Saturday, December 31, 2016

NOW SHOWING: Rogue One (2016)

                Usually when a new war movie is released, I try to get to the theater as soon as possible to review it so all my fans (both of them) will know whether to go see it.  In this case, I waited until everyone else in the country had seen it.  The reason is I had a gut reaction against it.  After having been burned by all the Star Wars movies since the second one, I was not exactly going to camp out over night for this one.  The belatedness was not due to it not being a war movie.  While certainly firmly in the sci-fi genre, it does fit secondarily into the war genre.  In the future, I will be compiling my top ten sci-fi war movies.  (One of many projects that will keep me semi-retired.)  Let’s see if this one will make the list.

                “Rogue One:  A Star Wars Story” is the first in a proposed trilogy of Star Wars stand-alones.  Someone at Lucasfilms had a discussion with their boss and convinced him that although the last five Star Wars films were fantastic and not at all pieces of shit, maybe a different approach might be fun.  Coppola bought it, thankfully.  Gareth Edwards was tabbed to direct and he decided to develop immediate good will from the non-Koolaid drinkers by jettisoning the opening crawl that even people from Outer Mongolia associate with Star Wars movies.  He got the green light to populate the movie with two outstanding actors and the ghost of another and then fill in the cast with unknowns.  And most importantly, he decided to Hell with four year olds.  Sorry Jar Jar Binks and Ewoks fans.

                The movie opens on some backwoods planet named “who cares?”  Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelson) is a genius scientist who is needed by an evil less genius scientist named Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) to finish their big project – a weapon that can destroy planets.  Galen has been hiding for years, but Hollywood finds him.  In the process, his daughter Jyn decides to postpone her well-rehearsed escape long enough to see Krennic kill her mother.  Revenge motive established, the movie jumps fifteen years.  Fifteen years of feist-developing.  She is rescued from a labor camp because the rebel Alliance needs her to make contact with her father.  A defector pilot named Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) has been sent by Galen to clue them in on a weakness in the Death Star he has helped Krennic complete.  A hot shot rebel named Sans Holo, actually Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), and his wise-cracking robot K-2SO (think C3PO with a ‘tude) are to accompany Jyn (Felicity Jones) on a mission to locate her father.  Cassian has the corollary secret order to eliminate Galen.  Their stop at Jehda City results in a nifty bout of urban combat, but the end result is not positive for Jehda City.  Evil weapons gotta be tested. On the plus side, the massive explosion sets Jyn and her rapidly growing gang of rogues free from internment.  (I hope the screenwriters feel guilty about this plot device.)  Now it’s off to Eadu to rescue Daddy (or assassinate him).  When they return, the rebel council has a decision to make.  With the threat of the Death Star confirmed, some want to cave and others want to go down in a blaze of glory.  Although the comments are divided evenly between the wimps and the kamikazes, the tribal council decides to surrender without a vote.  This is in spite of a spirited call to arms by Jyn.  She does convince some of the braves to leave the reservation to kick and receive kicked asses. And get the plans to the Death Star. It’s a suicide mission behind enemy lines – did I mention it’s a war movie? Our original motley crew is supplemented by some nameless (the screenwriters having run out of super cool names) equivalents of Colonial Marines (“Aliens” reference).  What follows is a mash-up of the Battle of Leyte Gulf,  the Battle of Britain,  Omaha Beach, and the Raid on Telemark. And Hiroshima.  Something for everyone (above the age of four) – sabotage, espionage, dog fights, infantry vs. tanks, ships colliding, etc.  The tactics are acceptable, considering Dale Dye was not on the set.  The screenwriters must have researched the Battle off Samar and copied the moment when a tug boat was used to shove the Nagato into the Yamato. 

                In an interview, Edwards stated that he looked upon the project as a war movie.  He was not kidding.  It has elements of several war subgenres.  It appears that if you want to combine those subgenres into entertainment that does not defy reality, you can set it in a galaxy far, far away.  Ironically, the movie actually starts with a standard Western trope.  The old “you killed my ma” theme.  The main template is the motley band on a quest.  The core unit is heterogeneous, naturally.  (But no one is from Brooklyn.) This includes the hot shot, the feisty female, the spiritual blind monk, his Vikingish mercenary buddy, and the wise cracking robot.  I have to admit I am a sucker for these quest groups.  And I have learned to not get too attached to the members.  I advise the same to you.  Don’t expect some dysfunctionality.  The film is all black or white, there are no greys.  Speaking of black, the villains are worthy of the white hats.  Darth Vader has his best performance since “Empire”.  The movie makes perfect use of him.  It is not a stunt like you would have expected.  But even the stunts work.  Peter Cushing’s face appears as Governor Tarkin.  Before you overdose on umbrage, it is amazingly seamless.  Spoiler alert:  Cushing has been dead since 1994.  Normally I would make a crack about his winning the acting honors, but the living cast is good, too.  Felicity Jones is great as Jyn.  She and the rest of the heroes should be in for some big pay days in the sequels.  (Those of you who have seen the movie will be laughing at that prediction.)  For you war movie fanatics, that’s Jiang Wen of “Devils on the Doorstep” as the bearish Blaze Malbus (who wins name honors).  He and the others make you forget that the two real actors (Mads Mikkelson and Forest Whitaker) are barely used.  Maybe they will have bigger roles in the next film.

                “Rogue One” is an outstanding movie.  If not for nostalgia and the desire to not get beaten up by a mob of pocket-protecting geeks, I might argue that it is the best Star Wars movie.  It is undoubtedly better than all but “New Hope” and “Empire” and much better than the last one.  It does not pander to its audience.  The nods to the other films are subtle and not ham-fisted like in “The Force Awakens”.  The closing scene is a perfect lead in to “A New Hope”.  If you ever wondered “who had to die to get those plans?”, now you’ll know.  But it’s the action that will be remembered.  The last half hour has everything but the kitchen sink thrown in (and blown up).  The film manages to intercut between the “naval battle”, the ground support air battle, the foot soldiers, and the infiltration.  You’ll wish you had Saw Gerrera’s air tank.


Sunday, December 25, 2016

CRACKER? My Way (2007)

                “My Way” is South Korean war movie that is not set in the Korean War!  That’s right, it’s a Korean war movie that is not a Korean War movie.  It was directed by Kang Je-gyun in his kick-ass style.  It was his first film in seven years.  I assume it took him seven years to recover from making “Taegukgi”.   He got a huge budget of $24 million, but the film flopped at the box office.  The movie is based on a true story.  You’ll question that by the end of the movie.

                “An Asian man wearing a German uniform was discovered by the U.S. military at Normandy on the D-Day, 1945 [sic].  Upon questioning, he was identified as Korean.”  From acorns grow mighty oaks.   The narrative starts in 1928 Seoul.  A Japanese family arrives.  The father is a diplomat and his son Tatsuo becomes running buddies with the son of a staff member named Jun-shik.   A running montage takes them through high school.  At a party celebrating Tatsuo’s winning of a marathon, a terrorist bomb gets Jun-shik’s father unjustly arrested and tortured.  End of buddies and beginning of bitter rivals.  Jun-shik (Jang Dong-gun) becomes a rick-shaw driver (convenient for a long distance runner) and Tatsuo (Joe Odagiri) goes off to college.  They meet again at the Olympic try-outs.  A riot resulting from the tainted result ends with Jun-shik and his best pal Lee Jong-dae (Kim In-kwon) getting conscripted into the Kwantung Army.  Conscription will become a recurring theme.

