Thursday, February 27, 2014

#8 - Saving Private Ryan (1998)

BACK-STORY:   “Saving Private Ryan” originated from writer Robert Rodat seeing a monument to eight siblings killed in the Civil War.  He brought the idea to producer Mark Gordon.  The movie was a huge critical and box office success.  Made for around $70 million, it made over $480 million and was the highest grossing film of the year.  The Omaha Beach set and reenactment cost $12 million and used 1,500 extras (including amputees) and 40 gallons of fake blood.  The Ramelle set was built from scratch, including the bridge and the river.  It was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won 5 (Cinematography, Sound, Sound Editing, Film Editing, and Director).  Incredibly it lost Best Picture to “Shakespeare in Love” in the most egregious miscarriage in Oscar history.  Almost as perplexing was Hanks’ loss to Roberto Bergnini.  The movie is currently #71 on AFI’s list of greatest movies of all time.

OPENING:  An old man visits a cemetery with his family in tow.  There are American and French flags on display and rows and rows of crosses and Stars of David.  The camera zooms in on the old veteran’s face.  Flashback time.

SUMMARY:  Members of Charlie Company, 2nd Rangers head for Omaha Beach on D-Day.  They are on board a Higgins Boat.  When the ramp goes down, all hell breaks loose.  Thus begins the most amazing combat scene in war movie history.  The variety of viscerality is overwhelming.  Men getting hit by bullets below the water.  Others drowning due to the weight of their equipment.  A flamethrower crew is incinerated.  A soldier picks up his severed arm.  Someone pulls a torso.  Deaths are random.  Blood turns the water red.  Bullets ping off beach obstacles.  Tracers whiz by.  A medic blocks a wounded soldier with corpses. 

this ain't your granddads war movie
                The sea wall is an only slightly safer refuge.  A doctor performs triage on the wounded.  A chaplain gives last rites.  A soldier prays.  Bangalore torpedoes open up a lane through the barbed wire.  Capt. Miller (Hanks) leads his men against a machine gun nest and then up to the bluff where they take out a bunker and battle Germans in a trench system.  Potential prisoners are killed.  With a lull in the violence, the camera pans over the beach debris.  One of the bodies is a “Ryan, S.”

I see the place where Sgt. Fuller blew a hole in
the concrete barrier
 Back in the Pentagon, a typist notices three death letters to a Ryan family.  When Gen. Marshall is informed that the last surviving Ryan boy is alive in Normandy, he reads a letter written by Lincoln to a Mrs. Bixby who had lost five sons in the Civil War.  Marshall: “If the boy is alive we are going to send somebody to find him and we’re gonna get him the Hell out of there.”

It’s D-Day plus 3 when Miller and his men are given the “public relations mission” of finding PFC James Ryan.  The paratrooper is somewhere behind enemy lines.  Miller takes six of his veterans and adds a nerdy cartographer who speaks German named Upham (Jeremy Davies).  The eight leave on their wild paratrooper chase in a foul mood.  Why are they risking their lives for one guy?  They pass through the town of Neuville so the countdown of who will survive can begin.  There is a myth-busting moment involving an enemy sniper and a Mexican stand-off with a German squad.  And a Ryan who is not James F. Ryan.

A night in a church allows for some exposition.  This being an American movie there is a shot at Montgomery for tardiness at Caen.  We learn a little about the men. Miller is the mystery man of the unit with the men debating what he was before the war. The others are your standard heterogeneous small unit.  Horvath (Tom Sizemore) is the gruff sergeant, Mellish (Adam Goldberg) is the Jew,  Wade (Giovanni Ribisi) is the humane medic, Jackson (Barry Pepper) is the religious-hick sniper, and Rieben (Ed Burns) is the carping Brooklynite. 

The next day answers the question of why Miller has seen the deaths of 94 of his men as he makes an extremely poor decision to assault a well-defended radar site.  This in spite of being on a special mission from  Eisenhower’s boss.  To compound the irrationality of the decision, Miller brings along the noncombatant medic and his brilliant tactic is to rush the site, thus ensuring at least one death.  On a positive note, the survivors find out what Miller was before the war.  This revelation suspends a moment of unit dysfunctionality brought on by Miller’s Geneva Conventionish freeing of a German prisoner.  “Steamboat Willie” is on the honors system to report to the nearest Allied unit.

Finally the real Ryan (Matt Damon) is located in a concurrent assault on a German half-track.  Ryan’s unit is in the town of Ramelle where it is defending a bridge.  When informed of his good news/bad news situation, Ryan refuses to leave his nonfamilial band of brothers.  At least not before the final set piece.  If this was a hockey match, we are now between the second and third periods.  More exposition and in an homage to earlier WWII films, a song.  They, and the audience, are resting up and preparing for the storm to come.  The eerie tank-like sounds herald the arrival of a Panzer unit.  It’s go time!

