Saturday, September 16, 2017

CRACKER? Alexander (2004)

       “Alexander” was Oliver Stone’s (“Platoon”) endeavor to bring an epic biography of Alexander the Great  to the big screen.  You have to admire his commitment to the project.  It could be argued that there was no great demand for this biopic.  The box office receipts tended to confirm that.  The movie cost a whopping $155 milllion and although it eventually covered them, it was not a box office success.  Stone was man enough to admit that the finished product was flawed, so he made three more finished products.  First, there was the “Director’s Cut” which amazingly was shorter than the original.  Say what?!   The second was called “Alexander Revisited:  The Final Unrated Cut”.  The third is the one I am reviewing here.  It is entitled “The Ultimate Cut”.  It clocked in at 3:26 as opposed to the original’s 2:55.  I assume that for the twentieth anniversary he will issue the “Absolutely Ultimate Final I’m Not Kidding This Is Really the Last Cut Cut”. 

                The movie opens with a quote from Virgil:  “Fortune favors the bold”.  If you had to choose a quote to exemplify Alexander (Colin Farrell), that is an appropriate one.  Stone chooses to flashback from Alexander’s death (a common biopic opening) so we immediately know that this is going to be a tame Stone movie.  Not the gonzo movie maker that he sometimes is.  He also uses the narration technique with Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins) reminiscing from post-Alexander Alexandria.  This is an immediate clue that the movie will not be anti-Alexander.  Ptolemy was a friend of Alexander and owed him a lot.  The flashing goes back to Alexander’s childhood.  Stone establishes the dysfunctionality of Alexander’s family by portraying Philip (Val Kilmer) and Olympias (Angelina Jolie) as two wolverines in a burlap sack.  Oh, and the young Alex is in the sack, too.  Could this have affected his personality?  Stone thinks so.

                Stone hops through key moments in Alexander’s life to get to the Battle of Gaugamela.  These include his tutoring by Aristotle, his acquisition of his horse Bucephalus, and his contretemps with his father at Philip’s wedding banquet.  From that falling out, the movie makes an eight-year leap to his last battle with the Persians.  Gaugamela is the movie’s big set piece and it is epic.  Alexander and his generals discuss the plan the night before.  There is a spirited debate on whether and when to attack.  Alexander talks to individual soldiers before the battle and then gives a Braveheartesque speech about free men versus slaves.  The battle itself is large scale with graphic violence.  The recreation is simplistic, but satisfactory unless you are obsessed with accuracy.  Stone uses an eagle eye’s view (literally) to show the battlefield.  However, for those unfamiliar with the battle, there is a lot of “the fog of war”. 

                From Gaugamela, we return to some anecdotal hopping to reach India and the last battle.  Some of the scenes are soap operaish as Alexander meets his wife Roxana (Rosario Dawson), but does not completely jilt his longtime BFF Hephaestion (Jared Leto).  The film definitely come down on the side of the historical debaters that argue that Alexander was bisexual.  Alexander and Roxana reenact what Philip and Olympia’s wedding night must have been like.  I guess you could make the case that the movie has three battle scenes.  Meanwhile, outside the bedrooms, Alexander has to deal with dissension amongst his men.  Alexander is going Persian on them and not everyone is obsessed with seeing what’s on the other side of the next hill.  For reasons that defy the otherwise linear nature of the narrative, Stone throws in a flash back to Philip’s death.

                Since it’s time for more fighting, the movie suddenly arrives at the Battle of Hydaspes in India.  There is not even enough time for the name of the battle or any other background, for that matter. The money shot comes with Alexander and Bucephalus facing off with a war pachyderm.  Stone uses a red tinge to the cinematography because a second battle needs to be different.  Hymnal music tells the uninformed that the conquering is over.  It’s full circle back to the death scene.

                “Alexander” deserves a better reputation. It did not become this generation’s “Spartacus”, but it is superior to that film is some ways.  No doubt it does not have the charisma of the earlier epic.  This may be due to the fact that Stone shows uncharacteristic restraint.  The only pizazz is in the red-tinged scene.  Stone also does not dig deep into the controversies of Alexander’s career and personality.  He is timid on the homosexuality angle, but he does take a firm position backing the bisexuality theory.  Stone clearly means for the movie to present the positive Alexander.  The movie spends little time on the ruthless Alexander.  This is not “Patton” where audience members left the theater arguing over whether the director was pro or con toward his subject.  Stone made a decision to come down on the side of most historians.

