Thursday, February 25, 2016

CRACKER? Birdsong (2012)

                “Birdsong” is based on the novel by Sebastian Faulks.   It was set in WWI and is a love story.  It was first put on as a play and in 2012 the BBC made a TV miniseries out of it. It appeared on PBS Masterpiece.  The director was Philip Martin.  The movie differs from the book in several aspects, most significantly in the fact that it omits the section set in the 1970s.

                The movie is told in flashback.  Stephen Wraysford (Eddie Redmayne) is a British officer on the Western Front.  His men have the unique job of guarding tunnelers who are mining the German front lines. This is a dangerous job that involves flooding below the ground and German infiltration. He flashes back to his ill-fated affair before the war with the wife of his boss. Before the affair falls apart, Stephen suffers the deaths of two of his men.  At one point, he is ordered to go down in the tunnel and gets wounded in a firefight when the Germans break through the wall.  This is inter-cut with his consummation of the affair.  That romantic moment ends with a “what have we just done?” moment.  Although Stephen is down on the war and down on going down into a tunnel, he wants to return to the front from his hospital bed.  “This isn’t a war, it’s an exercise in how much men can be degraded”.  But can I please get back to it?  How upper class British of him.

follow this upper class twit into no man's land
                The movie continues to bounce between the war and the romance.  The romance is rockier than the war.  Isabelle (Clemence Poesy) suddenly breaks up with him and does not give him a reason.  When we later find out what the reason was, it’s ridiculous.  So are a lot of the plot developments in the movie.  There is the clicheish scene where Stephen disagrees with a general’s optimistic prediction of the upcoming assault.  The bombardment will do the trick – the wire will be cut and the dugouts will be obliterated.  The mines will open up a hole that the men will stroll through.  Oh, you British generals.  The attack is decidedly macro and follows Stephen like the camera followed Dax in “Paths of Glory”.  Much of what happens is awkward, narrative-wise.  The movie then jumps two years to the end of the war.  There is a big revelation concerning the end of the affair.  Stephen is still in the mining business although the war is literally on it lasts legs.  If you are going to spend months digging a mine and stuffing it with explosives, you want your money’s worth regardless of the fact that it will have no effect on the outcome.

One of these guys looks like a soldier and
the other is Eddie Redmayne

                This movie was a disappointment for me.  WWI does lend itself to quality plays, but there have also been some real duds like “The Trench”.  But I have to admit that my opinion of the movie was colored by my distaste for the lead actor.  Redmayne has gone on to a spectacular career, but I still don’t like looking at his face.  It is just creepy to me.  I don’t dispute he has become a competent actor, but in this movie he is blah.  It does not help that this milquetoast with the femme face manages to bed a hot mom.  Unrealistic much?  On the plus side, Clemence Poesy is hot.  What would have been realistic is if she had broken up with him when she finally got a close look at who she had left her husband and kids for.  The rest of the cast is BBC appropriate.  Although the plot has several head-scratching developments, the flashback format does work.  It is rare for me to long for flashbacks away from the war, this movie is an exception because the war scenes are so unrealistic.  If you want to see a movie highlighting British tunneling efforts, watch the vastly superior “Beneath Hill 49”.

GRADE  =  C-  

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Too Late the Hero (1970)

                “Too Late the Hero” is a Robert Aldrich (“Attack!”) film set in WWII in the Pacific, but obviously channeling Vietnam.  It was released in 1970 to take advantage of the success of Aldrich’s “The Dirty Dozen”.  That did not work out as the movie was a box office stinker.  It could have been due to the story being dusted off after sitting around a decade.  Aldrich has only himself to blame as he co-wrote, directed, and produced the movie.  However, he apparently did not do the casting as he did not want Cliff Robertson as the lead and later, out of spite, did not let Robertson attend the Oscars when he won for “Charly”. 

