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.


GRADE  =  D


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.  

GRADE  =  C

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.

GRADE  =  A

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.