Tuesday, March 29, 2016

CRACKER? Behind Enemy Lines (2001)



                “Behind Enemy Lines” is a war action movie that is loosely based on the story of Scott O’Grady.  You know as soon as the O’Grady incident had a happy ending, Hollywood was drooling over the potential entertainment value of the tale.  Unfortunately, the facts of O’Grady’s adventure were pretty tame.  What’s a screenwriter gonna do?  Hollywood did not invent the phrase “loosely based on a true story” for nothing.  Screenwriters Hussein Saade and Hadi Kaiss took the seed of the story and added a lot of water and manure to grow an action epic.  Director John Moore knew better than to let logic interfere with his debut.  The result was a crowd-pleaser that was moderately successful.

                The movie is set in the Bosnian War, so there is absolutely no danger that an American audience will recognize any historical inaccuracies.  On board the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Carl Vinson, the pilots learn about the Cincinnati Accords which will result in NATO pull-out from the conflict.  Damn, as though patrolling a no-fly zone against a Stone Age air force was not boring enough! Especially if you are a Hollywood hot shot like flight officer Lt. Chris Burnett (Owen Wilson).  He channels his inner Maverick frfom "Top Gun" to use the catapult to kick a football.  (Which, by the way, would actually destroy the football.)  This, plus the pulsating rock takeoff sequence, had me wondering if the movie was “Hot Shots! Part Trois”.  I was not totally wrong. 

                Admiral Reigert (Gene Hackman) calls Burnett in to talk him out of leaving the Navy.  Burnett is tired of being a traffic cop and the routine is boring.  Instead, he wants to be an airline pilot.  Reigert does not make Burnett cry by pointing out that a flight officer is not qualified to fly an airliner.  (Why wasn't the Burnett character made a pilot?)  Reigert tells the maverick to use his last two weeks to ponder his decision.  Perhaps something will happen to make his life less routine.
Hackman to director:  "I don't need no
stinking script!"
 

                In an attempt to get the movie into the Christmas movie genre, Burnett is sent on a photo-reconnaissance mission on X-Mas.  Burnett’s F-16 is shot down by two SAM missiles that chase his plane like a dog chasing a sausage flavored butterfly.  For plot purposes, pilot Lt. Stackhouse doesn’t use standard procedures to avoid the missiles so down goes the plane.  The missile firers are a Serbian paramilitary led by the Dastardly Lokar.  (As students of the Bosnian War know, the Serbian militia leaders were called Dastardly instead of General.)  Lokar has an evil lackey named Sasha that does his dirty work when his head-chopping arm gets weary.  Before you can say “chase movie”, the now solo Burnett is on the run.  (Owen Wilson must have gone to cross country boot camp to prepare for this movie.)  Would you believe that there are complications in rescuing him?  It turns out NATO is not really keen on it.  You know how politicians are in war movies.  That’s a shame because Burnett literally stumbles upon proof of war crimes.  While being chased by Lackey (actual rank) Sasha who happens to be a sniper who can’t hit Burnett when he is literally sitting on a rock.  (The script must have deflected the bullet.)  For those of you who are saying you just as soon watch the latest “Fast and Furious” if you are going to watch a chase movie, does that movie have the main character running through a booby trapped factory and then participating in a battle?  It does?  Never mind.
"What do you mean you can't pick me up because
it would be too easy?"

                It looks like the only way our insubordinate hero will be rescued is for his commander to get his insubordinate on, too.  You didn’t think Gene Hackman was going to keep his cool, did you?  And did you think the U S of A was going to let one of our boys be put through all this without some major payback?  Needless to say the movie has a patriotically happy ending, unless you are a Serb.  (The movie was accused of being too anti-Serbian war criminals.)  In fact, the release date was moved up to tap in to the desire to see Americans kick ass after 9/11.

                I will admit that the film does not claim to be based on a true story, although it clearly was inspired by the O’Grady incident (known as the Mrkonjic Grad Incident).  O’Grady certainly thought so as he sued 20th Century Fox for making it without his permission.  He particularly objected to the Burnett character's insubordination and potty mouth. ( I would like to say that O’Grady was right, but after “Top Gun” recruiting and its spawn – the Tailhook Scandal, Burnett might actually be a typical flyer.  He is certainly Hollywood's idea of a pilot. )  The suit was settled out of court.  I hope the studio did not pay him much because it is obvious his story simply gave them the idea for an action flick.  
Scott O'Grady probably did some running,
so there is that similarity

             You would have to really be up on your current events to tell what parts of the movie correspond to actual events.  (Although taking the default position that everything in the movie is bull shit would be a good idea.)  Scott O’Grady was piloting an  F-16 Flying Falcon over a no fly zone during the Bosnian War.  The no-fly zone was initiated by NATO to control the mostly Serbian forces that were battling the newly created country of Bosnia.  The Lokar character is based on a paramilitary unit leader (Zeljko Raznatovic aka Arkan) who committed war crimes.  O’Grady (he had no co-pilot) was shot down by a SAM.  He evaded capture for a week, but without the bells and whistles of the movie.  He was rescued by the Marines without incident until the outbound helicopters were missed by two shoulder-fired missiles and took some small arms fire.

                It’s easy to make fun of a movie like “Behind Enemy Lines”, but it is the type of entertainment that knows no shame.  Fourteen year old boys do not read reviews.  Mindless people and people who wants some time with their minds turned off also don’t care about reviews.  This is why the movie was successful.  It takes the tried and true action template and places it in a war setting.  It is not the first war movie to do this.  It has been done better in films like “Three Kings”, but usually the formula results in hair-pulling for war movie lovers like myself.  This is not to say the movie is terrible.  I enjoyed watching it.  Although I have to admit that part of the enjoyment was from condescension.  At one point, Burnett says that he was going Mach 3 when the missile hit.  Yeah, right!  To me it is a silly movie that keeps topping itself.

