Saturday, March 17, 2018


1.  What movie is the picture from?

2.  What movie is this quote from?
  "I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve."

3.  What movie is this?
The star did not want to act in the movie (he felt he was too old for the part), but the studio refused to finance it without the superstar appearing.  He also directed the movie.  It was a critical and box office success.  It won the Best Picture Oscar and Gibson was awarded Best Director.  It captured a total of five Oscars.  The movie was filmed in Scotland, although most of the extras for the battle scenes were from the Irish territorial army.  The screenplay was written by Randall Wallace who also did the “We Were Soldiers” script.  He based the story on a medieval poem by Blind Henry.  

Monday, March 12, 2018

CRACKER? Alone in Berlin (2016)

         “Alone in Berlin” is a movie about resistance to the Nazis.  It was directed by Vincent Perez.  The movie is based on the novel Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada.  Fallada was inspired by the story of Otto and Elise Hampel which he learned of through their Gestapo file.  The book was published posthumously in 1947.  It has been made into a West German movie in 1962, an East German miniseries in 1970, a movie in 1975, and a Czech miniseries in 2004.

                Otto (Brendan Gleeson) and Anna Quangel (Emma Thompson) are a working class couple living in Berlin.  Their lives change when they receive word of their son’s death fighting in France.  Otto takes it stoically and resumes his factory work seemingly unaffected by the death.  However, he decides to channel his anguish into an act of civil disobedience against the Nazis, who he blames for his son’s death.  He starts writing post cards with messages denouncing the war effort.  His first says “Hitler murdered my son.  He will murder your’s, too.”  He leaves the post cards around town for strangers to pick up.  Anna joins in and their moribund marriage is rekindled.  A police detective named Escherich (Daniel Bruhl) takes on the case which he calls “Operation Hobgoblin”.  He is a professional who appreciates the challenge, but soon he comes under pressure from the Gestapo to catch the traitors.
                “Alone in Berlin” is based on a story that needed to be told.  We have so many Holocaust movies, but so few movies covering the brave Germans who resisted against the Nazi regime.  The Quangels exemplify the resisters.  Their story is well told here and is not as enhanced as you often see with most resistance films.  Although this is commendable, the movie ends up being a bit slight and predictable.  It follows the usual template for this type of cat and mouse plot.  Unfortunately, there is a lack of suspense as the mouse has no truly close calls.  It is not a movie that will have you on the edge of your seat. 

                The characters are stereotypical.  Otto is the stoical average Joe who fights the system.  Anna is his partner in a dull marriage, who insists on sharing his derring-do.  A shared cause restores their love for each other.  The leads are what separates the movie from a made for TV movie.  Gleeson and Thompson are perfect as the pair, but their unemotional characters leave little opportunity for emoting.  Gleeson, in particular, never seems to change emotions.  This may be appropriate for a factory worker, but it reduces the suspense of the movie.  The movie comes off as stolid as he is. It does not jerk tears as it clearly could have. Escherich is the most fascinating character as he goes from pride in his profession to disillusionment with law enforcement in the Third Reich.   He is not the villain, the movie adds a loathsome SS officer for us to hiss at.  The movie also feels it is necessary to throw in a Holocaust subplot involving an elderly Jewish neighbor of the Quangels.  It seems the screenwriter felt it was not enough that some Germans risked their lives against the Nazis because they launched a war that killed thousands of young German men.  However, the subplot is entertaining and the movie would have been too short without it.  Then again, the movie could have been longer if it had covered the home front.  We really get no impression of how the war is affecting other German common people. We also are unaware of the effects of the post cards until the end.

                “Alone in Berlin” is worth the watch and informative.  It is historically accurate, in general.  The liberties that are taken with the original Gestapo file are acceptable to flesh out the story and bring it to the screen. 

GRADE  =  B-

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:   Otto Hampel was a factory worker.  His wife Elise was a domestic servant who was a member of the National Socialist Women’s League.  It was her brother who was killed in the war and motivated them to leave the post cards.  The movie made a good decision to change the dead relative to their son.  This allowed for the marital dynamic which is surely not accurate.  There were over 200 post cards from September, 1940 to the autumn of 1942.  The statements on each card covered ideas like don’t donate money to the Nazi regime, refuse military service, avoid cooperation with the government, and overthrow Hitler.  The Jewish subplot is probably fictional, but certainly could have happened.  In reality, the Hampels were caught when they were turned in by a neighbor.  The movie version is more entertaining.  They were found guilty of treason and beheaded.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

CRACKER? 13 Assassins (2010)

                The Japanese created their own unique war movie subgenre when they invented the samurai film.  Although many of these movies have been made, most Westerners are only familiar with one -  “Seven Samurai”.  For many war movie fans, it may be the only subtitled movie they have seen.  Before I got serious about reviewing war movies, it was the only foreign war movie I had seen.  It took me a while to see a better samurai film, but now I have seen “13 Assassins”.  This 2010 release attempts to bring the samurai film into the 21st Century.  In fact, it is a remake of an Old School 1963 movie.  It was directed by Takashi Mike.  He is known for graphic violence.  You can see it on Netflix streaming.

                The movie is set in feudal Japan in 1844.  This was the Edo Period and toward the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate.  The shogun’s younger brother is a sadistic psychopath who could hasten the end of the shogunate.  The movie opens with a sepukku by a noble to protest mistreatment by the supervillain Matsudaira Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki).  A flashback depicts the mistreatment as the rape of his daughter-in-law and murder of his son by Naritsugu.  Sir Doi, the shogun’s adviser, visits an old samurai acquaintance named Shimada Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho).  Shimada is in retirement, but dreams of a samurai-worthy death.  Doi has a proposal that will allow him to go out in glory.  But Shimada is no ronin, he has a conscience and decides to sign on to Doi’s scheme when Doi introduces him to a limbless and tongueless woman who would like to be avenged.  This scene will stick with you, as will the next one where Naritsugu kills a family.  Supervillain established.  Shimada gathers his dozen samurai that run the gamut of samurai stereotypes, except that this being the 21st Century, we get two that are explosives experts.  The thirteenth assassin is a hunter they rescue in the woods who comes along as their guide.  He’s also along to provide comic relief.  The plan is to ambush Naritsugu and his private army at a village that they will fortify and boobytrap.  We are headed for “who will survive?” territory.

