Tuesday, January 21, 2020


1.  What movie is the picture from?

2.  What movie is this quote from?

"Sir, I got lost on the way to college, sir."

3.  What movie is this?

  In some ways it is a dinosaur marking the end days of the epic old school war movies like “The Longest Day”.  Similar to that film, it features an all-star cast and tells the story from both the American and enemy perspectives.  Unlike “The Longest Day”, it is not based on a book by Cornelius Ryan and thus does not have Ryan’s deft blending of commanders and grunts roles.  The movie was a disappointment at the box office in spite of its revolutionary Sensurround technology that was supposed to make the audience “feel” the battle.  (It was one of only 4 movies made with this dead-end technology).

Sunday, January 19, 2020

CONSENSUS #51. Birth of a Nation (1915)

SYNOPSIS:  “The Birth of a Nation” is the story of two families during the Civil War and Reconstruction.  The Stoneman’s are Northerners and the Cameron’s are Southerners and slave-owners.  Ben Cameron is in love with Elsie Stoneman.  The war breaks the friendship of the families.  The movie concentrates on the Cameron family as it has a pro-Southern point of view.  Ben Stoneman goes off to war and the film has a grand depiction of a battle.  During Reconstruction, Congressman Stoneman is a Radical Republican who is interested in turning over the South to black rule.  Ben fights against this by joining the KKK.       

BACK-STORY:  “The Birth of a Nation” was the first major motion picture and is both famous and infamous.  It was directed by D.W. Griffith and the innovations he incorporated into the production are mind-boggling.  The movie created cinema as we know it today.  Relative to its budget, the movie became one of the most profitable films in history.  When it opened in New York City, tickets were an astronomical $2 (equivalent to about $18 today).  The success was in spite of the controversy with regard to its treatment of blacks.  The NAACP encouraged boycotts of the film and it was banned in some cities.  

TRIVIA:  Wikipedia, imdb, TCM

1.  It was based on Thomas Dixon’s novels The Clansman and The Leopard’s Spots.  The original title was going to be “The Clansman”.

2.  The NAACP tried to have it banned.  It was banned in some cities like Los Angeles and Chicago.

3.  It was the first movie ever screened in the White House. President Wilson was a Southerner and not noted for progressive ideas on race, but he is incorrectly credited with the famous quote:  “It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”  Most likely, Dixon made up the quote and attributed it to Wilson.  However, his historical take on Reconstruction appears on a title card in the movie and the plot fits his pro-segregation views.

4.  Director DW Griffith was the son of a Confederate officer and had a negative view of Reconstruction.  Surprisingly, he was taken aback by the backlash to the film’s racism.

5.  West Point provided the artillery and technical advice.

6.  The movie cost the enormous sum of $110,000.

7.  It was the highest grossing film until “Gone with the Wind”.  It’s premiere engagement at a NYC theater cost $2 a ticket which would be equivalent to $17-20 today.

8.  Most of the African-American characters were played by whites in black-face.  Especially if the character came in contact with a white actress.

9.  Joseph Henabery, one of the assistant directors, played 13 characters, including Lincoln.

Belle and Blade  =  N/A 
Brassey’s              =  4.0
Video Hound       =  3.8
War Movies         =  N/A
Military History  =  no
Channel 4             =  #92
Film Site                =  yes
101 War Movies  =  yes
Rotten Tomatoes  =  no 

OPINION:  How can a movie be both great and terrible?  Watch “Birth of a Nation” and see.  If you changed the word “writing” to bullshitting and the word “true” to false in the Wilson quote, you’d be spot on.  The film did hit the nation like a lightning bolt.  If it had come out ten years later, it would not have been successful.  It was the spectacle that drew people to the theater outside the South.  This is the best explanation for why the movie did well in the North.  Griffith was a master movie-maker.  His innovations helped cinema take off.  The movie was the “Citizen Kane” of its day.  The cinematography is astounding even today.  The battle scenes are epic.  The score is grand.  The problem is the plot is ahistorical and the stereotypes are vile.  It may be great filmmaking and entertaining story-telling, for that time.  But it is a reprehensible work of racism.  I strongly feel it does not belong on this list. 