CLOSING:  Sticky bombs, Molotov cocktails, and thrown mortar rounds versus Tiger tanks.  It’s the Alamo with WWII weapons.  Or Fort Zinderneuf.  Or Rorke’s Drift.  Or Pork Chop Hill.  There is a reappearance of “Steamboat Willie”, but not as a prisoner of war.  There are some gut-wrenching deaths (and I’m not talking about Nazis) and one Hell of a twist ending that puts us back in the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT?  Apparently, from the box office receipts.  Excellence and Tom Hanks trumps graphic violence and no significant female character. 

where's a P-51 tank buster when you need one?

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  SPR does not claim to be based on a true story, it does not even claim to be inspired by a true story.  This is a bit surprising because it could legitimately claim that inspiration by way of two sources.  The 5 Sullivan Brothers all perished when the U.S.S. Juneau went down off Guadalcanal. This led to the adoption of the Sole Survivor Rule in which the Pentagon attempted to avoid the loss of entire sibling sets.  A stronger connection to the film is to the Niland family.  Frederick Niland was a paratrooper in Normandy who was pulled out of combat and returned home after two brothers were lost in D-Day and a third was shot down over Burma (and survived Japanese imprisonment).  In spite of the similarity to the Niland story, it is obvious that Spielberg’s film is meant to be fictional.  For that reason, it is more appropriate to discuss how realistic it is rather than how accurate it is.

                The Omaha Beach scene has been justifiably lauded for its realism (including by veterans of the assault) and still remains the most realistic reenactment of any combat in war movie history.  However, it is not perfect.  The Americans landing on Dog Green sector were actually transported on British landing craft, not Higgins Boats.  The carnage rings true, but the time compression makes the conquest of the bluff seem much too quick and easy.  And by the way, bullets lose too much momentum when they enter water to be able to kill men, as depicted in the film.

                As to the mission, it seems unlikely that a crack squad of Rangers would have been sent on this type of mission to find one man.  In reality, a chaplain located Fritz Niland.  The sniper duel is reminiscent of a confrontation involving Marine sniper Carlos Hatchcock in the Vietnam War.  He put a bullet through the enemy’s scope at about 100 yards.  In the film, Jackson estimates his shot at 450 yards which puts it out of the range of possibility given gravity’s effect on a bullet’s trajectory.  I’ve already dealt with the unrealistic tactics in the radar site assault.  As far as allowing the prisoner to go, Miller certainly would not have faced charges for the common sense alternative.

                As far as the last battle is concerned, there are several problems.  Although there were such things as “Sticky Bombs”, they were a British experiment and were not make-shift.  I found no evidence that they were described in the U.S. Army Field Manual.  It is also highly unlikely that mortar shells could be armed by hitting them on the base plate and then thrown to explode on a target.  As far as the tanks are concerned, there were no Tiger tanks in that part of Normandy at that stage of the war.  Also, tactically the Germans would probably have sent the infantry in first.  By the way, the tanks used in the film were Soviet T-34s mocked up to look like Tigers.  I have no problem with that.  What I do have a problem with is why the tanks did not use their machine guns.  I suppose that game changer would have messed with the plot.  Speaking of tanks, Miller would not have been able to fire a machine gun into the tank’s viewer.  One last thing:  the P-51 that arrives to save the day had no ability to fire a rocket or drop a bomb.  (Joining all the other fighter planes in war movie history that dropped ordinance they did not have.)

Thank God that tank forgot it's machine gun ammo
The acting in “Saving Private Ryan” is very good. Tom Hanks is his usual outstanding self, but the supporting cast is strong and there are no weak performances. Even Vin Diesel (thankfully not in the film long enough to do damage) ups his game and dies well. Speaking of which, SPR has the highest quality of death scenes that I have seen in a war movie.  SPR is famous for the ten day boot camp the actors were put through by Dale Dye in preparation for their roles. Matt Damon (Ryan) was purposely left out so he would be treated subconsciously as an outsider. For a movie that attempts to be as close to reality as possible, the actors do not come off as like they are playing army men. They gripe a lot and question the mission. They do not want to accept the new guy (Upham) and never really bond with him. They respect Capt. Miller, but only grudgingly follow him when he issues questionable orders.  This is realistic considering some of the stupid decisions he makes.  

