Saturday, June 24, 2017

Picture, Quote, Movie #18

***  Just to let everyone know:  you can access my archive by way of the "TABLE OF CONTENTS" link to the right under "Visit My Bunkies".

"This is the paradox of being a good soldier: To be a good soldier you must love the army, but you must be willing to kill the thing you love."

WHAT MOVIE?  It is a faithful rendering of the novel by Harry Brown. It was released in 1946 and is in black and white. It is set in 1943 during the invasion of Salerno in the Italian campaign in WWII. Production began after actor Burgess Meredith (who served as the narrator in the film) urged that the book be made into a movie. The director was Lewis Milestone of “All Quiet” fame. The U.S. Army cooperated in production by providing weapons, including American weapons masquerading as Germans. The Army also vetted the script suggesting two minor changes. The movie was greeted positively by audiences and critics. It was rereleased in 1951 as “Salerno Beachhead”.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

CRACKER? Gods and Generals (2003)

                “Gods and Generals” is the prequel to “Gettysburg”.  “Gettysburg” was financial and critical success, but it took ten years to follow it up.  Like that movie, “Gods and Generals” was written and directed by Ronald Maxwell.  He based his screenplay on Jeff Shaara’s novel.  (“Gettysburg” was based on Jeff’s father’s novel Killer Angels.)   “Gods and Generals” was also produced by Ted Turner Pictures and Turner has another cameo as Col. Weller Patton (“Old Blood and Guts” great uncle).  As with Ted, many actors reprised their roles from the first film.  For instance, Jeff Daniels returned as Joshua Chamberlain (even though he was ten years older, but playing the same age character – hooray for Hollywood make-up artists!)  Several other key parts had new actors.  Most interestingly, Stephen Lang (who played Pickett in “Gettysburg”) now plays Stonewall Jackson.  Robert Duvall replaced Martin Sheen as Lee.  A similar cast did not result in similar results.  The movie cost $56 million and made just $13.  This does not bode well for the planned third installment based on Shaara’s Last Full Measure.

                “Gods and Generals” covers the first half of the Civil War (or as Jackson calls it – “The Second War of Independence”) in the eastern theater.  The title card is a quote from George Eliot about love of one’s homeland.  This is the first clue that the movie will take a Southern point of view.  Robert E. Lee is offered command of the Union Army, but declines because he cannot take up arms against his state.  Meanwhile, Thomas Jackson is teaching at Virginia Military Institute.  He is a terrible teacher who memorizes his lessons and threatens to repeat them from the start if interrupted.  Can’t some alternative job come along that is more suited to his talents?  (It would be a shame if 600,000 Americans would have to die for him to fulfill his destiny.)  Sure enough, along comes the Civil War and school is out.  Like summer vacation, the boys are thrilled it has arrived.  Two young men leave home to join the Confederate Army.  Slave women kiss them goodbye.  This is the second clue.  If you are a Yankee, you might want to turn off the movie now.

                The religious theme is initiated early.  Rebels march off to war to reverential music that tells us they are doomed, but God is on their side.  This theme is hammered throughout the movie through the Jackson character.  He is very pious, but is a bit lenient on that old “thou shalt not kill” commandment.  The first set piece battle is First Bull Run (which surprisingly, the movie does not call “First Manassas”).  The battle concentrates on Jackson’s brigade and coverage of the battle shows some flaws that Civil War experts will find irritating.  Gen. Bee refers to Jackson himself, instead of his brigade, when he uses the word “stonewall”.  Jackson is wounded in the hand for dubious cinematic reasons.  More problematic, considering the number of reenactors in the scene, Jackson orders his men to “charge bayonets” and the order initiates a charge (instead of the proper presenting of bayonets).  The resulting charge is loaded with action with lots of hand-to-hand and realistic deaths.  It is fairly graphic for a PG-13 movie.  The charge wins the battle, although in actuality it was not nearly that simple.

"If our slaves did not want us to win, would they have
dressed us so nicely?"

                In between periods (to use a hockey analogy), Joshua Chamberlain leaves his professorship after an intellectual debate (everyone speaks like an intellectual in this movie) with his wife about his reasons for leaving.  He presents the generic “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do” argument.  Not the preserve the Union view.  The recently canonized Jackson hires a black cook named Lewis.  Lewis wants to defend his home!  Jackson promises “Big Jim” that someday his people will be free.  Lewis will stand in for all the “good blacks” of the “peculiar institution”.  Jackson represents their benevolent “employers”.  Just as you are swallowing what just came up in your mouth, a letter arrives from Jackson’s baby daughter.  Gag!  Keep your puke bag handy, there is more to come.

                The second period covers the Battle of Fredericksburg.  (The movie conveniently skips the Battle of Antietam and that awkward Emancipation Proclamation.)  The movie covers the taking of the town after a spirited Southern defense.  The Yankees loot like the barbarians that they are.  Martha, a slave, defends her master’s home.  Lewis would be proud of her.  The battle scene is a dandy.  It concentrates on the futile attacks on the stone wall.  At one point it’s Irish versus Irish (literally, as many of the reenactors are cinematically shooting at themselves) in a schmaltzy scene.  In the mirror image of the first film’s Pickett’s Charge, the 20th Maine assaults the stone wall and gets pinned down. Chamberlain spends hours listening to bullets thunk into corpses he has piled for protection.

Chamberlain wonders whether
this is worth a governorship

                In our second intermission, Jackson has a talk with a little girl.  He tells her, “your daddy will come home, all the daddies will come home”.  Wait, what?  There is a minstrel show featuring the song “Bonnie Blue Flag” and a line by Ted Turner.  (Speaking roles pay more money.)  Joshua Chamberlain and his brother Tom (C. Thomas Howell again) discuss emancipation in an obvious attempt by screenwriter Maxwell to make up for Chamberlain’s wishy-washy comments in “Gettysburg”.  Jackson befriends a cute little girl during a plantation sojourn.  As though the schmaltz meter can’t go higher, it is turned up to 11 with the arrival of Mrs. Jackson and their baby daughter.  Thankfully the intermission ends and we are on to the third period which consists of the Battle of Chancellorsville.  We are heading for a happy ending, fellow Southerners.  Except for the death of the saintly Jackson.  Sorry, did you not notice he was not in “Gettysburg”?  That’s why I am not living in the Confederate States of America.