                Robertson plays a Japanese translator for the U.S. Navy. He is transferred to a British unit on New Hebrides for a special mission.  Lawson is a gold brick who is decidedly the opposite of gung-ho.   The mission is to cross the island to take out a radio station before the Japanese can broadcast a warning about an approaching American convoy.  When Lawson arrives at the British base he witnesses the return of a British patrol.  They have to run across an open field under Japanese fire with their mates cheering them on.  I wondered if this scenario would recur later in the film.

                It turns out Lawson fits in because the unit he is assigned to is full of kindred spirits.  For some reason, the British commander has assigned an officer with a dubious reputation (Denholm Elliott as Capt. Hornsby) and given him a squad of losers worse than the Dirty Dozen.  The most prominent of the group is Pvt. Hearne (Michael Caine) who not only does not want to die for king and country, but even suggests fragging Hornsby.  Also along is the poster boy for cowardice – Ronald Fraser as Campbell.  Pvt. Jock Thornton (Ian Bannen) is the lone warrior and he is nuts.

                They start by walking across the field to reach the jungle.  The ambush of a Japanese patrol results in some friendly fire casualties thus emphasizing the incompetence of Hornsby and increasing the grumbling from a squad full of natural-born grumblers.  It also starts the “who will survive?” count down.  Hornsby has to threaten Hearne with court-martial for insubordination and then Lawson refuses to obey an order that would entail risking his precious ass.  It’s a buddy film!  It should have been called “Scared and Scareder”.

                The mission is successful, but there are complications, naturally.  They discover a secret Japanese air field and it is now essential to the outcome of the war that someone survive to report on it.  The return home is marked by increasing dysfunctionality among our elite squad.  Not everyone feels their skin is worth risking for the thousands of lives in the convoy.  Making the return trip more interesting is a Japanese officer broadcasting over a loudspeaker.  He offers a deal to prevent them revealing the air field.  Some want to take the deal, but not our suddenly patriotic buddies.  The squad keeps getting whittled down, as is common in this subgenre.  I think you can guess who the two open field runners are going to be.

                “Too Late the Hero” is firmly in the suicide mission subgenre.  We wonder who will survive, but do not care.  There is little character development in contrast to “The Dirty Dozen”.  Other than Lawson, Hearne, Hornsby, Campbell, and Jock, the rest are like Lever and Sawyer from the DD.   The two main characters are unlikeable even for anti-heroes.  Plus their arcs are implausible.  Lawson goes from Madison in the “Americanization of Emily” to Roget in “Paths of Glory” to Steiner in “Cross of Iron” -  all in one day!  Hearne is even more ridiculous.  He waffles between cowardice/insubordination/ betrayal and bravery.  One moment he suggests hiding in the jungle and to hell with the convoy, the next moment he is suggesting stalking the Japanese officer!  At least Campbell is consistently loathsome.  The acting is not as good as you would expect from a cast featuring two A-list stars and a lot of recognizable British war movie faces.

                  I remembered watching "Too Late the Hero" as a kid (it is hard to forget the ending) and had an ominous wondering as to why I had never bothered to try to rewatch it.  Once again my long-term gut memory was correct.  The movie is a dud.  It shows that most war movies made in the late 60s – early 70s thought they needed a gimmick and needed an anti-hero.  It was also common to set the movie in WWII, but use it to comment on the Vietnam War.  It is the type of movie that makes no secret of this by having a character described as a “long-haired conscientious objector”.  Aldrich decided to take some liberties with the suicide mission subgenre, but it just doesn’t work.  In spite of the gimmicks, the movie is painfully predictable.  It is slow moving, but punctuated with bouts of action of the ammunition expenditure variety.  It is definitely not going to make my 100 Best War Movies list.

Grade  =  C-

Sunday, February 14, 2016

QUEUE CLEANSING: Saints and Soldiers: Airborne Creed (2012)

             “Saints and Soldiers: Airborne Creed” is a Mollywood movie that is the sequel to “Saints and Soldiers”.  Mollywood movies are movies made for Mormon audiences and/or by Mormon directors.  In this case, both apply.  The director is Ryan Little who directed all three in the “Saints and Soldiers” trilogy.  His war  movies are noted for not being overly religious and having a theme of not all religious soldiers are saints and not all Nazis are sinners.  This second installment in the series is not a sequel to the first.  It is set during Operation Dragoon, which was the Anglo-American invasion of Southern France in WWII.

