Thursday, January 28, 2016

CRACKER? Theirs Is the Glory (1946)



                “Theirs Is the Glory” is a unique war movie.  It reenacts the British participation in Operation Market Garden.  It was “produced entirely without the use of studio sets or actors.  Every incident was either experienced or witnessed by the people who appear in the film.”  Everyone in the 200 person cast was either a British soldier who participated in Operation Market Garden or a Dutch civilian who lived through the battle.  The veterans were paid three pounds per diem.  They had a lot of input in the action and dialogue.  Director Brian Desmond Hurst (“Malta Story”) was a veteran of the Gallipoli Campaign of WWI.  He considered the movie to be his finest achievement in a stellar career. It was a labor of love. The filming began one year after the battle on the actual sites.  The premiere occurred on the two year anniversary of the battle and was attended by the Prime Minister.  A private showing was provided for King George VI.  The film was a huge hit in Great Britain and was the top grossing film for a decade.

What do you mean there's a Panzer division nearby?
                The movie opens with a view of the destroyed bridge at Arnhem.  A montage of sites familiar to students of the battle follow.  The Operation Market Garden plan is outlined via a map.  Several paratroopers in a barracks are identified by the narrator.  The campaign begins with an armada of gliders and transports dropping paratroopers.  Upon reaching the Arnhem Bridge, a flamethrower sets off ammunition and a mixed bag of Germans are taken captive, but the bridge cannot be taken.  The unit at the bridge is cut off from the main body that ends up surrounded at Oosterbeek.  The rest of the movie consists of the last stands of both these bodies of men.

                This is a gem of a movie.  It is unique in using the actual participants in an historical event.  Surprisingly, the “actors” do a commendable job.  They are obviously not professionals, but they are still better than many B movie actors.  Notice how they duck and flinch at explosions like they have been there before.  They have also seen enough death to know how a soldier dies.  No one throws his hands in the air and twirls around.  The dialogue is natural as is to be expected from men who had input in what they say because they may have said it.  One unfortunate decision was not to identify the men.  Only keen students of the battle will recognize Majors “Freddie” Gough and “Dickie” Lonsdale, for instance.  Look closely and you will see Kate ter Horst (the Liv Ullmann character in “A Bridge Too Far”) reading psalms to the wounded.
Set up Montgomery's reviewing stand over there

                The movie is an amazing blend of footage and reenactments.  Basically, whenever anyone speaks it is a reenactment.   A narrator provides the documentary feel and also does a great job informing.  The narration is sincere, but not treacly.  Maps are used well.  A nice touch is the use of an embedded war correspondent to give eye-witness accounts of what is happening within the Oosterbeek perimeter. 
 
                If the acting is satisfactory, the action is outstanding.  And there is a lot of it!  The bitter aspects of a last stand against overwhelming odds is reenacted with verve.  There is some realistic tank action and excellent bomb effects.  The only false note has a Brit throwing a grenade to silence a German broadcasting a surrender demand.  It stands out in a movie that is a sober portrayal of the hell of war.  There are some emotional deaths in the movie and one can assume they were emotional for the reenactors.  The movie ends by returning to the barracks to inform that most of the paratroopers did not return.
Hello, Monty - I have some bad news

                “Theirs Is the Glory” is as good as it gets when it comes to telling the story of the British 1st Airborne’s role in Market Garden.  It honors the participants.  It is not a propaganda puff piece, but it does leave out a few details that would slightly mar the theme.  The movie is mostly free of reference to the mistakes the campaign is famous for.  There are no communications problems in the film, for instance.  There is only brief mention of Gen. Urquhart being cut off from his men for crucial hours and no mention about the flaws in the overall plan.  There is no controversy, not surprisingly.

                “Theirs Is the Glory” has often been compared favorably to “A Bridge Too Far” as though one must choose between them.  In reality, they are both great movies and when paired do complete justice to the campaign and the men who participated in it.  “Bridge” gives the big picture and “Glory”concentrates on just Arnhem and Oosterbeek.  I strongly suggest you watch “Bridge” first and use “Glory” as an addendum.  Whatever order you choose, watch both because they both are among the 100 Best War Movies.


GRADE  =  A

Saturday, January 23, 2016

CRACKER? Hanoi Hilton (1987)

 
   

        
                     A recent post on Face Book reminded me that I still had not posted my review of "Hanoi Hilton".  The post was about Jane Fonda and her horrible treatment of prisoners of war when she visited Hanoi during the Vietnam War.  I am no fan of Jane Fonda.  My father flew an F-105 fighter-bomber in the war.  I lived in Japan for three years while he was doing this.  My father harbored a hatred for Hanoi Jane because of her support for the people he fought against.  He partially passed this on to me, but I never went to the extent of never watching a movie with her in it.  Still, seeing her sitting in the seat of an anti-aircraft gun whose purpose was to shoot down my dad is hard to forgive.  With that said, my extensive reading on the war tempers my view of her because the war was a mistake and I am not a blind patriot.  She certainly can be taken to task for her method of voicing her opinions.  The fact is that the post accused her of heinous actions that she did not commit.  There is a character in this movie that reenacts some of the calumnies.
   