                I was quite surprised and excited to learn that they had made a prequel to “Gettysburg”.  I am a big fan of “Gettysburg” and have read extensively on the Civil War, especially the war in the east.  I have to admit that most of my reading was of the Army of Northern Virginia.  Being a Southerner, I naturally found the Confederate Army more interesting.  I guess you could say I rooted for Lee and his men.  However, I never lost sight of the wrongness of their cause.  While “Gettysburg” had a Southern slant, that could be excused as an accurate rendering of the source novel and the fact that the Confederate perspective was more compelling than the Union.  The movie was well-received and the critics did not divide themselves between Southerners who admired it and Northerners who despised it.  The same cannot be said about “Gods and Generals”.

                The problem is not with the history.  The movie is more accurate than most war movies.  I mentioned some minor flaws in the Battle of Bull Run, but for the most part the movie does not make things up.  The three battles are instructional although you only get a small part of the battlefield and it helps a lot if you are already familiar with the events in the war.  The combat itself is very accurate.  Credit must go to the reenactors.  The weapons are authentic and unlike “Gettysburg”, the cannons recoil.  Unfortunately, there were less reenactors for the prequel so CGI had to be used.  The battle scenes for Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville are among the best put on film.  Lee’s famous quote “It is well that war is so terrible or we should grow too fond of it” is borne out cinematically.  After what Chamberlain undergoes in the field in front of the stone wall at Fredericksburg, you wonder how he did not suffer from debilitating PTSD.  You watch scenes like this and you wonder how our current public would respond to that scale of bloodletting.  Compare this to “Black Hawk Down” which has the best take on modern American warfare.  Have we gotten softer?

                Sticking with the hockey analogy, the problem is not with the game, it’s with the intermissions.  The expository scenes are boring and infuriating.  The movie would have more accurately been titled “The Life and Death of Stonewall Jackson”.  He totally dominates the movie.  Stephen Lang is excellent as Jackson and gets his personality right.  (The rest of the cast is average in their performances, although the facial hair is superior to the original movie.)  Jackson is a fascinating figure and the movie accurately portrays his eccentricities and beliefs.  He was indeed very pious.  The movie makes this painfully clear.  The problem is not in his portrayal.  The problem is that the movie is centered around him.  He is the living representation of the “Lost Cause” and the states’ rights argument for preserving slavery.  His relationship with his slave Lewis is apparently accurate, but that does not make it acceptable for a modern movie.  It was not even acceptable in “Birth of a Nation” in 1915.  That “classic” shares a similar vibe with “Gods and Generals”.  Both are loathsome to African-Americans.  Both are pro-Southern.

                It is natural to compare “Gods and Generals” to “Gettysburg”.  It does not come off well in comparison.  The acting is inferior.  Much of it is wooden.  The score is worse.  Randy Edelman had only small involvement this time.  The combat is good, but does not rise to the level of the fight for Little Round Top and Pickett’s Charge.  The dialogue is still mainly actors spouting memoir quotes. This makes for accuracy, but with a heavy dose of pretentiousness. Much of the dialogue is speeches and some of those speeches are sermons.  (I use the word “sermons” because the movie is very religious.)   And the words that originated with the screenwriter (like Jackson’s discussions with Lewis) are cringe-worthy.  As are the fictional characters like Martha and the little girl Jackson befriends.

                I usually don’t let personal feelings creep into my reviews.  Obviously, all reviews are opinions, but I try to focus on how well the movie tells its story.  This is one of the few movies that I have a visceral reaction to due to the vibe of the movie.  I mentioned that I rooted for Lee’s army in my reading on the Civil War.  However, I never bought into the “lost cause” legend.  It would have been a disaster for the South if it had won the war.  To release a movie in 2003 that makes the case for states’ rights and slavery is untenable.  For that reason, I cannot recommend it.  If you can overlook its flaws, the movie is admirably accurate as a history lesson.  Just don’t invite your African-American friends over to watch it.


Friday, June 16, 2017

Picture, Quote, Movie #17

"Well, the tank's broke, and they're trying to fix it..."

WHAT MOVIE?  It was released in 1943, two months after the surrender of Italy. It is dedicated to the IV Armored Division which was training in the Borego Desert of California where the movie was filmed. The Army provided equipment for the production including the M3 Lee tank. Most of the Germans are played by American tankers. The movie is based on an incident in the Soviet photoplay “The Thirteen”. It earned three Oscar nominations – Sound, Cinematography, and Supporting Actor (J. Carrol Naish).

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

NOW SHOWING: Megan Leavey (2017)

“Megan Leavey” is this summer’s feel-good war dog movie.  In a summer full of super heroes, we have here a real hero.  And heroine.  The movie is “’based on a true story” about a Marine Corporal and her Military Police K9 dog.  It was directed by Gabrilla Cowperthwaite.  It took four screenwriters to finish the script which is never a good sign.  However, that is not likely to discourage the viewing public.

The movie opens in New York state in 2001.  Megan Leavey (Kate Mara) is living a dead-end life after the death of her best friend.  Her family life is a mess and then one day she gets a wild hair and joins the Marines.  It’s off to Parris Island for a short training montage.  A graduation celebratory pee in the bushes gets the PFC put on a **** detail which is literal because she has to clean out the kennels of the K9 unit.  There she meets a dog named Rex who is not looking to make any friends.  As in most cinematic romances, you just know these two will get together.  Thankfully the movie eschews the lover’s triangle.  Before you know it, the duo is off to Iraq.  After a couple of routine missions to establish the resumé of a military working dog, Meagan and Rex reach their epiphany by way of an IED.  Is this the end of a great friendship?