                The movie opens by introducing us to a German officer named Neumann (Lincoln Hoppe).  He goes from writing a heart-felt letter home to his wife and kids to ordering the execution of two French Resistance fighters.  Meanwhile, members of the 517th Regimental Combat Team land behind enemy lines in Provence.  (Little is incapable of showing men parachuting.)  Corporal Curtis (Jason Wade) gets captured by Germans using a German shepherd, naturally.  Curtis is rescued by T5 Rossi (Corbin Allred from the first “Saints and Soldiers”).  He proceeds to kill all the Germans by himself.  As usual in a war movie, there are no wounded because that complicates matters.  War movies have a much higher mortality rate than real war.  The duo becomes a trio when they hook up with Sgt. Jones.  They recite the Airborne Creed (even though it was not created until 1946).  They sit around chatting for a long time even though they are supposed to be attempting to link up with their unit eight miles away.  No rush, there’s just a war on.  It’s time for back-stories via flashbacks.  Rossi is torn by the death of his best friend.  Curtis remembers his girl-friend.  Jones is the religious one and flashes back to telling his minister-father about his decision to join the Army, but not as a chaplain.
Saints and Soldiers:  Walking and Talking
                They encounter Neumann and the almost-chaplain Jones apparently executes him. They next run into a comely French sniper-lass named Emilie (Virginie Fourtina Anderson) who recruits them to help rescue some Resistance captives.  More walking and talking.  They encounter two Americans in a jeep.  One of them uses the phrase “short man on the totem pole”.  What an odd thing for an American to say!  While that faux slang is hanging in the air, Emilie and Rossi have a shooting contest.  I kid you not.  This builds to a tussle with a German tank and half-track and the resurrection of a bad German.  There is a bonding scene involving a wounded paratrooper and a certain war criminal.  “I’m supposed to hate you”, but as a Mormon I can see the good in you.   There is also a reunion between a marksman and a markswoman.
There's always time for a shooting match

                The curse of the sequel.  “Saints and Soldiers” was a major surprise and did very well on the film festival circuit.  It has been the most successful Mollywood crossover.  Most of those films have had an appeal limited only to Mormon audiences and have been savaged by critics.  I was prepared for “Airborne Creed” to be a lesser movie than its predecessor, but I was not prepared for it to suck.  It is, in fact, a major misfire by Little.  The main problem is that it is boring.  There is way too much walking and talking.  There is no sense of urgency for these dudes.  You would think that reuniting with the main force would be a higher priority for three paratroopers trapped behind enemy lines.  Throwing in the Resistance subplot should have juiced the narrative, but once Emilie is introduced the movie slumps back into its leisurely pace.  The acting is what you would expect from a low budget film – sincere, but pedestrian.  The dialogue is blah, but at least there is little sermonizing.  Like “Saints and Soldiers”, the movie is not overtly religious.  You would not know it was produced by Mormons unless you read about this (or had me tell you this).  The flashbacks are thankfully brief and do their character development efficiently, but the actions and motivations of the three paratroopers have little relation to their prior experiences.  Jones, in particular, seems to be having no second thoughts about abandoning his religious upbringing.  However, his supposed execution of Neumann is hardly believable and the off camera gun shot is not going to fool anyone.  (Sorry, spoiler alert!)  The movie is full of clichés and is very predictable.  There is little action and there is a lack of suspense. 
Mormons commit atrocities too

                “Saints and Soldiers: Airborne Creed” is hard to fault.  I have to give it credit for attempting to bring some recognition to the paratroopers who participated in the overlooked Operation Dragoon.   A better movie would have informed the audience that members of the 517th Regimental Combat Team and the other airborne units did a great job in the operation.  Although most landed far from their designated landing zones, they achieved all their objectives in the first 48 hours.  This included ambushing German convoys, cutting enemy communications, and preventing reinforcement from reaching the beachhead.  You get no impression of this from the movie.  Actually, the unintended laughable moments do a disservice to the men who served.  So fault I must.  This is a bad movie and unpardonably boring.  Sincerity does not trump tediousness.


