Thursday, June 20, 2024

Below (2002)



      “Below” is a horror war movie set on a sub. It was directed by David Thowy who also co-wrote the screenplay. It used the museum sub USS Silversides for exteriors shot on Lake Michigan.  The interiors were modeled after the WWII sub. The movie was a bomb, making only $3 million against a budget of $40 million.

The movie is set in the Atlantic in 1943. The USS Tiger Shark is patrolling when it picks up three castaways from a sunken hospital ship. One of them is a female, Claire (Olivia Williams). The sub suddenly is being stalked by a German destroyer. In the middle of the Atlantic?  Somebody is giving the German navy credit it does not deserve. The depth charging is obligatory. It is very intense as most of the explosives go off near the sub. The special effects are average. A record player playing without anyone starting it is the first clue that something eerie lurks. So, they have the Nazi warship above and an evil force below. In a laughable moment, the destroyer tries to hook the sub! Well, at least that is not cliché. An oil leak requires for men to don dive suits to go out and fix it while the sub remains submerged. Sure, why not? It’s just a movie, after all. Things spiral out of control as the crew gets whittled down. Eventually, we learn why the big evil is upset.

A submarine’s interiors are conducive to horror. “Below” is not the first sub movie to use the claustrophobic setting to enhance suspense. It’s so easy for characters to go insane. And, of course, there is nowhere to run if there is a demon on board. “Below” is a cut above because it throws in a who-dunit as far as why they are being haunted. Unfortunately, it could have been scarier as it relies mostly on sound effects and fleeting ghostly images. It does build well to the conclusion. The pieces fall into place nicely. Just make sure you suspend your knowledge of WWII submarine warfare. It is far from a documentary. At least it avoids most of the submarine cliches.

The cast is good. Greenwood is always reliable. Olivia Williams actually adds to the film as the sole female. She’s not there just for the movie poster. The acting is above average for an average flick. The score is effective and the cinematography is decent. There are lots of closeups, naturally for a sub movie.

“Below” is a decent submarine horror movie. You won’t piss your pants, but it is entertaining. And it is not predictable. It’s not particularly scary, but it is also not laughable. That’s quite an accomplishment for this subgenre.

GRADE  =  C+

Monday, June 17, 2024

100 BEST WAR MOVIES: #54. The Train (1964)


                  “The Train” is a war movie directed by John Frankenheimer that was released in 1964. It is based on a non-fiction book entitled Le Front de l’Art by Rose Valland. The film was originally helmed by Arthur Penn, but co-producer and star Burt Lancaster axed him because Penn wanted to make more of a character study and Lancaster insisted the action be revved up. The film was shot on location in France. No models were used. Those are all real trains crashing and getting blown up. The air bombardment of the marshalling yard was symbiotic because the French government wanted the area cleared anyway. (That less than one minute scene required fifty men wiring TNT for six weeks.) Lancaster (51) did all of his stunts. This included sliding down a hillside. When he injured his knee stepping in a hole while golfing, it was written into the script that he would be wounded while fleeing under fire. One scene where the train races into a tunnel to avoid a strafing Spitfire was added to have an additional action sequence. Frankenheimer was almost killed when the helicopter he was filming from came within ten feet of being hit by the Spitfire.

                  The movie opens in Paris on August 2, 1941 (the 1511st day of occupation), just days away from Allied liberation. A German officer Col. Von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) visits an art gallery where the Nazis have concentrated much of the French masterpieces they have stolen. The curator Mlle. Villard (Suzanne Flon; based on the author Valland) thanks him for being a non-typical Nazi in that he admires art. He says “I’ve often wondered at the curious conceit that would attempt to determine taste and ideas by decree.” She is stunned when he suddenly orders the paintings to be crated up to be removed to a “safe place” in Germany.  It is unclear whether he is an art lover or simply a thief. Von Waldheim becomes obsessed with getting the train loaded with the art out of Paris. He considers it more important than military trains. We first meet his adversary Labiche (Lancaster) on a long tracking shot as he tries to flag down a train, slides down a ladder, runs along the tracks, and jumps aboard the moving train. Labiche runs the rail yard, but is also a leader in the Resistance. He is visited by Villard who makes a passionate case for delaying the art train because the art is part of the glory of France. Labiche is unimpressed and points out that his cell started with eighteen men and is now down to three. “I won’t waste lives for paintings.” Besides, their top priority is delaying a military train so it is still in the yard when a scheduled bombing raid takes place. However, as you can guess, Labiche eventually comes around and becomes heavily involved in making sure the train with the art does not leave France.