                Jun-shik and Jong-dae end up on the Mongolian border facing the Soviets.  We know we are watching a Korean war movie because Cossacks ride in with swords slashing, a guy gets run over by a tank, tanks set oil rigs on fire, etc.  The Soviets have a Korean female sniper who shoots only Japanese soldiers to avenge her and her mother’s rape and the murder of his father.  Don’t ask how she can tell the Japanese and Koreans apart, that would be racist.  Guess who arrives to take command of Jun-shik’s unit?  You thought he was a dick before, now he is a dick in command ( a D in C).  When Tatsuo orders Jun-shik to lead a suicide attack against Soviet tanks, Jun-shik refuses and is thrown in the pit with the sniper, of course.  They escape, but Jun-shik returns to warn about an incoming Soviet attack.  When a Soviet fighter strafes them, the sniper shoots it down with one shot!  Ridiculous, but super cool.  And very romantic!  The ensuing battle is incredible.  The Japanese run trucks into the tanks and then follow with a banzai attack of human bombs and Molotov cocktails.  The Soviets respond with flame-throwers, naturally.
                Jun-shik, Jong-dae, and Tatsuo end up in a Soviet prisoner of war camp.  Jong-dae is like a kapo in a concentration camp.  He is cooperating with the Soviets and likes it.  Jun-shik and Tatsuo are given the chance to settle their differences in a knife fight.  Korean war movie knife fights can give their combat scenes a run for their money.  Hatred turns to grudging respect.  They are about to be executed when word arrives that Germany has invaded the Soviet Union and they are conscripting all the prisoners.  Lucky for Jun-shik and Tatsuo, sort of. Remember that suicide attack scene from “Enemy at the Gates”?  You will when you watch Jun-shik, Jong-dae, and Tatsuo fight the Germans.  Jun-shik and Tatsuo survive and begin a mountain-crossing trek to Germany that ends with them in Normandy on June 6, 1944.

                “My Way” may have been a box office bomb, but for war movie fans it is da bomb.  Sorry. Just be aware that the plot is more implausible than a Trump victory.  Turn off your brain when you view it.  Please don’t watch it to learn what happened at D-Day.  Although I would not be surprised if it conforms to what is taught in South Korean class rooms.  Just pop the corn and watch it for the incredible combat.  The violence is cartoonishly graphic which makes it typical of the South Korean war movie subgenre.  If you have seen any of their movies, you know they like to kick it up to 11 on a scale of one to ten.  “My Way” will have you smiling in spite of the carnage.

                Director Kang has made a movie that is fun to watch.  He uses a wide variety of cinematography including POV.  The average shot length is very short.  You won’t get bored.  The score is epically pompous, but constrained.  The acting is surprisingly good, especially by Jang.  He has a lot of charisma.  This performance, in addition to his star turn in “Taegukgi”, makes him the John Wayne of Korean war movies. Kang manages to include a strong female warrior – to attract the ladies.  Hey dear, do you want to watch a Korean movie?  It has an appealing female character, no cursing, and no nudity.  Why is it rated R?  Honey, how am I supposed to know the Korean rating system?

                 Although the plot is outrageous, there are some interesting character developments and some unexpected deaths.  While a bit clicheish, with its themes of redemption for Tatsuo and perseverance for Jun-shik, the character arcs are competently handled and no one expects the movie to be ground-breaking in its structure.  Kang does “borrow” from some other war movies, like “Saving Private Ryan” for its beach landing scene and “Enemy at the Gates” as mentioned.  For you Old  Schoolers, the Jung-shik and Tatsuo dynamic has a touch of the Quirt / Flagg relationship.  You watch Korean war movies for the action, not the exposition.  Speaking of which, the dialogue is unmemorable.  That’s a good thing.  You sure don’t have to worry about bad jokes.  The Koreans are not exactly known for adding humor to their war movies.

                “My Way” is not the best Korean war movie.  That is still “Taegukgi”, but it is certainly in the top five.  Kang showed he still had it and if you don’t mind excess, the movie is highly entertaining.  For guys, anyhow.  It is not a date movie.  The violence is over the top and the plot is hard to swallow.  For those who automatically assume the story is total b.s. (like me),  there is an iota of truth to it.  There was a Korean named Jang Kyoungjong who was conscripted into the Japanese army in Manchuria at age 18 in 1938.  He was captured fighting the Red Army at the Battle of Khalkhin Gol and sent to a labor camp.  In 1942, he and other Korean and Japanese prisoners were pressed into service against the Germans.  In 1943, he was captured at the Third Battle of Kharkov.  He was put in an all-oriental unit called the “Eastern Battalion” and was stationed near Utah Beach on D-Day.  On that day, he was captured by American paratroopers.  He ended up in a prison camp in America and stayed in the U.S. after repatriation.  He died in 1992.  It won’t surprise you to find out this story is disputed.

GRADE  =  A-

Thursday, December 22, 2016

FACT CHECKING “300: Rise of Empire”

       I recently rewatched “300: Rise of an Empire” to see if my first impression from seeing it in a theater was reasonable.  I am a big fan of the first movie and, like most,  found the sequel to be a disappointment.  But I was not surprised because “300” was so groundbreaking and the vibe was impossible to recreate.  So Hollywood did what it is known for, it tried to give the audience the same, but bigger.  I have already reviewed it based on that trip to the multiplex, so it is not my intention to tweak that review.  Instead, let’s have some fun doing something the movie was never designed to withstand – fact checking.  Now don’t get all pissy about how you can’t expect the movie to be a history lesson.  “It’s just entertainment!”  I would be the first to admit that bringing a graphic novel to the screen makes it bullet proof when it comes to historical accuracy quibbles.  But since we’re unlikely to get a more serious take on the Persian Wars any time soon, let’s look at what the viewers of this film came away with.  With the caveat that the movie cannily structures much of the narrative as a tale being told by Queen Gorgo so you could argue that what you are watching is a Spartan bedtime story and you know how accurate bedtime stories are.

1.  Let’s start with the title.  Who dreamed that up?  You would have to stretch quite a bit to imagine that they are referring to the Delian League (sometimes called the “Athenian Empire”) which was created after the war.  Since Athens basically became an arrogant bully which forced other city-states to join and remain in its self-serving alliance, this would seem to clash with the movies theme of the war being fought for Greek freedom.  A much better title would have been “300:  The Fight for Freedom”.

2.  Battle of Marathon -  The movie wastes little time (4 minutes) to get to the Battle of Marathon.  It is a nice touch to reach back to cover the most famous battle of the Persian Wars.  It would have been nicer if there were a little truth in this segment.  Gorgo may have been told that the Persians were attacked as they disembarked on the shore, but in reality they had been camped there for several days before Themistocles convinced the Athenians to attack.  The movie does show the Athenians running toward the surprised enemy, but there is no reference to the famous tactical decision to weaken the center of the phalanx and double envelop with the wings.  In fact, as per the two films, the Greeks are shown fighting as individuals, not shields overlapping.  They do not run through a kill zone of Persian arrows.  In fact, the movie is very shaky on weapons.  Hollywood much prefers sword play to spear thrusting.  There would have been no horses available to squash a man’s head.  (Not that I would want that image removed from the film.)  Do I need to tell anyone that Themistocles did not hit Darius with an arrow?  Darius was not at the battle.  Nor was Xerxes.

3.  Artemesia -  The Greeks loved to wet their beds over strong female warriors (that’s why they invented the Amazons), so I can see why they would have enhanced Artemesia to super villainous proportions.  Although Herodotus does not do this and he never felt constrained.  The fact is that she was a Greek queen who threw in her lot with the Persians.  This was most likely an attempt to bet on a winning horse and certainly not to avenge her family.  She apparently was an advisor to Xerxes, but he seldom listened to her.  She was famously proven right.  Her role in making Xerxes into a god is fantasy.  Do I have to tell you that she did not have a steaming hot sex tryst with Themistocles?  I'm not saying they should not have included that scene.

4.  the Athenian Assembly -  It would have met outdoors, not in a building.  The movie glosses over Themistocles’ remarkably persuading his fellow citizens to rely on the fleet and evacuate the city. 

5.  the invasion -  Nice job depicting the pontoon bridge across the Hellespont.  (Props please, historians!)  However, no war elephants. Sorry.

6.  Gorgo -  If you think Artemesia was some male screenwriters fantasy, why stop there?  Although Spartan women had more influence than any other women in Greece, the portrayal of Gorgo as co-ruler with her husband and then sole ruler after his death is ahistorical.  Since she is telling the story, we can assume she is clearly delusional.