                The acting is serviceable.  Wilson and Hackman don’t have to stretch themselves.  Wilson is playing his “aw shucks” character and Hackman is military Hackman.  The villains are cartoons so the actors simply had to channel Snidely Whiplash. John Moore’s directorial debut is competent.  He makes use of the scenery of Slovakia well.  He decided to have the final scenes snow-covered so he had to use effects to achieve the look.  (This explains why the snow suddenly appears.)  He uses music to set the tone and he prods the audience continually with it.  The movie has very little slack time when it comes to the soundtrack.  He shows off with a variety of cinematography.  He has a similar kitchen sink approach to the plot as well.  One thing you can say is the action sequences are not redundant.  In the action movie community, avoiding repetition is considered the mark of an auteur.  The problem is that the movie tends to get more outlandish as it goes along.  My head was shaking by the final scene.  Surprise, Moore went on to make “A Good Day to Die Hard”.
   
                Will “Behind Enemy Lines” crack my 100 Best War Movies list?  Clearly, no.  It is a nice time waster and achieves its moronic check list of action tropes.  At least the viewers learn there was a Bosnian War and there were some terrible atrocities and evil individuals.  The Scott O’Grady incident is by far the most famous incident for America.   From the movie you learn the historical fact that we had a pilot shot down, he evaded capture, and was rescued.  Don’t file away anything else you “learn” from this movie.  Being the only American shot down during Operation Deny Flight might be a bit embarrassing for O’Grady.  If I was him, I would tell my grandchildren that the movie is a documentary.


GRADE  =  C-


Wednesday, March 23, 2016

CRACKER? Rules of Engagement (2000)



                “Rules of Engagement” is a military courtroom drama directed by William Friedkin (his only war movie).  The story originated with decorated Marine veteran and U.S. Senator James Webb.  Friedkin had problems with Webb’s screenplay and someone else had to write the script that was used.  Webb was so resentful of this turn of events that he tried to prevent Pentagon cooperation on the film.  Later, after seeing the movie, Webb complimented the finished product.  The movie was partly filmed in Morocco.  The movie was criticized for its treatment of Arab Muslims.  The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee claimed that the movie was the most racist movie ever made concerning Arabs.

                The movie begins in Vietnam in 1968.  The 54 year old Tommy Lee Jones plays 2nd Lt. Hays Hodges and the 52 year old Samuel L. Jackson plays his best friend 2nd Lt. Terry Childers.  (They couldn’t make these two old coots Captains?)  When Hodges’ platoon is ambushed, Childers executes an enemy prisoner to force a North Vietnamese officer to call off the dogs.  Twenty-eight years later, Hodges is preparing to retire from his job with JAG.  Childers is head of a Marine unit that is sent to defend the U.S. embassy in Yemen.  In the process of evacuating Ambassador Mourain (Ben Kingsley) and his family, the Marines take fire from snipers.  A mob has gathered outside the embassy and when Childers gets a view from the roof he sees people in the crowd firing at his men.  He orders his men to “waste the motherfuckers” and 83 Arabs end up dead, including women and children.  In the aftermath, no weapons are found and of course the world assumes Childers has perpetrated a war crime.  National Security Adviser Bill Sokal (Bruce Greenwood) decides to throw Childers under to bus to appease the Arab world.  Guess who Childers insists on for his lawyer?  He does not mind that Hodges is a bad lawyer and an alcoholic who has no self-esteem.  Time to return the favor.  The prosecuting attorney Maj. Biggs (Guy Pearce) is the usual overconfident hot shot.  And why shouldn’t he be? Hodges is guilty of firing on a crowd instead of the snipers who had actually killed some of his men.  But wait, that doesn’t make for a satisfying movie.
the two oldest grunts in Vietnam
                Sokal turns out to be a slimy politician who is willing to destroy evidence and bribe witnesses – for the good of the country, of course.  And for plot purposes.  Hodges starts the trial by telling the jury that he sucks as a lawyer and then proceeds to do nothing to disprove this.  The deck is stacked against Childers since no one is willing to testify that they saw weapons in the crowd.  And there is no tape to prove what Childers insists he saw.  Since this is a courtroom drama, there has to be a surprise witness and this one is a doozy.  Biggs brings in the NVA officer that Childers had atrocitized (I know there is no such word).  Hodges closing argument is: “It’s not murder, it's combat.”
damn, these dudes don't look a day older than when
they were in Vietnam 30 years earlier
                Maybe Friedkin should have stuck with Webb’s original script.  It could not have been worse than what he ended up with.  The movie is full of clichés and plot developments that make little sense.  The troubled, alcoholic lawyer who has one last chance to prove himself is not exactly original (see Paul Newman in “The Verdict”).  Neither is the corrupt politician who railroads a hero.  The script even throws in the old daddy issues trope.  Hodges never lived up to his father’s standards, but earns a hug and “atta boy” in the end.  The clichés are to be expected, it’s the ridiculous plot points that are troubling.  For instance, it makes no sense for Sokal to withhold evidence that would exonerate an American from an accusation of a war crime.  Why would Childers being found guilty be better than showing the world that his men were being fired on by the crowd?  As it is, without the tape, Childers is totally guilty and clearly violated the rules of engagement.  I read where Friedkin’s intention was to leave Childers’ actions ambiguous, but test audiences insisted on Jackson’s character being innocent so they had to add a scene where we see the tape showing people in the crowd firing weapons.  Nothing shown up to then had backed his claim.  Earlier in the movie, the same scene showed no weapons.  To make matters worse, the movie throws in a fact-finding trip to Yemen by Hodges to introduce a wounded girl who then appears firing a weapon on the tape.  Talk about jumping the shark!
 
                The movie is not a total disaster. The acting is fine and the only reason to watch it.  But Jones and Jackson are sufficient reason to watch any movie.  It’s a shame they weren’t given something better to work with.  By the way, if you are keeping track, Jackson says his first “motherfucker” at the five-minute mark.  Pearce is fine, but distractingly decided to adopt a weird accent.  Greenwood is appropriately slimy, but Kingsley looks lost.  The combat scene is well done and realistically chaotic.  Unfortunately, the trial itself lacks suspense.  Again I want to emphasize that this is because Childers is guilty.  I have to add that I  did not find the movie to be racist.