I wanted to like “Megan Leavey”.  I love war movies and I love dogs, so it seemed like a natural fit for me.  And I am not saying I disliked it.  It is a nice little movie and deserves to do well at the box office.  My problem is that it has an unsatisfactory feel to it.  The word that comes to mind is “shallow”.  Although it clocks in at almost two hours, parts of it seem cursory.  Even the montages are truncated.  Megan develops a reputation as a problem with no evidence presented.  Megan bonds with Rex with little difficulty.  Training is barely touched on.  The divorced parents pop up to assure us that Megan is better off risking her life in Iraq than being around them.  In Iraq, we get only brief tastes of the hazardous duties of Megan and Rex.  The movie has some giant time jumps that give the false impression that war for a bomb-sniffing dog team is long stretches between cinematic-worthy suspense.  To tell you the truth, the movie does not make a strong case for Megan and/or Rex being a hero.   The movie throws in a romantic interest for Megan which is perfunctory.  I could best describe the movie as the Cliff’s Notes version of the story.

I’m not trying to be the grinch who stole your feel-good movie of the summer.  The movie is nicely made with decent acting.  Obviously,  Kate Mara is solid and the unidentified dog actor is fine.  Does it make sense to say they lacked chemistry?  Rex usually appears less than thrilled to see her.  Probably that soldier thing where they don’t want to get too invested in a friendship.  The cast is fine, but wastes three as the father, mother, and stepfather (Bradley Whitford, Edie Falco, and Will Patton).  More time with the dog and less with the glum-inflictors would have been a good decision.  The dialogue does not stand out and there are no memorable lines.  However, the movie is not schmaltzy and does not jerk tears.  It certainly had the potential to require tissues if it had carried the “true story” to its completion (see below).   While I am not a big fan of tearjerkers, this movie would have been better if it stuck to the true story better.  Or fleshed out what it decided to cover.

Take a break from the usual bombastic summer fare and you’ll leave the theater feeling good.  Just don’t expect an Academy Award nominations.  And don’t go home and shame your dog.  


HISTORICAL ACCURACY: Megan Leavey did not escape a dead-end life by joining the Marines.  She was not depressed over the loss of her best friend.  In fact, she was in college when she was inspired by 9/11 to serve her country.  She was not punished by being sent to the K9 unit.  She volunteered for the Military Police and was assigned Rex.  He was not a problem dog.  He had already been to Iraq with his original handler.  Sgt. Mike Dowling took Rex to Iraq in the first deployment of military dogs since the Vietnam War.  He later wrote a well-received book entitled Sergeant Rex:  The Unbreakable Bond Between a Marine and his Military Working Dog.  The book chronicles their adventures In Iraq and covers how Dowding helped Rex overcome his fear of explosions and gunfire.  (Although Dowling has publicly expressed his support for the movie, I have to wonder about his feelings about being written out of it.)   I am unclear how Leavey became the dog’s handler, but she must have taken over in Iraq.  They did not meet when Leavey was training to be a dog handler.  The two spent two tours together.  First in Fallujah in 2005 and the second in Ramadi in 2006.  The IED incident occurred during the second tour.  The movie accurate depicts it.  Leavey and Rex both took about a year to recover.  Leavey decided not to reenlist and wanted to adopt Rex at this point, but the Marines logically turned her down because Rex had recovered to the point where he could resume his duties.  The adoption was not foiled by a bitchy veterinarian as shown in the movie.  Several years passed (much longer than the movie implies) and Rex developed a facial palsy that ended his working career.  It was at this point that Leavey reinitiated her adoption attempts.  She did contact Sen. Schumer from New York, although not personally as shown in the movie.  The Senator did facilitate the reunion.  Leavey and Rex made the national news and were honored at Yankee Stadium.  Unfortunately, they had only a few months together before Rex passed away in 2012.  Now you can break out those hankies.

I think most would agree that the movie would have been better if it had adhered to the real story.  Remove the lame plotting about Leavey escaping her crappy family and substitute her having to take over a dog that was already bonded to a male handler.  I think that cinematic dynamic would have worked better.  And add more from the one hundred plus missions the trio did in Iraq.  Close with the big finish of Rex dying.  Not a dry eye in the house.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

#16 - Picture, Quote, Movie

"Vodka is a luxury we have. Caviar is a luxury we have. Time is not."

What movie?  It was released in 1964 at the height of the Cold War. The director was the esteemed Stanley Kubrick using a screenplay adapting the thriller Red Alert . The movie was originally meant to be serious, but Kubrick transformed it into a black comedy. The U.S. Air Force did not cooperate with the production because of the screenplay.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

CRACKER? Master and Commander (2003)

                Someone finally had the nerve to try to bring Patrick O’Brian to the screen.  For you non-literary types, O’Brian was an acclaimed writer of nautical fiction.  He wrote a series of novels set in the Napoleonic Wars.  The main characters were a British captain named Jack Aubrey and a ship’s doctor/espionage agent named Stephen Maturin.  They are best friends although of very different personalities.  In the novels, their relationship takes precedence over traditional plotting.  O’Brian had a way with words that resulted in a legion of fans.  I am not among them.  This is surprising because I am a big fan of Napoleonic naval warfare fiction.  I love the Horatio Hornblower series, for instance.  I have never been able to get into O’Brian, although I have read the first book.  I guess I just prefer traditional plotting.  And more ship-to-ship combat.  Peter Weir (“Gallipoli”) took on the task of adapting O’Brian.  He wisely decided to start in the middle of the series with book 10 – “The Far Side of the World”.  He also wisely decided to stick to a traditional narrative structure. 

                The effort that went into the film is truly incredible.  Weir was able to convince the studios to invest $150 million in a movie that had a sketchy market.  In the cinematic world of “Fast and Furious”, who wanted to see a movie about fighting frigates?  Thankfully, enough to make a profit, but not enough to warrant a sequel.  Much of the cost went into Weir’s obsession with making the movie as perfect a depiction of Napoleonic naval warfare as possible.  Weir bought a replica ship called the “Rose” for $1.5 million and then had extensive changes made to it to portray the HMS Surprise.  It was used for the sailing scenes.  A full scale model on a gimbal in a giant water tank (the same one used for “Titanic”) was also used in the filming.  27 miles of rope were on the model.  The costume department made 1,900 pairs of shoes, over 2,000 costumes, and around 2,000 hats.  The prop department was fixated with getting even the tiniest details accurate, including items that would not even make it onto film.  The efforts paid off as the movie was rewarded with ten Academy Award nominations including Best Picture and Best Director.  It won for Best Cinematography and Best Sound Editing.