7.  Battle of Artemisium -  The movies has three separate naval bouts representing the actions at Artemisium that happened coincidental with Thermopylae.  The first movie covered the gale that cost the Persians a third of their fleet.  This movie takes huge liberties in depicting the subsequent fighting.  There is a brief glimpse of the outnumbered Greeks in a circular defensive formation, but soon abandons this accuracy for a melee version of the movie’s infantry tactics.  By the way, normally the triremes would carry ten hoplites for defense and boarding.  The movie really ups the number and gives them incredible balance as they stand on the decks.  I guess the triremes were like giant surf boards.  The trio of battles builds to the cataclysmic Greek fire soaked inferno (replete with sea monsters!).  In reality, the main battle was something of a draw, but the Greeks retreated after word of the failure of Leonidas to hold the pass.  There is no reason to believe Greek fire was used in the battle.

8.  Athens is burned – True, but the city had been abandoned by everyone except the idiots that interpreted “rely on the wooden walls” to mean the walls around the citadel.  I suppose the movie fairly accurately depicts what happened to them.

9.  Themistocles uses Ephialtes to sucker Xerxes into attacking near Salamis -  The movie insists on bringing back every actor except Gerard Butler so what to do with Ephialtes?  Have him fill the role of Themistocles’ slave who was sent to Xerxes camp with word that the Greeks were planning on fleeing, so hurry up and attack them in the narrow strait.  Pretty please.  In reality, Artemesia advised Xerxes not to fall for the trap.  In other words, exactly the opposite of what the movie depicts.  

10.  Battle of Salamis -  Xerxes did watch from the cliff (on his throne with his ass-kissers).  That’s where the accuracy ends.  Well, there was a lot of ramming and boarding, but it was not the land battle asea that the movie depicts.  Artemesia famously read the handwriting on the sail and rammed a Persian ship to make her escape.  ONce again, the exact opposite of what the movie showed.  Xerxes supposedly witnessed this action sans binoculars and remarked “my men fight like women and my women fight like men”.  (Or as the movie would have it:  “my men fight like human blood splatter emitters, and my women fight like psychotic she-bitches.”)  

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

CRACKER? The Grey Zone (2001)

                When I teach the Holocaust, I present my students with a dilemma.  You are a Jew working in a concentration camp.  To stay alive, you have the job of removing the corpses from the gas chamber and bringing them to the crematorium.  One day a little girl is found alive among the bodies.  You and your fellow workers have to decide whether you will risk your lives by trying to smuggle her into the female population or turn her over to the S.S.  This dilemma is based on an actual incident.  That incident is part of the plot of a movie entitled “The Grey Zone”.  The movie was directed by Tim Blake Nelson (the goofy Delmar in “Oh, Brother Where Art Thou?”).  Looks can be deceiving, he was the only member of the cast or crew who had read the Odyssey.  He wrote the play that the movie is based on and then the screenplay.  His research came from the book Auschwitz:  A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account by Dr. Miklos Nyiszli.  The movie was filmed in Bulgaria.  Actual plans for the camp were used to make a 90% scaled replica of the crematoria and barracks.

                There have been many Holocaust movies, but few have dealt with the Sonderkommandos.  These were the “special units” that removed the bodies from the gas chambers.  They were given better food and housing, but they joined the corpses after a few months.  The movie is set in Auschwitz II – Birkenau in August, 1944.  Dr. Nyiszli (Allan Corduner) meets the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele and decides to collude with him on his human guinea pig experiments.  He figures the arrangement will help keep his wife and daughter out of the gas chamber.  He also has the attitude that at least some science might come from the experiments.  The other plot line involves a plot by some of the sonderkommandos to blow up the crematoria and the gas chamber.  They are aware that the clock is ticking on their employment.  In order to blow up the buildings, a trio of extremely brave women are smuggling gun powder to them from the munitions factory. 

                The movie hits several Holocaust images – the band playing as the Jews enter the “showers”, the burning of the Hungarian Jews in pits, the sorting of belongings.  However, the movie is not interested in depicting life in the camp.  In fact, the sonderkommandos are living a much better life than the typical prisoners.  They are literally feasting in their comfortable barracks.  This is not “Schindler’s List”, it is closer to “Escape from Sobibor” because it deals with resistance to the “Final Solution”.  Unlike that movie, “The Grey Zone” digs deep into ethics and choices.  The sabotage plot is going well until Hoffman (David Arquette) discovers a young girl among the bodies.  Nyiszli is brought in to help her recover.  He is let in on the plot.  Now we have two dilemmas.  What to do with the girl and should Nyiszli use his new knowledge to save his family?  He is under pressure from an S.S. officer named Muhsfeldt (Harvey Keitel) to tell about any plotting in exchange for preferential treatment for Nyiszli’s family.   These two arcs will get us to the explosive final scene.

                “The Grey Zone” is an outstanding movie.  The reason it is not well known is it is grim, even for a Holocaust movie.  It also did not get much in the way of marketing.  It made less than $1 million! The budget was a measly $5 million.  Not a lot of it went to the cast, which is not all-star, but does have some excellent actors.  Harvey Keitel is great as Muhsfeldt.  The character is not your typical evil Nazi and is not predictable.  In fact, the whole movie is unpredictable – other than the obvious failure of the plot.  David Arquette plays against type as Hoffman.  He has a very powerful scene involving a Hungarian Jew who argues with him before going in the gas chamber.  It is one of several shocking moments in the movie.  The standout among the cast is David Chandler as Rosenthal.

                Aside from the great acting and interesting blend of cinematography (mostly hand-held and some POV), the strength of the movie is in the provoking of thoughts.  Should the girl be saved?  Is Nyiszli a villain or a man doing whatever it takes to save his family?  Are the sonderkommandos in need of redemption?  Most importantly, what would you do in the circumstances the movie posits?  The film is a welcome addition to the Holocaust subgenre of war movies.  It is instructive of the sonderkommandos and covers several aspects of Auschwitz that are seldom portrayed in Holocaust movies.  It also is based on a true story so there is a history lesson here.  (See below for how accurate the movie is.)

                “The Grey Zone” is one of the top five Holocaust movies.  It is tough to watch because most of the movies in this subgenre have relatively positive endings.  This one is entertaining, but depressing.  Shouldn’t you be depressed when you finish watching a Holocaust movie?  I’m not criticizing movies like “Schindler’s List” or “Escape from Sobibor” because they tell true stories and those stories emphasize the strength of the human spirit.  But we need movies that question human behavior and decisions made under difficult circumstances.  Thank God this movie will be as close as you get to the “what if?” scenarios Nyiszli  and the gas commandos faced.


HISTORICAL ACCURACY:    The movie accurately depicts the work of the sonderkommandos.  These were squads of Jews who were forced into the “special units” when they first arrived at the camp.  Their job was to remove the corpses from the gas chambers and transport them to the crematoria.  It was not unusual for them to come into contact with the bodies of dead family members.  In exchange for this work, they were isolated from the rest of the prisoners and lived in their own barracks.  The barracks was nicer and they were well fed.  They were given food, medicines, and cigarettes accumulated from the victims.  The feasting shown in the movie was probably exaggerated, but they certainly were better off than the other Jews.  They also were protected from being shot by the guards for minor infractions or just because the guard was having a bad day.  Since they were “bearers of secrets”, they could not be allowed to survive, so every three months or so they were liquidated.  The replacement sonderkommandos’ first job was to dispose of their predecessors.

                The incident involving the young girl (she was probably around 15) was based on Nyiszli’s recollection.  The girl possibly survived by being under the crush of bodies with her face pressed against the wet floor.  When the men discovered her, they called for the doctor and he revived her.  At this point, he brought the matter to Oberscharfuhrer Eric Muhsfeldt who he had a relationship with through his work with Mengele.  Nyiszli thought he could convince the officer to let the girl be filtered into the female work groups, but Muhsfeldt did not think the chance of discovery was worth it.  He had a guard shoot her.  The incident involving the girl was not connected to the uprising.