                It’s possible to make a good military courtroom drama.  “A Few Good Men” is an example of this.  “Rules of Engagement” is not in a league with that film.  The script is the weakness.  Maybe if they had not wimped out on the weapons in the crowd scenario.  However, who wants to see a movie where an American soldier fires on a crowd of innocent Muslims?  No American soldier would do that.  Even a soldier who once shot a prisoner in the head.       

GRADE  =  C-  




Sunday, March 20, 2016

CRACKER? The Water Diviner (2014)




                “The Water Diviner” is an Australian/American production that was a vanity project for Russell Crowe.  He made his directorial debut with the film.  It was loosely based on the eponymous book by Andrew Anastasios and Dr. Meaghan Wilson-Anastasios.  The movie was “inspired by true events” which means that the Anastasios’ grew a mighty oak out of a story about an old Australian man who came to Turkey to search for his son’s grave.  Their research did not find any facts about the mystery man, but they still wrote a novel based on it.  And then someone decided to make a movie inspired by the fictional book.

                The movie opens during the Gallipoli Campaign in 1915.  A Turkish attack across no man’s land gives us combatus interruptus when they reach the ANZAC trenches because the Australians have withdrawn.  Meanwhile back in Australia four years later, Joshua Conner (Crowe) is finding water and digging a well.  Conner is a water diviner (or dowser).  (Water divining is a pseudoscience that usually involves the use of a Y or L shaped stick or rod to locate underground water.) It has been four years since his three sons were killed in the war at Gallipoli.  His wife has gone insane and blames him for losing their kids.  “You can find water, but you can’t find your own children.  You lost them.”  If you were hoping this would be a laugh riot…  The movie uses flashbacks to fill in the boys’ arc.  They left for the war like every other Australian volunteer – enthusiastically.  They ended up in the Dardanelles where no one kept their enthusiasm very long. 

                Conner promises his wife he will bring the boys’ home so it’s off to Turkey.  There he meets a street urchin and his comely mom Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko).  A rather predictable romance ensues.  She helps him get to the area where his sons died.  The ANZACs are in the process of disinterring bodies and don’t want some meddlesome father poking his nose in.  Clicheish military bureaucracy blocks humanism every time in cinema.  However, Conner meets a sympathetic Turkish Major Hasan (Yilmaz Erdogan) who wants to help (so the Turkish reputation in Australia can be ameliorated).  He could be a bit guilt-ridden because he might have been responsible for the boys’ deaths.  (Literally, in one case.)  We find out about those deaths via flashback.  Apparently the Australian army had a policy of getting brothers killed together.  Or were they all killed?  Hasan thinks one of them might have been taken captive and could still be alive.  That would be great for Australio-Turkish relations and for the audience’s desire to leave the theater with a glow.  Hasan is willing to help Conner if Conner is willing to tag along for the defeating of a Greek invasion.  Hey audience, would a train ambush wake you up?  As far as finding the son who felt no need to inform his poor mom that he is still alive, Conner will have to use his paternal instincts.  Not to worry, he has an inner divining rod.
 
                “The Water Diviner” is a mediocre movie.  I can imagine Crowe saying “I did not realize directing was so difficult” and “man, that leading man is a dick to work with”.  Actually, his debut is competent.  He throws in some showy overhead shots.  The nonlinear structure works well.  He gets a good performance out of himself, but the rest of the cast is middling.  The romance between Crowe and Kurylenko is a fizzle.  They have little chemistry.  The romance is also lamely predictable.  Not only is it obvious from the moment they meet that they are destined, but the screenplay throws in the trope of the outsider rescuing the damsel from her culture’s unenlightened treatment of women.  In fact, the script is not just in full foreshadowing mode for the romance.  Although it starts depressing, it quickly shifts to marching towards a happy ending.  There are some twists along the way, but they are manipulative.  Unrealistic things have to happen to get to happily ever after.  It is more of an after-war movie than a war movie.  The action is limited in scope, but leaves you wanting more.  Certainly the movie could have used more.  Most of the movie is like Conner – passionless.

                 The movie is not strong historically.  Anyone who does not research the facts could conclude that it is fairly close to a true story.  Although the narrative is predictable and the characters are stereotyped, the story is not totally unbelievable.  Other than the part where Edward does not bother to contact his grieving parents.  And the part where Conner locates him through his fatherly instinct.   The movie is centered on the Gallipoli Campaign and it assumes we know the history of the campaign.  This is problematic with American audiences.  Unless you have seen “Gallipoli”, you probably have little knowledge that the boys were pawns in a disastrous British gambit to invade the Ottoman Empire to knock it out of the Central Powers.  The landing quickly got bogged down and the Turkish defenses proved unbreakable.  The ANZAC forces suffered heavily before the campaign was mercifully abandoned.  This event became the leading exemplar in Australia of the futility of warfare and the ill use of its young men in the Great War.  The film has a revisionist theme.  It intends to show the Turkish perspective.  As Crowe mentioned in an interview, the Turks were defending their country.  He goes out of his way to make the Turks sympathetic.  Hasan is a character that probably could not have existed in an Australian movie in the 20th Century.  Mission accomplished as the movie was popular in Turkey.  It did not do well overall at the box office, however.  It was not helped by the controversy involving what was considered a too positive take on the Turks.  Critics brought up the Armenian and Assyrian Genocides of 1915.  There may have been Hasans, but he was not representative.

                Australia has a reputation for bringing war movie lovers some good fare.  “The Water Diviner” is not one of its better offerings.  Since war movies are rare these days, it is something of a disappointment.  It certainly does not live up to Mel Gibson’s “Gallipoli”.  But then, Gibson did not direct that movie.  Crowe should get credit for making a movie on a subject that he had a passion for, but the story is just not very strong.  As a war movie, it does not deliver the action.  As a romance, it is ho hum.  And as a mystery, it’s mediocre. 