                “April, 1805, Napoleon is master of Europe and only the British fleet stands before him – oceans are now battlefields.”  The HMS Surprise is cruising off the coast of Brazil.  It is a 28-gun frigate commanded by Capt. Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe).  His crew of 197 call him “Lucky Jack” because he has always brought them success.  His mission is to intercept a French privateer named the Acheron which has been raiding British commerce.  The French frigate is American-made and has 44 guns.  In naval combat, it was all about the number of guns and America made some very stout warships.  For this reason, the Surprise is the underdog.  It doesn’t help that in their first encounter the Acheron surprises its hunter and kicks its butt.  This battle takes place within the first ten minutes of the movie.  So much for developing the Aubrey/Maturin relationship.  Weir will let us figure it out as we go along.  One thing we learn early about Aubrey is he is not the type to give up after an ass-whipping.  Instead of returning to port for repairs, they will continue pursuit and repair themselves along the way.  As far as Maturin (Paul Bettany), we learn that he is a way better doctor than you would expect on a warship. (In other words, he is not a drunken hack.)  He is also a man of the Enlightenment and not enamored with the ways of the Royal Navy.  This is the key difference between him and his warrior best friend.  The only thing they really have in common is love of music.  Aubrey plays the violin and Maturin plays the cello.

                The movie is not just a buddy film.  It also has a touch of the chase film in it.  You know the chase is going to end in a show-stopping duel, but to get to that scene we get some entertaining subplots.  The Surprise survives a horrific storm, although not every character survives.  Midshipman Hollum (Lee Ingleby) gets a reputation as a Jonah (the naval equivalent of a jinx) and this has to be resolved to continue the voyage.  Maturin has to operate on himself after an accident on board.  The operation takes place on the Galapagos Islands!  Join the Royal Navy (or get impressed into it) and see the world.  And kill people.  That last is a reference to the climactic battle which is well worth the wait.

                The attention to detail in “Master and Commander” is astounding.  This is one movie that I have to single out the suits for allowing Weir to make the movie his way.  I would guess the movie could have been made for $50 million less and still have been good.  And much of this effort was to impress the rather small community of Napoleonic naval warfare nuts.  It is a shame that the average viewer did not have a clue what went into making the film.  Unless you did research, you would not have known that the movie used a replica, a full-scale model in a tank, and a smaller model.  We just assume CGI these days.  I defy you to tell which is which in the movie.  The sets are authentic to the time period.  The verisimilitude is noteworthy.  This is especially true for below decks.  (With one caveat, the ceilings were a lofty five feet, which was higher than on an actual frigate.)

                The cast bought into Weir’s vision.  They went through a two-week boot camp that included gun training, swordsmanship, and practice in working the ship.  That included going up the rigging.  The speaking roles were given to mostly British stage actors that Americans would not recognize, but they are uniformly excellent.  (Weir’s decision to confine the movie to the ship resulted in no speaking roles for women.  This is the rare nautical film with no romance.) The script gives fair treatment to the tars as well as the officers.  Several characters get to shine, including two of the young midshipmen.  Special mention must be made of the extras.  The casting director combed the world for faces that would reflect the cosmopolitan nature of a British crew.  They knew their roles as crewmen of a frigate and they knew their actions on the peripheries of scenes would enhance instead of detract from the authenticity of the movie.  With this said, clearly the movie depends on the performances of the two leads. 

                Crowe was the perfect choice for Aubrey.  He has the commanding presence of a captain.  Aubrey is one of the great characters of literature and Crowe is up to it.  (By the way, he does not look like the literary Lucky Jack.) I learned new respect for Crowe when I discovered he learned how to play the violin for his role.  He has the physicality for the action scenes.  Bettany is a match.  Maturin is the more intriguing character as he is unique on board the ship.  The man of science amongst the military men.  The scenes in the officer’s mess are great for the banter of seamen, but also because Maturin squirms and sometimes makes cynical remarks about the military ethos.  A subplot involves Aubrey and Maturin’s disagreement about the dictatorial nature of a captain’s power.  The movie does take the time to provoke some thinking.  As in the tradition of cinematic captains, is Aubrey too reckless?  Bettany shines and gets some show-stopping scenes like when he traverses one of the Galapagos Island searching for specimens.  (The movie was the first non-documentary to be allowed to film there.)  He takes acting honors with his self-surgery for a bullet wound.  (A scene that appears in the novel “HMS Surprise”.) 

                “Master and Commander” closes with one of the great combat scenes in war movie history.  It is almost seven minutes of total mayhem.  The exchange of cannonballs is followed by a boarding that results in a melee.  The choreography must have taken weeks.  It’s all very believable and graphic.  This is followed by a twisty ending that left fans expecting a sequel which has sadly not materialized.

                Will “Master and Commander” crack my 100 Best War Movies list?  After reading this review, what do you think?  It is certainly the best movie for teaching details about Napoleonic naval warfare.  See below.


Napoleonic Warfare Details from “Master and Commander”

1.       Cannons on Royal Navy ships had nicknames like “Jumping Billy” and “Sudden Death”
2.       They used a lead weight to measure fathoms and a rope with knots to measure the ship’s speed.
3.       “Beat to quarters” meant prepare for combat.
4.       Young boys called “powder monkeys” had the job of bringing powder bags to the cannons during battle.
5.       Before a battle, the captain’s valuables would be put In boats towed behind the ship.
6.       The “weather gauge” was important.  It meant your ship was upwind of its opponent.
7.       Corpses were stitched up in their hammocks for burial at sea.  The last stitch was put through the nose to be sure they were dead.
8.       Plates for food were square (as in “square meals”).
9.       Men kept their possessions in sea chests.
10.    Sailors saluted by touching their knuckles to their forehead.
11.    Sailors were given a ration of “grog” which was a mixture of rum and water.
12.    Some of the sailors were “impressed” which means they were forcibly enrolled into the service or tricked into it.
13.    “Boarding pikes” were used by boarding parties.
14.    Capt. Aubrey inspires his crew by saying “For England, for home, and for the prize”.  “The prize” is a reference to capturing an enemy ship which when returned to England would result in the crew sharing in “prize money”.
15.    Boarding parties used grenades. 
16.    One of the boarders carries a Nock gun which is a multi-barreled flintlock smoothbore with one hell of a kick.
17.    A surrendering captain would offer his sword.
18.    A “prize crew” consisting of one of the officers and a few of the men would sail the captured ship back to a friendly port.

