Tuesday, January 16, 2018

NOW SHOWING: Darkest Hour (2017)

                Well, I finally got around to seeing the new Winston Churchill movie.  You may have heard of it – “Darkest Hour”.  It is garnering a lot of awards buzz and has already pocketed the Best Actor Golden Globe.  The movie covers the first few weeks of Churchill’s first tenure as Prime Minister.  The title alludes to the fact that those weeks coincided with the lowest moment in the war for Great Britain.  The Norway debacle was underway and France was being pummeled by the Wehrmacht.  Dunkirk takes place during the movie’s time frame.  It is directed by Joe Wright (“Atonement”) and written by Anthony McCarten (Oscar nominee for “The Theory of Everything”).  Gary Oldman stars as Churchill.  He spent over 200 hours in makeup.  He smoked over 400 cigars during the filming at a cost of over $20,000.  He was the sixth actor from the Harry Potter movies to portray Churchill.

                The movie opens with newsreel scenes to set the time as May, 1940 with the Nazis on the rampage.  Parliament is looking for a replacement for the appeaser Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup).  In a raucous Commons, a Labour Party Member makes a fiery speech demanding that Chamberlain step down.  Cries of “Go! Go! Resign! Resign!” cascading upon Churchill’s empty seat.  Chamberlain reads the mood and wants Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) to replace him.  The only other choice is Winston.  Egads!  When Halifax declines,  King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) summons Churchill to an awkward meeting at the Palace.  Not a fan. We are introduced to Churchill’s new secretary, a comely mousey Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) and we empathize with her as she deals with the irascible Winny through the stress-laden next few weeks.  While the soldiers are facing the stress of the Nazi juggernaut, Churchill is having to deal with cabinet dysfunction.  Chamberlain and Halifax are plotting his demise based on his refusal to negotiate a peace deal with the unbeatable foe.  Will Winny cave to the pacifists?  Go see the movie or go back to school to find out.

                 For those hoping for a companion to the recent “Dunkirk”, “Darkest Hour” does not really fill in the macro elements.  As I mentioned, it concentrates mostly on whether Churchill should negotiate peace.  This makes it more of a political thriller than a war movie.  It is also something of a biopic, even though it covers only a few weeks in Churchill’s life.  We do get a vivid picture of his personality and political talents.   All the famous quirks are here:  the love of whiskey and cigars, the dictating while in the bathtub, the late-night work sessions, etc.  Inclusion of the Layton character (the stereotypical war correspondent equivalent from war movies) is effective in depicting his speech writing style.  She also acts as the foil for his curmudgeonry.  Her first day on the job, he calls her a “nincompoop”.  Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas) takes us backstage to see the private “Winny” and we witness his mood swings.  The movie jumps around from the private quarters to the political settings which are filmed in a “West Wing” corridor-maneuvering style.  The highlights are the speeches, of course.  In a nod to current attention spans, they are edited to their rousing parts.  The “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” speech is niftily intercut with its composition. 

                The reason to see the movie is Oldman’s performance.  He is magnificent and will win a well-deserved Oscar come May.  However, let’s not go overboard on the accolades.  Churchill is an actor-proof character.  Can you name an actor who blew the role?   He may be the best yet, but the others were pretty darn good, too.  The supporting cast is fine and Thomas has gotten some Oscar buzz.  Pickup and Dillane do a good job sliming the reputations of Chamberlain and Halifax.  Movies need villains, right?  Mendelsohn does not attempt to out-stutter Colin Firth.  Lily James is something of a weak-link in a stock role, but you have to credit her agent with putting her in this film and “Baby Driver” in the same year. 

                Wright does a nice job directing.  The cinematography has some showiness to it.  He is fond of aerial views to literally give the big picture.  It sometimes comes off as the only time he wants to depict the war is from a plane.  In fact, the movie does not intercut to the boys on the beach.  We do witness a political battle and spend a lot of time following Churchill through the corridors of power.  Speaking of which, someone needed to tell the person in charge of lighting that in the case of the title “darkest” is not literal.  This is one dark movie, and I mean that literally.  The dialogue is what you would expect, especially when Churchill is talking.  He gets the bon mots, which is appropriate, but Clemmy gets to be charmingly snarky.  The music is of the Masterpiece Theater variety.