ACTING:                      A

ACTION:                      N/A

ACCURACY:                N/A

PLOT:                            A

REALISM:                      C


SCORE:                           C  sparse


QUOTE:  Labiche:  There were over a hundred involved in stopping that train. Switchmen, brakemen, yard gangs, stationmasters. God knows how many will be shot, like Jacques. You know what's on that train? Paintings. That's right, paintings. Art. The national heritage. The pride of France. Crazy, isn't it?

BEST SCENE:  the bombing of the station with the train rushing through

ACCURACY: The movie is surprisingly based on a true story. The book is supposedly a real nail-biter, but in reality the Resistance used paper work and red tape to delay the departure of the train and then put it on a loop around Paris until the Allies arrived. The Spitfire attack was also based on an actual incident, but not involving the art train. The activities of a train station and marshalling yard are authentically depicted.  Other than Villard, all the main characters are fictional.

CRITIQUE: This is a remarkable movie. Frankenheimer described it as the last great action movie made in black and white. It is hard to imagine it in color and colorizing it would be a sacrilege on a par with “Casablanca”. The cinematography is crisp and the railway yard comes off as appropriately gritty and busy. The long tracking shots are awesome and you see a lot of the Frankenheimer style (interesting angles and close-ups) in the way the movie is filmed. There’s lots of deep focus and sweaty faces.

               The acting is great. Lancaster is in top form. He portrays the complexity of Labiche. Labiche is cynical, yet patriotic. He becomes just as obsessed as Von Waldheim. Scofield is an effective foil. He is not your typical Nazi. He is cultural, yet ruthless. He disobeys orders and schemes. The rest of the cast is memorable, especially Michael Simon as Papa Boule and Jacques Marin as the stationmaster. The trains do a great acting job as well. The musical score by Maurice Jarre is fine, but it is overshadowed by the sounds of a working railway and the trains themselves.

The movie starts as a resistance film, but the cloak and dagger has some action in it.  In a terrific scene, an air bombardment catches the train in the yard. A crusty old engineer named Poppa Boule races the art train through the explosions to save the precious cargo. (This iconic scene used 140 explosions involving 3,000 pounds of TNT and 2,000 gallons of gasoline.)  Later, we get an awesome train crash that solidifies the movie’s place as the number one war movie involving trains. Several cameras were destroyed in the shoot.

              The one flaw in the movie is it is pretty preposterous at times. The Germans have to be clueless to be fooled by the changing of the station names. The idea that bombers could avoid hitting some box cars because they are painted white gives too much credit to bombing accuracy. Although the French Resistance was probably not as efficient (or lucky), the movie gives a good look at the dedication of its members and the incredible risks they took. It is an homage to those brave men.

               The theme of the movie is thought provoking. Is a nation’s cultural heritage worth men’s lives? This is the question Labiche has to answer. It is unclear, even at the end, what his answer is. Considering he is the only good guy left alive at the end, the viewer could come to the conclusion that the art was not worth it.

Thursday, June 13, 2024

100 BEST WAR MOVIES #55. Attack! (1956)


“Attack!” is a 1956 film from Robert Aldrich (“The Dirty Dozen”) based on the play “Fragile Fox”. He bought the rights when he failed to obtain those for Irwin Shaw's The Young Lions and Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead. Aldrich had not seen the play, but read the script. The movie was low budget  ($750,000) and was shot on the back lot in just 35 days. It made $2 million. Because of the plot, the Pentagon refused any cooperation. The Army refused to admit there were cowardly officers.  Shame!  Aldrich had to rent two decidedly inauthentic tanks. They  were modified M3 Stuarts. This just adds to the “charm” of the film.  (First use of the word charm in a review of this movie.) 