19.    Sailors could be badly wounded or even killed by splinters created by cannon balls hitting the wooden ships.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

#15 - Picture, Quote, Movie

QUOTE:  "Very pretty.....but can they fight?"

WHAT MOVIE?  It is a political thriller released in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis which is appropriate because it taps into the Red Scare hysteria of that time. It is based on a novel by Richard Condon and is faithful to the book. It was directed by John Frankenheimer and showcases his style of unusual camera angles and symbolism (notice all the images of Lincoln). The movie was supposedly taken out of circulation because of its proximity to the Kennedy assassination. There is also the possibility that Oswald saw the film and was inspired by it.

Monday, May 29, 2017

NOW STREAMING: War Machine (2017)

                I started this blog because the availability of Netflix allowed me to see virtually any war movie I might want to review.   Although I love reviewing movies in theaters, they don’t get released very often.  Most of my reviews are of older war movies.  “War Machine” marks a new development in war movie viewing and reviewing.  Netflix produced the movie and instead of releasing it to theaters, it opened it on its network.  This would have been inconceivable a few years ago.  And it did not start with the equivalent of a straight-to-DVD effort.  It spent $60 million on the movie and assembled a strong cast.  The film is based on the nonfiction book The Operators:  The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan by Michael Hastings.  Hastings describes his embedded experiences with Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

                The story takes place in Afghanistan in 2009.  Things are not going well.  The Taliban controls large parts of the country and the government is incompetent and corrupt.  The U.S. government is looking for ways to get out of the quagmire.  Into the swamp marches a new commander – Gen. Glenn McMahon (Brad Pitt).  And his entourage.  McMahon is a charismatic troubleshooter who is sure he can win the unwinnable war.  He has a counterinsurgency plan that will do that.  Unfortunately, his military strategy butts head with the civilian diplomats who are decidedly pessimistic about the situation.  It is the classic war movie theme of the general versus the bureaucrats.  When McMahon meets the Ambassador, he is told by the Foggy Bottom boys that he can play soldier all he wants, but he cannot ask for any more soldiers.  Go ahead and do a tour of the country and create an assessment, but leave numbers out of it.  McMahon meets with President Karzai (Ben Kingsley) who is a crafty buffoon who is not interested in accompanying McMahon on a tour of the country.  “I have already seen the country.”  McMahon’s plan has the goal of reducing civilian casualties since the war at this point is a “popularity contest” and the USA is losing.  You have to convince the Afghan people that we are there to help.  He has a five part counterinsurgency plan.  1.  install local governments  2.  protect the governments  3.  train the army  4.  stimulate the local economy  5.  build infrastructure.  Because this will take time and is boring, McMahon decides to show all the naysayers that the U.S. military can still kick-ass by targeting Taliban-dominated Helmand province.  He also decides that generals can still kick diplomat-ass by calling for a 40,000 troop surge.  His maladroit maneuverings to get more troops ends up getting him into hot water.  He and his entourage are very naïve in their dealings with the press, including our narrator Sean Cullen (Scott McNairy) of Rolling Stone magazine.  Hubris can be a bitch.

                I don’t read other critics’ reviews before doing mine, but I have seen headlines that indicate criticism for the “War Machine” not being satirical enough.  This is partly due to Netflix’s decision to market it as a satire.  However, research of the source material proves that the movie is closer to a docudrama with some humor in it.  I say this because it is a fairly straight-forward fictionalization of the actual story.  All the basic elements of the McChrystal firing are covered here.  And not in a satirical way.  The movie is not silly and over the top like you normally see in a satire like “Dr. Strangelove”.  If anything, it is sobering if you realize it is a true reflection of the situation in Afghanistan.  It recreates the bombshells of Hastings’ book.  I think most of the audience is probably not familiar with the story so the movie may come off as less comedic than they were expecting.  In fact, the movie should be seen as an entertaining history lesson that explains the mess that Afghanistan was (and still is).  It is more head-shaking than laugh out loud.

                The plot makes the dubious assumption that the viewers knows the gist of what was going on in Afghanistan in 2009.  If you don’t, the movie can seem to be missing some scenes to clarify the politics and the  military aspects.  It leans more to being a character study of McMahon and his posse.  Those viewing the movie as a satire will be surprised that Pitt’s McMahon is a spot-on portrayal of McChrystal.  The same can be said to a lesser degree about his entourage which Hastings described as “a hand-picked collection of killers, spies, geniuses, political operators, and outright maniacs."  (The poster does a better job than the marketing campaign in synopsizing the plot.)   After seeing the movie, you can’t help but feel that McChrystal was brought down less by his hubris than by his personnel choices.  And he definitely was naïve in his dealings with politicians and the press.

                Considering the reputation Netflix has earned from its original series, it is no surprise that “War Machine” is well made.  Director David Michod is up and coming, but he sticks to conventions here.  As I have said, he has not made a satire so much as a bemused look at McChrystal’s stint as the David Petraeus of Afghanistan.  He uses narration by Cullen to make sure the audience gets the dovish message.  Pitt is all in and plays McMahon a charismatic counterinsurgency technician.  He is not a caricature.  His uncomfortable scenes with his stereotypical forlorn spouse contrast with the bonhommerie of his interactions with his staff.  The supporting cast is fine.  Anthony Michael Hall plays his second in command Gen. Pulver (who you might be interested to know is loosely based on Michael Flynn).  Topher Grace is McMahon’s press secretary who thinks he is slick, but brings Cullen (Hastings) into the frat house with disastrous results.  Tilda Swinton has a cameo as a cynical German politician.  The movie is not heavy on the indictment of the military in Afghanistan, but it is clear that the gutless politicians are in the right. It goes out of its way to depict the grunts as confused and irritated by the Rules of Engagement.  McMahon wants to spank the enemy with "cautious restraint".  That would be satirically hilarious, if it were not true. Considering his abrupt termination, I guess we’ll never know if McMahon’s plan would have worked.  The movie makes it obvious that it would not have.