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Catch-22 miniseries (2019)

Last year I went to the WWII museum in New Orleans for a special advanced showing of Hulu’s miniseries “Catch-22”.  It was an ambitious attempt to bring the famous Joseph Heller novel to the small screen.  The 1970 film is highly respected, but the novel is massive and complicated so a two-hour movie could not really do it justice.  The miniseries is more than twice as long as the Mike Nichols’ movie.  This new version was developed and written by Luke Davies and David Michod.  They took on the difficult task of transforming the nonlinear, farcical novel that Buck Henry had ably adapted for the movie.  George Clooney got involved as an executive producer and directed two of the episodes.  He also took on a minor role.  Although a prestige production for Hulu, the rest of the cast was fairly unknown except for Kyle Chandler and Hugh Laurie in small roles.  The miniseries got good reviews, but only Emmy nods for Sound Effects and Special Visual Effects.  It was filmed in Sardinia and Italy.  The film used some authentic B-25s.

                        Davies and Michod decided to make the miniseries linear, probably as a sop to Hulu’s audience.  It opens with the main character Yossarian (Christopher Abbott) in training to be a bombardier.  He is having an affair with his commanding officer Scheisskopf’s (Clooney) wife.  He tells her that he chose the air corps because he figured that by the time his training was over, the war would be over.  So it is established early that Yoyo is a coward.  The rest of the show covers enough bombing missions to prove he would have to be very brave to handle his job without being affected by it.  Although the movie runs for 270 minutes, it basically covers two storylines.  One is Yossarian’s attempts to get sent back home and the other is the black market machinations of Milo Minderbinder (Daniel David Stewart).  There are ten missions spread out through the narrative and one montage.  Interspersed with these are some scenes that develop some of the other characters.  Col. Cathcart (Chandler) is a martinet who is constantly upping the number of missions necessary for ending your tour.  It starts at 25, but will go up throughout the miniseries.  Major Major (Lewis Pullman) is a mousy incompetent who is appointed squadron leader.  Maj. – de Coverley (Laurie) is in charge of renting rooms when new cities are occupied.

                        The writers had some options when they took on Heller’s book.  Buck Henry decided to do a greatest hits wrapped around the Yossarian / Minderbinder threads.  Snowden’s death was his nonlinear device to explain Yosarrian’s breakdown.  Davies and Michod could have simply replicated that with their own take on the characters and added more scenes and characters from the book.  They could have amped up the black humor and silliness of the novel.  Instead, they decided to play it relatively straight and concentrate on Yossarian’s efforts to get to the mission goal.  There is little added from the book and some scenes were not in the book or movie.  This was a poor decision because the movie is not so well known or recent that Hulu’s viewers would have wanted a different approach.  And then you have the fans that did not want the novel tampered with.  With 270 minutes, the logical approach would have been to cover more of the book and allow the actors to give their own takes on the books’ characters.

                           Surprisingly, the best thing about the series is the missions.  The B-25 interiors are authentic.  The CGI flak is intense.  The sound effects match.  You can see and feel why Yoyo is worried about his life expectancy.  At one point, a fellow bombardier gets splattered on his windscreen.  The problem here is the experiences do not match Yossarian’s reactions.  His is not a consistent descent into PTSD.  He remains dedicated to his bombing with some exceptions.  Bizarrely, after doing his best to avoid missions, Yoyo changes strategy and does multiple missions to reach 50 (the montage).  He is dedicated on all of them and gets off each bomber with a smile on his face.  (Unlike the Yossarian of the book, he does not care which pilots he flies with.)  By the way, even though he is freelancing, he is always the lead bombardier.  The key mission where Yoyo decides to go around a second time to bomb a bridge is placed too late to make sense.  Even more perplexing, the death of Snowden is in the last episode!  It is not used to explain why Yossarian is so motivated to get out of combat.  Instead, it is treated as a breaking point that leads to Yossarian adopting a no clothes policy.  Here is one example of the series going beyond the movie/book, but this does not happen enough to become a characteristic of the show.  The writers were too tame in this respect.