                The movie is epic in its casting.  For the most part the actors do a fine job.  Jolie is stunt casting, but she probably is the closest to an Olympia as Hollywood has.  She does not get to do much.  She reminded me of Marlon Brando in the first “Superman”.  By the way, she is about the same age as Colin Farrell.  Val Kilmer chews scenery as Philip, but you get what you pay for.  He gained 50 pounds for the role so kudos for that.  Farrell gets the personality right, if not the accent.  The character development is commendable and considering the size of the cast an effort was made to develop Alexander’s officers. 

                The movie is a blend of action, exposition, and battles.  The battles are well done.  The combat is of the new variety.  Frenetic mixed with slo-mo.  The CGI is seamless and the elephants are remarkable.  Stone also took advantage of many Moroccans to give the Persian army some size.  The battles are the highlights and the other scenes are a mixed bag.  Most attempt to reenact famous moments in Alexander’s life.  These are fun to watch if you are already familiar with the stories.  The dialogue does not stand out, but the movie excels in the discussions between Alexander and his generals. 

                The movie comes off as “Alexander’s Greatest Hits” as it hits almost all the stories a teacher would tell to make a unit on Alexander interesting.  And the truth is that, unlike Hannibal for instance, we have a trove of memorable anecdotes about Alexander.  It’s cool seeing them acted out.  Just covering those high spots took over three hours of screen time.  To truly do Alexander’s life justice and not just cover the hits, the movie would have to be mini-series size.  As it is, Stone has had to compress time and combine events.  Some events and characters are out of place in time.  None of this is historical deal breaking.  The movie is actually above average in accuracy for a biopic.  Better than its closest equivalent “Spartacus”.  The reason “Spartacus” is the superior film is partly due to the fact that because we know so little about Spartacus, Dalton Trumbo could construct a thoroughly entertaining epic.  Plus he had a cast that makes “Alexander” blush.

                Alexander is the most famous figure in Ancient History, so he certainly deserves a movie.  In fact, two.  Considering that the Richard Burton 1956 movie did not do him justice, Stone was justified in revisiting him.  Although his film is not perfect, it is as good as we could expect in our modern cinema that is averse to historical epics.  Now let’s move on to “Hannibal” please!

GRADE  =  B-

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  “Alexander” was based on historian Robin Lane Fox’s biography.  His Alexander the Great is considered one of the best. Lane acted as an uncredited advisor on the film and was paid by being allowed to participate in the Companion cavalry charge in the Battle of Gaugamela dressed as a Macedonian officer. Having read extensively on Alexander (I role play him in my Western Civilization course), I feel I can weigh in on the accuracy of the movie.  I have decided to take the major scenes and briefly critique them.