                The weakness is in the plot.  The decision to concentrate on the peace negotiation issue is a curious one.  It does allow for a standard biopic plot where the protagonist goes through an arc of uncertainty, but for Churchill fans it leaves you wondering about the veracity of his vacillating.  He goes from apparently being the only one against peace talks to almost becoming a hippie.  It just doesn’t ring true.  The machinations of Chamberlain and Halifax seem Snidely Whiplashish. I left the theater scratching my head about its accuracy.  See below to find out if I had reason for concern.

                “Darkest Hour” is a must-see for history buffs.  If you have never seen a Churchill movie (and shame on you if you haven’t), you’ll get the gist of why he was special.  Oldman’s performance alone makes it a must-see.  In this it reminds of “Lincoln”, but the latter picture is superior.  Not because Day-Lewis did a better acting job, but the plot was more interesting.  Lincoln had better enemies.


HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  The movie opens on May 8, 1940.  Parliament is in an uproar over the Norway debacle.  The movie does not make that clear, possibly because Churchill was a major cause of that debacle.  It was basically his baby, but ironically he did not have to shoulder much of the blame.  The blowback squarely targeted Chamberlain, as depicted in the opening speech by an opponent.  The movie makes a point of Churchill being conspicuously absent, but in reality he was there to support Chamberlain and tried to take responsibility for Norway.  Chamberlain and the King did prefer Halifax and he did decline for reasons not really explored in the movie.  It certainly implies his motives were shady, which is a shame because some historians argue it was an act of statesmanship.  Apparently, he felt it was not the right moment for him and he modestly felt that being from the House of Lords would make it uncomfortable for the Commons to have him in charge.  He and Chamberlain did push the idea of opening a peace channel through Mussolini, but I could find no evidence that they were trying to bring down Churchill if he refused to toe their line.  The movie has them absurdly trying to set up Churchill.  The King did not want Churchill and the movie does mention his anger over Churchill siding with Edward VIII in the Abdication Crisis.  Their first meeting was awkward.

                 The idea that Churchill wavered on the peace issue is only loosely based on reality.  He did toy with Halifax’s suggestion of sending a message to Mussolini, but he did not go very far down that path.  There was no tipping point moment where he listened to the people in the Underground (note the movie’s inclusion of every demographic in that scene).  The subway scene is pure artistic license and a trite moment in an otherwise serious movie.  The only time Churchill was ever on a subway train was during the general strike of 1926.  The bigger problem with the scene is I am sure the screenwriter would argue that it reflected the mood of the people.  In reality, a typical subway group at that time would have been divided over what to do.  They would not have been unanimously and enthusiastically in favor of never surrendering.  The follow-up scene where Churchill addresses the Outer Cabinet is more accurate, although it accepts Churchill’s memory of vocal support from his peers.  That scene actually resulted not from mingling with the common people, but from an exchange with Halifax in which his insistence on negotiation got Churchill’s back up and this mood followed him into the meeting.  Enough was enough.  No more dilly-dallying.  There was no moment where Churchill switched from considering peace to no surrender.

                 As far as the Dunkirk references, the movie is shaky here as well.  It implies that Churchill defied the generals in implementing Operation Dynamo.  In fact, Churchill was unrealistically aggressive-minded as the crisis developed. The movie does not do a good job of showing how Churchill was brimming with ideas, but most of them were ridiculous.  He did not order the Calais garrison to make a suicidal counterattack to buy time for the evacuation.  In reality, he ordered the garrison to hold out where it was to buy time (which it really didn’t).  His lack of strategic awareness was exemplified by his wanting Gen. Gort to counterattack instead of retreating to the port.  It was Gort’s own initiative that saved the army in the early stages.  Once the siege began, Churchill deserves credit for lighting a fire under the navy to evacuate the army.  He is correctly given credit for encouraging the use of the little ships, but I do not know if he can be credited with the idea itself.  No matter the quibbles, no one better earned the right to give the “we will fight on the beaches” speech.