                Should you stream it?  Yes.  It is a good effort by Netflix and they need to be encouraged since they are in such financial difficulty.  We want to encourage them to make more Brad Pitt movies instead of Adam Sandler movies.  Just don’t expect a hilarious satire of the War in Afghanistan.  Unfortunately, the war is a satire in itself.  If you do want to watch a hilarious war satire, stream “In the Loop” on Netflix.  It deals with the British government colluding with the Bush 43 administration in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq.  It is less semi-documentary than “War Machine”, but probably not far off the mark.


HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  The movie is amazingly accurate, if you believe Hastings.  (If you don't want to read his book, read his Rolling Stone article "The Runaway General".)  The portrayal of McChrystal is true to his nature.  He did arise very early and run seven miles.  He ate one meal a day and slept only four hours.  He did see his wife only about one month per year.  He did insist on a small, spartan room.  He did have an eclectic entourage.  McChrystal made a name for himself in Iraq where he was in charge of the hunt for high-level targets and insurgents in general.  He was the logical choice to turn the situation in Afghanistan around.  His tenure got off to a rocky start almost immediately as his goal of winning the war conflicted with the Obama administration’s desire to wind things down.  He did go on an assessment tour that resulted in a 65 page report that insisted that victory through counterinsurgency was possible, but only with more troops.  He did develop a bad relationship with Ambassador Elkenberry and a good one with Karzai.  He felt Karzai could be worked with.  He first got into political hot water when the report was leaked and he gave the interview with “60 Minutes” where he mentioned not having much contact with Obama and the need for 40,000 more men.  Obama could have fired him at that point for backing him into a corner.  Earlier, Obama had summoned him to Air Force One and chewed him out for criticizing Vice President Biden’s opinion that scaling down in Afghanistan was the way to go.  Obama sent 30,000 more men but with the qualification that there would be a time limit of 18 months.  McChrystal was enraged about this shortsightedness. 

                The movie accurately reflects McChrystal’s strategy.  He made a sincere effort to win “hearts and minds” and reduce civilian casualties.  His tightening of the Rules of Engagement did result in resentment from the veterans in the country.  The movie does a good job with McMahon’s visit to a front-line unit and the dialogue reflecting the concerns of the troops.  This visit actually occurred.  The one combat scene serves as a summary of the flaws in McChrystal’s counterinsurgency policy.  It was impossible to avoid killing the innocent when they were mingled with the bad guys.  And winning the hearts and minds was exceedingly difficult when the villagers knew the Americans would leave and the Taliban return.  Paying cash per casualty did not assuage hatred.

                The downfall of McChrystal is only slightly exaggerated.  Allowing Hastings into the inner circle was so insane that even Hastings thought it was a mistake.  He did attend a drunken party at a Paris bar and was on the party bus.  He recorded the unfiltered locker room talk of McChrystal’s boys.  Disparaging comments about Biden, Holbrooke, Elkenberry, and other members of the administration were common.  Hasting’s wrote that “Team America” (as they called themselves in reference to the South Park creator’s movie) “likes to talk shit about many of Obama’s top people on the diplomatic side.”  McChrystal did not so much participate as sit back and smile.  When word of the explosive nature of Hasting’s article broke, McChrystal issued an apology and the civilian contractor (played by Topher Grace) who coordinated Hastings’ interviews resigned.  McChrystal was summoned back to Washington and resigned.   

Friday, May 26, 2017

#14 - Picture, Quote, Movie

"The horror. The horror."

What movie?  It was directed by Alfred Hitchcock and was only his second American production (after “Rebecca”) and was released in 1940. The film has an incredible 14 writers which can be explained by the desire to keep up with current events during the filming. It was a critical and box office success. It was nominated for 6 Academy Awards including Best Picture (ironically, it lost to “Rebecca”), but won none. The events and characters are fictitious, but obviously Hitchcock meant it as a commentary on the storm clouds rising in Europe. It was dedicated to “those forthright ones who early saw the clouds of war while many of us at home were seeing rainbows…”

Monday, May 22, 2017

DUELING MOVIES: Chicken Run (2000) vs. Valiant (2005)


                There have been two animated movies that were set in World War II.  And both featured birds.  “Chicken Run” premiered in 2000 and was produced by Aardman Animation in the United Kingdom.  It was directed by a co-founder (Peter Lord) and Nick Park of “Wallace and Gromit” fame.  This film is also stop motion animation.  The production included 80 animators who produced one minute of film per each week of work.  The film cost about $45 million and made $224 million.    “Valiant” was a product of Vanguard Animation which is not exactly at the top of the animation business.  It’s director Gary Chapman was debuting.  He used a small group of animators and the film took 106 weeks to finish.  It cost $35 million and made $61 million. 

                “Chicken Run” is an homage to WWII prison camp movies and has numerous references to some of the most famous ones.  In England, the Tweedy’s own a chicken farm that looks like a German stalag.  Chickens who don’t produce eggs are eliminated.  A hen named Ginger (Julia Sawalha) is constantly trying to escape and ending up in the "cooler".  The evil Mrs. Tweedy (Miranda Richardson) decides to convert the business to making chicken pot pies.  Ginger realizes the chickens must escape before the pie machine is operational.  Coincidentally, an American Rhode Island Red named Rocky (Mel Gibson) arrives yelling “freedom!”  Ginger figures their mass escape can succeed if Rocky can teach the hens how to fly.  Complications ensue.