                “Hanoi Hilton” is a prisoner of war movie about the infamous North Vietnamese prison.  It was directed by Lionel Chetwynd.  It came out the same year as “Full Metal Jacket”, “Good Morning, Vietnam”, and “Hamburger Hill” and got lost in the wake of those other films.  It was an example of the backlash against the cynical, anti-grunt films like “Platoon” and “Full Metal Jacket”.  All of the characters are fictional, but the movie purports to enlighten the audience about the mistreatment of American prisoners.  It covers the entire history of American internment at the Hoa Lo Prison.

                 The movie’s main character is a Lt. Williamson (Michael Moriarty) who gets shot down early in the war.  Before that, he is interviewed and proclaims that we are in Vietnam to help the South Vietnamese get their freedom.  The movie says nothing to contradict this belief.  When Williamson is captured, his co-pilot is shot in the head.  This movie is not going to show empathy for the North Vietnamese.  Williamson is taken to the Hanoi Hilton where he finds out that because there was no declaration of war, the Geneva Conventions do not apply.  He is a war criminal.  The first torture is a dry shave.  A variety is yet to come.  These include shock treatment, beatings, and sitting on a pile of bricks.  At one point a group of prisoners is marched through the streets of Hanoi and it becomes a gauntlet with civilians assaulting the Americans. 

                Williamson interacts with other prisoners who are all dealing with the dilemma of when and whether to answer the questions.  How much torture is enough to justify telling the torturers what they want to hear?  Unfortunately, some of the torture is to break the prisoners.  A guy is whipped for yelling when a rat crawls on him.  Another is killed because of an escape attempt.
Don't worry, Jane Fonda is coming to get us out
 

                The movie has two themes.  The captors are evil and manipulating the prisoners for propaganda purposes.  The commandant tells the prisoners that the media coverage of their confessions will help win the war.  The guards are hissable with the volume turned up to 11 with a Cuban interrogator who kills a Puerto Rican who refuses to betray the USA.  Equally loathsome are the liberal media.  A Jane Fonda type wants the men to apologize and ignores tales of mistreatment.  And don’t forget the home front stabbing the men in the back as they do their duty to their country.  At one point the guards pipe in coverage of hippies protesting.  A new prisoner tells the men that most Americans consider them to be fascists.

                “Hanoi Hilton” is the counterpoint to all those Vietnam War movies that cast aspersions on the American war effort and the men carrying it out.  Although from a different subgenre (POW film), it’s most close kindred soul is “Hamburger Hill”.  Hmmm, both have double H’s.  They both portray the Americans as simply doing their duty under difficult circumstances and being betrayed by the home front.  Having read extensively on the war, I can see both the hawkish viewpoint and the dove perspective.  There is a place for both among Vietnam War movies.  There is room for “Hamburger Hill” and “Platoon”.  Needless to say with Hollywood being what it is on the political spectrum, there are quite a few more movies that are cynical toward the war.  It is a shame when a movie like “Hanoi Hilton” botches the attempt to balance the scale.  It takes a worthy subject and bludgeons it.

                It is no wonder the movie got lost in the 1987 box office duel.  It looks second tier.  The cast is B-list and is not memorable.  Moriarty was not a good choice for the lead.  He is too tepid in a role that could have used some emoting.  In fact, one surprise of the movie is the lack of scene-chewing, but sometimes the opposite can be almost as bad.  For a movie about mistreatment of prisoners, the movie is curiously flat.  This may be because most of the torture is implied.  The movie is not graphic.  Weirdly, Williamson does not seem to be terribly mistreated in his eight years in the camp.  In other words, Moriarty was given no chance for an Oscar campaign.

                The biggest flaw is the ham-handed steamrolling of its themes.  The movie is too anti-anti-war.  Jane Fonda is a cheap target and pushes buttons with the intended audience, but why not be factual in her depiction.  In fact, the decision to have all fictional characters was a perplexing and poor one.  Throwing in the hippies and a detestable Cuban was overreaching.  A documentary style film about the prison would have been better.  As it is, one is left to question how accurate the movie is in depicting the treatment.  A neutral viewer could easily watch this poorly made movie and blow it off as conservative propaganda.