                The movie gets some minor details wrong.  Layton did not actually come to work for him until a month later, but that is excusable.  Churchill vetoed any talk of the royal family escaping to Canada.  There was no direct phone hookup to the White House at that time.   The conversation between the two heads of state is a composite of discussions.  Strangely, the movie gives the vibe that FDR’s proposal of using horses to pull the fighters over the Canadian border was a silly one when in reality it was a sneaky way to get around Congress and it was implemented.  The movie is bad about implying that FDR did not do enough to help Churchill in his hour of need.  It also implies that FDR turned down the opportunity to give England some destroyers.  The destroyers for bases deal may have come months later, but FDR arranged it as soon as he could.

Saturday, January 13, 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+

Monday, January 8, 2018

CRACKER? Men of Honor (2000)

       “Men of Honor” is a biopic about the first African-American US Navy Diver.  Cuba Gooding, Jr. plays Carl Brashear.  Brashear is a hero of the modern Navy so the Navy cooperated in the production.  The script sat for years before Fox took it on and George Tillman, Jr. directed.  Fox questioned the movie’s appeal and limited the budget to $32 million (from a requested $50 million).  The movie was made after Gooding and Robert De Niro agreed to accept only one-third of their usual salaries.  The film made $48 million.

                Brashear grew up in the rural South.   He is the son of a sharecropper.  He ain’t that keen on book learning and schooling, but the dude sure can swim.  In 1948, he leaves home to follow his dream by joining the Navy.  This being the Navy, he is put to work in the galley as a cook.  Truman may have integrated the Armed Forces, but that did not mean the Navy had to stop being racist.  His life changes when he witnesses a diver rescue a man from a crashed chopper.  This inspires Brashear to apply for the Diving and Salvage School where guess who is the instructor?  The very same heroic diver who had injured his health in the rescue and is now a bitter ex-diver.  Master Chief Petty Officer Sunday (De Niro) is ordered by the bigoted (and mentally unstable) commanding officer to make sure Brashear washes out.  Not that Sunday needs much prodding.  Not only that, but his training mates are uniformly hostile to having a black man in their class.  In a bold move, the script pushes one of the men forward as the main villain.  Never seen that before.  In a training accident, Brashear saves the alpha racist after he panics.  The racist gets the medal for bravery because this is the Navy.  In spite of all the obstacles, Brashear earns respect from his mates and specifically from Sunday.  Brashear’s big moment comes in the recovery of an H-Bomb off the coast of Spain.  Brashear is injured in the process and has to go through grueling rehab to try to return to diving.  Luckily, he has his ex-racist instructor to berate him into bucking the system.

                “Men of Honor” oozes sincerity.  It is definitely an Old School biopic.  This type of movie still existed in 2000!  “Born on the Fourth of July” came out in 1989.  Although made by Fox, you could easily think it is a Disney film.  Numerous clichés sink it and there is no recovery crew.  Sunday rides the redemption train so De Niro has something to do besides play a stereotypical racist and drill instructor type. The man is able to play two stock characters at once!  Without breaking a sweat.  Another well-worn trope is Brashear overcoming odds.  Since you have seen standard biopics before, there is never a doubt that Brashear will succeed.  The movie includes the usual dastardly authority figures.  It has an overarching theme that American attitudes changed because of men like Carl Brashear.  And the Navy changed.  This partially explains why the Navy would have cooperated with a movie that highlights its institutional racism.  Patting itself on the back was part of it, but let’s also give the Navy credit for encouraging the making of a movie about one of its greatest heroes.