GRADE  =  C   


Tuesday, March 15, 2016

HOMER vs. HOLLYWOOD: Troy

1.        Agamemnon has united Greece into a loose alliance except for Thessaly. 
2.       Achilles is a soldier in Agamemnon’s army.  They dislike each other.  He fights a duel with Thessaly’s champion. 
3.       Achilles main motivation was to be remembered. 
4.       Paris and Hector visit Menelaus to negotiate a treaty.  Hector elopes with Helen. 
5.       Agamemnon uses the elopement as an excuse to destroy Troy and control the Aegean Sea. 
6.       Odysseus visits Achilles to recruit him
7.       Achilles’ mom tells him he can live long and be forgotten or die a glorious death. 
8.       Briseis is a priestess of Apollo and cousin to Paris and Hector. 
9.       Hector wants Priam to send Helen back, but he refuses. 
10.    Achilles lands first.  His men form a testudo.  The Myrmidons force the Trojans to retreat.  Achilles sacks the temple of Apollo.  He confronts Hector, but lets him go so he can fight another day. 
11.    Achilles and Agamemnon argue over who gets credit for the victory. 
12.    Agamemnon takes Briseis away to show who is boss. 
13.    Paris ends a debate on what to do by proclaiming his desire to duel Menelaus. 
14.    Achilles sulks over the loss of Briseis and forbid his men to fight. 
15.    Menelaus and Paris duel between the armies.  Menelaus easily wins, but Paris flees to Hector.  Hector kills Menelaus.  A big battle ensues with Trojan archers turning the tide.       
16.    Hector kills Ajax.
17.    Agamemnon returns Briseis to Achilles.  She and Achilles have sex.  Achilles still refuses to return to the fighting. 
18.    The Trojans attack at night using fire balls. 
19.    Patroclus leads a counterattack disguised as Achilles.  Hector kills him thinking he is Achilles. 
20.    Achilles duels Hector after calling him out.  Hector asks for a proper burial, but Achilles sneers at his request.  Achilles stabs Hector in the shoulder and finishes him with his sword.  He then drags the body back to the Greek camp. 
21.    Priam visits Achilles to beg for his son’s body. 
22.    Odysseus builds the Trojan Horse from ship timbers. 
23.    Paris wants to burn the horse, but Priam decides to bring it into the city.
24.    Odysseus and Achilles are in the horse.  They kill the sentries to let the Greek army in.    
25.    Paris gives the Sword of Troy to the young Aeneas. 
26.    Andromache and Helen escape. 
27.    Agamemnon kills Priam by stabbing him from behind. 
28.    Achilles works his way to Briseis.  Briseis kills Agamemnon.    
29.    Paris shoots Achilles in the ankle and then several other places.   
30.    Paris and Briseis escape.   