Dale Dye taught me how to do this
“Saving Private Ryan” is not remembered for its dialogue. In fact, in one of the most powerful scenes (when Mrs. Ryan is notified about her sons’ deaths), there is not a spoken word. The movie does have some nice dialogue.  Much of it is aimed at non-war movie buffs so some of it (the running FUBAR routine, for instance) can be aggravating.  Robert Rodat’s script was nominated for Best Original Screenplay. Much of the dialogue is terse and the most famous line is simply: “Earn this.” The monologues are well done, especially when Wade describes pretending to be asleep when his mother would come home and when Miller finally reveals his previous life. Best line: “This Ryan better be worth it. He'd better go home and cure some disease or invent a longer-lasting lightbulb or something. 'Cause the truth is, I wouldn't trade 10 Ryans for one Vecchio or one Caparzo.” (Miller)

SPR was lauded for creating a new style war movie when it came out and many of the masses swallowed this analysis. In reality, it merely puts a different spin on the classic war movie template. It is after all a hero leading a small unit on a mission. The hero is forced to assume command. The unit is heterogeneous.  There is a conflict within the group between Reiben and Horvath that is resolved by external pressure. There is a ritual recalling the peaceful past (listening to the song on the gramophone). The movie clearly alternates from combat to rest/exposition. The movie does lack a redemption character.  See my post on WWII war movie cliches 

SPR combines two standard war movie plot tropes. The first half is the patrol on a mission and the second half is the last stand. Both segments incorporate the “who will survive?” angle. Although not groundbreaking as far as those tried and true elements, the way the screenwriter handles them is quite good. The objective is certainly outside the box- a mission to rescue one soldier. The plot is very manipulative of the audience and takes advantage the non-war movie lovers who would find much of it fresh. It pulls all the emotional strings reaching a crescendo at the end. It throws in a German character to link key scenes and contrive the ending. As ridiculously implausible as this arc is, it is not embarrassing like in “The Big Red One”.

Although incorrectly credited with modernizing the war movie plot, SPR can be credited with taking war movie combat to a new level of realism. It is popular these days to downplay the greatness of the movie, but the opening scene is still the most amazing combat scene ever filmed and has not been topped after fifteen years and many challengers. That one scene will be remembered as a seminal moment in war movie history. I also would like to remind everyone that Dale Dye was the technical advisor so it was well vetted.

The cinematography of Janusz Kaminski richly deserved the Oscar.  He managed to get a newsreel feel by desaturating the colors.  Equally impressive are the sound effects.  The sounds of battle have seldom been better.  The highlight is when Miller loses his hearing due to explosions and combat stress. The monstrous roar of the Tiger tanks in the final battle is straight out of a horror movie. It could be argued that SPR has the best sound and visual effects of any war movie.  The score by  John Williams is fine and not bombastic.

CONCLUSION:  It is popular lately to take shots at “Saving Private Ryan” and I have to admit that upon watching it for the tenth time and reading about some of the mistakes, it is not perfect.  However, it is clearly a masterpiece as entertainment for the masses.  People like me have to remind ourselves that not everyone has seen a lot of war movies.  Tropes are not as obvious to average viewers.  More specifically, most people are not concerned with the use of a Higgins Boat in place of British LCAs.  You can accuse Spielberg of manipulating the emotions of the audience, but he is a master at this and he is at the top of his game here.  When you watch some of his more recent efforts like “War Horse”, you can appreciate the relative sublety of this film and be thankful it’s earlier Spielberg.  In my opinion, its position in the top ten is appropriate. 

Acting – A
Action – 9/10
Accuracy -  C
Realism -  B
Plot – B



Saturday, February 22, 2014

DUELING MOVIES: Imitation General (1958) vs. On the Double (1961)