                This one takes the samurai template and updates it.  Although it is not a remake of “Seven Samurai”, it does have similar characters.  There is the leading duo of veterans, the nutcase (Kiga is the equivalent of Mishune’s Kikuchiyo), the master swordsman, the youngster, etc.  More is better, so we get almost twice as many samurai.  That way we can have more deaths and a longer fight scene.  Unfortunately, more means less character development.  Some of the thirteen are indistinct.  The big improvement is the villain.  Naritsugu is so hate-worthy that any other ending would have led to riots in the theater.  Inagaki’s portrayal is in the slime-ball hall of fame.  The rest of the cast is up to the action.  The acting is first-rate even though it doesn’t need to be.  Acting can’t overshadow the incredible kick-ass melee that takes up the last quarter of the movie.  Everything, including the kitchen sink, shows up in that scene. Check out the burning cows! You’ll be sated by the end of the flick.  Surprisingly, the action is gory, but not too graphic.  Mike must have listened to his critics.

                “13 Assassins” updates the “Seven Samurai” plot as well.  The thirteen are not defending the village, they are using it for a higher purpose.  The purpose is to keep a madman off the throne.  At one point, in the middle of the melee, Naritsugu remarks that he wants to bring back warfare like this.  Set in feudal Japan, the film is interested in commenting on the blind loyalty to one’s lord that the period was noted for.  One of the most intriguing characters is Naritsugu’s top retainer Hanbei.  Hanbei knows his master is evil, but he insists on remaining loyal.  He also is an old rival of Shimada, so you can see where this is heading, climax-wise.

                “13 Assassins” is an amazing movie.  If you loved “Seven Samurai”, you’ll love this movie.  In fact, it will sound like blasphemy, but it is superior to that earlier classic. (Heck, I think “The Magnificent Seven” is better – how’s that for heresy?)  I don’t fawn over the classics, although I love the Kurosawa epic.  It is possible for modern movies to top Old School movies.  It’s safe to say, it is more in tune to modern audiences than the earlier film is.


Friday, February 23, 2018


5.  Barefoot Gen  (1983)  -  I had put off watching this movie because of the subject matter – Hiroshima.  It is the tale of a Japanese family who were tragically impacted by the explosion.  It is a roller coaster ride that has gut punches and tender moments.  Gen is a great character.  The animation is grand.  It is not a kids’ movie, but it is a must-see to understand what happened to the people of Hiroshima.

4.  Their Finest  (2016)  -  This movie is a real treat.  It is a romantic comedy set in wartime Britain.  A young woman gets a job writing female dialogue for propaganda films.  She gets involved in making a film about rescuing soldiers from Dunkirk.  It’s a behind the scenes look at low budget movie making with indelible characters.  The main character is a feminist before her time.  This is definitely a date movie, but don’t hold that against it.

3.  Lincoln  (2012)    While more of a biopic than a warpic, Lincoln is grand entertainment.  The acting is fantastic.  Daniel Day-Lewis got well-deserved accolades, but the rest of the cast is amazing.  The movie covers an overlooked event in American History – the passage of the 13th Amendment.  The political wheeling and dealing is fascinating and we get a look at backstairs at the White House.  This movie is superior to the fine “Darkest Hour”.

2.  13 Assassins  (2010)  -  This is a modern samurai film.  It updates the “Seven Samurai” template.  At the risk of being branded a heretic, it is a better film.  The thirteen mercenaries are hired to assassinate a loathsome warlord.  They set up an ambush in a village that results in a very long kick-ass melee.  The movie delves deep into Japan’s feudal heritage.
1.  Duck, You Sucker! (1971)  -  In 1968, Sergio Leone made “Once Upon a Time in the West” and in 1984, he made “Once Upon a Time in America”.  Both movies are very well known.  But most people do not know that they are part of a trilogy.  In 1971, Leone directed the second in the trilogy – “Duck, You Sucker!”.  For some reason, the film is largely forgotten in the Leone canon.  It is not even available through Netflix.  Leone was inspired to do a film deromanticizing revolutions after riots broke out in Paris.  He decided to set the movie in the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s.  He leads off the movie with a quote from Mao Zedong.  “The revolution is not a social dinner, a literary event, a drawing or an embroidery; it cannot be done with… elegance and courtesy.  The revolution is an act of violence.”  And who knew cinematic violence better than Leone?  Surprisingly, Leone did not want to direct the film which he had co-written.  However, both Rod Steiger and James Coburn insisted.  Leone envisioned the movie as a spiritual successor to “Once Upon a Time in the West” and wanted Eli Wallach to reprise his Tuco character as Juan.  When Wallach was unavailable because of a prior commitment, Leone begged him to back out on it, which he did.  Unfortunately, the studio demanded Steiger because he owed them a film.  Wallach sued.  Things were tense on the set as Steiger played Juan as a more serious character than Leone wanted.  Steiger won and both agreed after the filming that the collaboration had been successful.  Coburn got the role of Sean after Jason Robards (for whom the role was written) was nixed by the studio as not being a big enough name.  Clint Eastwood turned down the role because he was done with spaghetti westerns.
                The movie is set in 1913 Mexico.  Juan Miranda (Steiger) is the head of a gang of peasant thieves that consisted mainly of his family.  Although there is a revolution going on and it is something of a class struggle, Juan is no revolutionary.  He is only interested in the class struggle with respect to the fact that the rich have the money and he wants it.  The opening scene has him robbing an extended stage coach transporting a group of the bourgeoisie.  They consider peasants like Juan to be brutes and animals, but they soon learn that Juan is no typical peasant.  Soon after, in one of the grandest entrances in cinematic history, Juan encounters an ex-Irish rebel named Sean (Coburn).  Sean is an explosives expert.  Juan envisions a partnership that will allow him to rob a bank.  Sean has more revolutionary ideas in mind.  Can an Irish revolutionary be friends with a Mexican bandit?  Could an American mercenary become friends with a Mexican bandit?  (“The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” reference)  The answer to both questions would be “yes” – in a movie.  Juan and Sean go through a lot together, once they establish that they need each other and they are an even match in shenanigans.  In the process, Juan learns that there are certain things worth fighting a revolution for and Sean learns that even a good revolution has a dark side.  A lot of people will have to die and a lot of things get blown up before each man reaches his epiphany.