31.    The war lasts 17 days. 

THE ANSWERS

1.       Agamemnon has united Greece into a loose alliance except for Thessaly.  HOMERWOOD  Agamemnon was the dominant king among the Greek kings.  A war with Thessaly is made up for the movie.
2.       Achilles is a soldier in Agamemnon’s army.  They dislike each other.  He fights a duel with Thessaly’s champion.  HOLLYWOOD  Achilles was not in Agamemnon’s army.  There is no evidence that they disliked each other before the Briseis conflict.  The duel is pure Hollywood.  Achilles would have used a spear, not a sword and would not have leaped in the air to stab an opponent in the neck.
3.       Achilles main motivation was to be remembered.  HOMER  Every great Greek warrior would have been motivated by the desire for arête.  In this context, it refers to excellence in combat and fulfilling your potential.  Achilles is properly depicted as fighting for glory.
4.       Paris and Hector visit Menelaus to negotiate a treaty.  Hector elopes with Helen.  HOMERWOOD  Paris had been promised the most beautiful woman in exchange for choosing Aphrodite in a beauty contest.  He was supposedly visiting Sparta as an ambassador, but was really there to claim his bribe.  Menelaus was away from home when the two hooked up.  Helen does elope with him, but she might have been under a love spell from Aphrodite.
5.       Agamemnon uses the elopement as an excuse to destroy Troy and control the Aegean Sea.  HOLLYWOOD  Agamemnon got involved because his brother Menelaus reminded him of his (and the other Greek kings’) pledge to go to war over Helen.  If there was an actual war, it would have been more of a raid rather than an attempt to conquer.
6.       Odysseus visits Achilles to recruit him.  HOMERWOOD  Odysseus was sent to get Achilles who was trying to avoid the fighting (as per his parents’ wishes) by hiding out disguised as a female amongst a group of gals.  Odysseus tricks him into revealing his maleness by including weapons among his gifts for the ladies.
7.       Achilles’ mom tells him he can live long and be forgotten or die a glorious death.  HOMERWOOD  There was no goodbye scene between the two, but his mother would have been aware of the prediction that Achilles was destined to die a young, but glorious death.  She had tried to keep him from the war, but he would have preferred the glorious death, plus the peer pressure.
8.       Briseis is a priestess of Apollo and cousin to Paris and Hector.  HOLLYWOOD  Briseis was not related to the royal family.  She was a princess of Lyrnessus.  Her husband and family had been killed in a raid by Achilles.  The priestess of Apollo was Chryseis who had been taken by Agamemnon.  She was a priestess of Apollo.  Apollo inflicted a plague on the Greek camp which resulted in Agamemnon releasing her and claiming Briseis as his backup concubine.   
9.       Hector wants Priam to send Helen back, but he refuses.  HOMERWOOD  There is no evidence that Hector urged this.   It was suggested by an advisor named Centenor, but Paris refused to consider it and his father backed him up.
10.    Achilles lands first.  His men form a testudo.  The Myrmidons force the Trojans to retreat.  HOLLYWOOD  It was prophesied that the first man ashore was destined to die.  That man was Protesilaus who was promptly killed by Hector.  The formation called a testudo was invented by the Romans many years later.  The Trojans did retreat from the beachhead, but it was a combined effort by the Greeks and the Myrmidons are not singled out in the legend.
11.    Achilles sacks the temple of Apollo.  He confronts Hector, but lets him go so he can fight another day.  HOLLYWOOD  This might be based on the sacking of Apollo’s temple which resulted in the capturing of Chryseis, but otherwise it is bull shit.
12.    Achilles and Agamemnon argue over who gets credit for the victory.  HOLLYWOOD  The argument started with a rant by Achilles about not getting enough of a share of the spoils.  Agamemnon tells him to go home, the Greeks don’t need him.  He accuses him of being arrogant and hot-headed which was pretty spot-on.
13.    Agamemnon takes Briseis away to show who is boss.  HOMER  Agamemnon needed a replacement for Chryseis, but part of his motivation was to show Achilles who had the power.    
14.    Paris ends a debate on what to do by proclaiming his desire to duel Menelaus.  HOMERWOOD  Before one of the battles, Paris gets the bright idea to challenge the best Greek warrior to a duel.  When Menelaus jumped at the chance, Paris has a change of heart.  Hector accuses his brother of cowardice and shames him into fighting 
15.    Achilles sulks over the loss of Briseis and forbid his men to fight.  HOMER  The movie leaves out the role of the gods so it does not cover Achilles having his mother convince Zeus to help the Trojans win.  Achilles was a true patriot!
16.    Menelaus and Paris duel between the armies.  Menelaus easily wins, but Paris flees to Hector.  Hector kills Menelaus.  A big battle ensues with Trojan archers turning the tide.  HOLLYWOOD  Paris throws a spear which bounces off Menelaus’ shield.  Menelaus throws his spear which penetrates Paris’ shield and almost kills him.  Menelaus sword breaks, but he begins pulling Paris back to the Greek line by his helmet.  Aphrodite cuts the helmet chin strap and deposits him in bed with Helen.  Athena gets a Trojan to wound Menelaus with an arrow to reignite the war.  Hector does not kill Menelaus!     
17.    Hector kills Ajax.  HOMERWOOD  Hector proposed a truce and duel with a Greek champion.  Ajax was chosen by lot.  Both threw spears twice, then rocks, then closed with swords.  Heralds from each side parted them and they exchanged gifts.  Ajax actually died from suicide after Achilles died and Agamemnon awarded his armor to Odysseus.  Ajax lost his mind and fell on his sword.
18.    Agamemnon returns Briseis to Achilles.  She and Achilles have sex.  Achilles still refuses to return to the fighting.  HOMER  Despite having had her family killed by him, Briseis developed feelings for Achilles.  They probably were having sex, although he had several other concubines.  She certainly grieved over his death.
19.    The Trojans attack at night using fire balls.  HOLLYWOOD  Do I have to tell you that this is bull crap?  When Hollywood can’t justify explosions, fire is the next option.  There is a germ of this in the Trojan daytime assault that burned at least one of the parked ships.
20.    Patroclus leads a counterattack disguised as Achilles.  Hector kills him thinking he is Achilles.  HOMERWOOD  Achilles allowed Patroclus to borrow his armor and take the Myrmidons.  He even tells Patroclus not to fear Hector.  The Myrmidons led the counterattack that evicted the Trojans from the camp.  Patroclus killed several Trojan heroes.  Hector knows it’s Patroclus.  Apollo confuses Patroclus and he is stabbed from behind by a Trojan, Hector finishes him with a spear thrust from in front.  When Achilles is informed, he regrets staying out of the fighting and vows revenge.  His mother goes to Hephaestus to make new armor.  Briseis is returned at this point.
21.    Achilles duels Hector after calling him out.  Hector asks for a proper burial, but Achilles sneers at his request.  Achilles stabs Hector in the shoulder and finishes him with his sword.  He then drags the body back to the Greek camp.  HOMERWOOD  Achilles initiates his revenge mission by leading the Greeks into battle.  He searches the battlefield for Hector who is hanging back.  Hector approaches after Achilles kills one of his younger brothers.  He is wearing Achilles’ original armor.  Athena deflects Hector’s spear and then Apollo engulfs Hector in a mist so Achilles cannot strike him.  Achilles rampages over the battlefield killing so many Trojans that the survivors retreat into the city except for Hector.  When Achilles nears, Hector loses his nerve and runs away.  Achilles chases around the city four times.  Athena tricks Hector into making a stand by pretending to be his brother who will have his back.  Before the duel commences, Hector proposes they treat each other’s corpse with respect.  Achilles scorns the deal.  Achilles throws his spear and misses.  Hector’s spear bounces off Achilles’s shield.  Athena gives Achilles back his spear.  Hector closes with his sword, but Achilles stabs Hector in the neck and kills him.  Priam and Hecuba watch from the wall. Achilles ties Hector’s body to the back of his chariot and drags it around the city and eventually back to his tent.
22.    Priam visits Achilles to beg for his son’s body.  HOMER  This scene actually happens twelve days after the duel.  Achilles is feasting with his friends when Priam arrives.
23.    Odysseus builds the Trojan Horse from ship timbers.  HOMER  It was Odysseus’ idea, but probably constructed from wood from a sacred tree.
24.    Paris wants to burn the horse, but Priam decides to bring it in.  HOMERWOOD  Paris is no longer around to offer advice.  A Trojan named Laocoon tries to warn about the “gift”, but a sea serpent sent by Posiedon silences him and helps convince Priam that the offering to Athena should be brought into the city.
25.    Odysseus and Achilles are in the horse.  They kill the sentries to let the Greek army in.  HOMERWOOD  Achilles is not alive at this point, but his son Neoptolemus is one of the horse fetuses.  They do kill the sentries and open the gates for the Greek army and the sacking begins. 
26.    Paris gives the Sword of Troy to the young Aeneas.  HOLLYWOOD  There was no “Sword of Troy”.  Aeneas was one of the greatest Trojan warriors, not an unknown boy.
27.    Andromache and Helen escape.  HOLLYWOOD  Andromache was enslaved, but her and Hector’s son was murdered.  Menelaus intended to kill Helen, but her beauty made him reconsider and they lived happily ever after.
28.    Agamemnon kills Priam by stabbing him from behind.  HOMERWOOD  Neopotolemus kills Priam.
29.    Achilles works his way to Briseis.  Briseis kills Agamemnon.  HOLLYWOOD  Achilles is dead at this time.  Agamemnon survives the war, but is killed by his wife Clytemnestra when he is taking a bath upon his return to his palace. 
30.    Paris shoots Achilles in the ankle and then several other places.  HOMERWOOD  Paris had earlier been killed by an arrow shot by Philoctetes.  Before this, he had shot Achilles in the heel with a poison arrow having learned of Achilles’ vulnerable spot from one of his sisters who had cozied up to Achilles to get revenge for the death of Hector. 
31.    Paris and Briseis escape.  HOLLYWOOD  Briseis ends up with one of Achilles’ men. 
32.    The war lasts 17 days. HOLLYWOOD  It actually lasted ten years, which is known to anyone with half a brain.