                How historically accurate is it?  The Williamson character was probably based on Lt. Edward Alvarez, Jr.  He was the first American taken prisoner and spent almost the entire war in the Hoa Lo Prison.  The North Vietnamese did not honor the Geneva Conventions with the excuse that the Americans were war criminals fighting an illegal war of aggression.  The torture included rope bindings, iron foot stocks, beatings, and solitary confinement.  The movie does show a variety of methods, but is not graphic enough.  The gauntlet scene was based on the infamous “Hanoi March” in which prisoners were paraded down a Hanoi street for newsreels, but the crowd got out of hand and attacked not only the Americans but the guards.  The goal of the jailers was not so much to get military information as to get the men to make statements that could be used for propaganda purposes.  The men developed a code of honor that basically said that you should take as much pain as you could before you were justified in talking.  Almost every prisoner eventually broke and signed statements.  Most of which wer e fabrications.  Executions, torture, injury, and diseases took the lives of 65 prisoners.  Most of the deaths came in the period before 1969.  It was in that year that the Nixon Administration reversed policy and began to condemn the mistreatment of prisoners.  After this, treatment improved.  As far as the Jane Fonda character, Jane did interview some prisoners, but did not encourage them to apologize.  (P.S. to those who have read and swallowed the post about her actions in Hanoi, she did not turn over to the guards notes passed to her by prisoners.)

                "Hanoi Hilton" is not in the upper tier of Vietnam War movies.  If you want some knowledge about the treatment of American POWs, it is not without merit.  However, it could have been a lot better.  It is too simplistically pro-America.

                


GRADE =  C

Thursday, January 21, 2016

QUEUE CLEANSING: The Wipers Times (2013)


        
                “The Wipers Times” is a made-for-BBC movie based on the famous satirical trench newspaper printed on the Western Front during WWI.  The title refers to the name of the paper which was known by the British slang for the Ypres Salient.  Members of the 12th Battalion, Sherwood Foresters found an abandoned printing press and one of them had been a printer before the war.  Capt. Fred Roberts and Lt. Jack Pearson edited the paper.  It was printed from February, 1916 until the end of the war.

                The movie is book-ended by Roberts (Ben Chaplin) being interviewed for a newspaper job.  He is asked if he has any experience.  Queue flashback.  In war-torn France, a unit of Tommies discover a printing press in a bombed out town.  Since one of them was a printer, it is decided to put out a newspaper.  Roberts and Pearson (Julian Rhind-Tutt) discuss what should be included in the paper.  They agree it should be about “optimism” but in a snarky way. The humorous, cynical output draws the ire of a typically hide-bound British officer who takes the matter up with Gen. Mitford (Michael Palin), but the general has a good sense of humor and thinks the paper will be good for morale.  This subplot is reminiscent of “Good Morning, Vietnam”.  The war keeps getting in the way of production as the unit has to occasionally fight in the trenches.  These guys are not rear echelon types.  Roberts gets a medal for bravery.  They know what the war is really about.  Roberts sums it up as being “nothing more than wallowing in a dirty ditch”.  Why be glum about it?  Look at the humorous aspects.  Turn that soldier grumbling into published satirical grumbling.  They get moved around a lot.  They see action at the Somme, St. Quentin, Amiens, and Ypres. There is some action, but it is brief.  Don’t watch this movie if you are a combat junkie.


                “The Wipers Times” is a nifty little movie.  The acting is good with Chaplin and Rhind-Tutt making a nice team.  They combine for their version of the Cronauer character from “Good Morning, Vietnam”, but they are not manic.  The movie is actually closer to the vibe of “Black Adder Goes Forth”, only not as silly.  Their banter is intellectually cheeky.  There is a lot of talking and not a lot of combat, but the dialogue is rat-a-tat in its own way.  This gives the production the feel of a play.  But because it is a TV production, they have the luxury of seguing into black and white scenes that represent the newspaper’s articles and advertisements.  There are even some music hall type tunes.  It is certainly a different take on the Great War.  But like a vast majority of the other movies, it is distinctly anti-war.  And, of course, anti-brass.  Since the movie takes the soldier’s point of view, we get an appropriately “gallow’s humor” approach to the war.
 
                The best thing about the movie is it sheds light on a little known aspect of the war.  We are coming up on the centennial anniversary of the first edition.  I had never heard of “The Wipers Times” before, but researching it for this review was enlightening.  The movie is pretty accurate historically.  The newspaper specialized in poems (mostly pedestrian, but some high quality by the likes of Gilbert Frankau).  There was a running joke that the paper was being swamped by soldier submissions. It also included soldier accounts, satirical cartoons, and mock advertisements.  The adverts smack of “The Onion”.  Popular topics were the effects of shelling, sex, drinking, and rats.  The paper is an excellent primary source on soldier life.  It does not really question the war, but it does question how it was being fought.  It’s catch phrase was “are we as offensive as we might be?”  The movie makes clear that the soldiers were fighting for their mates and the newspaper was written for that same group.

                 Most of the movies I have waded through in cleaning up my queue have been losers, but this is one of the rare ones that I can recommend.  It is by far the best movie about putting out a newspaper in the Great War.



