Sunday, March 17, 2019

CONSENSUS #82. Empire of the Sun (1987)

SYNOPSIS:  When the International Settlement in Shanghai is occupied by the Japanese in 1941, spoiled rich kid Jamie Graham is separated from his parents.  He finds a surrogate father in the Fagin-like black marketeer Basie (John Malkovich).  When they are captured by the Japanese and placed in a camp, Jamie is torn between the part of the camp that has families in it and the part that is single white males run by the King Rat-like Basie.  Jamie treats his life as something of a bizarre summer camp.
BACK-STORY:  “Empire” was based on a biography by J.G. Ballard.  It was published in 1984.  Originally, Warner Brothers tapped Harold Becker to direct and when he dropped out, David Lean took over with Spielberg as producer.  Lean decided the source material was too much like a diary, so he turned directing over to Spielberg who was much more enamored with the book than he was.  Spielberg jumped at the chance because of his admiration for Lean’s films (especially “Bridge on the River Kwai” which it resembles).  Spielberg also loved WWII topics.  This was his third WWII movie after “1941” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark”.  It incorporated common Spielberg themes like separation of a child from his parents (Spielberg was deeply affected by his parents’ divorce when he was 14) and coming of age.  Loss of innocence is also a theme of the movie.  The movie was filmed at a studio in the United Kingdom and on location in Spain and Shanghai (the Chinese government allowed the first movie filming there since the 1940s).  5,000 Chinese extras were used.  The movie was not a box office success.

TRIVIA:  Wikipedia, imdb
1.  Three authentic P-51s were used.   They dropped plaster-filled mock 500 pound bombs in the movie.
2.  Spielberg’s father had been a radio operator on a B-25 Mitchell in the China-Burma Theater.
3.  Christian Bale was cast over 4,000 auditionees partly because author J.G. Ballard felt he resembled him at that age.  Bale was suggested by Amy Irving (Spielberg’s wife at that time) who had co-starred with him in “Anastasia:  The Mystery of Anna”.
4.  Academy   Award nominations for:  Art Direction, Cinematography, Editing, Original Music Score, Costume Design, and Sound.
5.   One of the Zeros (which were actually modified Harvard SJN trainers) was flown by Tom Danaher, a Marine night fighter pilot from WWII who shot down the last Japanese bomber in the war. 
6.  The scene where Jim is tucked in by his parents was modelled after the Norman Rockwell painting for FDR’s “Freedom from Fear”.  The painting is on the wall in the prison camp.
7.  Ballard appears as an extra in the party scene.

Belle and Blade  =  2.5
Brassey’s              =  4.0
Video Hound       =  3.8
War Movies         =  N/A
Military History  =  not on list
Channel 4             =  #43
Film Site                =  no
101 War Movies  =  yes

OPINION:  “Empire of the Sun” is a fine coming of age tale set in wartime.  It features a career-boosting performance by child actor Christian Bale and has an indelible performance by Malkovich.  It’s audience is not really war movie fans.  It is a typical Spielberg movie in that it does not dare to show the real horrors that the foreign civilians must have gone through.  This is not “Schindler’s List”.  On the other hand, it avoids some of the schmaltzy elements of most of Spielberg’s films.  It is not as good as the similar “Hope and Glory” and is overrated at #82.  I would not have it in the top 100.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

CRACKER? Empire of the Sun (1987)