                        The critics have been kind to the series, although the Emmys were not impressed.  However, if you have seen the movie and/or read the book (which I have, twice), this miniseries is a severe disappointment.  The movie’s characters channeled the book’s well and the cast was outstanding.  This ensemble is definitely second-rate, but the script gives them no opportunity to make their characters interesting.  It was a poor decision to cast actors that mostly look alike.  And, in spite of the expanded length, the other air crewmen like Nately, Orr, Arfy, McWatt, etc. are short-changed.  Hell, we don’t even get Gen. Dreedle.  Clooney’s Scheisskopf is substituted as a mustache twirling villain.  Only Minderbinder makes an impression and only Daniel David Stewart is in a league with his cinematic equivalent (Jon Voight).  The series adds two Italian lackeys for Milo and forgoes many of the unseen characters from the book, like Hungry Joe.  Across the board, the characters are boring in comparison to the book/movie.  It is infuriating for fans to see the Chaplain depicted as a typical chaplain!   Nately’s whore likes him!  Did the writers even read the book?  Christopher Abbott is adequate as Yossarian, but his performance lacks nuance.  Yoyo is unlikeable and much more of a straight coward than Alan Arkin’s portrayal.

                        This series needed to be as black, if not blacker, than the movie/book.  There is little humor in the series.  In a telling moment, Yossarian’s scrotum surgery (not in the book) forces him to wear silly pants.  It was  too late to shift to farcical.  Why would you add a scene where Yoyo spends some time in an Italian village and skip some of the iconic scenes? You had 270 minutes!  There is no briefing with Dreedle’s WAC being the focus.  Milo does not have a cotton problem.  There is no Luciana.  Arfy does not visit Yoyo during a mission.  The key scenes that are reenacted are all inferior to the movie.  For example, Kid Sampson’s death is played for shock value and makes no reference to Doc being on board McWatt’s plane. 

                        I do not understand the critics who have complimented the miniseries.  To me, it is a big disappointment.  The decision to disregard the tone of the book and not simply expand on what the movie covered is head-scratching.  To take beloved characters and remove their quirks is inexcusable.  The changes that were made to the story dilute the satire.   There’s no verve.  Next time, use “MASH” as the template.


Friday, January 10, 2020

NOW PLAYING: 1917 (2019)

                        Well, it finally arrived in town.  Was it worth the wait?  “1917” has been on war movie fans’ radar for some time now.  You’ve probably seen the commercials and already know the basic plot.  Two British soldiers must deliver a message halting an attack that will be walking into an ambush.  The idea came from a story director Sam Mendes’ grandfather told him.  Mendes went on to co-write the story with Krysty Wilson-Cairns.  This is Mendes’ second war film after “Jarhead” in 2005.  He shouldn’t wait so long for his next one.  “1917” recently won the Golden Globe for Best Drama.  He won for Best Director.  He owes a lot to his cinematographer Roger Deakins.  This was their fourth collaboration.  Deakins is one of the premier cinematographers and this may be his masterpiece.  He won the Best Cinematography Oscar for “Bladerunner 2049” and has won four BAFTAs and 14 Oscar nominations.  In 2011, the American Society of Cinematographers presented him a Lifetime Achievement Award.  He is the surest of bets at the upcoming Academy Awards.