  GRADE  =  B  

Saturday, January 16, 2016

QUEUE CLEANSING: Drones (2013)



                “Drones” is a movie that takes on the ethics of our new drone warfare in our war on terrorism.  This is becoming a subgenre a while back I watched the similarly themed “Good Kill”.  It’s nice to see that war movies can take on current warfare.  “Drones” was directed by Rick Rosenthal who also directed “Bad Boys”.  Something has happened to his career as “Drones” is decidedly on the other end of the budget spectrum.  Or maybe he was dedicated to making a statement about our controversial use of drones to assassinate terrorists (and anyone who happens to be in the vicinity).  This statement came with a low price tag as the movie takes place in a drone trailer and has a cast of basically two low rent actors.  The screenplay is based on a stage play by Matt Whitten, who also wrote the movie.

                The movie is set at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada.  It takes place in real time.  Veteran drone pilot Jack (Matt O’Reilly) is introduced to Sue (Eloise Mumford) who is straight out of flight school.  When Jack asked why she “washed out”, Sue explains that it had to do with a detached retina.  It is also revealed that she is the daughter of a general.  Jack, on the other hand, is a typical airman who is from the video game generation.  She has to scold him for spending time playing a drone game.  He insists its part of training.  I bet the Air Force cooperated with this film as a recruiting tool. 

Jack and Sue discuss the role of conscience
in drone warfare
                Jack has been stalking a “high value” target named Khalil.  This will not be his first kill.  He is hardened to the job and counsels her to not think too much.  “A few fucked up dreams come with the territory”.   This is a reference to collateral damage associated with taking out the bad guys.  In this case, they are spying on a residence that includes women and kids.  Sue is squeamish about this which leads to a discussion of duty versus conscience.  The discussion becomes real when the suspect arrives.  Sue refuses to laze the target because of the civilians and questions whether Khalil is really a terrorist.  Their commanding officer is less than thrilled with this insubordination and insists that Sue get on board.  He orders Jack to physically get Sue on board, which does not go according to plan because earlier we were introduced to Sue, the boxer.  Since physical doesn’t work, perhaps psychology will.  Sue’s father general calls and informs her that Khalil killed her mother.  Well, he was involved with 9/11, which was how her mother died.  So now we have the other argument that justifies the duty argument – we need to stop them from doing it again.  Daddy is convincing, but now its Jack’s turn to question the mission.  Is this going to be Khalil’s last birthday party and the worst birthday party his family and friends ever attend?

                   “Drones” means well.  It takes on a topic that deserves discussion and covers the basic arguments in the debate.  The American public needs to hear out the debate and not just accept drone warfare without a peep.  However, the topic could be covered better by a better movie.  While competently acted by Mumford and O’Reilly, the movie comes off as low budget.  The effects emphasize this as the views from the drone give little impression that the drone is circling over the site.  The low budget is not insurmountable for a movie that is basically a play set in a trailer with two actors interacting, but the plot takes some twists that are hard to swallow.  It is also a very unrealistic take on the personnel who participate in drone warfare.  I would assume that Sue would have been “indoctrinated” before being placed in that setting.

                If you want to see a good movie on this topic, watch the much superior “Good Kill”.  But watch either one so you can be more aware of what is being done to protect America from the Khalils of the world.  Then you can have an educated opinion on whether the rules of engagement are righteous.

GRADE  =  D

              

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

QUEUE CLEANSING: Fortress (2012)


       “Fortress” is a direct to video air combat film set in the Mediterranean theater in WWII.  It purports to be an actual story of a B-17 Flying Fortress crew on a few of their missions to bomb targets in Italy.  The movie was the directorial debut of Mike Phillips.  He had about $3 million to work with.  His intention was to show the stress flight crews were under as they tried to achieve the minimum 25 mission threshold for ending their tours.  We are informed that only about 20% of the airmen survived 25 missions. 

                 The “Lucky Lass” is on a mission to bomb a city in Italy.  CGI allows for a large formation of bombers.  They have to drop out of formation which makes them Messerschmitt bait.  Even though the crippled bomber is a sitting duck, the Me-109s are unable to shoot it down.  They do manage to create openings for three new crew members before they inexplicably back off.  In an homage to bomber combat movies, the bomber suffers landing gear problems and the crew valiantly decides to stick with the plane rather than bail out.  They will have to hand crank the wheels down.  As we prepare for that suspenseful emergency landing, they are suddenly back at base.  I guess the screenwriter took the attitude that we’ve seen this scenario before so why insult us with actually showing it. 