                If it was not for the cast, this movie would not have been made and would not have had any impact.  Gooding is perfect in a movie that plays to his strengths as an actor.  I doubt they spent much time casting the role.  De Niro is also good, but he could play Sunday in his sleep.  I give him credit for making the movie.  It says something about his conscience.  The big casting head-scratcher is Charlize Theron as Sunday’s wife.  Talk about stretching to reach a key demographic, with no shame.  Plus, the movie could claim to have three Oscar winners.

                Carl Brashear deserved this movie.  I am sure I am not alone in not having heard of him before the movie came out.  He is a legitimate hero and ground-breaker and his story is entertaining enough to not need the extreme Hollywood treatment.  It is the type of movie that you enjoy watching, but you spend a lot of time wondering how much is true.  And there are plot developments that an intelligent viewer will be absolutely sure are bull crap.  For instance, the movie jumps the shark by throwing in a preposterous encounter with a Soviet sub.  If we are already peeing in our pants, do you really have to go for poop?  Overall, the movie is average in accuracy for a movie of this type.  As you can read below, the gist of the story is true.  The screenwriter has enhanced every incident to maximize the racism and odds-overcoming themes.  It tells you something when you research a movie and only the main character is based on a real person.  For instance, Sunday is a composite character based on two different instructors – one of whom was a supporter of Brashear’s efforts.

                I’ll give the movie credit for sincerity, but it is nothing special and certainly not one of the best war movies.  It’s another good example of a movie that encourages some to learn more about the subject. 


HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  The background is accurate.  Brashear grew up as a sharecropper’s son (although he was not an only child).  He was a good swimmer so he did break stereotypes with that skill.  He was unmotivated when it came to school attendance and dropped out to work in a gas station.  In 1948 he ran away to join the Navy.  He was a cook on the USS Hoist when he attended the Diving and Salvage School in Bayonne, New Jersey.  The incident where Sunday rescues the chopper crewman is fictional.  The racist commanding officer is also fictional.  The instructors and classmates did not need to be encouraged to behave like the racists that some of them were.  The treatment was basically the snubbing and note variety.  Some of the notes said bon mots like “we’re going to drown you today, n-----“.   There was no incident involving the rescue of a bigoted mate.  Brashear did graduate as the first African-American Navy Diver.  His first job was retrieving 16,000 rounds of ammunition from a sunken barge.  He then went on to salvaging planes, including a Navy Blue Angel.  He spent some time as a military escort for Pres. Eisenhower who gave him a souvenir knife in appreciation.

                The incident involving the hydrogen bomb is known as the Palomares Incident.  A B-52 bomber carrying four nukes collided with a KC-135 tanker and both went down off the coast of Spain in 1966.  Three of the bombs were recovered on land.  It took more than two months to find the last one which was on the ocean floor at a depth of 2,500 feet.  Unmanned submersibles were used to try to raise it, but complications required divers to attach a cable after a submersible raised it to about a hundred feet depth.  Brashear going down to hook up the cable on the floor would have been impossible since the Navy did not allow divers to go below 350 feet.  There was probably a Soviet sub in the Atlantic Ocean at the time, but there was absolutely no close encounter as depicted in the movie’s silliest moment.  The USS Hoist was part of the recovery effort, but it was the USS Petrel that did the heavy lifting.  Brashear did come out of the incident as the main star and was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal (the highest honor for a non-combat feat).  The movie does a good job covering Brashear’s accident, amputation, and recovery.  There was no trial, instead he had to prove his abilities to doctors.  Part of the testing involved climbing a ladder with a lot of weight on.  He became the first amputee to be re-certified for diving.  Two years later he became a Master Diver, the first African-American to reach that level.  