                “Empire” was based on a biography by J.G. Ballard.  It was published in 1984.  Originally, Warner Brothers tapped Harold Becker to direct and when he dropped out, David Lean took over with Spielberg as producer.  Lean decided the source material was too much like a diary, so he turned directing over to Spielberg who was much more enamored with the book than he was.  Spielberg jumped at the chance because of his admiration for Lean’s films (especially “Bridge on the River Kwai”, which it resembles).  Spielberg also loved WWII topics.  This was his third WWII movie after “1941” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark”.  The movie was filmed at a studio in the United Kingdom and on location in Spain and Shanghai (the Chinese government allowed the first movie filming there since the 1940s).  5,000 Chinese extras were used.  The movie was not a box office success. 
                The movie opens in 1941.  Foreigners are living safely in the International Settlement in Shanghai.  Their lives are fairly unchanged even though the Japanese army occupies the rest of the city.  Jamie Graham (Christian Bale) is a spoiled rich kid living in a mansion where he is waited on by Chinese servants.  His family lives a Rolls Royce life in a rickshaw city.  After Pearl Harbor, the Japanese decide to occupy the International Settlement.  This catches the naïve and clueless foreigners by surprise.  In the chaos of trying to escape the city, Jamie is separated from his parents.  He returns home to a well-deserved slap and lack of concern from his former servants.  When he runs out of food, he hooks up with a pair of grifters.  Basie (John Malkovich) dominates his partner Frank (Joe Pantoliano), but he takes a liking to Jamie.  He becomes a Fagin-like figure in Jamie’s life.  He continues to mentor Jamie after they are captured and put in an internment camp.  Jamie is torn between the part of the camp where the families live and the part where Basie and the other single males bunk.  Basie runs his barracks like a King Rat figure.  The camp is like a summer camp to the crafty Jamie.  It is especially enjoyable because it is adjacent to a Japanese fighter base.  Jamie is obsessed with air craft and finds a kindred spirit in a young Japanese pilot wannabe.
                “Empire” incorporates common Spielberg themes.  Jamie is separated from his parents and has to survive through his wits.  Jamie will have to come of age in the years covered by the movie.  (This theme is a bit diluted as the movie makes a massive three-year jump while he is in the camp.)  Another theme is loss of innocence.  This is punctuated by the atomic bombing of Nagasaki which also serves as a loss of innocence for humanity.  The movie does not explore the theme of “war is hell” much.  This is not “Schindler’s List”.  The Japanese are not demonized and the life in the camp is not hellacious.  This lack of realism is troubling.  I’m sure Spielberg would argue that the events are being seen from the wide-eyes of a child.  Thankfully, the themes are explored without the usual Spielbergian excesses.  It is not a schmaltzy movie, like “War Horse”, for instance.
                The movie is most watchable for the performance by Christian Bale.  It’s a star-making turn.  He gets the wild-eyed innocence right.  Jamie is not a cherub.  In fact, he’s something of a little privileged asshole until the shit hits the fan.  He then becomes a survivor, but he doesn’t lose his sense of adventure even as he matures into a mini-Basie.  Speaking of whom, Basie is a fascinating character.  Malkovich is perfect in the role.  He is not quite an anti-hero and the closest equivalent would be Corporal King from “King Rat”.  (This would make Jamie the equivalent of Marlowe.) 
                Is it one of the 100 best war movies ever made?  No.  It could have been if it had been more realistic.  The three-year jump is problematical because it shifts the movie from a tale of survival against all odds to one of a child’s evolution in adversity.  That is still an entertaining arc and Spielberg is great at that sort of plot.  Plus, the movie is a true story, so it deserves credit for not enhancing the tale too much.  It just seems like Spielberg has sugar-coated it too much.  It’s well worth the watch, however.
GRADE  =  B-

Monday, March 11, 2019



“Memphis Belle” is a war movie directed by Michael Caton-Jones loosely based on the WWII war documentary by William Wyler.  How loosely based will soon be apparent.  The movie was co-produced by Wyler’s daughter Catherine.  It cost $23 million and made $27 million.  That’s one million dollars per historical error.

The movie is set in the summer of 1943 at an air base in England.  An Army public relations officer, Lt. Col. Derringer (John Lithgow), is there to inspire the home front with a story about the first B-17 crew to complete the  25 missions tour.  He introduces us to the men via voiceover.  They are a melting pot of American warriors.  A heterogeneous unit – imagine that.  The enlisted consist of a virgin, a reform school graduate, a Catholic boy, a ladies’ man, a farm boy, and a poet.  The Captain is a clean-cut and by the book.  His co-pilot is the opposite.  The bombardier had four years of medical school, or so he says.  The navigator is morose and cowardly.   According to Derringer, the American public is questioning the idea of daylight bombing.  Since the Memphis Belle is undergoing repairs, the crew has a front row seat for a crash landing that ends up in disaster.  Could this be a portent?

The next scene is a big dance in a hangar which is a pretty good period piece with 1940s clothing and British birds.  There is a chanteuse crooning Swing music and lots of jitterbugging.  In an homage to 1940s Hollywood, Clay (Harry Connick, Jr.) gets on stage to sing “Danny Boy”.  This reminded me of Ricky Nelson in “Rio Bravo”.  The morning briefing explains that the target is Bremen.  It is emphasized that the factory is surrounded by a hospital, school, residential area, and petting zoo (I added that last one).  Thank God we had precision bombing which if applied properly would avoid hitting anything but the factory.