The film is set in WWII Belgium before the Battle of the Bulge.  A depleted American platoon led by Lt. Costa (Jack Palance) is assaulting a pill box and gets pinned down.  The company commander Capt. Cooney (Eddie Albert) is a coward who refuses to support the attack.  Costas survives and is in a bad mood, to say the least.  It turns out that Lt. Col. Bartlett (Lee Marvin) is propping up Cooney for future patronage from Cooney’s father who is an influential judge.  Costas is very cynical and the only thing that prevents him from fragging Cooney is his friend Lt. Woodruff (William Smithers).  Smithers is the buffer between Costas and Cooney.  He wants Cooney gone, but doesn’t want his friend in Leavenworth.

Bartlett orders Cooney to capture the next town.  Cooney decides a full-scale effort (which would involve him facing flying metal) is uncalled for and orders Costas to lead a squad into an Alamo on the outskirts of the town.  Before leaving, Costas tells Cooney that if he leaves him hanging again, “I’ll shove this grenade down your throat.”  He forgets to add “sir”.  It’s “last stand” time.  Costas is shocked, shocked to find that Cooney pulls a Cooney

It’s Hitler’s last great counteroffensive time as the Battle of the Bulge hits the company.  Bartlett arrives and literally slaps Cooney into defending the town at all costs.  Cooney does not have the cowardice slapped out of him.  Instead, he snaps and is psychiatrist couch-bound.  Unless Costas has survived the Alamo.  Indeed, Costas arrives in a friggin’ fraggin’ mood, but is distracted by having to take out a German tanks with a bazooka.  He then suffers one of the best woundings in war movie history.  The final scene takes place in a basement with Germans rampaging above.  Things are said, things are done.  Issues are resolved.  Not a happy ending, but satisfying.

ACTING:                      A

ACTION:                      A  6/10 in quantity

ACCURACY:               C  6/10 quantity

PLOT:                           A

REALISM:                   B


SCORE:                       C

QUOTE:  PFC Bernstein:  When you salute them two, you have to apologize to your arm.


BEST SCENE: when Costa tries to kill Cooney

Talk about getting bang for your buck.  The only thing low budget is the tanks.  This was Aldrich’s seventh movie and he is definitely showing his style and panache.  The film does have the stage vibe you often get when plays are transferred to film, but he uses cinematic touches to negate that.  His camera shoots through barriers and doorways.  There are shots from above and diagonal views and deep focuses.  It’s a bit showy, but adds to the appeal of the movie.  The score gets attention with sometimes discordant piano music. But some of the music is inappropriately patriotic.  The film is one of the most anti-war films. Aldrich:  "My main anti-war argument was not the usual 'war is hell,' but the terribly corrupting influence that war can have on the most normal, average human beings, and the terrible things it makes them capable of that they wouldn't be capable of otherwise." 

The acting is outstanding with Palance successfully treading the line between scene-chewing and scene-stealing.  It is a remarkable performance with tremendous energy.  Costas is one of my favorite war movie characters.  The rest of the cast is perfect.  Marvin is loathsome and Smithers (in his first big role) is solid.  Kudos to Eddie Albert (a war hero, as were Palance and Marvin) for daringly playing against type.  John Wayne would have never accepted a role like that and he was not even a veteran.  The supporting cast includes Buddy Ebsen, Robert Strauss, and Richard F’in Jaeckel (of course).  If you are of my generation, you will feel very comfortable watching this movie.  

The combat scenes are fairly good for a play, but you’ll remember the dialogue more than the action. The combat is realistic and the deaths are random. The movie blends violence and exposition well.  There are some good lines.  There is some good comic relief in the film, mostly from Strauss. None from Palance. 

If your heart goes out to the officers instead of the enlisted men, you might not enjoy this movie.  It is not so much anti-war as it is anti-brass.  It tends to be moralistic in its anti-authority theme.  Other themes include;  the military is like politics, the higher up you go the more corrupt the officers are, and following orders can really suck.  This movie makes you wonder if blind obedience to orders is a good policy. But it also shows that American soldiers would sometimes take matters into their own hands.  Contrast that to the relationship of German soldiers to their officers. The movie anticipates “fragging” in the Vietnam War. Released in 1956, it was a harbinger of the 60’s wave of modern war films like “The War Lover” and “Hell Is For Heroes.”

 Check out that poster. Pulling a grenade pin with your teeth is an unrealistic cliche, but Jack Palance was definitely capable of doing that.