Tuesday, February 9, 2016

BEST / WORST: 2015

                I’m a little late on this, but here is my annual post on the best and worst war movies I reviewed this past year.  After five years, I am still seeing some excellent war films for the first time.  I am also seeing a higher percentage of terrible war movies.  Goes with the territory, I guess.  Here are the top five war movies I saw last year:

5.  Stalingrad, Dogs Do You Want To Live Forever? -  This  is a micro and macro view of the famous battle seen through German eyes.  It is close to being a documentary as far as teaching about the battle.  It covers the period after the Soviet double envelopment.  It gets the rubble and the snow right.  It’s a bit clicheish with the good German versus the bad German and has a bit of an “Attack!” feel to it.   There is an interesting romance thrown in and the combat is excellent.  It is the best movie about the Battle of Stalingrad.

4.  Theirs Is the Glory -  This British war movie is about Operation Market Garden.  It is the grunt level view as opposed to “A Bridge Too Far”.  It concentrates on the British forces trapped in Arnhem.  Many actual British paratroopers act in the movie giving it a unique realism.  The action is amazing and the movie is admirably accurate.

3.  City of Life and Death -  This Chinese movie is about the infamous “Rape of Nanking”.  It concentrates on the Chinese civilians who take refuge in the Safety Zone.  The main Japanese character is a soldier who is a controversially sympathetic figure.  The movie also has roles for John Rabe and Minnie Vautrin – two foreigner who attempted to save as many innocent Chinese as possible. It highlights the plight of the “Comfort Women” and the terrible atrocities committed by the Japanese army.  There is a nice balance of drama and combat.  The cast is excellent and the acting is stellar.  This is a must-see about a must-know-about event in history.

2.  "71 -  I was lucky to see this gem in a theater in Austin.  Although it got amazing reviews, it did not break nationwide.  It is set in during “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland.  The main character is a British soldier who gets cut off from his unit in ravaged Belfast.  He spends a night caught between a corrupt British counterinsurgency unit and two factions of the IRA. The plot has touches of Homer's Odyssey in it.  This movie kicks ass in its action scenes and is full of adrenaline-fueled suspense.  It is full of memorable characters and scenes.  This was by far the best war movie that was released last year and the most accessible to an adult male audience.

1.  The Brest Fortress (2010)

                “The Brest Fortress” (“Fortress of War”) is a Russian film about the famous defense of Brest Fortress in the opening days of Operation Barbarossa in WWII.  It was directed by Alexander Kott and had strong input from the Brest Fortress Museum.  The film chronicles the defense of three separate strongholds within the fortress.  The movie was made “in memory of the fortress heroes”.

                The movie is told in flashback form based on the memories of a then teenage boy named Sasha (Alexey Kaposhov).  Sasha and his older brother are orphans who are in the Soviet Army and stationed at the fortress.  Besides the fortress defenders, their families live within the walls.  Life is normal until the German invasion of the Soviet Union takes the fortress completely by surprise.  The first inkling that they are at war is when a savage air bombardment pummels the fortress.  Several buildings are blown up as people run around like chickens with their heads cut off.  Soon after, the German army arrives.   When the civilians attempt to flee, they are machine gunned.  The siege has begun and it will not be the cake walk the Germans anticipated.

                The movie concentrates on the defense of four strongpoints and the commanders of each.  Political commissar Fomin (Pavel Derevyanko) is in charge of the Kholm Gate.  Regimental commander Gavrilov (Alexander Korshuvov) commands at the Eastern Fort and defense of the 9th Frontier Outpost falls to Lt. Kizhavatov (Andrey Merzlikin).  Another force holds out in a barracks.   The Germans assault all four positions, leading to some intense combat.  The Germans use tanks, artillery, and flamethrowers to try to whittle down the defenders.  Through all this Sasha moves through the maelstrom seeking his girlfriend Anya and taking part in the fighting.  He serves as the framing device as he connects the isolated forces. 

