Friday, June 2, 2023

Streamers (1983)

            “Streamers” is a Vietnam War movie directed by Robert Altman (“MASH”).  Altman, always the auteur, financed the film himself because no studio was interested.  David Rabe adapted the screenplay from his play which ran on Broadway for 478 performances.  The title refers to paratroopers who end up with faulty parachutes.  Altman saved money by casting unknown actors.  David Alan Grier made his debut and Matthew Modine was in his third.  There are no women in the cast.  (Altman’s previous movie “Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Deanwas all female!) “Steamers” was filmed in just 18 days in Dallas.

            The entire film takes place in a barracks in 1965.  The recruits will be going to Vietnam.  A gay soldier attempts suicide, but his boyfriend Richie (Mitchell Lichtenstein) saves him.  The rest of the plot has four men interacting.  Richie is not in the closet.  Billy (Modine) is a white soldier who is best friends with Roger (Grier).  Roger is someone who would have been labeled an Uncle Tom in the 1960s.  He is in conflict with a militant named Carlyle (Michael Wright).  There are no other recruits in the barracks.  To roil this already dysfunctional quartet, there are two NCO buddies who spend most of the movie drunkenly ranting.  (The Pentagon must said “hard pass” on cooperating with the movie.)  The film is mostly dialogue, but before it’s over two of the characters will be dead.

            This is a strange movie, even from Altman.  It is hard to understand what he was thinking when he decided to make it.  It does not really have an anti-war theme.  It would best be described as an anti-Army movie.  It is harsh on the strict rules against homosexuality, yet one of the characters has made it all the way through boot camp while clearly not hiding his sexuality.  Obviously, Altman saw the play and decided to make a movie out of it.  The film is very much a play put on film.  Setting it in one place adds to the feel of it being a play.  And the copious dialogue.  Hence the problem, there is little action and the dialogue is not good enough to carry the plot.  And then you have to throw in some bad acting.  I read where the film was shown at the Venice Film Festival and the entire cast was awarded Best Actor.  I was shocked to read that because aside from Modine, there is a lot of scene-chewing in this movie.  Add in a plot that makes no sense and you get a film that is justifiably little known.  It does not appear in “Vietnam War Movies” by Jamie Russell and that book has 45 movies in it.

            The movie is disappointing as entertainment and aggravating as a Vietnam War film.  Based on context clues. I assumed the time setting was post-Tet Offensive.  The actors have long hair and the discipline is lax, especially for boot camp.  There’s a racial tension and even tension between the two black characters.  The two NCOs sure aren’t gung-ho about the war.  There is a mention of the troop level going to over 500,000 men in Vietnam.  And yet, the movie is supposedly early in the war.  This shows a lack of respect for any veterans watching the movie.  I doubt anyone in Vietnam from 1964-1967 would relate to this boot camp.

            “Streamers” is probably a movie that most Vietnam veterans have never heard of.  I can’t recommend you watch it.  Unless you want to see how far Matthew Modine and David Alan Grier have come.  Don’t watch it to see why Altman was a great director.

GRADE  =  D       

Thursday, June 1, 2023

Father of a Soldier (1965)


            The Soviet Union may have been a godless, communist country, but it sure made some good WWII movies.  Surprisingly, even under Stalin, most Soviet war movies were not overtly propagandistic.  While American war films of the 1950s treated WWII as a “good war” against the loathsome Axis, Soviet films tended to examine the effect of the war on the public.  Most Soviet movies did not treat the Great Patriotic War as glorious.  The plots tended to focus on individuals, not battles.  Nazi villains were rare.  Instead, the war was the villain.  This is best exemplified by Alyosha’s trip to see his mother I  Ballad of a Soldier”.  His journey takes so long that he has only a brief embrace before he has to turn around.  Unlike American films, the officer corps was always depicted in a positive manner.  And the units had no dysfunction.  Heroes and heroines triumphed over the hardships thrown at them by the war.  Audiences were given films about people like them who had dealt nobly with their situations.  Unlike Americans, the Russian people had been more directly impacted by the conflict and the movies reflected that.