                The dueling movies are two WWII comedies.  Both involve cases of mistaken identity.  “Imitation General” stars Glenn Ford as Sgt. Murphy.  He and Cpl. Derby (Red Buttons) are with a Gen. Lane at an isolated French farmhouse owned by a feisty French girl named Simone (Taina Elg).  When the general gets killed, Murph decides to masquerade as him to keep morale up.  The complication (surprise, there is one!) is that Murph’s bitter enemy is now on the scene.  Pvt. Hutchmeyer (Tige Andrews) holds a grudge because Murph had him busted.  Comedy ensues with comic relief supplied by Buttons, of course.  The movie tries to be a dramedy by throwing in some action.  Murph uses a jeep rigged up as a tank to defend a bridge against a German attack. There is actually a neat little tank battle (with the same model tanks on both sides).  Murph and Derby take out two tanks by jumping on them, covering the sights and throwing in grenades, like any general would do!  All this while avoiding Hutchmeyer.
                “On the Double” is a Danny Kaye movie which tells you a lot about what is going to happen in it.  Naturally, he will play more than one role.  Kaye is the hypochondriac, coward Ernie Williams who because of his ability to mimic anyone is tabbed for Operation Dead Pigeon.  He will double for Col. MacKenzie-Smith who is a key person in Operation Overlord.  The Germans are out to assassinate the colonel, but Ernie is not told this is a suicide mission. This movie has a complication as well.  The colonels estranged wife Lady Margaret (Dana Wynter) shows up and somehow knows this buffoon is not her suave husband.   They fall in love and the real colonel’s plane gets shot down so they live happily ever after.  Well, not until lunacy ensues.  Assassination attempts allow Kaye to do his usual shtick which includes singing a song and lots of physical comedy.  He gets kidnapped and brought to Berlin.  Did I mention this is not a true story?  After talking jibberish under torture (three minutes of it), he escapes using a variety of disguises, including Hitler.
                This is more of a pillow fight than a duel.  “Imitation General” has some good acting.  Ford and Buttons are their usual reliable selves.  They do their best with a lame script.  Even for a comedy, the plot is rife with implausibilities.  The main problem is it is not that funny.  “On the Double” is a typical Danny Kaye vehicle, but not one of his better ones.  He gives it his all, but much of it is forced.  There is even a food fight!  The plot sets up future bits in a ham-handed way.  For instance, the colonel wears a patch over his left eye, but Ernie is poorly sighted in his right so they get him a contact.  Do you think there will be a moment when the contact falls out and Ernie will be comically blinded?  Obviously, OTD makes IG look like a documentary.  It is far from subtle, but some of the jokes score.  It’s more quantity than quality, however.
                Which film is better?  That’s a tough call.  If you want a little action, choose “Imitation General”.  If you just want humor, watch “On the Double”.  Just don’t expect a lot of laughs from either.  They are both forgettable and mark the end of an era that was replaced by the cynical / satirical school of movies like “Dr. Strangelove”, “Catch-22”, and “MASH”.   Progress is good.
                 P.S. Check out those posters.  Apparently depictions of women bathing really drew audiences in the lat 50s/early 60s. 

Imitation General =  C-

On the Double =  C          

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

CLASSIC or ANTIQUE? The Lost Patrol (1934)


                “The Lost Patrol” is a John Ford “who will survive in the outpost?” movie.  It is based on a novel entitled Patrol by Philip McDonald.  It was filmed in the Algodones Dunes of California.  The actors had to deal with 120 degree weather.  It was produced for $262,000 and made $583,000.  Did I mention it was made in 1934?  The movie was nominated for an Oscar for Musical Score by Max Steiner.  It is considered by some to be a minimalist masterpiece.  It is certainly minimalist in length at 73 minutes.

                The movie opens with a twelve man patrol trudging through the Mesopotamian desert during the Great War.  This could be the sandiest movie in history.  Bang!  There goes the only officer and the only person with a clue as to where they are going and why.  Our first clue that this is going to be a minimalist plot is the fact that the men of the patrol seem to care not at all about their dead officer.  Perhaps he was a jerk.  The Sergeant (Victor McLaglan whose brother starred in the original silent version and who served in the Irish Fusiliers in that same area and time) takes command and leads the patrol to an oasis.  For the Western obsessed Ford, this will stand in for a fort and the lurking Arabs will be the Indians.  When they reach the oasis, they all refuse to jump in the water and splash around gleefully.  Just kidding.

Okay, this time remember to not yell "Here come the Injuns!"
                This is a small unit dynamics movie.  The group is heterogeneous in an all-white sort of way.  With only 73 minutes available, we don’t get a lot of back-story on our crew.  Naturally one of them is a wolf who regales his mates with his conquests.  One is a na├»ve newbie.  One is a veteran father figure.  Obviously the Sergeant is gruff, but caring.  The one non-stock character is a Bible thumper named Sanders (Boris Karloff).  By the end of the film, Karloff has chewed all the bark off the palm trees. 

                They awake the next morning to find the newbie knifed to death and the horses gone.  Two down, ten to go.  The jovial guy climbs a palm tree and gets shot.  Dude, never climb a tree in a war movie!  They draw straws to see which two will go for help.  In the daylight.  Great plan, Sarge.  They return strapped to horses and mutilated.  Four down.  One of the survivors goes charging out for revenge – fail.  Five down.  Some more picking off by the amazingly proficient Arab snipers who never miss.  Three left.  Although we’re never told what the Arabs are upset about, we can assume they don’t like foreign occupiers drinking up their water.  Uncivilized bastards!
                A biplane spots them and proceeds to land and the pilot jauntily hops out.  Bonus death!  Is this movie a comedy?  It is laughable in spots.  Good thing the plane came along because how else would the Sergeant get a machine gun.    As anyone who has seen any of the British Imperial action movies (e.g. “The Lives of a Bengal Lancer”) knows, machine guns are the best for mowing down pesky natives.  Also, a burning plane makes a good smoke signal.  By the way, they don’t bother to check on the pilot when they go out to the plane.  Screw him, damned flyboy.