 That mission was designed to launch our theme that the new replacement co-pilot must earn the respect of the veteran crew.  Mike (Bug Hall) gets off to a rough start since he is a teetotaler among a group that revels in drowning their stress with rot gut they brew themselves.  Capt. Willy (Donnie Jeffcoat) counsels Mike that in order to gain the respect of the men he needs to get drunk with them.  Mike is doubtful about this advice.  They did not teach that in flight school.  Things get worse for Mike on his first mission as he gets them lost and they are pounced on by a gaggle of Me-109s who are as bad shots as the last group.  Lucky Lass may not be lucky when it comes to staying in formation, but it sure is lucky when it comes to its opponents.  This time they are rescued by some P-40s in a fairly decent dog fight.  Willy is now considered not only a “stiff”, but a jinx.  Redemption time!  Make that a gremlin attracting jinx.  The next mission features the unexplainable malfunctioning of three engines.  Guess who falls out of formation again?  Could things get worse?  Only if the still blows up.

Mike earns the respect of the men when he helps the ground crew find the gremlin and rescues the boozehound O’Hara after he is arrested for stealing liquor.  Redemption achieved.  Now all that is left is the climactic mission which will feature buzzing the Colosseum and the rest of Rome.  It will also feature a wheel falling off.  Oh, and they fall out of formation.

“Fortress” starts off weak and gets a little better as it goes along.  This applies specifically to the acting which manages to rise to average.  Hall is the most solid as Willy.  The rest are doing their best, but it ain’t much.  There is one recognizable cast member – Chris Owens (“Sherminator”) from the “American Pie” series.  Although the movie attempts to give us a taste of bomber crew life, it is just rudimentary.  Apparently, they drank as much as fighter pilots and they had superstitions like peeing on a particular tent peg.  However, there is little character development other than Willy and his development is stereotyped.  The redemption route is admirably different, so there is that.  As far as dialogue, its lame.  What did you expect?  There are a few f-words for authenticity, but these guys do not sound like real airmen.  Speaking of real, the movie relies heavily on CGI, but I have no problem with that.  How many real B-17s do you think you can get with a budget of $3 million?  The CGI is video game quality.  The bomber interior is well-rendered.  Bizarrely, the music sounds like it is from a Civil War movie.

“Fortress” is supposedly based on a true story.  Just like “Memphis Belle” (which it appears to be a mockbuster of), all of the events depicted could have happened - to ten different bombers on ten different missions.  An early clue about the level of historical accuracy occurs when the last bomber in the formation is shot down and one of the Lucky Lass members says: “There goes our tail end, Charlie” to Charlie.  No one on the set caught that there was not supposed to be a comma in that line of dialogue because the reference was to the nickname given to bombers that brought up the rear of the formation.  Damn, I would enjoy movies like this more if I wasn’t so militarily literate!
 
I actually recommend “Fortress” as a watchable little trifle.  It is less predictable than its older brother “Memphis Belle” and surprisingly downbeat.  After all, war is downbeat.  Why not take a break from binge-watching on Netflix to watch a movie about binge drinking?


GRADE  =  C   

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Sahara (1995) – the one with Jim Belushi



                For those of you who are not war movie fanatics or are able to erase bad memories, there was a remake of the Humphrey Bogart classic starring Jim Belushi.  I kid you not!  It appeared on TV in 1995 and I believe I watched it when it premiered.  That’s right – I had no life even back then.  The movie was directed by Brian Trenchard-Smith (“The Siege of Firebase Gloria”).  He used extras from the Royal Australian Air Force and Royal Australian Army for the Germans.
the guy on the left is not Humphrey Bogart, trust me
                The movie opens with faux newsreel to review the situation in North Africa in June, 1942.  A lone M3 Lee tank (a real one) is commanded by Sgt. Joe Gunn (Belushi).   It’s his baby.  They pass through a battlefield full of corpses until they encounter some Brits.  They head into the Qatar Depression where they pick up a Sudanese soldier and his Italian prisoner.  A German fighter (actually a British Hurricane) attacks and Gunn shoots it down.  The pilot bails out at a ridiculously low altitude, but survives for plot purposes.  He is a racist Nazi, of course.  The motley crew reach a fort, but the well has only a trickle.  Each man gets only three swallows at a time.  The water is “sweet – just like a woman.”  The Italian endears himself by helping fix the tank and spouting off against Mussolini.  There is a nice little scrimmage with a German patrol that features actual bullet holes and blood (we’ve come a long way since the Bogart version).  With 500 thirsty Germans coming, Gunn decides holding the fort will save Cairo.  This decision commits the movie to “who will survive?” mode.  Short answer: not many.  The deaths of the main characters are consistent and varied.  A good quiz for after the movie would be to match the character with his death.  For an easy bonus:  true or false – the soldier that shows off a picture of his girl, ends up dying.  Fast forward to the end – they are responsible for the British victory at El Alamein.
the tank that won the Battle of El Alamein
                “Sahara” sticks pretty closely to the original script so it was obviously intended to bring a color version to a new generation.  In that respect it succeeds fairly well.  If you have not seen the original, this is an acceptable substitute.  It’s the pyrite version.  Besides the color, you do get more realistic combat with more authentic wounds.  Actually, I don’t remember a single German being just wounded.  The mortality rate is 100%.  The two despicable Germans get what they deserve.  Some of the good guy deaths are surprising and poignant.  The acting is acceptable.  No one embarrasses themselves, including Belushi.  He actually is comfortable in the role if you can get beyond prejudice against him as an actor.  The dialogue is not terrible and there is some character development of the “where ya from?” ilk.  The music is TVesque.