                The plot to blow up the crematoria and gas chamber is based on an attempted uprising by Sonderkommando XII in Auschwitz.  Small amounts of gunpowder were smuggled from the munitions plant on site by three Jewish women – Ester Wajcblum, Ala Gertner, and Regina Safirsztain.  The trio passed the explosives to Roza Robath who was part of the resistance.  The planned rebellion had to be moved up when word spread that their time as body disposers was about to come to an end.  On Oct. 7, 1944 they attacked the SS and Kapos with two machine guns, knives, and grenades.  They killed three and wounded twelve.  Part of a crematorium was destroyed, but for the most part the uprising was a failure.  Some did manage to escape, but were soon recaptured.  200 were executed in a manner similar to the movie.  The four women were ferreted out after the event, tortured, and executed.

                Miklos Nyiszli was a Jewish doctor who arrived at Auschwitz with his wife and daughter in 1944.  He volunteered as a doctor and caught the attention of Josef Mengele.  Mengele put him to work doing autopsies and helping with his experiments.  Some of this involved Mengele’s twins.  His work and a bribe saved his family from the gas chamber.  They all survived the war.  Some historians dispute his information about the Sonderkommando.

                Erich Muhfeldt was a mass murderer who was executed for war crimes after the war.  He participated in the mass executions that attempted to cover up Madjanek when the camp was destroyed after the escape.  He then ended up at Auschwitz and was in charge of Sonderkommando XII,  He did have a creepy relationship with Nyiszli similar to the one shown in the film.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

CRACKER? Windtalkers (2002)

                What would motivate Chinese director John Woo to make a movie about the Navajo code talkers of WWII?  Woo, noted for his cartoonishly violent movies like “Broken Arrow” and “Face/Off”, even sunk his own money into it as a producer.  He must be a huge history buff.  And had a strong desire to bring the story of the “windtalkers” to the general public.  Kudos to him for that.  Unless he botched the job.
                Woo spent an unbelievable $115 million on a movie about a footnote to history.  The movie was shot on Hawaii and had cooperation from the Department of Defense.  The DOD allowed Woo to use Kaneohe Marine Corps Base for a boot camp for the actors to learn how to be Marines.  For authenticity, the movie included actual Sherman, Sheridan, and Japanese Hago tanks.  The tanks fit the war, the actors and script did not.

                Meet Ben Yahzee.  He’s a Navajo Indian who is leaving the reservation to serve his country and represent his tribe's contribution to winning the war.  But wait, he’s going to have to share the screen with a white man.  How ironic!  Sgt. Joe Enders (Nicholas Cage) is the only survivor of a fire fight in the Solomons in 1943 that reminds of the fire fight in “Tropic Thunder”.  Except that this scene is even more ridiculous.  Enders returns to Hawaii with loss of hearing and PTSD.  Ben is sent to Camp Pendleton for communications training in a new program using the Navajo language to send messages that the Japanese will be unable to decode.  The men will be used mainly as artillery spotters.  Because of the importance of the code, each Navajo is paired up with a regular Marine for protection of him and the code.  To protect the sanctity of the code, their body guard has been instructed to not let the code fall into enemy hands.  Since the code is in their heads, this means the partner must make sure their charge is not taken alive. 

                Enders is paired up with Ben.  Their Hollywoodesque relationship starts rocky, but they eventually bond to the point where you question whether Joe will be able to carry out his orders in the eventuality (actually, certainty) of Ben being on the cusp of captivity.  To double the chance of a dilemma scene, the movie has another partnership involving Ben’s buddy Charlie Whitehorse (Roger Willie) and Sgt. Pete “Ox” Henderson (Christian Slater).  And there is a Pvt. “Chick” Clusters (Noah Emmerich) as our requisite racist.

                The unit’s first action is on Saipan in 1944.  Our quartet are in the thick of a charge on a Japanese-held hill.  Apparently, the valuable Navajo artillery spotters are also needed for suicidal shock charges.  Ben radios coordinates to the USS California.  The Japanese intercept, but they are perplexed by the gibberish.  The system works!  We’re going to win the war!  Later, the unit suffers from some friendly artillery fire and wouldn’t you know their one radio is hit.  Following their training, Ben disguises himself as a Japanese soldier and takes Joe “captive” so they can get to a Japanese radio.  I am not making this up.  If you think the movie has jumped the shark (Navajo code for destroyer, by the way), you don’t know John Woo.  We still have more exposition between Ben/Joe and Charlie/Ox.  And Chick is in need of redemption.  And the audience is not combat porn sated yet.  Queue the gasoline explosions.

                If you are wondering why it took a war movie fan so long to review a war movie, it’s because I like good war movies and I am reluctant to watch movies that give off a stench of suckitude.  Sometimes my sense of smell is off, but usually my pessimism is warranted.  Of course, you don’t have to be a seer to predict a war  movie by John Woo is going to be bad.  Not to mention that Nick Cage is the star.  Cage is the Razzie Cage in this film.  He drags the rest of the cast down with him.  Even Mark Ruffalo disappoints.  Beach keeps his dignity and continues his reign as the greatest modern portrayor of Native Americans in war movies.  I’m not sure he wants to show up at the Navajo Reservation any time soon unless he has a well prepped excuse for his involvement in this historical travesty.
                I have recently been ruminating on the two types of combat movies since ‘’Saving Private Ryan”.  One type attempts to be just as realistic in its depiction of combat as the Omaha Beach scene in that film.  The other type attempts to show extreme combat as armchair cinephiles imagine it to be.  “Windtalkers” is squarely in the second category.  Or should I say categorie.  It has all the traits.  Lots of flaming bodies.  Grenades give off flames.  A flamethrower goes up in flames.  Are you noticing a popular image in these films?  Let’s not forget unlimited ammo without reloading.  Blood splatters on the camera lens.  Hip shooting.  Trampoline deaths.  You know – John Woo does WWII.  Throw in a laughable score and a predictable and clicheish script and you have one of the worst war movies ever made.

                It’s highly likely this will be the first and last movie honoring the Navajo code talkers.  That is a shame because they deserved better.  It hopefully will be the last war movie directed by John Woo.

GRADE  =  F-

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  The Navajo code talkers were born from the mind of Philip Johnston.  He was a WWI veteran who had grown up on a Navajo reservation and thus was well-versed in their language.  One of the very few non-Navajos who could claim this.  He suggested to the military that their unique language could be used as a code.  The military was surprisingly receptive to the idea.  Perhaps because Cherokee and Choctaw Indians were used for similar communication in WWI.  The testing phase went well and in May, 1942, the first 29 code talkers began training at Camp Pendleton.  Eventually 421 Navajos were trained.  They were trained to use their language to send messages to other Navajos.  For military terminology, they substituted Navajo words.  “Turtle” meant “ tank”, for instance.  There were a total of 411 terms that had to be memorized for security reasons. The Japanese never came close to reading the messages.  The "windtalkers" first saw action on Guadalcanal.  They also served on Tarawa, Saipan, and Iwo Jima.  They had their greatest success on Iwo where on the first two days they transmitted over 800 messages accurately. Later,  Code talkers were deployed to Korea and Vietnam.  Because of the top secret nature of the program, historians did not take notice until it was declassified in 1968.  Three years later, President Nixon issued a certificate of appreciation.  In 2000, the original 29 were honored by Congress with Gold Medals and the other members got Silver Medals.

                The movie is based on a seed of truth, but goes way off the tracks.  The central premise is that the code was so valuable that no code talker could be allowed to be taken alive.  For that reason, each Navajo was paired with a Marine to not only protect them, but kill them if necessary.  I suppose it’s possible that some audience members might buy this.  However, it’s pure bull shit.  In reality, they were assigned a body guard, but it was a response to several incidents where Marines opened fire on some of them because they looked like Japanese.