                It had been a long time since I saw “Duck, You Sucker!” in a movie theater.  It did not enter my radar screen until recently when it noticed it on some lists of war movies.  I had fond memories of it since I am also a big fan of Westerns, but did not think of it as a war movie.  For purposes of this review, we’ll consider it to be one since it is set in a revolution.  If it is a war movie, it is a very good one.  Well, if you are a guy, anyway.  It is a classic buddy film.  It has no romance.  There are no significant female characters.  This is definitely not a date movie.  But as a guy movie.  Wow.

                “Duck, You Sucker!” is an underrated movie.  Leone wanted to make an epic and he succeeded.  The backdrop of the Revolution allows for some huge set pieces like Sean and Juan’s defense of a bridge with explosives and machine guns.  One of the villains is a fascist archetype driving a tank.  Hardly subtle on the part of the Italian dictator, but effective.  The movie concludes with a grand assault on a troop train.  It reminds of the scene from “Lawrence of Arabia”, but in the Leone style of violence.  The movie is quite violent and the bloodshed is graphic, especially for the early 70s.  And, of course, there are the explosions.  It was brilliant to have a main character as a Fenian bomb maker.  I counted twenty explosions in the movie.  This is another reason why it is hard to understand why the movie did not find an audience in America.  I blame this mainly on poor marketing.  Leave it to Leone to use explosions for some of the humor in the movie.  And the movie has humor throughout.  Mainly through the Juan character.  In this way, it is similar to “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”.

                The movie is not just mindless violence.  Leone develops his themes adeptly.  His main theme is that revolutions corrupt everything they touch.   When Juan becomes a “grand hero of the revolution”, Sean is cynically proud, but the supposedly ignorant peasant sets him straight by ranting about how the people who read the books get the people who carry the books to fight to change things and nothing changes, but the poor are dead.  “And what happens afterwards is that same fucking thing starts all over again!”  He causes Sean to throw away the copy of Bakunin’s The Patriotism that he has been reading.  Hence, the second theme – each man changes the other.  Sean learns to care about humanity again and Juan learns to support a greater cause.

                Guiseppe Ruzzolini does a great job with the cinematography.  Conforming to the epic nature of the film, he blends long takes, close-ups, slo-mo, and other tricks of the trade.  This is matched by the peerless work of long-time Leone composer Ennio Morricone.  He uses motifs for Juan, Sean, and even the bank.  The score is famous and may be the best in any Leone movie.  With all that said, the movie is most memorable for the acting of Steiger and Coburn.  They are perfect.  The chemistry is outstanding.  Steiger does a great Wallach imitation, but he surely does not come off as the second-best choice.  Juan is such a rich character.

                “Duck, You Sucker!” is a great guy movie.  It has everything – action, adventure, comedy, male bonding, explosions.  It is a must-see for all Baby Boomer men.


Saturday, February 17, 2018


                I reviewed over 80 movies in 2017 and naturally at this stage most of them were not good.  Basically, I have seen a vast majority of the good war movies, which leaves a lot of the bottom dwellers to be endured.  It’s amazing that after seven years, there are still so many war movies I want to see.  Fortunately, some on my “to be watched” are supposed to be good.  Here are the worst war movies I reviewed this past year:

5.  Ironclad:  Battle for the Blood  (2014)  -  This is the sequel to the guilty pleasure “Ironclad” which had James Purlfoy.  This movie does not.  Is that a clue as to whether it would be worse than the original?  If you like frenetic blood splattering, you might enjoy it. In one of the fights, a guy kills another with a severed arm! For the rest of us non-psychopaths, it is terrible and headache-inducing.  

4.  Beyond Valkyrie  -  You know what they say about sequels.  It’s especially true when the sequel has one percent of the budget of the original.  Needless to say the plot is ridiculous and the acting is atrocious.  It’s a Tom Sizemore movie, ‘nuff said.  There is a copious expenditure of ammo if you like that sort of thing.  Not enough to drown out the dialogue, however.

3.  Dad’s Army  (2016)  -  I am not British, so I am not required to love “Dad’s Army”.  The movie was based on the much beloved series.  I think even fans of the series had to admit the movie was a bomb.  The acting is terrible and the production is shoddy.  The movie plot is silly, but not silly funny like you would expect from the British.  I am a big fan of British comedy, but this movie did not make me laugh even once.  But then again, I watched the supposed best episode of the series and did not find it special.  I’ll stick with “Allo! Allo!”

2.  USS Indianapolis:  Men of Courage  -  Another Sizemore movie.  And it stars Nick Cage.  If that is not enough to a bad vibe, then enjoy this movie.  Even the sharks are bad actors.  Robert Shaw’s character in “Jaws” would have been more traumatized by being in this movie than actually being on the Indianapolis. Prepare to laugh guiltily.

1.  “The Red and the White” is a joint Russian-Hungarian project to commemorate the Russian Revolution.  Director Miklos Jansco decided to jump two years to the Russian Civil War and not make a celebratory film. The fact that he survived that decision tells you that the Soviet government was not as evil as thought.  The resulting film met critical acclaim in the West, but its negative portrayal of its topic did not sit well in the Soviet Union.  It was reedited to make it more heroic for Soviet audiences.  I must have seen the original version.

                The movie is set in 1919 on one of the twenty-one fronts of the Russian Civil War.  A unit of Hungarian volunteers are fighting on the side of the Bolsheviks (the Reds) versus the anti-communist Whites.  It opens with a slo-mo cavalry charge at the camera.  The cavalry are chasing two foot soldiers and catch and kill one.  In an ominous development from the perspective of this viewer, they don’t bother to get the other guy even though they can clearly see him.  This will not be the last head-scratching moment.  Here are some others.  The cavalry strip some prisoners and tell them to run home.  The White leader chooses three and shoots them in the back.  Then the remainder are chased and lined up and shot.   Next, some nurses are taken into the woods and suddenly they have dress gowns on and there is a military band.  They are forced to dance with each other and… then they are told to go.  I assume there is some symbolism here.  A prisoner is forced to sing and then told to jump in a river and is speared.  Lots of aimless walking.  Some stuff happens at a hospital.  Finally, the big battle scene.  The Hungarians charges a larger unit, then runs back, then makes a suicide attack.  Well, it was either them or me because at this point if the movie had not ended I might have slashed my wrists.

