Monday, October 29, 2018

NOW SHOWING: Hunter Killer (2018)

                I had been waiting a while to see “Hunter Killer” because of an article I read a while back.  That doesn’t mean I couldn’t wait to see it.  I knew it held a high likelihood of being disappointing.  I am especially leery about submarine movies.  Hollywood loves them to the point where they have their own subgenre within the war movie genre and the cramped setting lends itself to drama. Unfortunately, most are just not good and clichés abound.  It is very hard to be in a submarine movie these days.  Just look at the last major sub movie – U-571.  Instead of breaking new ground, it decided to go retro and include virtually every sub cliché known to man.  Where does “Hunter Killer” fall in the subgenre?

                “Hunter Killer” was directed by the unknown Donovan Marsh.  It is based on the novel Firing Point by Don Keith and George Wallace.   Marsh and Gerard Butler went aboard the USS Houston for three days to do research.  The interiors of the submarine were built based on plans approved by the US Navy.  The underwater scenes were done in a water tank using a model.

                The movie is a combination of “Hunt for Red October”, SEAL movies, and a typical sub movie.  If you are going to make a sub movie in 2018, it has to cross subgenres, apparently.  Actually, it is comfortable in the action genre, too.  It does have a two-word title, after all.  It opens with an international incident in the chilly waters of the Barents Sea.  An American sub and a Russian sub are sunk under suspicious circumstances.  Since the U.S. government is already concerned about the militaristic new Russian President, it is assumed this might be the start of WWIII.  The hunter-killer submarine USS Arkansas is sent to investigate.  It has a new commander named Glass (Butler) who has risen from the ranks.  He has to deal with a veteran crew.  Dramatic, right?  A second arc has a National Security adviser (Linda Cordellini) working a theory that the situation might be part of a Russian coup to provoke a war.  She convinces the President to launch a third arc by sending a SEAL team into Russia to get good old eyes-on information.  The four-man team confirms that a rogue Russian general has captured the Russian President and is going to start a war.  The SEAL mission morphs into a rescue mission because that will get gunfire into a sub movie.  Meanwhile, Glass is having to navigate the usual sub movie waters that include command dysfunction with his exec, a sub duel, a sub rescue, mine evasion, and depth charging.

                There is nothing special about “Hunter Killer”.  It is what you would expect it to be.  It is what I call a kitchen sink movie. As in, the director throws everything in, including the kitchen sink, to awe the fourteen year-old boys in the audience.   Hell, he’s not content with making a submarine movie.  He also wants to make a special forces movie.  The scene where the SEALs rescue the Russian President is straight out of every special forces movie (and TV show).  The submarine scenes have all been done before, too.  One positive thing is the sub does not play host to the myriad of submarine clichés.  It does have the standard command dysfunction element.  There is a whiff of “Crimson Tide”, but in this case it’s the executive officer who is by the book.  Glass plays the Capt. Kirkish commander who goes with his gut instead of his orders.  Of course, his gut leads to success and success usually negates a court-martial.  (We’ll never know since I doubt there will be a sequel.)  Speaking of stereotypes, Jayne (Cordellini) has to butt heads with a war-mongering admiral (Gary Oldman).  By the way, why is Oldman wasting his time in this movie?  He certainly classes up the cast, but seriously…  I will say he doesn’t bring his A game, so he doesn’t overshadow the average acting going on around him.

                Cliches and stereotypes do not sink “Hunter Killer”.  It is also not torpedoed by poor effects.  That doesn’t mean they are cutting edge.  It just means they keep the underwater stuff dark enough to keep your head from shaking.  Well, I did smirk a bit as the sub maneuvered like a mouse in a maze.  But hell, it is a cinematic sub so they can avoid anything and go anywhere.  (If the exec had ever seen a sub movie, he would have been a lot less stressed.)  The big problem (if you demand your movies respect your intelligence) is that it gets progressively more ridiculous as it goes on.  It does not even bother to try to flesh out the scenario.  It just plunges from one action sequence to the next.  Glass announces their mission to find the USS Tampa Bay and suddenly, they are there.  Why bother with exposition, considering the intended audience?  By the end of the movie, I wasn’t shaking my head, I was face-palming.  Stick around for the scene where Glass’ gut has to depend on a Russian destroyer to save the Arkansas.  Speaking of which, the movie has some post-Cold War Russian villains (straight out of central casting), but it also has some heroic Russians. 