                I know you were expecting me to rip this movie apart and I am sorry if you are disappointed.  Those of you who follow this blog know that I am not enamored with classic war movies.  Older does not automatically mean great.  The original “Sahara” is a very good movie and did not need a remake, but to judge the new one on its own merits is only fair.  It is a decent little time waster and a nice effort for a made-for-TV movie.  Get over the fact that it stars Jim Belushi.


  GRADE  =  C

Friday, January 8, 2016

QUEUE CLEANSING: Alien Outpost (2014)


       “Alien Outpost” (also known as “Outpost 37”) is a sci-fi war movie.  It supposedly was released to theaters in 2014.  I assume that refers to the few remaining drive-in movie theaters.  The movie was directed by Jabbar Raisani.  If Donald Trump has his way, we won’t be seeing any more movies from him.  On second thought, this might be one of Trump's favorite movies.  Someone likened it to a combination of “Restrepo” and “Starship Troopers”.  It is part of the found footage subgenre as two journalists are embedded with a platoon.

                The movie is set in the year 2033.  This is twelve years after Earth was invaded by aliens called “Heavies”.  Title cards tell us Earth got its act together by abandoning the United Nations concept and substituting a military alliance that evicted the main Heavy force.  A sizable number of alien soldiers were left behind causing the USDF to maintain outposts to hunt them down.  At this point, most of the outposts have been abandoned for lack of targets.  Outpost 37 is on the Afghan-Pakistani border where there is still alien contact.  The defenders are underappreciated and the arrival of the documentarians will hopefully fix this.  The outpost has the task of not only dealing with Heavies, but also the local jihadists.  That’s right – even eighteen years from now, they still hate us!  The two journalists arrive with three replacements who are immediately pranked so we know the movie will have some soldier life as a theme.  The CO is no nonsense and insists the reporters be armed with pistols. There are no noncombatants at this site.

                The movie mixes found footage through the lens of the documentary and interviews with the soldiers (some of them after the event).  The interviews allow for flashbacks to previous events involving the outpost.  The movie is not simply an Alamo wannabe.  The plot is fairly complicated.  One strand involves their apparently loyal interpreter named Saleem and another involves the rescue of a captured soldier named North.  Both of these lead to the big reveal that the Heavies are implanting mind control devices in the locals.  This explains the sudden uptick in attacks.  This allows Raisani to stage two wild fire fights (with nary a scratch to the good guys).  In spite of the Heavy/jihadist poor marksmanship, the camp needs to be abandoned.  On the plus side, it has to be blown up with extreme prejudice, of course.  Instead of hightailing it, they disobey orders and go to check out a mysterious site.  It turns out that the Heavies have built a device to weaken Earth’s satellite-based defense system to allow a renewed invasion.  The device must be destroyed.  And we need another kick-ass fire fight and we need to get one of the cameramen killed.  Check, check, and check.
Heavy, dude.

                “Alien Outpost” is not as bad as you would expect.  I’m not implying that it is in a league with “Restrepo” or “Starship Troopers”, but it’s a nice little time waster.  It does suffer from its low budget.  I would not be surprised if “Restrepo” had a higher budget.  “Restrepo” certainly had better acting.  However, the cast of “Alien Outpost” does a fair impression of real soldiers.  The soldier vibe is realistic.  The lingo is not forced.  The interiors are authentic and appear to have been influenced by “Restrepo”.  The hazing of the new guys is true to form and we can assume that type of thing will still be occurring eighteen years from now.  What I cannot see happening eighteen years from now is our soldiers using current day weapons.  The only sop the movie makes on this anachronism is lipping that they have developed a special bullet within a bullet that can penetrate Heavy armor.  It is depicted as a .50 caliber round, but apparently can be fired from any firearm, including pistols!  For a low budget film, the effects are pretty good.  The Heavies are cool, but naturally we don’t see a lot of them.  They reminded me of the aliens in “District Nine”.  The effects are surprisingly good which means the combat is visceral and there is a lot of it.  The tactics are fine with covering fire and flanking.  Movies like this usually don’t go to the trouble.

Acting!
                It’s hard to say if “Alien Outpost” had any other goal than kick-ass entertainment for fourteen year old boys.  It might be making a statement about the current war on terrorism I suppose.  The outpost is undermanned, underfunded, and underappreciated.  Current soldiers in Afghanistan can relate to that.  Another theory is the brainwashing of the locals is a comment on the radical Islamists of today.  Or maybe I’m being too deep for a movie entitled “Alien Outpost”.