It says here that in a Lost Patrol movie
we each get picked off.  Damn!
                Before the cavalry arrives, Sanders completes his arc to complete insanity and goes toodling off with a cross (get it?) for a walking stick.  Sometimes in movies like this you get the irony of the insane guy surviving.  Not this movie.  Two left.  For God knows what reason, Morelli goes to Sanders and gets – well, you know by now.  Twelve Arab bullets – twelve British dead.  (Oops – one of them was knifed.)  Is Ford going all in and closing bleakly (and realistically)?  Did I mention the movie was released in 1934 and needed to recoup its $262,000?  I know I mentioned the machine gun.

          Finally we see the Arabs.  So does Sarge.  It’s payback time.  The Sergeant slaughters them while laughing hysterically (the only way to laugh when outnumbered) .  They are not getting (back) this watering hole!  The cavalry arrives.  Column rides off into the sunset – Western style.

Come at me camel jockeys!
                I have read reviews that call this a masterpiece.  Wrong!  “Classic” is a little more appropriate because it is old, John Ford, and influenced the subgenre.  Frankly, it’s neither a masterpiece nor a classic.  It is just flat out a bad movie.  Much of it is ridiculous.  Most of the actions of the patrol make no military sense.  The Sergeant is supposed to be a great leader, but he actually is a doofus.  Climb that tree.  Go out into the desert in broad daylight to get help.  There is a hilarious scene where the Sergeant and Morelli guard the perimeter from the same spot.  Lucky for them the Arabs are too stupid to use maneuver or attack from several directions at once.

                The movie is minimalist because it’s short and simplistic.  The acting is satisfactory except for the embarrassing performance by Karloff.   Someone must have told him he was in a silent movie.  The music is constant, but not bad in setting the mood.  It does not bludgeon you (like some of Steiner’s scores).  It is very Old School.  No blood or even bullet holes.

Dude, give it a rest, the cameras aren't running.
                Relatively speaking, “The Lost Patrol” is not a bad movie.  But I am not reviewing based on the relative merits of war movies.  I am reviewing based on how good the movie is compared to all war movies, not just war movies from its era.  With that said, this movie is bad.  If it was remade with the same script, it would be laughed out of the theaters.  Crispin Glover could play Sanders.

grade =  D


Sunday, February 9, 2014

NOW SHOWING: The Monuments Men (2014)

                “The Monuments Men” is a movie about the previously little known MFAA (Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives) program.  This unit was created by the Roosevelt Administration to protect and recover art works in WWII Europe.  The film was directed by George Clooney and is based on the book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert Edsel.  It was filmed mainly in Germany.  The movie begins with the classic “based on a true story” claim. 

                The story starts with a prologue that establishes that the Nazis (in particular Hermann Goering) are looting art throughout occupied Europe.  The unit is the brainchild of an art conservationist named Frank Stokes (Clooney).  One selling point in his slide presentation to FDR  is a reference to what happened to the monastery at Monte Cassino.  Stokes recruits several colleagues (none of whom is reluctant to risk his life in what is clearly going to be a dangerous mission).  The recruitment is done without dialogue which is a nice touch, but negates much character development.  In a foreshadowing of the level of humor, one of the men gets a physical while smoking a cigarette and the doctor is smoking (and hacking), too.  The obligatory training sequence is mercifully short and inserted solely to establish that the guys can kill Nazis if necessary.  And they get to dress like soldiers.

"I'm putting together a unit and I need one hunk
for any romance breaks out"
                In his briefing of the six other unit members, Stokes points out that Hitler is looting art for his planned Fuhrer Museum in his home town.  In July, 1944 they land in Normandy and meet immediate resistance from the military.  It seems the Army is more interested in blowing things up than preserving art.  The idea of protecting sites is immediately nixed, but it’s okay for them to roam the front lines (and beyond) sans escort.  In particular, they are hunting the Ghent Altarpiece and Michelangelo’s statue “Madonna With Child”.  Along with these two subplots, Granger (Matt Damon) is sent to make contact with a French art historian named Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett) who works in a Paris museum which is the main conduit for French art being sent to Germany.  Claire is reluctant to confide in Granger because she suspects the U.S. of wanting the art for itself.  “How can I help you steal our stolen art?”  She is feisty and skeptical, but Granger is Matt Damon – you do the math. 

