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. 

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