  There were several outstanding Soviet films that got attention in the West.  Films like “Ballad of a Soldier”, “Ivan's Childhood”, “The Cranes Are Flying”, and “Come and See” are among the best WWII movies.  When Khrushchev began de-Stalinization, the Khrushchev Thaw gave directors and screen writers more freedom from censorship.  Although “Father of a Soldier” came out during the thaw, it is comfortably in the Stalin era personal films.  It was directed by Revaz Chkheidze and was a Georgian production.  It stars a popular Georgian theatrical performer. 

            The movie begins about a year after the German invasion.  The father (Sergo Zakariadze, Blucher in “Waterloo”) is a peasant farmer who decides to go visit his wounded son in a hospital far from home.  He gets his marching orders from his wife.  He stoically accepts her nagging.  The whole village comes out to see him off.  His trek starts in a ramshackle truck and he continues in a cart, hopping a train, and finally, walking.  When he reaches the hospital days later, he is told that his son has been released back to his unit.  Undeterred, he does not return home.  Instead, he enlists in the army after convincing a colonel that he will be a committed soldier, despite his age.  He becomes a good soldier, but never forgets he’s a farmer.  In one scene, he stops a Russian tank from trampling a vineyard.  The movie tracks the father and his mates as they turn the tide against the Germans and make the long march to Berlin.  His odyssey ends in the battered German capital where he finally makes contact with his tanker son.  It is a poignant rendezvous.  The movie is marked by whimsical moments, but it occasionally reminds its audience that the war could be heartbreaking.

            “Father of a Soldier” is an entertaining Soviet war film that carries on the tradition of chronicling the impact of the war on one common person.  Sergo Zakariadze is outstanding as the father.  He is creates the archetypical elderly peasant turned soldier.    The movie bears some resemblance to “Ballad of a Soldier” because it takes an episodic look at one man’s journey.  In this case, the main character is heading toward the front lines to see his son, instead of away to see his mother.  Both have a resilient hero.  What makes “Father of a Soldier” unique is the father becomes a soldier.  He does not stay behind the lines.  The second half takes the audience from the depths of Operation Barbarossa to the triumphs of the Battle of Berlin.  And this is the only problem with the screenplay.  It covers too vast a time frame.  In order to get the father to Hitler’s capital, the father’s quest is sidelined in favor of battles and soldier camaraderie.  One of the battles features a tank assault.  In another scene, the unit is freezing in a trench in the dead of winter and they are serenaded by a military band.  It strains credulity that the father would not have run across his son in three years.  But this was necessary for the greater purpose of framing the quest around the successful war effort.

            “Father of a Soldier” is not in the front rank of Soviet war movies.  However, it’s a good one and an important part of the canon.  I wouldn’t start with it, but it is a must-see if you plan to explore the subgenre of Soviet war films.

GRADE  =  B 

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Blood and Gold (2023)


            I waited with high hopes for the premiere of “Sisu”.  I drove a half hour to see it in a theater on the opening weekend.  If you read my review, you know I was disappointed.  I knew it would be basically be a pissed off old man killing Nazis, but it was not the over the top mayhem that the trailer predicted.  I realize it did get good reviews from many, but to me it promised cartoonish violence and delivered nothing spectacular in quality or quantity.  When I first became aware of “Blood and Gold”, it arrived on Netflix with little buzz.  It looked to be a similar exercise in Nazi killing by an intrepid hero.  This would not make it unique and it seemingly had been done before, just this year by “Sisu”.  There was no reason to believe it would be better than its cousin.  And it didn’t even premiere in an American theater.