RATING  =  40.3

Saturday, March 12, 2016

CRACKER? Troy (2004)



                I recently taught “The Iliad” for the fortieth time in my Western Civilization class, so I decided to rewatch “Troy” and review it with an eye to how close the movie retells the epic poem.   It seems appropriate that a web site that reviews war movies should examine a movie based on the first war story in Western literature.  Before you say “what took you so long?”, I want to point out that I did review the movie as part of my Best War Movie of the 21st Century Tournament.  (It defeated “The Last Samurai”, but lost to “Master and Commander”.)  This review will concentrate on the plot. So if you haven’t read “The Iliad” - spoiler alert.  And, come on, get that off your bucket list!  And, if you think watching this movie takes the place of reading Homer’s incredibly long poem, think again.  (But high school students trying to avoid reading the poem and using my review instead, you’re welcome!)

                “Troy” is actually the story of the entire Trojan War whereas “The Iliad” covers just six months in the ninth year.  A title card introduces the movie with background information pre-war.  King Agamemnon (Brian Cox) has united the Greek cities into a loose alliance, except for Thessaly. His brother Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson) is negotiating peace with Princes Hector (Eric Bana) and Paris (Orlando Bloom) of Troy. While the King of Sparta is making peace, his brother is making war with Thessaly.  Instead of a bloody battle, it is decided that each army will put up a champion for a duel.  Agamemnon’s champ is Achilles (Brad Pitt), which is awkward because they despise each other.  The duel ends with Achilles doing his signature move.  Meanwhile, back in Sparta, Menelaus’ wife Helen (Diane Kruger) is showing Paris more than the normal hospitality.  This could end up ramming (this is Ancient Greece) the peace treaty.  Especially when Helen elopes with Paris.  When Hector finds out, he decides bro and his ho before the entire population of Troy.  Menelaus goes crying to big brother, who uses the cuckolding as an excuse to conquer Troy.  If that is going to happen, the Greeks will need their main man Achilles.  Odysseus (Sean Bean) convinces Achilles to accompany the expedition in spite of it being suicidal for Achilles.  Achilles’ mother points out that it is better to die a glorious death and be remembered forever than to provide her with grandchildren.  Odysseus points out that since he is being played by Sean Bean, he is committing suicide also.
the move - as described by Homer

                Achilles leads the beach assault.  He and his Myrmidons avoid the fire arrows by getting into a testudo.  Romans, take note.  Achilles is a killing machine and the entire Trojan army retreats from him.  To add insult to injury, he desecrates the Temple of Apollo.  Hector rides to the rescue and finds out why Achilles is the J.J. Watts of the Greek army.  Achilles nobly spares Hector’s life because it is too early in the movie for that duel.  Or as Achilles puts it:  “It’s too early in the day for killing princes”.  The victory celebration is marred by Achilles and Agamemnon debating who deserves credit for the win.  Agamemnon’s argument is the king determines who gets the credit – and that would be me.  Achilles responds with:  “War is young men dying and old men talking”.  Oh, snap!  To emphasize where the power lies, Agamemnon insists on taking a beautiful captive girl named Briseis (Rose Byrne – Angelina Jolie not available?) away from Achilles and makes it clear she will not be just dusting his tent.  Achilles is so upset he says “you sack of wine!”  He’s more of a physical fighter than a verbal taunter.  Until his sex slave is returned, he will not kill any more thousands of Trojans.

                At a Trojan council meeting, Paris stops the debating by proposing a duel with Menelaus to end the war.  (The royal family rushes to place bets on Menelaus.)  The duel between the vengeance-minded brute and the wimpy, ladies-man goes as you would expect.  End of war and end of movie, right?  Except that the winner dies and the war continues with a phalanx battle.  Trojan archers from the city walls turn the tide and the Greeks retreat.  This would never have happened if Achilles were here, so Agamemnon returns Briseis who is so grateful to have that weight lifted from her chest that she falls in love with Achilles. Good sex is not enough to rekindle Achilles' blood-lust.  A night attack using fire-balls (Spartacus take note) puts the Greeks on the brink of having to accept that a semi-hot chick might not be returning with them.