                “The Red and the White” is an “emperor’s new clothes” movie.  In other words, it’s a movie that critics insist is a masterpiece and if you don’t get that than you are a moron.  Well, I may be a moron, but I have seen enough good war movies to know a piece of shit when I see one.  It is not a single piece, but a steaming pile.  And I don’t say this because I was hoping for a heroic take on the Bolsheviks.  I think Jansco was trying to depict the insanity of war.  Or rather, that must have been his excuse when he faced all the WTF looks from the opening night audience.  Why did I shoot some of the deaths of main characters from a far distance?  Because war is confusing!  Why did the nurses dance in the woods?  If you have to ask, you don’t deserve to know!  Was the movie meant to be a comedy?  I don’t know, what do you think?  Seriously, do you have any idea what I was trying to do?  Help me understand my own movie, please.

                The movie does have some strengths.  The cinematography is showy, really artsy-fartsy.  Jansco loves long shots.  And he films from an airplane!  Awards please.  Another strength is it is one of the funniest war films I have seen.  I actually laughed out loud at some parts.  Sorry, highbrows. I couldn’t help myself.  But most importantly, it lasts only 90 minutes.  Trust me, it seems like many more.

                If you want to learn more about the Russian Civil War, read a book.  Don’t watch this movie.  There are some good movies that can inform you that war is fucked up.  Try “The Burmese Harp”, which came out the same year.  Hell, if you want to watch a entertainingly confusing war film from that year, try “Beach Red”.   At least you can decipher what Cornel Wilde was trying to do.

GRADE  =  F-

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

CRACKER? Their Finest (2016)

                “Their Finest” is a romantic comedy set in Great Britain during the Blitz.  It was directed by Lone Scherfig and is based on Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans.  It is a movie about the making of a movie.  The movie is about Dunkirk.  It gives an inside view of the making of a propaganda film by the British Ministry of Information.

                Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) gets a job writing scripts for short informational films, at substantially less pay than the men.  She will handle “slob” which refers to women’s dialogue.  She is sent to research a story about two women who went to Dunkirk in their boat to participate in the evacuation.  It sounds like a great morale-boosting film, but it turns out the story is too good to be true.  Catrin lies about the veracity of the tale because she does not want to get fired.  Her writing partners Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) and Raymond Parfitt (Paul Ritter) decide to “enhance” the story and the trio convinces their superiors they can make the movie as a “based on a true story”.  Complications arise as Catrin’s unemployed husband gets a job and insists she quit hers.  She refuses and this opens up the opportunity for the requisite romance with the chauvinistic Buckley.  Production begins on the movie which the Ministry hopes will sway American audiences into supporting Britain.  For this reason they will need an American character.  They insert a flyboy played by real American RAF ace Carl Lundbeck (Jake Lacy).  Lundbeck turns out to be a terrible actor which provides some of the comedy.  Meanwhile there is tension on the set because the main star is a pompous has-been named Hilliard (Bill Nighy).  He does not care that there is a war going on and will provide the redemption arc. 

                “Their Finest” is a nice little movie.  It is rare to find a modern romantic comedy set in WWII.  I’m not including unintended comedies like “Shining Through”.   Since it is modern, it has a feminist theme to it that is a bit anachronistic.  However, the Catrin character is based on Diana Morgan.  Morgan was a screenwriter and playwright in London in the 1940s.  She went mostly uncredited in the films she helped write, but was recognized for “Went the Day Well?” (1942).   Even though its modern, it does not break any new ground in the romantic comedy tropes.  The Catrin and Buckley characters are destined to get together, but not until there is a bump in the road.  The characters are all clichés, but hey, it’s a rom-com so what do you expect?  The cool aspect to the plot is the movie-making subplot.  It’s played for laughs, but it is not far from the actual making of a low budget propaganda piece.  The actors have fun playing actors and Nighy is great.  The whole cast is fine. They are helped by good dialogue, plus its fun watching the crafting of dialogue by Catrin.  Buckley describes movies as “real life with the boring bits cut out”.

                “Their Finest” is a good choice if you want a light-weight movie that blends comedy and romance with great period touches.  A male war movie fan can watch it with his significant other and get brownie points.         You can pretend it’s a chore, but you’ll probably enjoy it, too.

GRADE  =  B+

Sunday, February 11, 2018

GUILTY PLEASURE? Ironclad (2011)

                “Ironclad” is a medieval action/adventure film set in England in the 13th Century.  It was directed by Jonathan English and shot in Wales.  It cost only $25 million.  Some of the cost went to a replica of Rochester Castle.

       A narrator tells us that in 1215, after a three year civil war, King John was forced by the barons to sign the Magna Carta.  John is described as being famous for losing wars, levying punitive taxes, and sleeping with the wives of barons.  The Knights Templar were important in the defeat of John.  “What is not remembered is what John did next.”  Intriguing because most histories of the Magna Carta end with the supposed fait accompli.  And England lived happily ever after.  It turns out, not so much so.

                King John (Paul Giamatti) has hired mercenary Danes to get revenge against the rebel barons.  One of them is the Baron Darnay.  When John and his force attack the Darnay Castle.  Three Knights Templar valiantly defend the castle in a graphic and frenetic melee.  It turns out that Knights Templar are real badasses.  One of them, James Marshall (James Purefoy) escapes and Archbishop Langton (Charles Dance) convinces him to join the Baron D’Aubigny (Brian Cox) to help stop John.  The plan is to halt his majesty at Rochester Castle.  They assemble the usual motley crew:  D’Aubigny’s gung-ho squire, an archer, a sell sword who does not like Marshall, a brute, and a slob.  Rochester’s Baron Cornhill (Derek Jacobi) is not too thrilled, but he knows there is no movie without the siege.  Plus, he knows that he is no match for James Purefoy when it comes to his wife Isabel (Kate Mara).  He has good reason to be concerned.  Queue the Danes arriving from the mist.  After D’Aubigny taunts John by telling him that he is “no more a king than the boil on my ass”, it’s game on.  The Danes have trebuchets, but decide to escalade instead.  Some manage to get in so we can have gratuitous violence.  The wounds are extremely graphic.  One guy kills another with a severed arm.  I don’t mean that the loser has a severed arm, I mean the victor uses a severed arm to bash him to death.  It’s that kind of movie.  Before the siege is over, we get fire balls, siege towers, mining, and lot of dismemberments.  And John goes from most evil king to most evil human being because of this movie.