                Woo attempts to show their heroism in battle and I could be wrong on this, but I find it hard to believe that they were the warriors depicted in the film.  It would make little sense for such valuable communicators to be in the line of fire.  Being a forward artillery observer is certainly dangerous, but it would seem to me that they would not be leading assaults.  I found no evidence that any died in combat.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

NOW SHOWING: Allied (2016)

                The third in our series of war movies for this month is “Allied” starring Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard.  They bring their star wattage to a WWII spy movie directed by Robert Zemeckis.  This is Zemeckis’ first war movie.  It was filmed mostly in London for $85 million.  The screenplay was by Steven Knight who claims it is based on a true story that he was told when he was 21.  Take that for what it’s worth.

                The movie opens with British spy Max Vatan (Pitt) parachuting into French Morocco in 1942.  A taxi delivers his genuine spy brief case which includes passports, weapons, and a wedding ring.  The taxi takes him to Casablanca where he meets a beautiful female spy named Marianne (Cotillard) who will masquerade as his wife.  Do you really want to remind people of a little old movie named “Casablanca”?  That’s some pretty big shoes to fill.  The script forces Max and Marianne to have a rocky start in their relationship.  Like in every romance ever filmed.  She is condescending and wears the pants in the partnership.  It is established early that she is a brilliant actress.  This will be a major plot point.  The mission is the assassination of the German ambassador at a party.  To get an invitation, Max has to get past a suave Nazi (August Diehl from the bar scene in “Inglourious Basterds”).  The movie actually does the old stunt hands shuffling cards routine.  Apparently Pitt was not willing to go to poker boot camp for his role.  Before the suicidal mission, Max and Marianne consummate their made in Hollywood romance in a car in a sand storm.  Points for originality with that setting.

                The assassination scene is surprisingly lacking in suspense and is not even close to suicidal.  In the post-coitaling of the Nazi glow, Max proposes and they return to Great Britain to an idyllic life with Blitz baby Anna.  Max is back to being an RAF wing commander, having apparently been on a spy lark in Morocco.  Time passes until the phone call comes.  It seems Marianne is suspected of being a Nazi agent.  Max must help ferret her out and then execute her if it turns out to be true.  They don’t plan on interrogating her or turning her into a double agent like every other German spy discovered in Britain during WWII.  According to the movie, killing his wife is routine procedure for an “intimate betrayal”.  It’s in the manual!

                “Allied” is not a bad movie, but it is forgettable.  It is too old fashioned.  And credit to the set designer and the costume designer for the period look.  You have to credit Zemeckis for not following the recent trend of defying all logic and physics.  That does not mean the movie does not have moments and plot developments that are fodder for “what was up with that?” or “why did the screenwriter throw that in?” discussions.  The answer to those question is invariably “because the plot needed it”.  I’ve already mentioned Max being put in a position where he may have to execute his wife.  Here’s another example.  In order for Max to be able to make a trip behind enemy lines for a crucial scene, the character has to be a spy / RAF pilot.  This is the kind of credulity straining you get in movies like this.  And then there are the plot developments that make no sense even if you factor in Hollywood.  Why is Max’s sister openly lesbian?  Is that cocaine someone is doing at a house party in 1940s London?

                Considering the stars, the movie is lacking in romantic spark.  The arc from disdain to impromptu proposal is too rushed.  Then we have a similar leap to marital bliss.  It just does not feel right.  The action does not take your mind off the flawed romance.  There are two underwhelming action set pieces.  In neither do you think Max and/or Marianne are in any real danger.  I will credit the movie with introducing enough red herrings to keep you wondering.  However, when the movie is over you will realize you were being manipulated the whole time.  It is a spy movie after all.  I just expected more than the usual. 

                I get psyched to go see war movies in a theater.  I get my clip board with my legal pad and I sit on the floor in the aisle so I can use the floor lights.  It’s not the most comfortable way to enjoy a movie, but I do it for my readers – both of them.  Since war movies are rare (except this month), I don’t get to do this very often.  For that reason I can’t be too harsh with a war movie I get to see in a theater.  It is disappointing when I see a war movie with the pedigree of “Allied” and realize a lot of talent was wasted on a tired story line.  There have been hundreds of war movies made, but there are still good stories to be told.  Including many true stories of actual events and people.  It angers me that the $85 million could have been spent on a movie about a real heroic spy like Vera Leigh, for instance.


Tuesday, November 22, 2016

NOW SHOWING: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016)

                “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” is Ang Lee’s attempt to revolutionize the war movie.  Not content to bring Ben Fountain’s acclaimed novel to the screen in a standard format, he went radical on the filming process.  Normally, cinematographers shoot at 24 frames per second.  Lee (“Ride with the Devil”) went with an eye-popping 120 per second.  This broke Peter Jackson’s record of 48 for “The Hobbit:  An Unexpected Journey”.  Ang Lee must have a very tiny penis.  Because of the necessary technology, the film was shown in its new format in only six theaters worldwide (only two in America).  Based on the box office receipts, don’t wait for more theaters to install the expensive technology necessary to show the film “the way it was meant to be seen”.  I saw the movie in a mortal theater so I did not have to pop my eyes back in (or take a bottle of aspirin for a headache).  I also was not distracted from the plot.  Let’s see if that was fortunate.

                Billy Lynn (rookie Joe Alwyn) and his squad mates (referred to as Bravo Company) have been brought back to the States from Iraq for a bond tour or today’s equivalent of such.  It is a publicity stunt to remind America that we are still at war in Iraq and our soldiers are forgotten heroes.  They are famous for their performance in a fire fight that was recorded by an embedded news crew.  They lost their beloved and loving Sgt. Bream (Vin Diesel) and Lynn was awarded the Silver Star.  The movie centers around their participation in the halftime show at the Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving game.

                The movie is shown with flash backs to their time in Iraq.  These scenes attempt to establish that war is hell and Iraq was its ideal location.  We learn that Billy was your typical Generation X foul-up who turns out to be good at soldiering, but does not really take much pride in it.  He has a mentor in Bream, who is called “Shroom” because he dispenses wisdom as though he is on mushrooms. He tells Billy to not reason “why?”  He also tells him a variation of the old “you can’t avoid the bullet that has your name on it.”  We get the obligatory house search by the arrogant Americans which will breed more terrorists.  This leads up to the fire fight where the adrenaline flows, the training kicks in, the bonding pays off, but leads to heartbreak. It earns the boys a trip away from their real home (the Army) to their underappreciating home – America.  On the plus side, the “dog and pony show” could be financially lucrative if a movie deal comes through (and provided the producers don’t blow the budget on a new filming process).

                Back at home, Billy is reunited with his sister Kathryn (Kristen Stewart playing the literally scarred sister – Oscar please!).  Kathryn represents all the modern hippies who think the war is a big mistake.  She pushes the seemingly normal Billy to see a psychiatrist for PTSD.  A sister just knows these sort of things.  She also wants him to avoid going back.  This will mean abandoning his mates.  What’s a dude who has bonded with his comrades to do?

                The trip to Cowboy stadium is a real trip.  They have an agent named Albert (Chris Tucker playing Chris Tucker) who is on the phone to Hollywood trying to arrange a movie deal.  Meanwhile they are being treated like the heroes America insists they need to be.  Cowboys owner Norm “Jerry Jones” Oglesby (Steve Martin) channels Fox News and so he doesn’t have to do all the heavy lifting, an oily oilman is thrown in as a cherry on top.  This Odyssey includes a press conference where the men say all the right things.  This is a metaphor for the movie as all the characters say the right thing for characters in a war movie of this type.  When asked how he was able to act in a way to deserve the Silver Star,  Billy actually says:  “I did what I had to do”.  Then Billy passes by the island of the Siren when he hooks up with a cheerleader named Faison (Makenzie Leigh, who acts about as well as a real cheerleader).  Several other episodes lead up to the big halftime show which features “Destiny’s Child” with an actress playing Beyonce’s ass.  Why Destiny’s Child?  Because when Lee googled songs about soldiers, their name came up and actresses with nice booties come cheap.  Did it matter that the song is definitely not about soldiers in Iraq?  No.  Unless this is another example of the movie’s theme that America cares more about thugs than grunts.  If so, well played!  As though the booty shaking is not enough sensory overload, how about throwing in a lot of fireworks culminating in a rocket effect?  Give me a P – give me a T – give me an S – give me a D…  The second half goes about as well for the squad as it does for the Cowboys.

