Saturday, February 17, 2018

MY WORST REVIEWED MOVIES OF 2017




                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?

GRADE  =  C

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.

GRADE  =  A


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.


GRADE  =  C


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.