       “Ironclad” is a nice time-waster. Well, if you like seeing men killed by arms of other men.  It does fit the modern trend of extreme violence.  It also fits the recent trend of escalating the violence so it does not seem redundant.  That means if you find the first skirmish stomach-turning, don’t stick around for the big finish.  In this case the violence will give you a primer on siege warfare tactics and weapons in medieval times.  The castle is authentic and realistically grimy.  The same can not be said for the characters.  After a siege of several months, the beards have not grown and the shampoo is holding up real well.  The cast is a mix of the well-known and the little-known.  Purefoy is excellent, as usual.  Paul Giamatti chews the scenery gustily.  He put a lot of effort into his seven days of work.  The characters are typical stereotypes from any small unit, who will survive? movie.  No need for character development.  Dysfunction is set up, but not pursued.  The romance is very predictable.  As far as historical accuracy, it does bring to light an obscure incident in British History.  Just please read up on it after watching the movie.  It is not a documentary.  For instance, the ending is the opposite of the actual conclusion.  Oh well, entertainment is everything, right?


HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  The movie is based on a siege that occurred during the First Baron’s War.  This war was a result of King John reneging on the Magna Carta.  The barons, who had forced him to sign the Great Charter in 1215, encouraged Prince Louis of Francis (the heir apparent to Philip II) to invade England to support them.  Louis marched into London without a fight and then proceeded to lay siege to Dover.  The siege was unsuccessful and Louis fell back to London.  John seized the moment and marched on London.  Rochester Castle blocked his path.  The barons had sent a force under William D’Aubigny and constable Reginald de Cornhill opened the castle to him.  John arrived soon after with a force of Flemish, Provencals, and Aquitainians.  No Danes.  By the way, the movie is inaccurate in portraying the Danes as pagans, they were actually Christians.  And they would not have painted themselves blue, that was a Pict/Scot thing.  The force defending the castle was substantially larger than in the movie.  Probably 95-110 knights and crossbowmen.  When John arrived he sacked the nearby cathedral and city.  He then assaulted the castle using five siege machines and undermining.  His men breached the walls and captured the bailey easily.  The defenders retreated to the keep which was a tougher nut to crack.  However, a mine was dug under the wall and a large number of pig carcasses facilitated a fire that caused the wall to cave in.  Some stalwarts still held out.  John allowed some to come out and then proceeded to have their hands and feet cut off to intimidate the remainder.  They eventually surrendered due to starvation.  Louis did not send a relief force because John had destroyed the bridge over the Medway River.  John wanted to hang the garrison, but one of his men talked him out of it.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

CRACKER? Good Kill (2014)

                “Good Kill” is part of the recent subgenre of drone warfare movies.  Get used to them because if movie makers are going to realistically portray warfare the way it actually is today, they will have to include drones.  If the movie concentrates on the use of drones in combat against terrorism, like “Good Kill”, it may focus on the disconnection between the “pilot” and the battlefield.  “Good Kill” was directed by Andrew Nicol (“Lord of War”).  He also wrote and produced.  I hope he did not put much of his own money into it because the box office was miniscule.

                For the clueless, the movie informs the audience that since the War on Terrorism began on 9/11, there has been increasing use of unmanned aerial vehicles (drones).  The movie is set in 2010 and is based on actual events.  “Actual events” probably refers to the fact that there are actually drone warriors.  Maj. Thomas Egan (Ethan Hawke) used to be an F-16 fighter jock who served six tours in the Middle East.  His commanding officer had convinced him that temporary transfer to the drone program would be a good career move.  Three tours in, he is wondering if he will ever get back in a cockpit again.

                Egan works with a team in a metal box on an air force base near Las Vegas.  Thousands of miles away, their Predator drone orbits terrorist suspects.  They refer to it as the “national bird of Afghanistan” and joke about being in the “chair force”.   In a typical mission, they target a group of Taliban and some civilians are killed.  Or as it is called in the business, there is some “collateral damage”.  From their safe command bunker, the mission is deemed a “good kill” and damage assessment is clinically analyzed.  With his shift over, Egan returns to his home in suburbia.  He’s a fighter pilot without a plane so you can imagine this does not make him the easiest spouse to live with.  Plus, he is not gung-ho about the use of Predators to kill bad guys with the occasional dead innocents.  He may work in a compartment, but he can’t compartmentalize.  His wife Molly (January Jones) wants to understand what he is going through, but being an alpha male, he does not want to talk about his job.
                Egan’s boss is Lt. Col. Jack Johns (Bruce Greenwood).  His philosophy is made clear in a speech given to some new recruits.  Standing in front of a flag like Patton, he does not channel “Old Blood and Guts”.  “This ain’t Play Station”.  We are killing people.  It’s “flesh and blood”, not pixels.  Do your job, but remember what is taking place.  The speech does not have the tone of Patton’s, but I have to believe Patton would not have been thrilled with killing an enemy from a distance.  Next time you watch “Patton”, try to imagine him involved in the War on Terrorism.

                Egan gets a new “co-pilot” in Airman First Class Vera Suarez (Zoe Kravitz).  Her introduction to drone warfare is an ongoing surveillance of a Taliban safe house.  The team witnesses the sexual abuse of a female by a “bad guy”, just not their “bad guy”.  It’s this kind of Peeping Tom activity that encourages Egan to drink.  Suarez is a candidate for that arc because she wonders if some of their “good kills” are war crimes.  The other two members of the team are down with the program.  One, we’re killing them before they kill us.  Two, they wouldn’t care about civilian deaths.  Three, it’s our culture versus theirs.  Lastly, we’re winning.  Both sides have legit arguments.