                “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” never connects.  Lee’s frame rate may have been revolutionary, but the script was certainly not.  It is full of clichés and very predictable.  The themes are tired.  Their presentation is heavy-handed.  If you want to see these themes presented well, watch the vastly superior “Flags of Our Fathers”.  It even has the football scene.  “Flags” mined new ground by showing that even in the “good war”, the government used soldiers to gin up support for the war and Americans on the home front could be uncaring and clueless.  But “Billy Lynn’s” is not exactly breaking new ground with the Iraq War.  We may not have known in 2004 what dicks we were, but by now it is not exactly a news flash. 

                I have not read the book yet, but I assume it is more competent in advancing its themes.  It surely has better dialogue.  The movie gets the soldier banter right, but the rest is from the “what would this type of character say at this point?” school of screenwriting.  It is replete with gems like:  “I’m not a hero.  I’m a soldier.”  The actors manage to spout their lines with straight faces.  This is especially true for Alwyn who plays Billy as G.I. Joe’s kid brother.  He is adequate (like Ryan Phillipe in “Flags”).  His skills do not include portraying PTSD.  The movie gives little support for his need for a psychiatrist.  In fact, the movie curiously does not make a good case for how horrible the squad’s experience in Iraq was.  It “tells” us, but the scenes set in Iraq do not advance this theme.  The only thing really bad that happens to them is the death of Shroom.  That one combat scene is fine, but you expect more from Ang Lee.  At least he avoids the recent spate of extreme combat scenes like in “Hacksaw Ridge”. 

                The only thing I enjoyed was the soldier camaraderie.  The squad members have a lot of chemistry and their interaction feels authentic.  Their ragging is not forced.  None of the actors is big league, but they fit together well.  One caveat is there is no dysfunction in the group. So there’s one cliché that Lee eschews.  Compare this to the trio in “Flags” and you can see where dysfunction can be compelling and entertaining.  Lynn and his boys are all on the same page.  There is little tension.

                “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” is a war movie that wants to be more important than it is.  There is nothing special about it except the frame rate and most of us average joes will not even be able to see it in that format.  After seeing the standard version, I’m not planning on booking a flight to NYC to see the “whole shebang” (Lee’s words).

GRADE  =  C-


                “Tunnel Rats” is a Uwe Boll film released in only one theater.  Boll is a famously bad director who is a whipping boy for critics.  He won the Golden Raspberry Award for Directing for this film and two others.  The movie was a German/Canadian production, but really it was a Boll production.  He wrote, directed, and produced it for $8 million.  It made $35,000.  This guy must be independently wealthy.  Supposedly this particular boll effort got some positive reviews.  Let’s see if those critics were right.  I’ll save you the trouble of watching a Boll movie by describing the plot.  So spoiler alert!  And you’re welcome.

                                The movie is set in the Cu Chi area in South Vietnam in 1968.  Cu Chi was famous for its intricate tunnel system used by the Viet Cong.  Some daring American grunts would volunteer to go into the tunnels.  They were called Tunnel Rats.  In the opening scene, one of these men is stabbed in a tunnel – from below!  (That’s the first exclamation point – there will be more.)  Cherries arrive and Lt. (credited as Sgt.) Hollowborn (Michael Pare) warns them against using dope (although viewers might want to disregard that warning).  He orders the hanging of a VC sniper and forces the squad to witness.  “We show no mercy, we take no prisoners”.  (The motto of Boll films.)  The LT boxes a soldier who criticized the execution!  A soldier talks about going home to his sick mother.  Guess who won’t be going home to his sick mother?  The camp is in the jungle – with no fields of fire or any kind  of defense.  The VC could literally sneak up to their tents!  The squad is heterogeneous with the typical mixture.  There is a Bible thumper, a boy from the hood, an intellectual black, a hick, and a cynical white guy. 

                They go out on a mission and find a tunnel.  The holy roller goes in and gets killed.  The cynical white pokes his head out and gets impaled by a female VC!  She then throws a grenade that wounds the intellectual.  When the rest find the cynic, they don’t bring back his body!  They look for intellectual and LT falls into a stake pit and the hick is machine gunned.  Meanwhile the camp comes under assault in broad daylight.  The grunts fire M60s from the hip.  In the tunnel, one of the men has to cut his way by a dead body!  Enjoy your pop corn.  The boy from the hood swims through part of the tunnel to pop up in a bunk room and hurl a grenade.  At this point only three members are alive when the air strike comes in.  The movie concludes with a long and exhausting scene where the Bible thumper and the VC girl are trapped and trying to dig their way out.

                This is not the worst Vietnam War movie.  It actually is fairly entertaining if you are into combat porn and can turn off your brain for a while.  There is a lot of extreme violence and it is preposterous.  There are a variety of deaths, but they are all ridiculous.  Boll is a better director than his reputation.  He uses a lot of hand-held.  He intercuts between the tunnel and the camp for the action scenes.  The music is revved up, of course.  The dialogue is not as stomach-turning as you would expect.  Supposedly the actors improvised their lines.  Maybe they had seen other Boll written movies.  They throw in some Vietnam slang and it does not seem forced like in better Vietnam War movies.  The characters are cliché, but that is hardly a first.  There is even some character development.  Unfortunately, the cast is low rent and does poorly.  One interesting thing about the otherwise inferior plot is the positive spin on the Viet Cong.  The female guerrilla is a nice touch and her linking up with the fundamentalist is a commendable twist.

                In spite of the non-snarky comments I made about “Tunnel Rats”, this is a bad movie.  I had to watch it, you don’t.


Sunday, November 13, 2016

13 Hours (2016)

                “13 Hours:  The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” is a movie by Michael Bay of “Pearl Harbor” infamy.  He based the movie on the book by Michael Zuckoff.  He interviewed several of the characters in the movie.  Three of them (Kris “Tanto” Paranto, John “Tig” Tiegsen, and Mark “Oz” Geist) vetted the script and served as technical advisers.  The movie was filmed in Malta.  The Annex and the compound were accurately recreated.  The movie ended up as Bay's least successful endeavor.  It is also his least bull shit film.  Now you know what the movie-going public wants.

                The movie begins with one of the lengthiest background information lead-ins I have ever seen.  But our current events challenged society needs the background and it is informative.  In a good sign, the intro is relatively neutral.  It makes it clear the movie will be about the “six elite military operators” that defended a covert CIA base.  “This is a true story”.  Yeah, we’ve heard that before.

                Dan Silva (a buff, bearded John Krasinski) is a contractor (mercenary to people who insist on political incorrectness) who is leaving his wife and kids to do one last job (are any of them not “the last job”?) in Libya.  Before landing, he takes off his wedding ring.  My first thought was:  OMG, Jim is going to cheat on Pam!  Actually it is to hide his status from the terrorists.  Huh?  Silva is greeted by a bud named “Rone” (a first-billed James Dale).  The ride to the compound features a Libyan stand-off that is used to establish that Silva is no longer in Kansas and his new boss CIA desk jockey “Bob” is a stereotypical war movie bureaucratic wuss/dick.  In other words, the exact opposite of Rone’s team of bon homie badasses.  Bob has the heavy burden of representing the entire bungling government, including the never mentioned Hillary Clinton.

                A visit by bleeding heart Ambassador Stevens (Matt Letscher) comes at a bad time considering Benghazi is a hell mouth.  (The movie does not cover how low a campaign contribution you have to give to get his gig.)  Mr. Chips decides he wants to stay in the Annex which is the equivalent of a listening post in the Verdun no man’s land.  But at least he has two overconfident and underqualified security guards.  And the local militia guarding the perimeter.  What could happen, right?  Certainly nothing on the anniversary of 9/11.  Right? 