                When the daylight comes, Achilles best buddy Patroclus (Garrett Hedlund) sneaks off in Achilles’ armor and leads a counterattack.  Like on a playground, everyone gathers around for the duel between the faux Achilles and Hector.  Patroclus may look like Achilles, but…  Achilles is not going to take this well.  But on the plus side, Achilles will stop his pouting and return to slaughtering.  But first, he has some unfinished business with Hector.  Achilles calls Hector out (literally) and they have the type of fight that you would expect from two superstar actors who refuse to use stuntmen and rely on robotic choreography.  The duel turns when Hector trips over the only rock located on the plain outside Troy.  In a great act of poor sportsmanship, Achilles drags the corpse back to the camp.  ( I assume this was not in the original script, but was an idea that came to the ever-competitive Pitt.)  Later, King Priam (Peter O’Toole) comes to beg his son’s body back and prove that he can still act circles around these young whippersnappers.  Patroclus is cremated in the third funeral pyre scene in the movie.  At this rate they are going to run out of coins to put on eyes.  This, by the way, is where “The Iliad” ends, but the movie goes on to conclude the war because too many theatergoers have money riding on who wins the war.
ladies, he wants you

                Odysseus (Sean Bean is still alive!) gets a bright idea for a way into the city.  The horse does look like it was built from ship timbers.  Nice prop!  Paris wants to burn it, but being the most unpopular man in Troy, no one listens.  During the night, Achilles and other sneaky Greeks initiate the sack of Troy.  Achilles is not interested in the fun stuff – looting, raping, killing.  He is on a quest to rescue Briseis.  Andromache and Helen escape, along with Aeneas – a character introduced so intellectuals can feel superior to the rest of the audience.  Google him.  Agamemnon stabs Priam in the back (literally).  And as though that does not bring enough hisses, he moves on to abusing Briseis.  She stabs him in the neck.  It’s like a gift for her boy-friend Achilles.  But before he can thank her, Paris puts an arrow in his ankle.  Lucky inaccurate shot!  The next three shots are more accurate.  Who wants to see Achilles die from an errant arrow to the ankle?  Paris and Briseis escape.  He knows a way out – he would!  Another funeral pyre.  Sean Bean survives!  Maybe there will be a sequel featuring Odysseus.  Is there a story that could be adapted into a screenplay?
a Trump rally

                My belief is that a movie should improve upon the book it is based upon.  “Troy” is a mixed bag in that respect.  It jettisons the ridiculous role played by the gods in the war, but then the screenplay changes the deaths of virtually every main character and messes with the ending in a move purely aimed at satisfying the audience.  In many ways the movie treats the audience as dummies.  This includes the simplistic theme of glory equals immortality.  This differs from Homer’s theme of “the wrath of Achilles” because Brad Pitt can’t be seen playing a jerk.  In reality, Achilles is one of the great heels in history.  The movie plays into the common ignorant belief that he was a hero.  For this reason, Pitt’s Achilles does not commit atrocities like cutting the throats of twelve prisoners at Patroclus’ funeral as he does in “The Iliad”.  The transformation of Achilles to an empathetic, lady-rescuer is laughable.   Although Achilles is not quite the brute of “The Iliad”, the other characters are spot on in their personalities.  The movie insists on making Agamemnon into a supervillain which is beyond Homer’s depiction of him as a dick.  The cast is all-star and they do a good job.  At least the men do, the female characters are weaker.  The biggest problem being the key role of Helen.  A little known Diane Kruger was cast and she is not up to playing the most beautiful woman in the Ancient World.  (Why not the modern “face that launched a thousand ships” – Jennifer Anniston?  Another case of a Pitt veto?)
she's pretty, but a thousand ships?

                “Troy” has all the strengths and weaknesses of an epic.  Director Wolfgang Petersen (“Das Boot”) knows how to make crowd-pleasing, big budget blockbusters.  He uses CGI well for the fleet and army scenes, but there are still a lot of extras in the film.  The sets are kitschy.  Basically what a modern interior designer imagined a Trojan palace would have looked like.  The dialogue matches the look.  It is pompous and heavy-handed.  “I will remember your name”.  (Because that is the theme of this movie.)  “I hate Achilles”.  (In case my scowl is not clear enough.)  The cinematography is showy.  There is a tracking shot over the beach that cribs from “The Longest Day”.  There is a sudden appearance of POV when Paris fights Menelaus.  Petersen can’t force explosions in, but he does manage to get rolling fire balls.  (Fire – the go-to effect until Alfred Noble revolutionized action movies.)  The score is what you would expect.  James Horner took over after test audiences found Gabriel Yared’s work too old-fashioned. I found Horner’s work too “Enemy at the Gates”.  Is it okay to plagiarize from yourself?  He actually was accused by some critics of stealing from several classical composers.

                As a combat film, the movie is visceral, but anachronistic.  If you read Homer, most of the fighting involves individual duels.  The movie stops to reenact the key duels, but the rest of the combat is basically a Hollywood melee.  The Greeks did not fight this way at that time.  The movie also pays lip service to the use of chariots, but in the “Iliad” every prominent warrior used a chariot to move to and retreat from the battlefield.  The role of archery is ginned up because Hollywood loves blizzards.  Hollywood also loves twists.  This explains why the Homer-challenged are fooled into thinking Hector has killed Achilles.  One good thing about the combat is it is not repetitive, like in Homer.  Each battle scene is different.  And they are spaced out so the movie does have a nice flow and no long boring stretches. 
"it's not so bad - dying, the gods know I've
done it enough times"

                “Troy” will not make my 100 Best War Movies list.  It is a great example of how Hollywood tampers with classic literature to make it more appealing to modern audiences.  I will be doing a “Homer vs. Hollywood” post in the future, but as a preview, “Troy” is far from a Cliff Notes version of “The Iliad”.  Please do not watch it and then take reading “The Iliad” off your bucket list.


GRADE  =  C   


Saturday, March 5, 2016

NOW SHOWING: Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot



                “Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot” is a dramedy about a female journalist in Afghanistan from 2003-2006.  It is based on the memoir “The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan” by Kim Barker. The movie assures us it is “based on a true story”.   It was directed by the team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa.  The movie was a pet project of Tina Fey who was interested in Barker’s story early on after someone mentioned to her that she would be ideal for the role.  The movie was made by her production company and produced by mentor Lorne Michaels. 