                “Valiant” is set in England in 1944.  It is an homage to the Air Ministry Pigeon Service (called the Royal Homing Pigeon Service in the movie).  Valiant (Ewan Mc Gregor) is the typical cinematic runt who is gung-ho to serve his country.  The villain is a Darth Vaderish German falcon with an eye patch named Gen. Von Talon (Tim Curry).  His goal is to locate the pigeon base.  Valiant meets a slacker pigeon named Bugsy (Ricky Gervais) and they enlist with a heterogeneous group and undergo a training montage that is supervised by a stereotypically gruff sergeant.  Valiant meets a comely nurse named Victoria (Olivia Williams) so we can have some romance.  The intrepid pigeons are sent on a mission behind enemy lines to hook up with the French Resistance.  This leads to an action-packed encounter with Von Talon and his henchbirds.
                “Chicken Run” is an excellent movie.  It did amazing box office in spite of the fact that its target audience of kids would not have been familiar with "The Great Escape" or any of the other WWII prison camp movies.  For example, the hens are in a barracks prominently numbered 17.  It is a great example of how the best animated movies are appealing to both kids and their parents.  The ones that walk that line well are special and make huge amounts of money.  What’s rarer is an animated movie that appeals to adults who are war movie fans.  In particular, it is a must-see for any “Great Escape” fan.  The movie should have been called “The Great Eggscape”.  (See below for references to TGE found in “Chicken Run”.)   If you don’t get the references, just enjoy everything else about the production.  The animation is outstanding as you would expect from Nick Parks.  The attention to detail is obsessive.  The vocal work is top notch and that is in spite of (really due to) a mostly no-name cast.  The only stars are Gibson and Richardson.  Surprisingly, Gibson is fine.  There is suspense and a slam-bang escape using a flying machine that may have brilliantly hearkened to the Colditz Cock (a homemade glider constructed in an attic in the infamous Colditz prison camp in WWII).  The sight gags are sterling and the movie is legit funny for all age groups.  Most of the hilarity comes from two scrounging rats that remind of the Muppets geezers with their wisecracks.  Some of the dialogue is aimed at the eight year old plus forty set.  For example, the elderly RAF rooster Fowler (Benjamin Whitrow) says about Rocky:  “Pushy Americans, always showing up late for every war.  Overpaid, oversexed, and over here.” The music fits the mood perfectly.  It was not the highest grossing stop motion animated film up to that time by luck.

                This is not much of a contest.  “Valiant” is vastly inferior to “Chicken Run” in every way. The animation is below average.  The voice work is blah, even though it appears to have a stronger cast.  The only standout is John Cleese as a prisoner being tortured by Von Talon.  There is no suspense and no character dies (which is not unusual for a kids movie, but “Chicken Run” went there).  The movie simplistically aims at six year-olds and misses with most of the humor.  It is certainly less adult-oriented than “Chicken Run” with few references to WWII movies.  It is very predictable in an average kids’ movie sort of way.  It is also predictable that we get pigeon fart jokes.

                The only thing I can compliment “Valiant “ for is it attempts to recognize the achievements of the messenger pigeons of WWII.  My research found that the use of homing pigeons goes all the way back to Cyrus the Great.  Julius Caesar used them to send messages.  They did great service in the two world wars.  In fact, the main character was named after the last pigeon to bring a message from the besieged defenders of Fort Vaux in Verdun during WWI.  Many historically literate Americans are familiar with the bravery of “Cher Ami” delivering a message from the Lost Battalion.  Animals played such an important in WWII that the British instituted the Dickin Medal to honor animals for gallantry.  From 1943-1949 fifty-four animals earned the award, including thirty-two pigeons.  The first three were instrumental in the rescue of a downed air crew.  Here is the commendation for one of them (“White Vision”):  “Delivered a message that led to the rescue of a ditched air crew in Oct., 1943.  She flew 9 hours in bad visibility and heavy weather with strong headwinds.”  Keep in mind, before you sneer, that the pigeons were targets for ground fire as enemy soldiers knew they were carrying important communications.  They deserved this movie, especially since their only previous recognition in cinema was the damned traitorous bird who flew off towards German lines in “The Longest Day”.

                In conclusion, you can let your kids watch “Valiant” and use it as an electronic baby-sitter.  No harm will come to them.  However, if you show them “Chicken Run”, watch it with them.  Just be aware that they will probably wonder why you are laughing at jokes they don’t get. 

GRADES:  Chicken Run  =  A
                   Valiant  =  D

“Chicken Run” references to “The Great Escape”:
1.       The opening theme music.
2.       Ginger is put in the “cooler” and puts notches on the wall to mark the days and bounces a tennis ball off the wall.
3.       The chicken yard looks like the prison camp.
4.       The chickens dig a tunnel which uses trolleys.
5.       Some of the chickens sneak out of their barracks after dark to hold a meeting in one of the barracks.
6.       The rats stand in for Hendley the scrounger.
7.       Rocky is based on Hilts (Steve McQueen) – the cocky American flyboy amongst the Brits
8.       Ginger wants to get all of them out at the same time.
9.       A bunk collapses because of nails being removed.
10.    Rocky travels on a scooter and jumps a fence with it.

11.    Fowler smuggles nuts and bolts in his pants’ legs.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Picture, Quote, Movie #13

"One kill. Confirmed! It's a cruel world, Herr Hauptmann. You said so yourself." 

What movie?  Although the movie is usually said to be inspired by the comic strip character, in fact the idea came from a scene cut from The Archers’ previous film (“One of Our Aircraft is Missing”). A character says “You don’t know what it’s like to be old”. Film editor and future great director David Lean suggested a movie be constructed around that line.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

CRACKER? Hyena Road (2015)

                “Hyena Road” is a Canadian movie starring, written by, and directed by Paul Gross (“Passchendaele”).  It attempts to highlight Canada’s role in Afghanistan.  It was partly filmed in Jordan.  Gross added some footage he filmed in Afghanistan.  It is based on the fact that there is a road in Taliban territory called “Hyena Road”.  Some of the incidents in the movie are based on things that happened during the construction of the road.  The movie got a very limited release in America.  It is available on Netflix Instant.

                The action takes place in Kandahar Province.  A squad led by Warrant Officer Ryan Sanders (Rossif Sutherland) is surveilling the road.  Their sniper kills an IED planter.  On exfil, they trip an IED via a sniper round which causes the Taliban to come boiling out like ants.  The swarming is similar to in “Lone Survivor”.  They take refuge in a Pashtun village.  An elder offers them refuge in his home.  He convinces the Taliban to allow them to leave.  Fizzle.  It turns out the elder is the famous “Ghost” who had made a reputation for battling the Soviets.  When they get back to camp, the intelligence officer Capt. Mitchell (Gross) figures out who the elder is and wants to meet him.  He’s “like a Rommel or a Patton”, he says with a straight face.  Acting!   He would make a good ally.  Meanwhile a romantic arc begins with Sanders and his girlfriend Capt. Jennifer Bowman (Christine Horne).  Mitchell, Sanders, and Bowman go back to the village to find the Ghost, but end up on the run under fire.  Oh well, “you piss with the dick you got” proclaims Mitchell in a line I plan to add to my repertoire.  From here the movie gets complicated as the villain is introduced.  BDK is the local warlord who has a conflict with the Ghost.  Local politics, as Mitchell explains it.  BDK is a CIA asset so there's the rub.  Will the squad sit by and allow the asset to abuse the only good Afghani in the country?  Guess.