                Sept. 11, 2012 opens with Silva calling his wife and finding out she is pregnant!  Why do people call their wives in war movies?  Does he want to provoke the hell mouth?  If so, mission accomplished because here the hajis come.  It’s like the Alamo, but with no Davy Crockett.  Or any other Texans.  When Rone and his boys learn the Ambassador is in danger, they want to rush to his aid.  Unfortunately, “Bob” tells them to “stand down”.  They go anyway.  Let the combat porn begin!

                The team makes a drive to the Annex that is straight out of “Black Hawk Down”.  You can’t tell the good Libyans from the bad, except that the bad ones are shooting at you.  They reach the Annex and we get a little breather before the volume goes up again.  Next, there is the Bayesque wild ride back to the compound.  Imagine “Fast and Furious” with more gunfire.  It’s now time for the “Zulu” reenactment.    We started with six mercs – the over/under is four for this particular “last stand” movie.

                “13 Hours” has no glaring weaknesses.  It tells a true story that deserves to be told and it does it in an informative and entertaining way.  It is surprisingly light on politics.  This must have disappointed Republicans as much as Oliver Stone’s “W” disappointed the Democrats.  Bay is mostly interested in lionizing the contractors who fought off the hordes. The movie is mostly about macho heroes and a FUBAR situation  He does not really take a stand on the controversies surrounding the incident.  There are some allusions to those controversies, but the movie is not heavy-handed.  It is more of a standard action picture than a political thriller.   In fact, the script cobbles together several common war movie tropes - the running gun battle, the last stand, the red-tape loving ass-coverer, etc.  There’s nothing in this movie you have not seen before, but it is done competently.  The cinematography by Dion Beebe has a nice variety.  The dialogue by Chuck Hogan can best be described as manly. The score is what you would expect from this kind of movie and is actually fairly restrained.

                The cast is not A-List, but it does not need to be.  There is not a lot of acting required.  Krasinski was the big get for the casting director and he is adequate.  He plays Silva as a morose individual who is not very enthusiastic about this job.  He is certainly not the adrenalin junkie that most soldiers of fortune are portrayed as.  There is little character development and it is sometimes hard to tell the heroes apart, especially during the night fighting.  The screenplay throws in a few tired clichés.  “Bob” is a cartoonish bureaucratic wimp.  There is also a blonde spy who starts off sneering at the warriors, but ends up respecting them.  And there is the likeable Libyan interpreter who represents the “good” natives.

                The movie will of course be most remembered for its action sequences.  You get what you expect from Bay, but it’s not like he’s the only director that has adopted the over-the-top depiction of modern combat that goes back to “Saving Private Ryan”.  Since that revolutionary opening scene in SPR, directors have tried to depict combat realistically.  Some, like Ridley Scott in “Black Hawk Down”, have been successful.  Others have adopted the mantra that extreme combat equals realistic combat.  In other words, the more hellish the action and violence, the closer you get to proving war is hell.  What they don’t understand is it is possible to go too far and veer into super hero territory.  “13 Hours” is somewhere between SPR and “Hacksaw Ridge”.  There are no moments that cause a war movie fanatic to laugh out loud, but you just know there was not nearly as much ammo expenditure, explosions, and bloodshed in the actual firefights.  The graphic wounds are certainly appropriate to war.  We do love to see human equivalents of zombies get slaughtered.

                I feel a little sorry for Bay with regard to the lack of box office success for the film.  My theory is word got out to his general audience that the movie was not a “Transformers” sequel and the rabid Hillary haters found out it was not red meat.  This is a shame for Bay because the movie is not bad.  It may exaggerate the heroics, but the men were real heroes and they get their due.  In this respect, the movie reminds of “Lone Survivor” and “American Sniper”.  Not as good, but comparable.

GRADE  =  B  

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:    How accurate is it?  Let’s start by assuring you that it ain’t “Pearl Harbor”.   The background information is a good summary of the situation going into Sept. 11, 2014.  Although, oddly the footage shows Gaddafi’s capture before it shows the air strikes that helped contribute to his demise.  The main characters are all real individuals with “Bob” being a representation of the actual CIA chief who remains unidentified.  The setup of the Annex and the compound are true to life.  The circumstances of Ambassador Stevens death are accurate in the big picture.  The Annex was woefully insecure and the security detail was laughable.  The "February 17th Martyr's Brigade" militia that was supposed to defend the perimeter did run away at the first sound of gunfire.   The script gives a plausible  version of what transpired when members of Ansar al-Sharia stormed the site.  Stevens did go to a safe room, but the jihadists did set the building on fire.  The movie has Bob giving a “stand down” order, thus siding with the critics of the State Department and CIA.  This theory was debunked by the Benghazi Committee, but eyewitnesses, including the technical advisers insist they were told to wait.  The movie does not really address the State Departments decision to turn down requests for more security at the Annex.  While the attack on the Annex is accurate, the ingress of the contractors to search for Stevens was by armored vehicle and was not a hellish run through a gauntlet and there were no attacks while they were there.  They did take fire on the way back.  The assaults on the compound are basically true, but shall we say “enhanced”.  There was an attack at 12:30 and one at 2:30.  Both lasted about ten minutes.  The mortar attack around 5 A.M. that killed Rone and Glen was well done.  Another controversy the movie touches on is the supposedly criminally tardy air support.  That also has been debunked. Overall, I would give the film a B for accuracy.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

NOW SHOWING: Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

                “Hacksaw Ridge” is the new war film by Mel Gibson.  It is Gibson’s first movie in a decade.  The last having been “Apocalypto”.  Gibson’s earlier war movies were “Braveheart” and “We Were Soldiers”.  This one differs since it concentrates on a pacifist instead of a warrior.  But it has a similar religious vibe to “We Were Soldiers”.  The movie was fourteen years in development before Gibson brought it to fruition.  He spent a relatively sparse $45 million on it.  The filming took place mainly in New South Wales.  Robert Schenkkan and Randall Wallace wrote the original script, but thankfully Andrew Knight was brought in to polish it.  The movie premiered at the 73rd Venice Film Festival and received a ten minute standing ovation.  The movie is the true story of the first practicing conscientious objector in Congressional Medal of Honor history – Desmond Doss.  (Alvin York was a conscientious objector, but he decided to participate in battle as a regular infantryman.)  Doss earned his decoration on Okinawa in WWII.

                The movie opens with a violent combat scene replete with slo-mo, flames, flying bodies, etc.  A prayer is recited over the chaos.  This brief taste leads to a flashing back to sixteen years earlier in the hills of Virginia where Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) is dealing with a father who is a bitter WWI veteran who hits the bottle and occasionally his wife.  His mother is a religious woman who instills a love of the Bible in her son.  The family has a framed copy of  the Ten Commandment and the Lord’s Prayer.  Cain killing Abel is a prominent illustration.  Desmond grows up strictly believing the Sixth Commandment and also caring about his fellow human beings.  His saving a man who severs an artery in an accident foreshadows his future medical interests.  He meets a nurse named Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) in a kill two birds with one stone scene. Their 1940s romance goes as you would expect.  When Desmond volunteers for the Army, she sends him off with a Bible.  He goes because he wants to serve his country, but not kill for it.  He ends up at Fort Jackson for boot camp and when he meets the other guys, they seem nice - until they find out on the rifle range that he refuses to even touch a rifle.  At this point, his mates and superiors try to convince him that the military life is not for him.  Since we have seen the opening scene, we know his stubbornness will be rewarded with an all expenses paid trip to the tropical paradise of Okinawa.

                When they arrive at Hacksaw Ridge, they are welcomed by truck-loads of dead bodies and the thousand yard stares of the unit they are replacing.  Next thing you know, they are standing at the base of a cliff looking at some cargo nets that they must ascend to sweep the Japanese defenders off the ridge and thus win the war for the Allies.  Stop eating your popcorn because this shit is about to get real.  And really noisy.  And Doss is about to get really busy.