                The movie opens with a cocaine fueled party in Kabul in 2006.  The partiers are journalists blowing off steam.  They are interrupted by a nearby explosion.  At this point the film drops back to 2003 to start our heroines arc.  Kay (Fey) is a network news peon who decides to volunteer for reporting from Afghanistan because she qualifies as “unmarried and childless”.  All she has is a steady boyfriend who is supportive of her career move.  They can make it work.  Sure, why not?  Before you can say cancel the wedding plans, she is corkscrew landing at Kabul International Airport (KIA – get it?) to avoid missiles.  She is assigned an interpreter/fixer named Fahim (Christopher Abbott).  No Afghan actors available in Santa Fe?

                Kay is introduced to the denizens of the frat house the journalists live in.  This boys club includes one other female named Tanya (Margot Robbie) who does not want the audience to go to the trouble of discovering that she is a male war correspondent sexually, so she comes right out and asks Kim if she can sleep with her security detail.  She suggests Kay take advantage of the fact that women who are marginally sexy in the States are 10s in Afghanistan.  This movie might have a great effect on American women booking trips to Kabul.  (Especially those that consider Tina Fey to be a dog.)

                Kay’s first embed is at a forward operational base.  She does the requisite “where you from soldier?” interviews and becomes friends with a Marine who insists he does not believe in chambering his weapon.  This bizarre inclusion in the montage will come back as a major plot point.  She also strikes up a relationship with a General Hollander (Billy Bob Thornton) who admonishes her to not take advantage of her sudden rise on the female rating scale to have sex with his Marines.  By this time in the war, a typical mission is to investigate the blowing up of a well in a village.  On the way back, their convoy is ambushed and Kay uses the sudden rush of adrenalin to get film of a Javelin missile taking out a Toyota Taliban tank.  This act of balls earns her the generals respect and the explosion earns her air time.

                The second embed also involves a sabotaged well, but this time it’s not the Taliban to blame.  It’s a Tina Fey movie so we need to have some social commentary of the female rights variety.  This is followed by a trip to a school destroyed because of its female students.  As time goes on she goes from “what the hell have I gotten myself into?” to “when do I get my next fix of whizzing shrapnel?”  She has also evolved amorally and strikes up a relationship with the previously “not in a million years” rake Iain (Martin Freeman).  Their relationship has as bright a future as Afghanistan.  And her relationship with girlfriend Tanya is equally solid.  A BFF (bitch friend fortheduration) wouldn’t be as competitive as a male colleague, would she?  Nor would your male lover, right?

                Some will make their decision to watch this movie based on their feelings toward Tina Fey.  In my case, I love her, so it was a no-brainer.  If you consider her to be a raging liberal feminist, chill out because she is not using the movie as a forum for her loathsome views.  The movie is surprisingly light on political commentary. It does not question our involvement in Afghanistan. It does not even question why we are still there.  Instead, there is a theme of America losing interest in the war.  If anything the movie is pro-military.  All of the Marines are positive characters, including one who gives his legs for his country.  In another surprise, General Hollanek is super cool.  His periodic appearances really juice up the movie.  Although their relationship starts predictably rocky, he turns out to a leader who is willing to adjust his views when confronted by new information provided by Kim.  He also gets some kickass lines.  When Kim asks him how the war is going, he describes it as like “fucking a gorilla, you keep going until the gorilla wants to stop.”  The movie is also pro-journalism, but it does portray war correspondents as stereotypically hard partiers (like WWI fighter pilots).  It updates the cliché of journalists being ruthlessly competitive for scoops to include female war correspondents.  Throw in a bit of the anything for a scoop mentality.

                “Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot” aims at the easy target of network news, but it does not hit the target with an RPG.  It is more subtle than that.  The two biggest gets by Kim and Tanya both involve explosions caught on film - with the definite implication that no explosion, no air time.  However, when Kay confronts her boss about lack of coverage of Afghanistan, her boss logically explains that if the public is not interested…  The movie does not so much criticize as state facts.  Hopefully the movie will remind the public that we still have troops in the god-forsaken country.  And the gorilla still insists on being fucked.

                The movie is well made.  The  Santa Fe sets look like a Middle Eastern country.  There are some attempts at local color.  Fahim gets a Muslim wedding.  Kay dresses in a burkha (“the blue prison") to infiltrate a medieval “discussion” of modern technology.  The movie also makes token efforts to give us a taste of Afghan culture.  There is a running joke that if you put a turban on Kay, she would be a mighty fine boy - worthy of intercourse with an Afghan leader.  Speaking of jokes, the movie is more drama than comedy, but there are many humorous lines.  The movie eschews slapstick.  Although it’s closest equivalent in war movies is “MASH”, it is not as broad or subversive.  It is also not as episodic.  “WTF” has more of a traditional storyline and this is a weakness because some of the plot is cliché and predictable.  Since it’s been a while since we had a significant addition to the war journalism subgenre (and none on Afghanistan), the clichés are not that stale.  Another similar weakness is the predictability.  All four of the principal relationships end as you would expect.  This makes the movie more comfortable than daring.  But maybe this was because they were so true to the book.  Just kidding.

                A strength of the film is the cast.  Whatever your visceral reaction to Fey, she is quite good in a mainly dramatic role.  That does not mean she does not showcase her famous snarky brand of humor.  Robbie is good as her slutty gal pal and gives one a chance to ponder if the Fox News bunnies were similarly bedded when they embedded.  Freeman is fun as the wolfish MacKelpie.  Thornton comes off best as General Hollanek.  The character could have easily been a caricature.  It says a lot for Fey that she would let him steal their scenes and allow him to get some of the best lines.  His character also balances the strong female characters.

                “Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot” (good, if inaccurate, change of title) is a worthy addition to the war journalism subgenre.  It does have two brief combat scenes to help it qualify as a war movie.  The Marine raid to rescue a hostage is especially well done and different enough from the night vision/POV style currently in vogue.  As Kay points out to Hollanek, America needs a reminder that it’s not just the Special Forces that conduct raids.  I won’t complain that the whole hostage scenario was probably invented to get some more action into the film.


GRADE = B