                 “Hyena Road” is an average war movie.  It is not bad entertainment for a movie you can watch instantly on Netflix.  I think I would have left a theater a little pissed however.  I am just imagining that since it made $1,430 in American theaters.  I sure as hell am glad I did not make a trip to Canada to see it.  The movie does have some built in good will from the involvement of Paul Gross of “Northern Exposure” fame.  It was obviously a personal project for him and he deserves credit for trying to honor Canadian soldiers.  In that respect it is similar to his effort in “Passchendaele”.  This movie is not as good as that one because its weaknesses are more pronounced. 

                Some of those weaknesses include the pulsating, pompous music.  This is matched by the ridiculously pompous narration which includes a fictional story about Alexander the Great sending some Afghan dirt to his mother.  The plot is full of clichés including the current favorite of Afghan war movies -  the dilemma of choosing sides in the internecine warfare.  Also thrown in is the classic romance with the modern twist of the lovers being comrades in arms.  In this case, the relationship between Sanders and Bowman appears to exist mainly to facilitate tear-jerking.  The plot is strangely disjointed, but it does grab the low hanging fruit of Afghanistan was, is, and always will be fracked up.  Some parts of the narrative make little sense.  For instance, where did the large number of Taliban come from in the final scene?  To his credit, Gross did not make a propaganda piece justifying Canadian involvement.  However, it does appear that the Canadian military cooperated with the production.   At the least, Gross was allowed to film Canadian soldiers in action in Afghanistan.  The movie uses appropriate weaponry.

                The acting is not distracting.  Gross dominates, as is his prerogative.  He puts some effort into depicting soldier behavior.  There is a lot of soldier jargon.  The dialogue is not noteworthy, in a good way.  As I said, the movie is average in most ways.  Unfortunately, that includes the combat. The movie may be Canadian, but the action is American.  The cuts are quick and there is some POV.  Some of the violence is graphic.  There are some decent action scenes including two ambushes with the second one including some Canadian casualties.  The action balances fairly well with the Mitchell / Ghost / BDK dynamic.  The Ghost character is interesting.  The movie gives us a sympathetic Muslim to match the stereotypical jihadist.

                “Hyena Road” is a decent time waster.  It helps if you are a Paul Gross fan.  This might be the rare war movie that females might tolerate.   As far as it cracking my 100 Best War Movies list, maybe if I was limiting the list to Canadian movies.

GRADE  =  C  

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Picture, Quote, Movie #12

Holy dog shit, Texas! Only steers and queers come from Texas, private Cowboy! And you don't much look like a steer to me so that kinda narrows it down!  

What movie?  Two movies about Rommel have the same word in the title and the same actor playing Rommel. This is the one that came second and the portrayal of Rommel is less flattering due to backlash from the first.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

CRACKER? Special Forces (2011)

       “Special Forces” is a French war film.   The French title is “Forces Speciales”.  It was directed by Stephen Rybojad.  He went on location in France, Djibouti, and Tajikistan.  It was made for $10 million, but made about one- tenth of that.  I guess the world was not ready for a French foray into the American dominated subgenre of mindless special forces action.

                The movie opens with a special forces raid in Kosovo that results in the capture of a war criminal.  It’s the usual quick cutty cinematography that the subgenre is noted for.  The mission goes off without a hitch so the unit can save ammunition for later in the movie and to prove that sometimes these missions are actually accomplished without a hitch.  Once is quite enough for a movie like this.
                Meanwhile in Kabul, it’s time to get the nonglitch mission set up.  Elsa (Diane Kruger) is an intrepid and fearless female reporter (I realize the descriptors are unnecessary).  She is taken hostage because she wrote an article about a woman.  The Taliban don’t like that sort of thing.  The villain is a Bin Laden type named Zaief.  He beheads a colleague of Elisa’s and tortures her.  The French government want her rescued tout suite because that’s what a cinematic American administration would do.

                The mission involves paradropping six commandoes into the hostage area.  They rescue Elsa, but would you believe complications arise?  Suddenly, but not surprisingly, the team is now in a “who will survive?” scenario.  The movie has also become a chase film.  Since their radio has taken a hit, as they are wont to do, the boring helicopter egress must give way to the cinematically entertaining hike over the Khyber Pass.  It may be entertaining for us, but it’s bound to be force reducing for them.  Except for the white lady.  The Imperial Storm Trooper-like accuracy of the Taliban can’t last forever.  The Taliban is very reluctant to give up his prize female journalist.  He does not mind losing warriors like Geronimo didn’t mind in Westerns.  Since the French soldiers don’t have to reload, they are able to dispatch the Indians in satisfactory numbers.  That pesky quantity over quality dynamic comes into play, however.  This takes place over a ten-day period!  There is a lot of walking in this movie. It might have taken less time, but the French command was apparently not looking for them.  Come on French, losing does not mean just giving up on your people.  But then again, it is de riguer in action movies to not have a back-up plan.

                “Special Forces” is basically an excuse to kill a lot of terrorists.  If movies were reality, we would certainly have gotten payback for 9/11 many times over.  But there is reality and there is cinema.  This movie is very unrealistic.  At least the movie does not claim to be a true story.  I know special forces are good at their job, but in the movies they seldom miss and their opponents seldom hit.  Until the dam breaks.
                As entertainment, the movie is average for its ilk.  The acting is good from a fine cast.  There is little in the way of character development and the villain is hiss-inducing.  I did not really care about any of the French soldiers, other than wondering who was next.   And wondering when all this tedious walking will end.  The bouts of action are competent, for a French film.  Sorry, I couldn’t avoid that.  Let me be more positive.  Welcome to the subgenre, French.  You now have your own “Tears of the Sun”.

GRADE  =  C-