Thursday, January 4, 2018

NETFLIX ORIGINAL: Sand Castle (2017)

                “Sand Castle” is an appropriately named movie about the war in Iraq.  It is a Netflix original.  The movie was directed by up and coming Fernando Coimbra.  It was written by Chris Roessner based on his experiences as a machine gunner in the Sunni Triangle.  He was inspired by the movie “Platoon”.  The movie was released directly to Netflix customers in 2017.
                The movie centers on a young rifleman named Matt Ocre (Nicholas Hoult).  Ocre joined the Army Reserves to pay for college.  He enlisted before 9/11 and had no intention to become a patriotic warrior.  In fact, the first thing he does in the movie is attempt to injure himself so he can be sent back to the States.  He does not succeed and the day his cast comes off, his unit gets orders to participate in the invasion of Iraq.  He is the only one in his squad who is not gung-ho about seeing the elephant.  In the rubble of Baghdad, they run into a sniper so they call in an air strike to kill one man.  A hammer to swat a gnat. The American way of war.  They are billeted in a palace with running water and a swimming pool for three months before they get orders to fix a water pumping station in the city of Baqubah.  Ocre does not want to volunteer, but his commander needs someone smart on board.  When they reach Baqubah, they link up with a special forces unit led by a badass named Capt. Syverson (Henry Cavill).  He explains that the job is to distribute water from the station.  Each day they will have to escort a water truck to the desperate people.  Those people are not desperate enough to be appreciative.  And the insurgents are not interested in allowing the Americans to become appreciated.  Ambushes ensue leading to a raid on a suspected terrorist lair.  Someone gets the logical (except for this being Iraq) idea of having local workers fix the pumping station.  Like building a sand castle before the inevitable tide.

                “Sand Castle” is very good for a Netflix original.  That bodes well for war movie lovers.  Coimbra does well with a limited budget.  It is a small movie concentrating on one character.  Hoult is good as Ocre, who is the only character that is developed.  Ocre reminds me a bit of Henry Fleming of “The Red Badge of Courage” – a reluctant warrior.  Henry Cavill gives the movie a second recognizable star as Syverson.  Syverson is the stereotypical operative.  The squad is also stereotypical.  All but Ocre are enthusiastic about living out their video games and proving their manhood.  Their attitudes are realistically macho and their behavior as soldiers shows that Roessner lived what he wrote about. The men are naïve, but there is a lot of that spread through the movie.  The Americans are naïve to think good works will make a difference.  The Iraqis who help the Americans are naïve to believe that the Americans will be able to protect them.  This theme is embodied in the school master who is so desperate for water for his students that he works with the Americans to repair the station.  Do I need to tell you that he is a tragic figure?  Besides naivete, the movie also explores the theme of futility.  Again, note the title.  The movie makes clear parallels to Vietnam.  We control the day, the enemy controls the night.  Civilians are caught in the middle.  Winning hearts and minds is a pipe dream.  The movie makes you wonder if the American high command ever saw a Vietnam War movie or read any books on the war before committing us to overthrowing Saddam Hussein.  If you have never seen an Iraqi War movie or read a book on it, “Sand Castle” is a good primer.  I do not know of any other Iraqi War movie that concentrates on the huge problem with infrastructure that resulted from our conquest of Iraq.  The commendable American philosophy of “we broke it, so we’ll fix it” is rendered with the typical result for Iraq.  It was not post-WWII Germany or Japan.  The movie tosses in some brief combat, but you get the impression that America will never be comfortable with counterinsurgency.

                If you are a Netflix subscriber, give “Sand Castle” a look.  Even if you are not a war movie lover, you’ll enjoy it and learn a little.  For instance, you’ll learn that when you invade a country and bomb the hell out of it, they might not give you much credit for rebuilding what you destroyed.


Monday, January 1, 2018


1.  What movie is the picture from?
2.  What movie is this quote from?
"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!"
3.  What movie is this?
It is the rare war movie made during a war that is not laughably propagandistic and unrealistic. In fact, it was probably the first American-made realistic war movie to come out during WWII. It helps that it was true to its source. The film is based on the famous book by war correspondent Richard Tregaskis. The producers expressed their appreciation for the Marines, Army, Navy, and Coast Guard, but the movie is dominated by the Marines. The credits are backed by the Marine Corps Hymn. The movie stars many recognizable faces including Richard Jaeckel in his first role