1.       Olympias was a maenad which means she was a member of the female cult of Dionysus.  The cult was associated with snakes so it is appropriate to have her with one. 
2.       Although the relationship of Philip and Olympias was dysfunctional, it is a stretch to have Philip trying to rape and strangle her.
3.       The line “It was said later that Alexander was never defeated, except by Hephaestion’s thighs” is attributed to Diogenes, but it may have been “fake news” from back then.  There is no proof that Alexander and Hephaestion were lovers.  I (and most historians) personally think they were, so the movie is not out on a limb with this depiction of their relationship.
4.       The movie has Aristotle discouraging the conquest of Persia which is the opposite of the truth.  Alexander’s tutor, in fact, had a grudge against Persia for the sacking of Athens and passed this on to his student.
5.       The acquisition of Bucephalus conforms to most versions of the story.
6.       The Battle of Gaugamela is a blending of Issus and Gaugamela (with a bit of Granicus thrown in).  The numbers are acceptable.  The debate between Alexander and his generals is realistic.  The battle was a complex one that is adequately reenacted.  Some historians propose the mouse trap tactic for dealing with the scythed chariots, but I am of the opinion that the phalanx opened lanes for the chariots to go through and did not try to block their path.  The incident where Cleitus severed the arm of an enemy that was about to kill Alexander actually happened in the Battle of Granicus.  Alexander did not get off his horse and did not hurl a spear at Darius III.  The chariot escape was from Issus.  Alexander did get a request for support from Parmenion.  Alexander was not wounded in this battle.
7.       Darius daughter did mistake Hephaestion for Alexander.
8.       Roxana did do a sexy dance that caught Alexander’s attention.  Most likely he married her out of lust rather than any political, cultural, or heir reason.  Their relationship is not well chronicled so the movie is able to be imaginative.  It seems likely that she was jealous of Hephaestion and that Alexander quickly lost interest in her.
9.       The Page Plot is blended with the supposed plot by Philotas.  Philotas was executed for not revealing a plot and his father Parmenion was murdered to avoid his attempting revenge.  Alexander’s resident historian Callisthenes was executed for encouraging the page plot.
10.    It is conjecture as to whether Alexander and Bagoas were intimate.  It is reasonable for the movie to imply it.
11.    The murder of Cleitus comes too late as he was killed before the army reached India.  The circumstances and cause is accurate by most accounts.
12.    Philip’s death is accurate.
13.    The withdrawal from India combines two incidents.  Both occurred after the Battle of Hydaspes, not before.  Alexander actually backed down when his men mutinied and grudgingly returned home.  Weirdly, the movie shows the monsoon, but does not link it to the lowering of morale that contributed to the mutiny.  The execution of the mutineers was a separate incident.
14.    The Battle of Hypaspes (hey movie, that was the name) is poorly handled.  It was not in a forest but along a river on a plain.  The enemy was led by King Porus and did use war elephants, but Alexander’s infantry was never in trouble.  In fact, the cavalry was troubled by the elephants so Alexander would not have ridden to the rescue.  It is debatable if Bucephalus was still alive at this battle.  Most likely he was, but too old for Alexander to have ridden him in combat.  He certainly was not wounded in the battle and neither was Alexander and certainly not by Porus.  That was a low moment in the movie.  Then the movie doubles down by implying that the reason for the return home was due to Alexander’s injury. 
15.    The crossing of the Gedrosian Desert is screwed up.  It was not the quickest way home.  Alexander choose this extremely difficult route to punish his men for their mutiny.
16.    Hephaestion did die of a fever, but Alexander did not blame Roxana. 
17.    Alexander’s death is accurate.  His last words are usually recorded as “to the strongest”.


Monday, September 11, 2017

CRACKER? The Hunt for Red October (1990)