Montage of preparation – arming, fueling, etc.  There is a delay in take-off so Danny (Eric Stolz) can recite one of his poems ( actually “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” by W.B. Yeats ).  Nice touch, Danny Downer.  The take-off is majestic with appropriate music.  Cinematic magic turns the five available bombers into at least eight and CGI into more for the formation shots.  The mission is the kitchen sink of anything that could possibly happen to a bomber in WWII Europe plus a few that could only happen in a Hollywood film.  Perhaps a list would make this clear.

1.        The Memphis Belle almost collides with another B-17 in a cloud.  This movie would have sucked if the collision would have occurred!
2.       A small number of German fighters (actually Spanish Ha-1112’s masquerading as Me-109’s) attack and then run away so we can move on to the next problem.
3.       The lead bomber is shot down so the MB has to take the lead.  How cinematically convenient!
4.       There is a hole in the wing which causes them to lose a lot of fuel.  Start the clock.
5.       The target is obscured and Capt. Deerborn makes the decision to bring the entire squadron back around to avoid hitting the petting zoo.
6.       Rascal’s (Sean Astin) ball turret gets shot out from under him and he is left dangling.
7.       There is a fire on board.
8.       Danny is wounded and only med school volunteer Val (Billy Zane) can save him.
9.       A fire in an engine forces Deerborn to crash dive to put it out.
10.    One wheel won’t come down (hey, isn’t that what happened to the crash-landing bomber from the opening?)
11.    The fuel runs out so they are down to one engine.
12.    Virge almost falls through the bomb bay.

Here is another list – clichés in “Memphis Belle”.
1.        There are command issues between Deerborn and his co-pilot Luke (Tate Donovan).
2.       Virge talks about his future plans of opening a chain of hamburger joints.
3.       Virge has sex in the plane.
4.       The crew rags some rookies from “Mother and Country” – can I have your stuff when you get shot down?  Ha! Ha!
5.       Phil (D.B. Sweeney) thinks his number is up.
6.       The ground crews wait for the bombers to return and count them as they do.

This is one of the corniest war movies ever made.  At one point, Deerborn talks to the “Memphis Belle” in a  schmaltzy and wooden way.  Wooden would be the best description of Modine’s performance.  The rest of the cast reminds of “Platoon” in its potential, but does not stand up to the comparison well.  The script does not help them.  The dialogue is sappy and the performances are too sincere.  After bombing the target (perfectly), Deerborn says “Okay boys, we’ve done our job for Uncle Sam, now we’re flying for ourselves.”  Modern actors dropped into a cliché-ridden 1940s war movie plot.  They did buy into it and I bet some of them are embarrassed by their participation.  I imagine they had fun filming it and it sure was more pleasant for them than the “Platoon” cast.  No boot camp for these pretty boys.

The effects are a mixed bag.  The five B-17s add a lot of authenticity (one of them was destroyed in a take-off when it clipped a tree and burned completely).  The interior of the bomber looks like the real deal and the routines are proper.  The air combat is fine with decent radio chatter (unlike “Red Tails”, to name but one).  There’s lots of action which fits the goal of mindless entertainment.  Unfortunately, the CGI is inferior and jarring.  The word “fake” comes to mind.  One bit of corn that works effectively is narration of some letters from relatives of lost men over actual footage of bombers going down.

In conclusion, “Memphis Belle” is the “U-571” of air combat movies.  Corny.  Cliché-ridden.  Predictable.  Tactically farcical.  More importantly, I would describe both of them as obstacle porn.  A continuous string of problems to be overcome by the heroes.  If you are into that kind of entertainment and could care less about accuracy and realism, break out the pop corn and turn off your brain.

“Memphis Belle:  A Story of a Flying Fortress” is the celebrated documentary about the first bomber to complete 25 missions in the 8th Air Force.  It was directed by William Wyler (“The Best Years of Our Lives”) who at the time was a major in the U.S. Army Air Forces.  He bravely flew on several missions and ended up losing hearing in one ear.  One of his cinematographers was killed in action.  Wyler won best documentary for “The Fighting Lady” which was about an aircraft carrier.

His “Memphis Belle” is in Technicolor which must have enhanced the message intended by Wyler.  The purpose of the documentary was to bring the air crew experience home to the home front and inspire the public at a time when support for the bombing campaign was waning.  The narration is very propagandistic and anti-German.  Where the movie is dedicated to all the airmen who fought in the skies over Europe, Wyler dedicates his film to only the 8th Air Force. 

