest in Alsace.  A booby trap kills most of the squad including Yassir’s brother.  The surviving ensemble takes refuge in a friendly village and the movie becomes a last stand when German forces arrive.  Who will survive?  Do we care?  Yes.

                The film is well-meaning and deserves some slack for that.  However, as a war movie, it is pretty boring.  This is especially apparent because the highlight is the hill attack scene and it occurs towards the front of the plot.  What combat there is is too brief, although well done.  There is little character development.  The very brief character identifications I gave in the second paragraph are pretty much all I can tell you about the men.  The actors are decent, but to tell the truth some of them are not easy on the eyes.  Yassir, Said, and the Sergeant are unappealing both visually and personality-wise.

                While the movie does advance the theme that the Algerians were given a raw deal, I came away thinking they were fools to have fought for a nation that had colonized their nation.  I suppose in reality some of these men would go on to join the Algerian freedom fighters after WWII.  This movie is not in the same league as “The Battle of Algiers”, but it does put that movie in some perspective.
                Christmas present?  I think I'll regift this one to Caroline.
grade =  C- 
              Well, this completes my 12 Days of Christmas series.  Hope you enjoyed it.  Thanks to all who made some excellent comments.  There was some awesome feedback.  I am proud that I managed to accomplish what I set out to do.  I just wish the movies had been better.  At least they were entertaining.