                “Brest Fortress” has been on my list of movies to watch for some time, but I did not assign high priority to it.  However, as I am working through the last stages of my project to determine the 100 Best War Movies, it finally was time to view it.  I have been pleasantly surprised lately to find that after having reviewed hundreds of war movies, there are still some outstanding movies I have not seen yet.  This is one of those movies. 

                I was not familiar with the Defense of Brest Fortress so the movie was not only entertaining, but educational.  I suppose every country has its famous ill-fated siege.  Brest Fortress is the Russian equivalent of the Alamo.  Sieges are grist for war movies because of the potential for cinematic drama.  “Brest Fortress” maximizes this by tapping in to the personal elements of the story.  Not only is there the romance between Sasha and Anya, but there is another couple that is tragically impacted by the German assault.  The fact that families were caught in the siege adds a dimension that you don’t get in movies like “The Alamo”.  There is a strong human dimension to the film.  The decision to concentrates on the leaders of the strong-points was wise.  Each of these characters is distinctive and compelling.  The key to the movie is the Sasha character.  His arc is the glue tying together the various battle sites.  His quest to find his girl friend in the midst of the turmoil brings the audience into the story.  It helps that the acting is solid.  There is no scene chewing.  The dialogue is natural.  This is not a propaganda film.  The Germans are evil, but it is their actions, not the soldiers themselves.  There are no German characters in the film to speak of.

                Although the movie does a great job personalizing the siege, the movie is most memorable for its quantity and quality of combat.  The opening air bombardment is the best I have seen.  The first fire fight sets the stage with slo-mo, graphic wounds, hand-to-hand, and extreme action.    It reminded me of the Korean style of movies like “Tae Guk Gi”, but it is also similar to the Russian film "9th  Company”.  There are several frenetic action scenes.  Unlike many war movies, the deaths are not ridiculously unrealistic.  And if you like explosions, this movie blows things up real good.  There is even a two ton kilogram bomb that results in a humongous explosion.  The German use of flamethrowers is not for the squeamish. 

                SPOILER ALERT:  The movie does a great job of retelling the Defense of the Brest Fortress.  This was the first encounter between the Soviets and the German invaders in Operation Barbarossa.  The movie clearly depicts the shameful lack of warning the Soviet defenders got when Stalin had knowledge that the invasion was coming.  The fortress had a garrison of 9,000 men and 300 families.  The air bombardment was devastating and was followed immediately by assault from 20,000 Germans.  The defenders were isolated into the four positions shown in the film.

5.  Ardennes Fury -  This is a mockbuster from the folks at The Asylum movie studio.  It went direct  to DVD for obvious reasons.  It is set in the Battle of the Bulge.  An American tank crew is cut off and has to deal with an evil German.  Very low budget with sincere, but challenged actors.  Full of clichés and laugh out loud moments.  Add a six pack and it is sort of entertaining.

4.  Top Gun -  One of the worst insanely popular war movies ever. “Pearl Harbor” with unintentional laughs.  A movie that was made to be parodied.  A movie where the best acting is by the F-14 Tomcats.  The movie that brought us the Tailgate Scandal.  The movie that brought us homoerotic male volleyball.

3.  Saints and Soldiers:  Airborne Creed -  The second in the series and a huge disappointment after the first.  American paratroopers are dropped into Southern France as part of Operation Dragoon.  A few of them are making their way back to their unit when they hook up with a French Resistance group that includes a sexy female sniper.  There is a lot of walking and talking in the film.  Everything is below average.  There is no sense of urgency and no suspense.  It is very predictable and a waste of time.

2.  Fire Fox -  An unbelievable perfect shit storm from the usually reliable Clint Eastwood.  He was in his prime as an action hero when he directed and starred in this turkey.  Clint is a PTSD-plagued Vietnam veteran who is recruited to go undercover with little training into the Soviet Union to steal a top secret, next generation fighter plane.  The whole plot is beyond preposterous.  To top it off, Clint does a poor acting job.