                “The Hunt for Red October” was based on Tom Clancy’s debut novel about a rogue Soviet sub captain who attempts to defect to the West.  The book was a bestseller and Hollywood was interested.  The U.S. Navy was interested in cooperating due to the desire to have a boost to submarine recruitment similar to the effect “Top Gun” had on naval aviation.  The Navy vetted the script and was pleased.  It allowed inspection of the non-classified sections of American subs so the production could create realistic interior sets on soundstages on gimbals for pitch and roll.  For the first time, the USN allowed the filming of a sub in dock. For exterior shots, the production built a 500-foot mock-up that could submerge and surface.  The movie was directed by John McTiernan who was famous for action films like “Die Hard”.  This was his only war movie.  “The Hunt for Red October” was a big hit.
                The movie is set in the Cold War before the collapse of the Soviet Union.  The movie opens with a title card informing the audience that there was an incident in 1984 where a Soviet sub sank in the Atlantic due to a radiation problem.  Very suspicious, right?  “But according to repeated statements by both Soviet and American government nothing of what you are about to see actually happened.”  Wink, wink.  Now that the seed is planted, we learn that there is a Soviet Typhoon class ballistic missile submarine captain who wants to defect to the West and bring his boat with him.  The rest of the officers are on board and if they aren’t, Capt. Ramius (Sean Connery) will take care of them Ninja style.  A CIA analyst named Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin) has discovered that the Red October has a revolutionary propulsion system called a “caterpillar drive” that makes the boat very difficult to be picked up by passive sonar (which is basically the ability of another sub to hear the sub when they are both under water).  Coincidentally, the USS Dallas (an attack submarine) is on duty monitoring Soviet subs in the Atlantic.  It’s ace sonar operator Jones (Courtney Vance) picks up the Soviet boat and then loses it when the caterpillar drive is initiated.  Ryan connects the dots and convinces the CIA that the reason why the Soviet navy has sallied in large numbers is to track down the Red October before it can defect.  We need to make contact with Ramius and facilitate his gifting this amazing technology.  Since its your crazy theory, you can do the contacting, Mr. CIA analyst.  Meanwhile the entire Soviet navy is determined to sink its ship.  In particular, one of Ramius’ proteges is chasing him in an attack sub called the V.K. Konovalov.  It’s like “Fast and Furious” underwater.  The movie would have been better titled “The Chase of Red October” as the boat is actually easy to find.
                “The Hunt for Red October” is an entertaining rendering of a popular novel.  It has been a long time since I read the book, but as good as it was, the movie is better.  The plot makes clearer the motivation of Ramius.  The book emphasized the death of Ramius’ wife due to a corrupt system.  Sean Connery insisted in clearer motivation so John Milius was brought in to write dialogue where Ramius speaks about having an impact on the Cold War.  He is a “good Russian”.  Connery also insisted that the movie make it clear that the incident is occurring before the Gorbachev era.  Once the motivation and goal is firmed up, the movie is very manipulative to get to the desired conclusion.  Not that that is particularly unusual for a Hollywood action movie.  You decide on the outcome and then arrange the dots to get there in as exciting a manner as possible.  And plausibility be damned.  I already mentioned “Fast and Furious” as a good example. 
                The connecting of the dots is competently done by an outstanding cast.  Alec Baldwin was the original Jack Ryan and he does a good job in portraying him as a reluctant hero.  An egg-head who was also a Marine so it is fairly believable that he can go from policy wonk to action hero. Scott Glenn is well-cast as the captain of the USS Dallas.  The Navy may have been hoping for a “Top Gun” type recruiting result, but the sailors are not mavericks.  Glenn went on board the USS Houston and was allowed to parrot orders to get a feel for the captaincy of a sub.  Mancuso is not a Captain Queeg.  In fact, he even listens to a CIA analyst at the risk of his boat and its crew.  This is the modern Navy, young men.  But the key recruiting bait is Sonar Operator Jones. Hey potential African-American submariners, you can now be a Sonar Operator instead of a cook in today’s silent service.  (And in just a few years with “Crimson Tide”, you could actually become an executive officer.)  Not only can you be a sonar expert, but you can go aboard a Soviet sub with a select group even though the enemy sub already has a sonar operator.  (But they did not have a black guy.)  Sean Connery is solid especially after he no longer has to fake a Russian accent.  He is so good you forget he plays a traitor and murderer.
                The movie is refreshingly free of submarine movie clichés.  It does have the claustrophobic setting.  The sets are authentic looking.  The Navy cooperated with the mise-en-scene for the Dallas and set designers winged it with the Red October by putting in lots of dials, buttons, and assorted gizmos.  The underwater shots are excellent, but clearly CGI.  This is an improvement over models, however.  The special effects are good and unfortunately encourage some silly pot developments, as I will point out below.  The sound effects are outstanding as evidenced by the film’s lone Academy Award for Sound Editing.  Speaking of sound, the soundtrack is one of the best for a war movie. 
                So, it’s a good movie then?  Yes, but it is a bad war movie.  Plot devices that have the average viewers on the edge of their seats, have hard-core war movie lovers pulling their hair.  There is much that is ridiculous in this movie.  Let me name a few things that I found laughable.  Ryan is an unheralded CIA analyst and yet he convinces the head of the CIA and a submarine captain to take action on his theories even though he presents no convincing evidence.  Although Ramius is meant to be a positive character, he is certifiably insane if you look at some of the things he does.  He sends a letter to the head of the Soviet Navy telling of his intentions, which makes his goal infinitely more difficult.  This was a plot requirement, obviously.  By the way, he made this decision without consulting his fellow mutineers.  He traverses an underwater twisting cavern at a recklessly high speed.  The movie is also chock full of implausibilities - all of which propel the narrative.  It is an incredibly small ocean as three submarines keep running into each other.     Well, not literally running into each other, but coming within a whisker of each other.  They are so close that torpedoes don’t have time to arm themselves!  The final showdown between the Red October and the Konovalov strains credulity for anyone familiar with how subs actually fight.  This is intercut with an equally ridiculous showdown between Ryan and a patriotic Soviet (and that’s exactly what he is!).  There’s more, but I won’t bore you with the details.  You may now yell “it’s just a movie, for Christ’s sake!”   It is just a movie, but this blog reviews war movies.  It is definitely a war movie so it should be held to a higher standard than “Die Hard”.  And the technical adviser should also be held to a higher standard.
                Will it crack my 100 Best War Movies?  No.  In fact, although there is a fairly large submarine subgenre, few are well done.  “Das Boot” stands out because its competitors are weak.  It is hard to make a realistic submarine movie, although the dynamics are rife for drama.  Those dynamics tend to be cliched.  One thing about “Hunt” is it avoids the tropes of the subgenre, but it substitutes the tropes of the action genre.  Enjoy.


HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  If you believed that based on a true story bull shit that opens the film, you probably have not made it this far.  If you are still reading, sleep well knowing that the world did not come close to ending in 1984 due to a rogue Soviet sub.  Surprisingly, there was a seed of truth to Clancy’s novel.  He was inspired by an article about the attempted defection of a Soviet anti-sub frigate named the Storozhevoy (Sentry).  The political officer named Sablin planned the defection on his own.  He was upset with the corruption of the Brezhnev government and wanted to start a revolution.  His plan was to sail to Leningrad, take over a radio station, and broadcast a call to arms.  And I thought Ramius was insane!  He tried to convince the rest of the officers to join after he locked up the captain.  Only half the officers were convinced and the rest were locked up.  One of the supposed conspirators escaped to sound the alarm, so the ship was forced to flee the harbor ahead of schedule.  Sablin, who was persuasive for a delusional individual, got the crew to support the mutiny.  Many of them were conscripts.  They lost their enthusiasm when the Soviet air force found the ship and dropped bombs on it.  One hit the stern.  At this point, some of the crew set the captive officers free and they freed the captain.  The captain confronted Sablin and wounded him with a gunshot.  And that was that.  Sablin was executed, naturally.  However, the other mutineers were not.  All the officers were demoted or dishonorably discharged.  Most of the crew was sent home after taking an oath of secrecy.  The Soviet government did not want the public to get any ideas about rebellion or any Western authors any ideas for a book.  Or become the buffoons of a US Navy recruiting film.

Friday, September 8, 2017


"Bob, I got a bad feeling on this one, all right? I mean I got a bad feeling! I don't think I'm gonna make it outta here!"

WHAT MOVIE?   It is an autobiopic released in 1955. It is based on the book by the same name. The star plays himself. It was his 16th movie. He had come to Hollywood after WWII on the urging of his friend James Cagney. This movie was his biggest hit in a career dominated by B westerns. He was reluctant to play himself because it smacked of self-promotion. He wanted Tony Curtis for the role. Studio execs and friends convinced him to take the part. They were right.

     The movie was a critical and box office success. In fact, it was Universal’s biggest hit until “Jaws”. It was not a hit with the star, however. He felt that even though he had acted as technical adviser and tried to get things right, the studio sanitized the blood and gore of combat. He also felt the movie muted the unpleasantness of war and the negative emotions it brings out. He noted that the climate conditions that he actually fought in (mud, rain, snow) were usually depicted as nice, sunny weather.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

FORGOTTEN GEM? Mosquito Squadron (1969)

                One of the most memorable movies of my childhood was “633 Squadron”.  It was right up there with “Von Ryan's Express”.  One thing I have learned through doing this blog is that sometimes childhood memories are best left untampered with.  Reviewing childhood favorites as an adult can be a disillusioning experience.  Since a recent rewatching of “633 Squadron” revealed that I was sadly wrong about the quality of that movie, I was expecting the worst in rewatching its lower budget kin “Mosquito Squadron”.   This nonsequel came out five years later and tried to tap into the misplaced fondness for the original.  It even used footage from that movie.  And shrewdly borrowed the word “squadron”.  That was good marketing.  The movie was directed by Boris Sagal who is not a particularly renowned director, but he did have an interesting death.  He was filming the miniseries“World War III” when he got off a helicopter and turned the wrong way.  His encounter with the tail rotor did not end well.