GRADE  =  C

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

QUEUE CLEANSING: Man Hunt (1941)



                “Man Hunt” was one of the first anti-Nazi movies to come out of Hollywood before U.S. entry into WWII.  It was directed by Fritz Lang ("Ministry of Fear").  Lang was born in Austria and although raised Roman Catholic, he was classified by the Nuremberg Laws as a Jew.  He emigrated to America and resumed his movie-making career in Hollywood.  It was his choice to film the novel Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household.  The novel got positive reviews for its taut and exciting spy chases.  The movie also did well for the same reasons.  It is propagandistic, but Lang does not let his personal feelings ladle it on too thick.  By the way, Daniel Zanuck tried to keep Lang from having editorial control for fear the movie would be too harsh on the Nazis.  Lang secretly edited it anyhow which partly explains why the movie manages to violate the Hays Office rule of having some good Germans to balance the bad ones.
lil' Roddy McDowell

                Walter Pigeon plays renowned big game hunter Alan Thorndike.  The movie opens with him stalking Hitler at Berchtesgaden.  When der Fuhrer appears in his sights, Thorndike at first pulls the trigger on an empty chamber.  He then puts in a live round, but before he saves the world, he is captured.  After being tortured off screen because the Hays Office refused to allow the showing of Nazi brutality, Thorndike is interrogated by a monocled Nazi named Maj. Quive-Smith (George Sanders).  Thorndike insists he was just doing a “sporting stalk” (a better title for the movie) and had no intention of killing Hitler.  Monocle wants Thorndike to sign a confession that he intended to kill Hitler and he was working for the British government.  He, of course, refuses. Option two is to throw Thorndike off a cliff.  He survives the fall and a chase straight out of a Mississippi chain gang film.  Thorndike stows aboard a Danish ship where he is aided by a cabin boy named Vaner (Roddy McDowell in his first role – he had been evacuated to the States from Blitz-ravaged London).  Back in England, Thorndike is tailed by a sinister “walking corpse” named Jones (John Carradine acting by muscle memory).  Thorndike takes refuge with a cockney lass named Jerry (Joan Bennett).  She’s a prostitute except that the Hays Office insisted a sewing machine be placed in her flat so maybe she is a seamstress or something.  Jerry and Alan have their own theme music – “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”.  It’s both of their ring tones.  Jerry introduces him to fish and chips and eating with your fingers and he shows her how a gentleman pulls a chair out for a lady.  Thorndike uses the word “minions” to describe his pursuers who are so persistent that he ends up hiding in a cave.  This does not stop Monocle from finding him and coercing the confession out of him.  Thorndike is in the cross hairs like all the innocent animals he has slaughtered.  Unlike all his victims, he has the ability to fashion a weapon out of a bed slat, a belt, and poetically justified pin he had given to Jerry.
take the shot, damn it!


                “Man Hunt” was meant to be fun entertainment by a top-flight director, and it may have been for a 1940s audience.  However, I found it preposterous and too Old School to overcome its ridiculousness.  I recognize that the plot centering on a big game hunter stalking was not meant to be taken seriously, but reality seldom intrudes anywhere in the script.  Much of it makes no sense.  Why wouldn’t the Gestapo put him on trial?  Surely, this would have been more damaging to Great Britain than a confession.  Kudos for jumping right into the woods outside Hitler’s lair.  That at least spared us getting him to that locale. I am not looking forward to a prequel.  The movie also deserves credit for not subtitling the Germans so we are not clear on what their plans are.  Monocle talks in English, of course.  There are some interesting twists, including the death of a major character, but some of the twists are used to advance to the exciting conclusion in a way that could only happen in a movie where a big game hunter tries to kill Hitler, escapes back to England, and then is tracked down to his cave hiding place.  Speaking of which, the movie is full of stereotypes.  Besides the monocled villain, we also get the “seamstress” with a heart of gold, the cadaverous hit man, and the suave upper class Brit.  The actors are game and Bennett brings a lot of verve to her role.  There is a cute interlude between Jerry and an upper class woman.  The truth is that without her, the movie would be unmemorable (other than the absurd plot).  It is also a kick seeing Roddy McDowell.

queue "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square" 
                I am sure there are fans of “Man Hunt”.  You know who you are – Fritz Lang fan boys and girls.  I don’t mind fantasy in my war movies.  Give me a monster rhino in “300” any day. Stick around for the last ten minutes of the movie and tell me it is not more fantastical than “300”.  In those last ten minutes you will witness the silliest killing of a Nazi in any WWII movie.  And the post script – hilarious!  I would like to see the sequel.


 GRADE  =  D

Sunday, January 3, 2016

QUEUE CLEANSING: Allies (2014)



                “Allies” is a British war movie directed by Dominic Burns for the bargain basement price of $3 million.  The title is a reference to the sometimes difficult relationship between the Americans and British in the European Theater in WWII.  An American officer named Capt. Jackson (Julian Ovenden) is paired with a British commando team for a special mission behind enemy lines.  Command dysfunction will impact the mission.