            “Blood and Gold” is a German film by director Peter Thorwath.  It is set in the waning days of Nazi Germany.  A private named Heinrich (Robert Maaser) has deserted to try to find his surviving daughter.  He is an Iron Cross recipient and a six-year veteran of several campaigns.  He has given a lot to Germany, but enough is enough.  Unfortunately, he is being hounded by an SS unit led by a creepy Lt. Col. von Starnfeld (Alexander Scheer).  Starnfeld is your obligatory evil Nazi that inhabits films like this.  In a nice touch, he wears a partial face mask like the Phantom of the Opera.  His second in command is a sergeant (Roy McCrerey).  The sergeant is an intelligent, but malevolent noncom.  He takes pleasure in hanging Heinrich and describes to him how he will linger before he dies twitching.  Naturally, the platoon does not stick around to see the whole process.  Good thing because otherwise we would have a very short and unfulfilling movie.  Heinrich is rescued by a young farm woman named Elsa (Maria Hacke).  She takes him home where she lives with her mentally challenged brother.  The next day, the sergeant shows up with a foraging detail and the movie takes off.  The confrontation between sarge and his men and Heinrich/Elsa is a great action scene.  It starts with the sergeant trying to rape Elsa and ends with a brutal brawl.  In the middle of the fight, Elsa throws burning hot coffee on his genitals.  It’s that kind of movie.  Round one goes to the duo, but the fight has just begun.  It will move venues to the local town where Starnfeld is searching for gold hidden by a Jewish family.  It turns out that some of the townspeople have the gold and we get a second group of villains.  And more heroes like the priest and a widow.  This all builds to a shootout in the church where the three arcs intercept with combat porn results.

            I had the opposite feeling to when I watched “Sisu”.  This movie rocks from start to finish.  The acting is much better than one would expect from a kill-fest.  I was not familiar with any of the actors.  Perhaps they are well known in Germany.  All of the main roles are strong characters and well-played.  The villains are not mustache twirlers.  Starnfeld is a not a caricature of the evil Nazi in the leather coat.  The sergeant is a thug, but a challenging foe for Heinrich.  Masser is outstanding as the Clint Eastwoodesque Heinrich.  In fact, the movie goes out of its way to pay homage to Westerns.  The music is clearly used to evoke that vibe.  You’d think it was a spaghetti western if you just heard the music.  Interestingly, besides the western motifs, the film makes use of popular German songs of the period which are thrown in mid-action scene.  This movie has some panache.

            What sets the movie apart from films like “Sisu” are the female characters.  Elsa is feisty and can defend herself.  She saves Heinrich’s life more than once.  We are given little background, so we have to assume she is just a survivor, not a trained killer like the men.  She is balanced by the local Cruella de Ville, Sonya.  Here is another character you seldom see in war movies.  Sonya is in the group that has stolen the Jewish family’s gold and she ends up having brassier balls than her partners.  A flashback to the town taking care of its local Jewish “problem” allows the film to remind its German audiences of Kristallnacht. 

            Besides Westerns, the movie seems to be influenced by Tarantino films.  The strong female characters and the outside the box action are clues to this. Tarantino has a way of depicting violence where you see things you haven’t seen in any other movies.  For instance, in “Blood and Gold” the death of Starnfeld (do I really need a spoiler alert here?) is one I have not seen in the hundreds of movies I have reviewed.  I love it when I get to see something I have never seen before.  I don’t think I’ve seen a heroine fire a panzerfaust at a church either.  Since I have brought up Tarantino, I have to say that nothing happens in this movie as outrageous as the theater scene in “Inglourious Basterds”.  That’s a compliment. There are many war movie buffs that will probably prefer this movie to IB.

            If you are in the mood for an entertaining little movie with great characters and some nicely done action set pieces, you could do a lot worse than “Blood and Gold”.  I’m not saying your significant other will like it, but it does have strong females. And although the violence is R-rated, the production did not use buckets of blood.  The body count is high, but you don’t get piles of bodies.  The movie is not afraid of killing off heroes and heroines.  Don’t bet on any of the SS surviving.  And it wraps up with a feel-good ending.  (Did I need a spoiler alert for that, too?)