The doc covers the last mission from briefing to kissing the ground on return.  The basic arc is used in the movie, but obviously the 1990 reenactment adds a lot of Hollywood.  The doc does take a few liberties of its own.  The MB was not the first bomber to complete 25 missions.  It was chosen early on as the potential first because Wyler felt that Capt. Robert Morgan had a reputation for competency (and survivability) and he liked the name of the bomber (Morgan’s girl-friend).  Ironically, the back-up plane in case the MB did not make it (Hell’s Angels), actually won the race to go home after 25 missions.  As far as the last mission, in the doc it is against Wilhelmshafen and is fairly hairy.  The flak and fighters variety.  Most of the footage seen in the film (parts come from at least six other missions) was shot on a B-17 named Jersey Bounce because the MB was under repair.  It was the MB crew on board, however.  Speaking of which, none of the characters in the movie match the names or backgrounds of the actual crew.  Most importantly, the last mission of the MB was a milk run (against submarine pens at Lorient, France) which would have been boring for a documentary and death to a feature film.  Wyler was a Hollywood director, after all.  It does strike me as a bit unethical for a documentarian.  The documentary is much better quality than the movie, but you have to get past the jingoistic narration.



83. The Train (1964)

SYNOPSIS: A cultured Nazi officer (Paul Scofield) is determined to get stolen French art works out of Paris to safety in Germany by train. The French Resistance goes to great lengths to delay the train carrying the paintings.  Resistance member / railroad inspector Labiche (Burt Lancaster) engineers the elaborate plan which involves rerouting the train and even staging a spectacular collision.

BACK-STORY: 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 lArt" 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.

TRIVIA:  Wikipedia, imdb, Cinema Retro #6
1.  Burt Lancaster had original director Arthur Penn fired after three days and replaced with John Frankenheimer.  Frankenheimer envisioned the movie as a character study of the men of the Resistance, but Lancaster insisted on it being also about the trains.
2.  The marshalling yard bombardment scene involved 140 explosions, a ton of TNT, 2,000 gallons of gasoline, and 22 cameras.  It took the explosives expert six weeks to set the explosives.  The French railway allowed the destruction because they wanted to destroy the yard, but did not have the funding.
3.  Lancaster sprained his knee stepping in a hole while playing golf.  Frankenheimer dealt with it by having Labiche get wounded while crossing the pedestrian bridge.
4.  It was nominated for Best Original Screenplay.
5.  Lancaster performed all his stunts.
6.  The movie is loosely based on a saving a train full of art, but in reality the train was routed around Paris until the Allies took the city.
7.  Train Magazine chose it as the #1 train movie in its 100 Greatest Train Movies issue.
8.  No models were used in the filming.
9.  In the train derailment, the train was going too fast and wiped out almost all of the cameras.
10.  The Spitfire strafing the train before it entered the tunnel was added after the studio felt the movie needed one more action scene.  It almost ended in disaster when the Spitfire came within thirty feet of hitting the helicopter Frankenheimer was filming in.  His wife fainted.
11.  The original ending had Labiche and Von Waldheim shooting it out.
12.  Lancaster (who had been a circus performer) did all his own stunts.
13.  It is based on the book by Rose Villand who was a French art historian and member of the Resistance.  She secretly recorded Nazi plundering of art and helped save thousands of works.  She is in “The Monuments Men” as Clair Simone.
14.  This was the second time Frankenheimer took over a Lancaster film for a fired director.  The first was “Birdman of Alcatraz”.  He demanded the film be entitled “John Frankenheimer’s The Train”.   He also demanded total control over the final cut and a Ferrari.  When the last scene in “Seven Days in May” had to be reshot, it was done in Paris where “The Train” was shooting and Lancaster’s character gets into the Ferrari to drive off.
15.  The producers purchased 4 locomotives, 40 railroad cars, 7 railroad buildings, and various German weapons and vehicles.

Belle and Blade  =  4.0
Brassey’s              =  4.0
Video Hound       =  5.0
War Movies         =  4.4
Military History  =  #62
Channel 4             =  not on list
Film Site                =  yes
101 War Movies  =  no

OPINION:   “The Train” is one of the greatest guy movies and perhaps the greatest if you are a guy who loves trains.  Lancaster turns in one of his best performances and his physicality is a highlight.  It has suspense, but it is not just an action movie.  It has a provocative theme that questions whether works of art are worth human lives.  It is probably underrated at #83 and is certainly better than several of the movies that are ranked higher.  As you will see.  For the full review, go to The Train