                The movie’s middle third is divided between the quests by segments of the unit.  Each is a little mini-war movie.  Campbell (Bill Murray) and Savitz (Bob Balaban) are tasked with the Ghent Altarpiece. Their relationship has the earmarks of a buddy film.  Garfield (John Goodman) and Clermont (Jean Dujardin) are sent out to get shot at.  The action scenes.  Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville) goes after the Madonna in Bruges.  The behind the lines scene.  Meanwhile, Stokes and his German interpreter Pvt. Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas) supervise and put leads together.  The detective story.  They discover that the Germans are hiding the art in various mines.  Oh, and the romance between Claire and Granger.  There’s something for everyone!

will these two art loving foes form a bond?  have you
never seen a buddy film?
                The last third deals with the mines as the crew is reunited.  Two races ramp up the suspense.  First, there is the Nero Decree which states that in the event of Hitler’s death, the Nazis are to destroy all the looted art.  Second, the Soviet Trophy Brigade is looting the looted art as reparation for all the damage done to the Soviet Union during the war.  This movie manages to have evil Nazis and Communist bastards.  In fact, the final set piece is a race to the last mine (and the Madonna) that, with the aid of clock-ticking music, has the audience on the edge of its seat as it frets over who will get possession of a statue.  Don’t watch this movie if you have heart problems!  (Which based on the age of my audience…)  The movie closes with a head-scratching cribbing from “Saving Private Ryan”.  This includes the “was it worth it?” query.

                This ain’t “Inglorious Basterds”.  It is more of a throwback to Old School war movies.  There is no cursing nor graphic wounds.  One main character stays loyal to his wife when tempted by an exotic mademoiselle.  The movie even manages to incorporate a Christmas song.  (Perhaps because the film was originally supposed to be a December release.)  The humor is far from cutting edge.  It is smile-worthy with some eye-rollers.  Even Murray’s character is subtle in this respect.  Fortunately, there are no unintentionally funny moments, although some of the plot enhancements are silly to anyone who is big on reality or does not like huge coincidences.  I’m talking about you - “mine scene”.
We were soldiers, too!
                The movie will probably be popular because of the cast.  Clooney chose well when he assembled his Oceans Seven.  They are all comfortably familiar actors.  It is hard to alienate an audience when you have Damon, Murray, and Goodman in your cast.  Kudos to Clooney for not dominating in his own movie.  The acting is fine, if unspectacular.  Clooney’s direction is workmanlike.  The cinematography features some off centered shots and multi-leveled compositions, but you won’t leave the theater marveling at what you have seen.  Clooney managed to round up enough period vehicles to give the movie a WWII war movie vibe.  There is little combat so the jury is out on his ability to stage war action.  In fact, the one brief fire fight is marred by an egregious disregard for common sense tactics by American soldiers.  There is also a sniper scene that is only saved from ridiculousness by the twist of who the German sniper turns out to be.

                The movie eschews cliches for the most part.  There is no command dysfunction and little conflict within the group, although we do get the trope of the authorities being uncooperative.  The unit is not heterogeneous.  You do get a redemption arc for Jeffries.  There is also something of a suicide mission, who will survive? feel to the plot.  Naturally, the script throws in the Jewish interpreter and Holocaust references like a cache of gold fillings.  We get two evil Nazis! One who inexplicably decides shooting at Clare with a luger from 50 yards is preferable to a firing squad for a French Resistance rat.  The other is the heinous heinie who kills one of the seven.  Hiss!   They keep popping up as those types tend to. 
Will Claire ever warm to James?  Have you never seen
a romance movie?

                “The Monuments Men” is what I sometimes call a WTF/WTF war movie.  This means it has scenes where you shake your head at what has to be complete crap and then you find out some of those scenes were actually accurate.  This film is a mixed bag and based on preliminary research I would have to say it is average for a “based on a true story” movie.  The Monuments Men unit did exist and was created to rescue as well as protect art.  However, it consisted of 350 men and women from 13 different countries.  The individuals did come from various art-related occupations and they did go through military training.  All the main characters but Clermont are based on real people, although the names have been changed.  Stokes is George Stout who was an art conservationist who played a main role in the creation of the MFAA and was one of the first to land in Normandy.  The other members never worked as a unit or even in pairs, as the movie depicts.  Claire was Rene Vallard and she is pretty accurately portrayed, including her reluctance to help the MFAA.  I seriously doubt the romance subplot is authentic.  The unit did learn about a cache from a dentist whose son-in-law was a former S.S. officer.  He did not have stolen art decorating his abode.  The Nero Decree was for real, but was never implemented.  No flamethrowers.  Hitler was planning on an art museum in his home town.  One of the mines did contain a huge quantity of gold that drew more press than the art recovery efforts.  As far as the deaths, one actual member was killed by a shell while moving an altarpiece.  The staging of both deaths is pure crap, but at least the movie does not have the men actively involved in combat.  For more details, wait for my upcoming “History or Hollywood” post.

