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-

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Picture, Quote, Movie #11

"I don't have to tell you the story. You already know it. Only two kinds of people are gonna stay on this beach: those that are already dead and those that are going to die. Now get off your butts. You guys are the fighting 29th". 

What movie is this?  It has taken 59 years to update this movie.  And if he were alive today, John Mills would have starred in both.