                The movie opens with the launching of a V-1 and its hitting a building in London.  This is actually footage from “Operation Crossbow”.  We get a stirring theme courtesy of Frank Cordell (a Mosquito veteran).  A flight of Mosquitos is sent to bomb the launch site.  German fighters shoot down Squadron Leader “Scotty” Scott.  He is almost surely killed.  What a shame for his best friend Quint Munroe (David McCallum).  Now he will have to comfort Scotty’s wife Beth (Suzanne Neve).  Since war movies insist on love triangles, one must wonder if Scotty is really dead.  Munroe makes a recon mission on a chateau.  His plane gets hit and a fire starts.  Lucky for him the fire stays the same size the whole time.  That’s extremely fortuitous for a man flying a wooden warplane.  The recon photos reveal a tunnel on the chateau grounds that is being used to develop secret weapons so a mission is planned to bomb it using the same type of bouncing bombs used in “The Dambusters”.  The plan is complicated by intelligence that reveals that the chateau is being used as a prison camp and one of the prisoners is Scotty.  It’s a miracle!  The mission can’t be scrubbed because it is crucial to winning the war, naturally.  Someone has the bright cinematic idea of coordinating a prison break with the bombing raid.  As long as they are going to be dropping bombs, why not have some of them breech the chateau walls to help the prisoners escape?  And since we all love a good fire-fight, how about if the French Resistance attacks to facilitate the breakout?  All this carrying on should resolve that pesky love triangle.

                It turns out you cannot replicate the awesomeness of “633 Squadron” (except in scoring).  And since “633 Squadron” is not actually awesome, that will give you an idea how bad “Mosquito Squadron” is.  The best word to describe it is “cheesy”.  The special effects are low rent.  The explosions are big and gassy.  The planes are small and modelly.  Say what you want about CGI, it’s still better than models on wires.  Did you know that when you drop a bomb from a moving plane, it does not go straight to the ground?  Neither did the special effects people.  In this movie, the bombers release right above the target and still hit it.  Another cheesy element is the sappy romance replete with sappy music.  The love triangle is classic cliché, but the movie does throw in a little twist by having Scotty develop amnesia so he does not remember who he is and that he is married to Beth.  While that is original, it is also plot-advancingly ridiculous.  The cherry on top is Scotty resolving this dilemma with a duel with a tank.  For a movie that eschews even British humor, this scene does provide a good guffaw.  You can elicit more chuckles if you drink while watching the film, which I highly recommend.  This will help with the wooden acting and the cringe-inducing romance.  Not to mention the ludicrous plot which unbelievably was based on a equally ludicrous historical operation called “Jericho”.  I’m not sure that a documentary on Operation Jericho would not end up just as unbelievable.  But at least the documentary would not have a love triangle involving an amnesiacal fiery plane crash survivor.

                This review has attempted to save you baby boomer, war movie lovers from revisiting a fondly remembered curio that will just leave you depressed and questioning your childhood memories.  You’re welcome.

GRADE  =  D-

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  Operation Jericho is worthy of its own movie – made by Quinten Tarantino.  The British conceived a raid on a German prison camp at Amiens in France.  The goal was to set free French Resistance members and political prisoners.  But instead of dropping spoons for them to dig tunnels, someone with a very high opinion on the efficacy of air bombing thought of the idea of using bombs to breach the walls around the facility and open the walls of the building housing the prisoners.  Also, the guards’ mess hall was to be bombed.  The mission had to be moved up when intelligence revealed that a large number of prisoners were to be executed on Feb. 19, 1944.  A squadron of Mosquitoes undertook the mission on Feb. 18.  The bombs did the trick and 258 of the 717 inmates were able to escape.  102 were killed and the leader of the flight was shot down and killed.  Unfortunately, two-thirds of the escapees were recaptured.  The operation is shrouded in controversy and mystery.  Noone has claimed credit for ordering it.