It is hard for me to be too harsh with “The Monuments Men”.  It falls into my most valuable category of war movies – those that bring light to a little known, but deserving individual, unit, or event.  This category includes some great movies like “Glory”, but most are misfires like “Red Tails”.  Unfortunately, if the producer botches the effort, there is little chance for a redo.  (“Red Tails” being particularly disappointing as the rare second attempt after “Tuskegee Airmen” came up short.)  I think it’s safe to say there will no future films highlighting the MFAA.  “The Monuments Men” falls midway between “Glory” and “Windtalkers” (the two extremes) in quality.  If you want to watch a much superior movie on this subject, watch “The Train”.  And then remember that before there was George Clooney, there was Burt Lancaster.  Progress?

Grade =  C

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

WTF? Journey to Shiloh (1968)

                “Journey to Shiloh” is a small unit movie set in the American Civil War.  It may be about the war, but it looks a lot like a Western.  A crappy Western.  You know you are in trouble early when a cheesy ballad introduces each of the seven young Texans who are going to trek to Rchmond to enlist in the Confederate army.  Gee, they sure hope the fun isn’t over before they get there!  It is one of the stupidest openings in any movie I have seen.  A saloon fight one minute in confirms we are not going to be seeing anything special.  It is obvious this will be one of those “who will survive?” films.  I guessed three.
                The cast is filled with faces that will become familiar.  It’s nice to see they will all improve and hopefully they were able to erase this movie from their memories and their resumes.  James Caan plays the leader of the septet.  He is a hot head and a quick draw named Buck.  The boys have a series of encounters on their journey.  They attend a dance where they meet a slave family.  “We just folks, suh.  Only difference is we born to Col. Claiborne.”  Hopes we Southerners whup dem Yankees.  At least Buck seems uncomfortable with this dialogue.  They get kicked out of the dance for being “savages”. 
               When J.C. deserts, Buck insists on going get him because he took an oath.  He finds him in a crooked card game that results in the first of the seven to go.  Buck does nothing about the killing of his friend.  Next they run into an escaped slave and turn him over to the local sheriff.  Later they see him lynched outside town.  Hey, it’s the South, what are you going to do?   Keep going to fight for it.
                  Our heroes get tricked into enlisting in the Pensacola Greys led by the mean and strict Braxton Bragg (the only accurate thing in the movie).  They are off to Shiloh, but arrive one less as Lil Bit (Jan Michael Vincent) dies from sickness, but with his perfect hair unmussed.  Five left.  The Battle of Shiloh has been better reenacted with Lego figures than in this movie.  The tactics are ridiculous and the battle is flamingly inaccurate.  Todo (Don Stroud) dies of a chest wound.  Willie Bell (Harrison Ford!) and Eubie (Michael Burns) are killed off screen.  No great death scenes for them.  Now we’re two.
                Buck wakes up with his arm amputated.  Meanwhile, Miller (Michael Sarrazin) is holed up in a barn mortally wounded and charged with desertion.  Buck arrives so Miller can talk himself to death.  Then along comes Gen. Bragg who is impressed with Buck’s story of the Concho County Comanches and does not want them to go 0 for 7 so he let’s Buck go.  (Scratch that comment about Bragg being accurately portrayed.)  OMG another cheesy ballad reprises their deaths! 
                This is a terrible movie.  It is one of the worst war movies I have seen since I started this blog.  What is it about the Civil War that there are so few quality movies?  “Journey to Shiloh” looks like a made for TV movie – a very bad made for TV movie.  James Caan is good, but the rest of the cast are bad.  The film is corny, trite, and cheesy. Not to beat a dead horse, but the Springfield Trapdoor models used in the film were not available until 1879.  Also, none of the actors have facial hair.  Good research, Mr. Director.
             Check out that epic poster!  They "left in blazing glory!"  Not. 

grade =  F

Saturday, February 1, 2014


                “Hart’s War” is a POW / court room hybrid.  It’s like a mash-up of “A Soldier’s Story” and “The Great Escape”.  It is based on a novel by John Katzenbach.  It was directed by George Hoblit.  It was filmed at a studio in Prague.