                The greyness gets greyer when the team is promoted to working with the CIA.  The CIA has more lenient Rules of Engagement.  They allow “signature strikes” that are based on patterns of behavior.  Langley also is not overly concerned with civilian deaths.  If there are a few terrorists at a funeral, the CIA is willing to accept the collateral damage.  The disembodied voice from Langley is also prone to order follow up missiles to take out rescuers coming to the scene.  Egan/Suarez are not cool with this and neither is Johns, but he feels it’s part of the job.

                  “Good Kill” attempts to put you into the drone trailer with the personnel who are fighting this war for us.  It covers the process as well as the impact this new type of warfare has on the warriors.  It also presents the arguments for and against this response to terrorism.  This is relatively new territory for a war movie, but the plot uses classic aerial warfare tropes.  Egan’s character is the fighter pilot who has trouble adjusting to civilian life or in this case, flying without a plane.  He replaces the adrenaline with alcohol.  His disillusionment causes dysfunction in his family life.  His wife is the typical cinematic warrior spouse.  She wants to stay together, but he is making it difficult.  As usual, she does not understand why he would want to go back in harm’s way.  The movie may be clicheish, but it is interesting to see the cliches placed in a war movie set in a current war.

                The cast is playing mostly stock characters, but they are outstanding. Hawke does morose well.  Egan is one depressing dude.  Kravitz is solid as the green, naïve Suarez. The one character who is not a stereotype is Johns.  Normally in a movie like this, the commander would be a tool.  A tool of the strategists.  Johns acts as a balance between the pro and con contingents.  He is a good leader who has adjusted to the new way of warfare, but he doesn’t have to like it.  He is empathetic toward his fellow old school warrior Egan.  The villain is the CIA.  The movie is not so much anti-drone as it is anti-drone operated by the CIA.

                To go along with the theme of the stressed warrior, the movie makes a strong effort to contrast the opposing cultures.  And contrasting civilian life with military life.  Egan launches a Hellfire missile which kills an Afghani and then leaves his trailer and drives home to his home in the suburbs.  Director Nicol uses overhead shots (from a drone?) of the suburb and his children’s school to make the point.  A trip to nearby Las Vegas contrasts to the Middle Eastern towns they surveille.  Although there is a base outside Vegas (Creech Air Force Base) where the drone program is prominent, the location lends itself to contrasting America’s satanic culture as exemplified by Vegas with the Middle Eastern culture of our adversaries.  The movie is not heavy-handed in its approach to these themes.  Unlike most movies of this type, the Predator jockeys are not stalking some terrorist Bin Laden.

                The movie may be a good tutorial on drone warfare, its rules of engagement, and skirting of war crimes, but it is also entertaining in its drama.  There are several missions that are suspenseful and thought-provoking.  There is variety in these missions.  One involves Egan watching over an American Special Forces squad so they can get some sleep behind enemy lines.  Drone warfare may be antiseptic, but the men and women implementing it are still American soldiers or airmen.  “Good Kill” will put you in their shoes.  The fighting they are doing for you takes its toll psychically as well as physically.  You can sleep well, but they find it hard.

                “Good Kill” is a real overlooked gem.  I have no idea why it bombed at the box office.  I guess I could theorize that the public does not want to hear about what goes on in those trailers.  For a nation obsessed with first person shooters, drone warfare is the reality.  We are raising gamers who will do the fighting for us, but we don’t want to see the results.


Monday, February 5, 2018

CRACKER? Life is Beautiful (1997)

                Finally, a Holocaust comedy after all those depressing dramas.  “Life is Beautiful” is an Italian film that was directed and co-written by Roberto Begnini.  He also starred in it.  Begnini loosely based the movie on the book In the End, I Beat Hitler by Rubino Romeo Salmoni.  He also was inspired by his own father’s stories from WWII.  He was in the Italian army and switched sides when his country went over to the Allies.  Unfortunately, the elder Begnini was captured by the Germans and put in a labor camp.  He would tell his kids humorous stories to distract them.  The movie was a big hit and critically acclaimed.  It won the Grand Prix at Cannes. It was nominated for six Academy Awards and won Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film, Original Dramatic Score, and Actor.  Begnini got the title from a phrase Leon Trotsky wrote in his journal the day he was assassinated.

                The movie opens in Italy in 1939.  Two guys in a car without brakes barge into a gathering to greet the king.  This establishes the movies low-brow humor.  One of the clowns is Guido Orefice (Begnini) who has come to town to get a job as a waiter in his uncle’s restaurant.  He falls in love with his son’s elementary school teacher.  She is engaged to the local rich asshole, so he is going to have to be creative.  If pratfalls are your idea of creativity, then he is the man for you.  Spoiler alert:  the winning streak of charming buffoons over wealthy jerk continues.  Years later, the Orefice family is living a beautiful life when lil’ ole WWII comes along.  Because Guido and his son Giosue are Jewish, they are shipped to a concentration camp.  Dora (Nicolletta Braschi – Roberto’s wife) volunteers to join them.  He does not stop her!  She is put in a different part of the camp.  Guido sends her messages over the camp loudspeaker.  He convinces his son that the concentration camp is the elaborate setting for a game.  If his son does everything he says, he will earn points to win a tank.  Shenanigans ensue.  I bet you never thought you would hear the word “shenanigans” in a Holocaust movie review.  It’s that kind of movie.

                This is a really hard movie to judge.  I am certainly not against black humor and it has its place in cinema.  Obviously, it is unexpected in a Holocaust movie.  Perhaps the time was right for it.  God knows we have plenty of Holocaust movies that are depressing.  But depressingly accurate in depicting the horrors of the camps.  To his credit, Begnini took the approach that the movie would be like a fairy tale.  He did not try to compete with the serious Holocaust films.  The movie is best viewed as a fairy tale, otherwise you might gag a bit.