Friday, May 26, 2023

Dunkirk (2004)

Today is the anniversary of the start of Operation Dynamo (the British evacuation from Dunkirk) on May 26, 1940.

            Dunkirk has been covered in two significant movies (I put the word “significant” in so I don’t have to hear anyone piping up about some obscure movie no one cares about.  The 1958 movie is a standard war movie following a squad that makes it to the beach and British civilians that cross the Channel to rescue soldiers.  The Christopher Nolan 2017 movie that daringly took a three part time frame to cover the soldiers, the small boats and the RAF.   We also have “Darkest Hour” which covers the time period when Churchill became Prime Minister and had to deal with the crisis.  If you watch all three, you will get a decent feel for the history of Operation Dynamo, but it won’t replace reading a good history of Dunkirk.  If you say “to hell with reading”, I have an alternative for you.  In 2004, the BBC made a docudrama about it.  It falls under the heading of edutainment.

            The 3 hour series covers Dunkirk day-to-day.  There is a little background on the Nazi blitzkrieg through France, but it then concentrates on the soldiers, the little ships, and Churchill.  The various characters are all real people and the scenes are based on first-hand accounts.  The series makes good use of archival footage, including color footage.  But most of the series is actors reenacting the evacuation and the military and political actions.  These scenes are of the quality of a movie and make use of a good cast of recognizable British actors.  For instance, Benedict Cumberbatch plays an officer in command of a rearguard unit.  It was one of his first acting roles and you can see his potential.  “Band of Brothers” fans will recognize Rick Warden (Lt. Harry Welch) as a doctor dealing with the casualties.  Simon Beale is good as Churchill.  The series does a great job covering Churchill’s conflict with Lord Halifax over whether to negotiate or not. 

            For a television series, the combat is quite good.  It doesn’t look like a low budget production.  The series focuses on several small units.  One is a group that is retreating and surrenders despite orders to fight to the last.  The series is not afraid to show some warts.  The captives are put in a shack and grenades are thrown in.  The two Dunkirk movies did not show German war crimes, so kudos for going there.  There is a scene where British soldiers trying to avoid fighting to the death are shot by officers as they attempt to get out of the trap.  Another unit does put up a last ditch stand and gets wiped out.  Cumberbatch’s unit is one of the ones left to hold the line to the end.  At one point, they use a machine gun against advancing Germans.  Later, the Germans return with civilians to shield them.  Cumberbatch’s character uses a rifle to pick off the Germans, but it just postpones the inevitable.  Rick Warden’s doctor is one of the medical personnel that draw the short straws to stay with the wounded and go into captivity with them.  There are some graphic surgeries that are shown.  The series is not for the squeamish. 

            “Dunkirk” eschews the standard talking heads combined with footage format of most documentaries.  Clearly, many of the characters were interviewed, but their reminiscences are used for the screenplay and actors portray their experiences.  The dialogue is excellent.  The soldiers talk like soldiers and then we have the actual words spoken by Churchill.  The production did not skimp on uniforms and weapons.  Obviously, they did not want to hear from veterans and WWII buffs.  The blending of footage is well done.  Footage is used effectively to show the German air attacks by Stukas.  I found this better than the clearly fake models used in “Battle of Britain”.

            I was surprised how good the series is.  I almost sent the Netflix DVD back, thinking I had better things to spend three hours on.  I am glad I watched it. I should not have been surprised at its quality because I have used similar BBC docudramas in my Western Civ classes.  “Colosseum” is excellent on gladiators and “Pompeii:  The Last Day” uses actors to show various people caught in the ill-fated city.  These kind of productions bridge the gap between documentaries and movies.  They are entertaining and educational.  You certainly will learn more about Dunkirk than you will from the various movies.