                The movie is set in August, 1944.  The mission is a “smash and grab” raid to capture a German general and his valuable maps.  At the last moment, Jackson moves up the mission and switches the drop zone.  This endears him even less to his already skeptical British comrades.  They set up an ambush, but the Germans are alert and have twice as many men as they expected.  In spite of that, no German survives the ambush and no Ally is scratched.  The combat is of the variety that includes pulling grenade pins with the teeth and shooting machine guns from the hip. They get the maps.

                We are now in “who will survive?” mode.  They hook up with the French Resistance.  There is an unexpectedly creative long uncut following-shot through the Resistance lair.  The Resistance leader executes a woman for sleeping with the enemy.  Before this can be explored, the lair is assaulted and everyone is on the run for a frenetically staged chase through a mine field.  A friendly fire death is thrown in as a sop to reality.  Revved up music shifts to softer for the slo-mo stroll through the mine field.  We are now down to just Jackson and Sgt. McBain (Chris Reilly).  They take refuge with a French lass and just to show there’s no hard feelings, Jackson convinces the girl that McBain is bed-worthy.  The coitus is interruptus and the pair is on the run again with both wounded.  Jackson is being slowed by his damaged toes.  Nothing some wire cutters won’t cure in an amputation that is a first in war movie history.  Sarge gets an Elias from “Platoon” run and there is a traitor a la “Where Eagles Dare”.

                “Allies” was much better than I expected.  This was partly due to the fact that although the budget was low, the two leads are respected actors who I am familiar with.  Ovenden plays Charles Blake on “Downton Abbey” and Reilly is well cast as the Sarge.  Burns does a good job making the move stand out among the B movie crowd. The cinematography is above average with some “Saving Private Ryan” movement, extreme close-ups, and odd angles. Burns has an “everything but the kitchen sink" mentality.  The combat scenes are lively with good effects.  Some of the wounds are showily graphic. The plot is based around a ridiculous mission, but at least it’s different and unpredictable.  Strangely, the dysfunction theme is not really explored.  It is more of a straight forward action flick, but with some intrigue thrown in to good effect.  The dialogue is fine, but there is little soldier banter.  We don’t really get to know any of the men besides Jackson and McBain.

                     “Allies” is a nice little time waster.  It’s not in a league with some of the movies it cribs from, but it’s worth the watch.


GRADE  =  B-








Friday, January 1, 2016

WAR SHORT STORY: A Daisy-Chain of Bandoliers




“A Daisy-Chain of Bandoliers” is set on the Western Front in WWI.  The author was Private W.H. Cooperwaite who served in the 2nd Battalion, Durham Light Infantry.  The story is obviously a fictionalized account of some incidents during his stay at the front.  He tells the story in flashback form as at the beginning he is wounded by a German shell called a “Jack Johnson”.  He assumes his readers will recognize that the large shell was named after a famous African)-American boxer.  He points out that he was hit by shrapnel from the only one of eighteen shells that actually exploded.  It is seldom you read about the high percentage of duds in WWI.  The rest of the story is a series of vignettes.  He mentions German atrocities like the murder of two young girls.  The Germans can also be devious.  He describes what he calls the “stretcher dodge” in which a German unit pretended to surrender and then when the Brits had been lulled into complacency, the Germans opened fire with machine guns concealed on stretchers.  He goes on to tell of some combat incidents.  He unit has to make a suicidal attack up a hill against a strong German position.  A beloved officer goes down and several men die bringing him in only to have him die anyway.  This serves as a good summary of the fighting on the Western Front, but Cooperwaite does not delve into the irony or symbolism of the incident.  An interesting vignette is about a unit of Gurkhas stationed nearby.  Cooperwaite describes a counterattack by the Turks featuring their curved knives.  “They seemed all grin and knife as they returned.”  The title comes from the concluding episode that involved delivering ammunition to the front line trench.  They tie the bandoliers together into a daisy-chain to try to cover the last few yards, but this is futile - like the war.

“A Daisy-Chain of Bandoliers” is nothing special.  In fact, Cooperwaite is not a particularly good writer. There are some aggravating grammar problems, for instance.  He tends to write in soldier vernacular.  He describes shells as creating “mischief”.  There is no real connection between the vignettes.  The story does not flow.  Some of it is propagandistic and smacks of the early days of the war when the Germans were accused of all sorts of atrocities.  I have found no evidence for the Germans using a “stretcher dodge”.  I’m not saying it did not happen.  I’m just skeptical about it.  This skepticism colors my view of the whole piece, leaving me wondering if there is much value to it as a war story.


GRADE  =  D

Next story:  "The Duke's Disappearance" by Thomas Hardy