1.  Sky Fighters  (2005)

                “Sky Fighters” is France’s answer to “Top Gun”.  It was directed by Gerard Pires.  He got cooperation from the French Air Force including their top gun fighters.  The movie opens with the supposed theft of a Mirage 2000 from an air show.  The two ace / fighter jock / buddy / heroes are recruited for a special anti-terrorist fighter jet unit.  They pair off with two sexy fighter jockettes.  (Spoiler alert:  they keep their clothes on.)  Eventually they have to deal with Middle Eastern terrorists who want to blow up a tanker above a European Summit meeting in Paris.  To give you an idea of how ridiculous the movie is, there is a scene where one of the aces uses a sonic boom to blow out windows so his captured ami can get loose and he can land and pick him up.  There’s a mole thrown in for suspense and cliché purposes.  

              This movie could not have been worse if it starred Tom Cruise.  Speaking of which, the acting is terrible.  The plot is hard to follow (the opposite of “Top Gun”, but not an improvement).  It does have some excellent aerial photography and some wonderful scenery.  The dogfighting is a plus, but there is only ten minutes of it.  Surprisingly, no CGI was used.  This does not overcome an overdose of stupid.  There is no realism in this film, starting with the premise that France has some competent pilots. 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

FORGOTTEN GEM? Guns at Batasi (1964)

                “Guns at Batasi” is a British war movie directed by John Guillermin (“The Blue Max”).  It was based on the novel The Siege of Battersea by Robert Holles.  It was filmed at Pinewood Studios in the United Kingdom.  It has a cast of venerable British war movie stars and one up and coming sexpot.  Actually, Mia Farrow’s role was supposed to be played Britt Ekland, but newlywed husband Peter Sellers did not trust her to avoid the charms of John Leyton.  Leyton was a pop star and was coming off his performance as the dreamy Willie in “The Great Escape”.

                The movie takes place in an undisclosed African nation which most likely is Kenya.  Or some other nation prone to a coup d’etat.  I guess that means it could have been any African nation.  As far as the imperial power, it doesn’t take the accents to figure that it’s Great Britain.  The action takes place on a military base.  The country is newly independent and word arrives to turn over command to the senior African officer.  Into this awkward transitional phase comes a liberal Member of Parliament named Miss Barker-Wise and her sexy secretary Karen (Farrow).  At a dinner, the MP spouts about the Africans ruling themselves. Since the movie was released in 1962 one can imagine half the audience shaking their heads and half nodding theirs.  The British officers harrumph at her enlightened political views.  Especially Regimental Sergeant Major Lauderdale (Richard Attenborough).  He is a martinet and a blowhard.  If this was an American movie, he would be the villain.

                Before the new government can even begin to be corrupt, there is a mutiny in the army.  A traitor among the African soldiers at the base arrests the British commanding officer and his men lay siege to the barracks where the dinner is taking place.  A wounded African officer named Abraham has taken refuge with the Brits and they are not disposed to turn him over to sure execution.  All this turmoil really puts a crimp into the lame romance brewing between Karen and Private Wilkes (Leyton).  So the coup does have a positive side.  Lauderdale takes charge because in a situation like this you want a proper bastard.

                “Guns at Batasi” is short and sweet.  It means to tap into the debate over the fall of the British Empire.  Lauderdale represents the Winston Churchill wing and Barker-Wise represents the Clement Atlee wing.  The movie comes down on the side of Lauderdale, but Barker-Wise does get to tear him a new one at the dinner.  She perceptively accuses him of being a weapon that can’t wait to be fired.  The movie does not demonize the Africans, although it is a bit patronizing.  In an interesting touch, the African language is not subtitled.  The movie does not have a lot of action so the entertainment value is almost totally due to the very appealing cast.  The dialogue matches the performers.  There is some typically dry British humor. 

                Forgotten gem?  It is entertaining, but not a must-see.