                Since the movie is a dramedy, it is something of a roller coaster ride.  Before it gets serious, the humor is head-shaking.  Is Begnini’s shtick the current state of comedy in Italy?  Since the film is a vehicle for Begnini, your enjoyment is directly related to your tolerance for his antics.  He is the Italian Robin Williams so factor that in when you decide whether to watch the movie.  To be honest, I am not a Williams fan so I was not enamored with Begnini’s performance.  In this respect, I disagree with the Academy’s choice of him as Best Actor.  Amazingly, he was only the second actor to direct himself to a Best Actor Oscar (the other was Laurence Olivier in “Hamlet”).  Begnini beat out Tom Hanks in “Saving Private Ryan” and Edward Norton for “American X”.  How in Hell did that happen?  Did Beatty/Dunaway read the envelope?  I found his brand of hilarity set in a Holocaust situation to be jarring.  Plus, it just is not funny under any circumstances.  This is a problem for a movie that is more comedy than drama.  It does not really show how bad the camp is.  Begnini pulls his punches in this respect or the movie would have been even more whiplashing.  But if you are in for a centesimo, why not be in for a lira?  I suppose you would not make millions of lira if you took that bold approach.

       Will “Life is Beautiful” crack my Best War Movies list?  No, because it is my list and I don’t care what the critics or the Academy Awards have to say.  I also reserve the right to opine that Roberto Begnini is not funny and this movie is a misfire.  Is it too soon for a humorous Holocaust movie?  It will always be too soon.


Friday, February 2, 2018

Picture, Quote, Movie #29

1.  What movie is the picture from?
2.  What movie is the quote from?
"Do you wanna explain the math of this to me, what's the sense in risking eight guys to save one?"
3.  What movie is this?
It is an old school war movie from 1941. It was directed by Raoul Walsh and was the eighth and last screen pairing of Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. It was a huge box office hit. Two stunt men were killed in the filming of charges. One impaled himself on his sword as he fell from his horse.

Monday, January 29, 2018

CRACKER? Eye in the Sky (2015)

Don't ask me how this movie slipped through the cracks.  I saw it in the theater and it should have been part of my "Now Showing" series.

                “Eye in the Sky” is a movie about drone warfare.  It examines the moral dilemmas this new type of warfare sometimes precipitates.  Once again I had to travel to Austin, Texas to view a new war movie.  Apparently, Louisiana is not a hot spot for war movies with limited release.  This is the third time a trip to visit my sister has had the benefit of seeing a good war movie in a theater.  The other two movies were “The Hurt Locker” and “’71”. 

                “Eye in the Sky” was directed by Gavin Hood (“Ender’s Game”).  He used locations in his home country of South Africa.  Screenwriter Guy Hibbert was interested in depicting the involvement of the “kill chain” in the implementation of drone targeting.  His script shifts between the various locations of the military personnel and politicians.  In the first five minutes of the film, we jump to five different locales.  All of the locales are tied in via modern technology so all the participants are watching the event unfold and can have input.

                The movie opens with a quote from Aeschylus:  “In war, truth is the first casualty.”  British Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) is heading a mission to capture some high profile terrorist targets in Kenya.  The big fish are two British nationals (husband and wife) who have joined the Al Shabaab terrorist organization.  Powell is especially interested in the woman, who she has been tracking for six years.  The suspects have been located in a safe house in Nairobi and the Kenyan special forces are set to raid it.  Powell’s team uses an ornithopter (a radio-controlled cybird with a camera) to get visual identification of the woman, Susan Helen Danford.  Unfortunately for Powell, Danford and several other targets leave the house to go to another location in an Al Shabaab-dominated neighborhood.  This change of venue is monitored by a Reaper drone crew located at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada.  In this case, a insectothopter (a cybug with a camera) is used to infiltrate the house.  The beetlecam discovers that the terrorists are gearing up for a suicide-vest bombing.  Since the special forces cannot realistically storm the house, the mission now shifts from capture to kill.  And politicians get involved.

                At this point, the movie becomes a study in drone assassination decision-making.  Powell is pushing for an immediate Hellfire missile strike.  Her official argument is it will save lives.  This view is supported by her commanding officer Lt. Gen. Frank Benson (Alan Rickman) who is at COBRA (the Cabinet Office Briefing Room) at Whitehall in London.  In the room with him are several politicians who are mainly interested in covering their asses and passing the buck.  At first the hemming and hawing revolves around whether they have the authority and justification to go for a kill shot.  Soon a complication arises as a young girl enters the picture, literally.  She sets up a bread stand near the building and could possibly be within the kill zone.  What is the life of one girl compared to the potential deaths of civilians in a shopping mall if the suicide bombers are allowed to leave?
                “Eye in the Sky” is well-acted by a strong cast.  Helen Mirren anchors the movie as Powell.  She is perfect as the hard as nails techno-assassin.  Powell is willing to bend the rules of engagement in order to get her girl.  You’ve seen this character before, but never as a female.  Speaking of stereotypes, the Powell character is balanced by the female politician in COBRA who represents the other end of the spectrum in potential bread-selling kid casualties.  Rickman, in one of his last roles, is his usual dependable self.  Surprisingly, his Lt. Gen. Benson is not another Turgidson from “Dr. Strangelove”.  Benson is in COBRA to present the military’s point of view.  Rickman is wonderful at depicting the focused military man who has to deal with a room full of wimpy pols who are continually passing the buck upward so they can avoid making a tough decision.  Buck-passing is one of the themes of the movie and it almost becomes a running joke.  (Some people in the theater started chuckling by the fourth passing of the decision up the chain.)  This theme has a “Dr. Strangelove” feel to it, but “Eye” is far from a satire.  By the way, if buck-passing is a theme, a subtheme is when the buck is passed to Americans the decision is always “take the shot”.

                The other key characters are Aaron Paul as the drone pilot and Barkhad Abdi as the undercover agent sent into the neighborhood with his beetle drone.  Paul is good as the conflicted pilot.  An earlier view of the hula-hooping little girl makes her situation even more personal for him.  He represents the “what would you do?” perspective.  This perspective is paired with the movie’s debate over whether the kill order is the right decision.  This debate takes place in several locales.  (The four principal actors did not meet during the shoot.)  The movie moves briskly from place to place with the common thread of everyone (including the audience) viewing the proceedings on computer screens.  There is a clock-ticking suspense. 