                “Hacksaw Ridge” is a surprisingly competent return for Mel Gibson.  I was definitely skeptical when I first heard about the movie.  I was intrigued with the subject matter, having mentioned Desmond Doss in my American History classes.   When my wife and I went to the WWII Museum this past summer, we spent time at the tribute to Doss as a Medal of Honor recipient.  A longer version of the interview shown before the movie’s credits is on display.  That interview makes clear the man’s deep religious convictions which naturally led me to fear what the religious Gibson might do with that theme. (I found “We Were Soldiers” to have laid on Col. Moore’s faith a little thick.)  Thankfully, “Hacksaw Ridge”, while it has numerous religious references, did not cause me to cringe.  For instance, many soldiers carried Bibles in WWII and Doss does not do any preaching.  There is a Christ on the crucifix image towards the end but it is subtle, especially for Gibson.  In other words, the film is not trying to convert anyone and appears to be a sincere attempt to bring the remarkable story of Doss to  the masses.

                The movie is well-made, but not memorable.  Not worthy of a ten minute standing ovation. The cast is fine with only a miscast Vince Vaughn causing head-scratching.  Interestingly, Vaughn is the only American actor in a movie where all the principal characters are American.  He plays the stereotypical gruff sergeant, but his boot camp schtick is that of Don Rickles more than R. Lee Ermey.  It is hard not to view it as stunt casting.  I am not big fan of Andrew Garfield, but he is satisfactory as Doss.  The role does not require a lot of heavy lifting as Doss is really one-dimensional.  Unlike his closest equivalent in cinema, Alvin York, he does not undergo a conversion experience and he doggedly maintains his original pacifist beliefs.  Garfield appears to have watched “Forrest Gump” a few times to prepare for the role.  There is some chemistry with Palmer as Dorothy, but the romance is straight out of a WWII movie made in WWII.  At least we get to know her a bit.  I can’t say the same for Doss’ comrades.  If Vaughn’s Sgt. Howell did not give a few nicknames in the obligatory barracks scene, they would have no personalities whatsoever.  The screenwriters only fleshed out Pvt. Smith (Luke Bracey) to be the embodiment of the units’ condescension toward the “cowardly” Doss and the respect Doss would earn on Okinawa.  Sam Worthington as Capt. Howell is solid in what is essentially the same cliché that Vaughn is playing.

                This could be a very polarizing movie.  The audience when I saw it was mostly senior citizens.  I can see where they enjoyed the biographical part of the feature, but then the movie shifts into combat porn midway through I doubt they expected to see a lot of entrails or rats eating corpses. (But there is little cursing in the film!)  The commercials claim that “Hacksaw Ridge” is the best war movie since “Saving Private Ryan”.  Sorry, no.  SPR revolutionized war movies by coming the closest to recreating what the soldiers experienced.  Since then some movies have been in the same league – Black Hawk Down, Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima. We Were Soldiers, and Lone Survivor.  Others have taken the what I call “exteme realism” route.  The theory behind these movies is that because war is hell, the more hellish you depict it, the more realistic it will be.  Movies of this ilk include Pearl Harbor, Flyboys, Behind Enemy Lines, 13 Hours, and Fury.  And countless straight to DVD titles.  Since SPR, these types of combat porn movies have tried to top SPR by throwing a kitchen’s sink worth of weapons, explosions, flames, entrails, and gallons of blood.  More is not better.  Let me give you one example.  In SPR, a flamethrower is used to finish off a pillbox.  In HR, flamethrowers are used to roast charging Japanese.  The first example is an accurate depiction of use of that weapon, the second is not.  Here is another example.  In SPR, Capt. Miller drags an upper torso along the beach.  In HR, Smitty uses an upper torso as a shield as he wastes several Japanese in a Ramboesque spree.

                In conclusion, I recommend “Hacksaw Ridge” as a biopic, not as a war movie.  The movie is commendably accurate in bringing the story of one of America’s great heroes to the screen.  Desmond Doss deserved this movie and if jazzing it up with ridiculous combat was required to green light it after fourteen years, then so be it.  The combat is gonzo and reminded me of the Korean style as in movies like “Taegukgi”.  The difference is “Taegukgi” is clearly fictional and the combat is supposed to be entertainingly over the top.  I fear that American audiences who are not familiar with that style will mistake it for reality.  For instance, there are more bayonet stabbings in this movie than in the entire war in the Pacific.  If you want to know what it was like on Okinawa, watch the Okinawa episode of “The Pacific” miniseries.  If you want to learn about Desmond Doss, watch “Hacksaw Ridge”.


HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  Desmond Doss did not volunteer for the war.  He was drafted.  However, he could have claimed a deferment due to his shipyard job.  He did claim conscientious objector status and was allowed to become a medic.  The movie is partly accurate in showing the animosity his beliefs fueled within his unit.  But the men were not as upset about his refusal to carry a weapon as they were with his refusal as a Seventh Day Adventist to work on Saturdays.  The men considered this to be shirking.  They let their feelings be known when they would pelt the praying Doss with shoes and epithets.  They called him “Holy Jesus” and Holy Joe”.  There were no beatings and the Smitty character is fictional.  (One soldier did threaten to kill him the first time they entered combat.)  His superiors (Hammel and Glover) did encourage him to quit and the movie does a fair job with the Section 8 and the court-martial.  The Army backed down, not because of intervention by Doss’ father, but because it realized that prosecuting him was a political mistake. 

                Doss did marry a nurse named Dorothy, but they met in a church and he was not prevented from making their wedding.  She did give him a Bible when he left for war.  His parents are well depicted.  His mother was the key to his religiousity.  His father was an embittered veteran with alcohol problems.  However, the incident involving the gun was between his father and an uncle, not his mother.

                The movie gives the impression that Doss’ unit first saw combat in Okinawa.  (And does not bother to explain what they were doing from 1942 to 1945.)  In actuality, the 77th Division fought on Guam and then Leyte in the Philippine campaign.  They were battle hardened.  And by Okinawa Doss had earned their respect. He earned a Bronze Star on Leyte.  The movie implies the men were still skeptical about him when they climbed the ridge.  They did go up on cargo nets.  The assault was successful at first with several pill boxes taken out with few casualties.  (One of the few tactical accuracies in the film has the men providing covering fire for Smitty as he sneaks up and throws in a satchel charge.)  A night attack by the Japanese swept Doss’ unit off the escarpment.  (The Japanese rarely launched banzai attacks in the daytime.)  He did stay and lowered wounded by way of a special sling he had learned in Virginia.  He later admitted to saving 50 men while the movie used the Medal of Honor citation number of 75.  He did pray to “help me get one more”.

                 The second assault was delayed as the men waited for Doss to pray and that assault did take place on his Sabbath.  The movie depicts this assault as though it was a routing of the Japanese.  (The scene reminded me of Gibson’s ridiculous feel-good ending in “We Were Soldiers”.)  In reality, evicting the Japanese from the escarpment was not via a heroic charge, but was done through painstaking and painful taking of enemy positions like caves.  The movie does not clearly portray his other feats.  On May 2, he rescued a soldier exposed in a position two hundred yards forward.  He also treated four wounded men very close to a cave entrance and dragged each back.  On May 5, he aided an artillery officer who was under fire.  And carried a wounded soldier one hundred yards soldier from where he had been pinned down.  On May 21, Doss was wounded by a grenade while in a fox hole at night.  He took 17 pieces of shrapnel in his leg.  When he was being moved five hours later, he rolled off his stretcher to bandage a wounded man.  Later that day, he was wounded by a sniper.  They did target medics.  He made a splint out of a rifle stock and crawled back 300 yards under fire.  He did lose his Bible in the process, but it was not returned by his searching mates until he was on a hospital ship.  Gibson decided that reenacting his actual wounding and selfless actions afterwards would be considered fictionalized by the audience.  And yet, it was okay to have Doss pulling Howell on a shelter half while Howell uses his grease gun to hold off pursuing Japs!  You can’t make this stuff up.  Oh, wait… 

P.S.  Dear Mel, during warfare soldiers occasionally have to reload.  I saw no examples of that in your movie.