                Hart (Colin Ferrell) is a green staff officer who has no worries about combat because he is a Senator’s son.  Unfortunately, the Battle of the Bulge sneaks up on him (it is quieter in this movie than others) and he gets taken captive by some of those Germans-disguised-as-Americans.  Within a two minute section, the movie also manages to toss in a reference to the Malmedy Massacre.  I was surprised they didn’t throw in McAuliffe saying “Nuts!”

Instead of the usual play, why don't we stage a
murder trial to break the boredom?
                Hart is interrogated by your typical suave Nazi.  He wants to know where the fuel dumps are.  You know, like the one at the end of  “Battle of the Bulge”.  Does Hart talk?  Unsure.  He is put on a POW train which passes by a train full of Jews.  Check that reference off.  At one point a P-51 strafes the train in a scene reminiscent of the crossing the Volga scene in “Enemy at the Gates”.  There are explosions, quick cuts, and generally frenetic running about.

                When Hart arrives at Stalag VI A, he is greeted by the sight of three Russian prisoners hanging.  The German commandant Col. Visser (Marcel Iures) is evil and the opposite of Col. Klink.  The ranking American officer is Col. MacNamara (Bruce Willis) who suspects Hart ratted out the fuel dumps and it turns out he’s right.  This conveniently results in Hart being relegated to an enlisted man’s barracks so the movie can move in a new direction. The plot is roiled by the arrival of two Tuskegee Airmen.  Would you believe they are not welcomed by the white soldiers?  In particular, a loathsome cracker named Bedford (Cole Hauser) who plants a tent spike in the bunk of one of the blacks which results in his execution.  Guess what racist ends up dead with the other black named Scott (Terrence Howard) standing over him?  In between we get the CGI spectacle of a German fighter getting shot down into the camp.  Cool.  Oh, did I mention the American fighter has its tail painted red?

Hey Southerners, look who came to
our slumber party!
                McNamara insists on a court-martial for Scott because he is accused of killing an American.  This is intended as a distraction to cover an escape attempt.  Visser agrees to this because… I’m not sure.  McNamara appoints Ferrell as defense attorney because…I’m not sure.  Visser helps Hart by giving him an American court-martial manual (which he keeps on his shelf next to his copy of Mein Kampf).  He does this because… I’m not sure.

                In the trial, Scott gets called to the witness stand so he can break the fourth wall and give a speech about mistreatment of blacks which mentions the better treatment of German POWs in the American South.  I would have squirmed if I did not know all this stuff already.  The speech is not maudlin and actually works pretty well.  McNamara is put on the witness stand so Willis can do his Jack Nicholson (“A Few Good Men”) imitation.  While all this is going on McNamara is supervising a tunnel to launch a raid on a nearby munitions camp.  The trial is just a distraction.  By the way, try not to be distracted by the fact that the destruction of the munitions plant would most likely rain executions on the prisoners.  No one argues whether it’s a good idea.  The movie closes strong with intercutting between the summations in the trial and the escape.  I won’t give away any of what happens, but it is pretty powerful if implausible.
a Nazi, a Democrat, and a Republican

                “Hart’s War” is a war movie for people who do not care about war movies.  It is aimed at the generic audience.  The producers appear to have doubted whether a regular prisoner escape movie would be profitable so they added a court room drama and then threw in a Tuskegee Airmen / Red Tails subplot so the film could have some gravitas.  The fact the movie did not do well at the box office tends to show that you shouldn’t structure a war movie based on demographics.  With that said, it is not a bad movie.  It is entertaining, if you can suspend disbelief and just sit back and watch.  The acting is good.  Willis is strong and seems to have bought into the character.  Ferrell is adequate.  Visser is sufficiently malevolent.  Terrence Howard should be able to play a Tuskegee Airmen in his sleep at this point.  The characters are not one-dimensional.  The dialogue is fine. 

                The major flaws in the movie are due to aiming at a mass audience.  The themes are trite.  Redemption of Hart from being a rat.  Sacrifice for your country and men (McNamara).  Honor is more important than life (Scott).  The biggest problem is that in order to develop the themes, the script has to pile on implausibilities and unrealities.  For instance, the whole opening scene where Hart is captured is absolutely ridiculous to anyone familiar with the Battle of the Bulge.  Even small touches can be aggravating.  In the trial, Scott claims to have shot down nine German planes in thirty missions.  No Red Tail came close to that figure.  Some cool twists partly make up for the predictability of the themes.  Another balancing factor is the production values are strong.  The camp is one of the best in the subgenre.  Real effort went into it.  The tunnel is also well done and similar to that of “The Great Escape”.  However, I’m not sure if reminding people of “The Great Escape” is a good idea when your movie is much inferior.
                Cracker?  Unlikely.  It is not even in the upper rank of POW movies.