                “Eye in the Sky” is not based on a true story, but it is meant to be instructive on how drone warfare works.  Since drones have been an important aspect of the war on terror, Hibbert and Hood had a goal of informing the British and American public of the greyness of the policy of killing terrorists by unmanned stand-off vehicles.  Most people are aware of the collateral damage of civilian casualties, but few are aware of all that goes into the lead-up to the button pushing.  The movie makes it clear that the decision to fire a Hellfire missile is not taken lightly.  There are rules of engagement that must (should?) be followed.  There are legal matters to consider.  There are political criteria to be factored in.  At one point in the movie, a politician opines that “if they blow up a mall, we win the propaganda war;  if we kill the little girl, they win.” 

                As far as this particular scenario, Susan Helen Danford is based on the infamous “White Widow” of British tabloid fame.  Samantha Lewthwaite is a British woman who was a convert to jihadism.  Her husband was one of the 7/7 London bombers.  She is accused of being involved in over 400 civilian deaths.  She escaped Great Britain and ended up in Kenya as part of Al Shabaab.  Al Shabaab is a jihadist organization based in Somalia, but active in East Africa.  It is most famous for the suicide attack on the Westgate mall in Kenya.  Lewthwaite has been linked to that attack.  No doubt there is a Powell (and many others) tasked with bringing her to justice and when it happens it will probably involve a drone.  The movie is excellent at showing how drone warfare works (or will work in the future – apparently the movie is ahead of its time a bit on ornithopters and insectothopters).

 When the day of reckoning for the “White Widow” comes, it’s doubtful it will be as cinematic.  Without the constraints of “based on a true story”, the screenplay can manipulate the narrative to edge the audience consistently toward the edge of their sheets.  Everything that happens has to happen to reach the conclusion.  Pull one domino out and the whole arc collapses.  For example, Farah risks his life to buy the rest of the bread, so Alia can go home, but… Still, I prefer this kind of manipulation for entertainment purposes over “true” stories that take liberties with the facts.

“Eye in the Sky” is a very good movie and it is unfortunate that it will not reach the audience it deserves.  Americans are comfortably clueless about what is going on in the drone war against terrorism.  The movie makes you think about the subject, but does not tell you what to think.  Hawks and doves can both enjoy the movie and hopefully contemplate the other side of the argument.  I feel Hibbert meant for the movie to question the use of drones for targeted assassinations, but he is admirably balanced.  When the female politician pronounces that the whole affair was shameful, Benson gets the last word:  “Never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war.”   I personally cannot confidently say whether the decision made in the movie was the right one.  Isn’t that what we want in a movie that provokes thought?


Friday, January 26, 2018


       The things I do for my readers (both of them)!  My current project is to review the war movies available on Netflix Instant.  If you are a war movie lover, you need to get Netflix.  I could not have started this blog without it.  Watching and reviewing the 100 Greatest War Movies would have been impossible ten years ago.  I was able to watch all 100 mainly with the help of Netflix.  And that was before Netflix Instant.  Now there are a substantial number of quality war movies available to stream.  And some that are not quality.  Shall we see which is “War Pigs”?  The fact that it was directed by Ryan Little of “Saints and Soldiers” does not help much since it could be made by the competent director of the first of that series, or by the incompetent director of the other films.  I good sign is it does not star Tom Sizemore, but it does include Mickey Rourke. 

                The movie starts in Belgium in 1944.  Three minutes in we are treated to a firefight.  It is pretty intense with graphic wounds.  This realistic show of force is a good sign, but then Rourke shows up as a hippie-haired, bloated Major Redding wearing a cowboy hat.  He has a special mission for Lt.  Wosick (Luke Goss).  He is a war hero who is under charges so he can get redemption if he is successful.  All he has to do is locate a massive German artillery piece that can change the war, naturally.  He will be aided by a French Foreign Legionnaire named Picault.  He is played by Dolph Lundgren (where is Tom Sizemore when you need him?)  Their elite squad will be a five men (or six because apparently some actor snuck on the set).  War movie lore assures us they are elite, but this movie portrays them as an average bunch of Joes.  They are not the Dirty Six nor are they SEAL Team Six.  They are so average that they have to have a Frenchman train them in rudimentary tactics like mine discovery and using a walkie-talkie.  They also get some classroom time learning how to draw.  Not because that is crucial to the mission, but because it allows the movie to bring in nude model.  And then we don’t get full frontal.  What the heck?  That is absolutely the least I expect from straight-to-DVD.  I do expect and get terrible dialogue like:  “I’m not going to lie to you. It’s not going to be easy.”  (The same could be said for watching this movie.)

                They locate Big Bertha with shocking ease, but you know that will not be the end of the mission.  Two of the men get captured – how convenient!  The rest will have to infiltrate the German camp in disguise to rescue them and give us our pounds of flesh.  I hope you don’t like yours with reality.  The action is on the level with “The Dirty Dozen” … sequels.  Or ripoffs like “The Black Brigade”.  Or any other movie that has the line:  “Take that you kraut basterd”.  If you know your history, you know we won WWII in Europe, so it’s not a spoiler alert to inform you that they blow up the giant gun.

                If you are going to make a movie like this, the worst thing you can be is mediocre.  If you can’t hire a decent screenwriter, go for camp.  Little does not have the gonads for that.  Instead of making a poor man’s Dirty Dozen, he spends no time on character development.  He puts all the dysfunction in one G.I. named Chambers. This War Pig does not want to fight.  What?  I kept hoping Patton would show up to slap him.  The rest of the squad is unmemorable, even though I found out later that one of them is played by MMA superstar Chuck Liddell.  The longtime thespian (he played a boy scout in “The Postman Always Rings Twice” in 1981 and stole the film from Nicholson) gets to appear on screen with Dolph.  Actually, Lundgren is one of the better things about the movie.  I was impressed and that’s not just because he might read this review.  Goss at least looks the part of the weary, cynical hero.  As far as Rourke, he looks like a reject from “Kelly’s Heroes”. 

                If you have seen all the other streaming war movies on Netflix, go ahead and watch “War Pigs”.  It is not egregiously bad like “Men in Battle”, but it lacks suspense and is low on action.  It is not laughable.  Although you may grin at the fact that the “War Pigs” never miss.  Now that I think about it, for a movie of its ilk, that is pretty much par for the course.

GRADE  =  C-