                        The film opens on April 6, 1917. (I am not sure if it is a coincidence that that is the day the U.S. declared war.)  We meet mates Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) as they walk and talk their way to headquarters.  Thus begins the soon to be legendary continuous shot that will take us through the movie.  The general needs the duo to halt an attack scheduled for the next morning.  The Germans have withdrawn from their front-line trenches and the British plan to take advantage of this.  Unfortunately, intelligence discovers that it’s a trap and two battalions of 1,600 men will be slaughtered if the attack takes place.  Blake and Schofield will have to make a trek through no man’s land to deliver the message.  As an incentive, Blake’s brother is in the doomed battalion.  At this point, the viewer needs to treat the movie like an odyssey.  Think Odysseus with his adventures.  None of that could have really happened, right?  Same with this movie.  They cross a no man’s land that checks all the boxes for the mise-en-scene -  dead horses (with flies, nice touch), dead body on the wire, rats eating dead bodies, destroyed tank, etc.  You do not want to see this movie in smell-o-vision.  Or right after eating.  The odyssey includes stops in the deserted German front-line trench for a haunted house vibe, a deserted farmhouse for an encounter with a German fighter pilot (the only CGI), crossing a bridge under sniper fire, a chase scene in a German occupied village, and riding some rapids.  There’s even a siren’s song by a British soldier (“Poor Wayfaring Stranger”).  Only one of the buddies will make it.  This needs no spoiler alert if you have seen the trailers or the first ten minutes of the movie.

                        “1917” is a movie that can be nitpicked.  The sniper angles don’t match his position, for instance.  As in most episodic war movies, no one person could have had all these experiences.  Mendes is up front about his grandfather’s reminiscences being enhanced and the movie does not start with a claim that it is based on a true story, so you will enjoy it more if you just go with the flow (like Schofield in the river).  Try not to imagine what the front lines must look like to set up the scenario, you’ll get a headache.  The central premise is flawed as Operation Alberich (February-March, 1917) was a planned withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line, but did not involve a feint to draw Allied forces into an ambush.  Plus, the British advanced cautiously, and not beyond the vacated front-line trenches.  While it is likely none of the incidents happened as portrayed, none of them is unbelievable.  It’s easy to overlook the implausibilities if you have an eye for brilliant cinematography.  It is mesmerizing.  But not in an overly showy way.  Some viewers, who don’t read up on movies before seeing them, may not even notice the continuous take.  It is so seamless.  Note the transitions from the camera following to camera leading the duo.  Non-cinephiles will probably remember the realistic sets and gruesome details of trench warfare.  The set designer deserves a lot of credit.  For the continuous take, it was necessary to have an extensive trench system.  Imagine “Paths of Glory” multiplied by ten.  No movie has depicted the trenches more accurately.  This includes the German trenches, which are shown accurately as superior to the British ones.  You will also see the most realistic no man’s land on film.

                        Nothing can match the technical virtuosity of the movie.  The plot is molded to the perspective of just two men, and then one.  This limits the narrative.  It also limits informing the audience about soldier life and behavior.  There is a soldier banter scene in the back of the truck, but the movie is much stronger on the visuals of the war than on the men.  There is some exposition between the leads and some cursory character development.  We do know that Schofield is a decorated veteran of the Somme who regrets a trip home.  He is the cautious one whereas Blake has the motivation of saving his brother.  The actors are fine, if unspectacular in these roles.  There are some showy cameos by the likes of Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch.  Mark Strong makes the best impression as a captain that Schofield runs into.  In the movie’s most insightful exchange, he tells Schofield to make sure there is an eyewitness to his delivering the order because some officers just want to fight.  Other than this spot on take on command decisions in the Great War, the movie is not a typical WWI hate fest on the donkeys leading the lions.  This is not the Iliad, it’s the Odyssey, after all.

                        2019 was not a good year for war movies.  The best was probably “Danger Close” which was an excellent battle movie.  “1917” is a much more personal take on war and is more of a trek movie than a combat film.  It is superior to the last significant WWI film -  2011’s “War Horse”.  While not in the top five WWI movies, “1917” is a worthy entry into a subgenre that has a high percentage of quality.  There is a much higher percentage of good WWI combat movies than the WWII equivalents.  Probably because the war itself lends itself to a purer anti-war feeling.  “1917” will not be remembered as a great anti-war film, but it is entertaining and more a tribute to the soldiers than any recent WWI movies.  You can’t help but be moved as the fodder listens to that haunting song before going over the top.  It will certainly get Academy Award recognition and is better than “Dunkirk” as Mendes substituted dazzling cinematography for Nolan’s tri-perspective, nonlinear approach.  Two directors at the top of their game.  Put me in the Mendes corner.