                Do I recommend it?  Not for a regular movie-goer.  And not if you are a discerning war movie fan.  It is entertaining in an unchallenging way and pushes the usual buttons of an action movie (with a pulse-pounding soundtrack).  If you don’t go see it (and if you do), it will be forgetten.  Bring on “Overlord”. 
                GRADE  =  C-

Saturday, October 27, 2018


1.  What movie is the picture from?

2.  What movie is this quote from?

"We see our role as essentially defensive in nature. While our armies are advancing so fast and everyone's knocking themselves out to be heroes, we are holding ourselves in reserve in case the Krauts mount a counteroffensive which threatens Paris... or maybe even New York. Then we can move in and stop them. But for 1.6 million dollars, we could become heroes for three days."

3.  What movie is this?

   The film was a big hit and was nominated for two Academy Awards –  Best Supporting Actor and Ben Hecht for Best Original Screenplay.  Leopoldine Konstantin made her only appearance in an American movie as the creepy mother.  She was actually only four years older than her son in the movie.  Another problem that the magic of movies handled was the son being several inches shorter than his wife.  This was overcome with ramps and elevator shoes so well that in the movie the hero and the villain appear to be the same height.  The use of uranium for an atomic bomb as the MacGuffin the plot supposedly got the director tailed by the FBI for a while.  The movie has a famous two and a half minute kissing scene which circumvented the Production Code rule of maximum of three seconds of lip-locking by having the couple nuzzle between smooches.  This actually works on film.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Land and Freedom (1995)

                "Land and Freedom was directed by Ken Loach (“The Wind That Shakes the Barley”).  As usual, he is interested in political and social commentary.  In this case, he takes on the Spanish Civil War.  His protagonist is a communist who travels to Spain to help create a better society.  The movie was critically acclaimed and was awarded the FIPRESCI International Critics Prize and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival.  The story is similar to George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia.  Orwell participated in the civil war as part of POUM.

                The movie is told in flashback as the granddaughter of David Carr (Ian Hart) looks through his mementos after he dies.  This is the framing device.  She discovers that he participated in the Spanish Civil War.  Carr was a British communist who decided to travel to Spain to join the rebels against Franco’s fascists.  He joins a unit of the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM).  The squad is a mixture of genders and nationalities.  He quickly bonds with his mates as they all share a hard-core belief in Trotsky’s version of communism.  The situation is complicated because POUM is at odds with the Soviet-supported communists who are opposed to the radical social revolution that POUM wants.  In the best scene, after the realistically gritty capture of a village, the villagers debate whether to collectivize the land.  The villagers are played by actual villagers from the location.  Later, the squad debates whether to join the popular army with its resources, or remain pure.  Carr bonds with his mates as they deal with the frustrations of a losing cause.  He falls in love with one of the women.  The movie does a great job depicting the confusion of a civil war.  There is a scene where Carr is on a rooftop across from the other communist faction and he wonders why they are fighting each other.  This happens after Carr had switched sides.

                “Land and Freedom” is an interesting movie, but it requires some effort on the part of the viewer.  It is a movie for intellectuals.  Subtitles are rare and you have to figure out the villager collectivization debate on your own.  Thankfully, Carr speaks English so you do get to rest a bit.  Carr is an intriguing and inspirational figure.  He represents the naivete of many revolutionaries.  The framing device is effective because we see his experiences and learn along with his granddaughter about the situation he put himself in.  His naivete and humaneness sets him apart from most cinematic rebels who are hardened and Machiavellian.  The other characters are appealing.  They all share Carr’s sincere belief in the cause.  Carr develops a relationship with one of the women, but the arc is not predictable. The unit is not dysfunctional.  However, they do debate a lot.  It is definitely a dialogue-driven movie.  Unfortunately, without the subtitles, it can sometimes be difficult to figure out what they are saying.  The movie can be a bit confusing.  It could have been worse because at least it does not try to give us the big picture. Just go with the flow and stick around for some nifty action scenes.  Civil wars can be messy and this is clear from the movie.  For instance, a priest is executed.

                “Land and Freedom” is not based on a true story, but it does get the factionalism of the war accurate.  Aragon was a region that was divided between the fascists and republicans.  The fighting was basically guerrilla warfare.  The republicans were divided into factions with POUM being one of them.  In 1937, the government-backed Stalinists did take on POUM in Barcelona.  POUM was driven underground after this.

                “Land and Freedom” is one of the better Spanish Civil War movies.  You should see at least one, but you might want to start with one that is not selectively subtitled.  Try “For Whom the Bell Tolls” to get your feet wet.



Wednesday, October 17, 2018


1.  What movie is the picture from?

2.  What movie is this quote from?

"What is your major malfunction?"

3.  What movie is this?

“From Here to Eternity” is a war movie that is set in the weeks prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor.  It takes place in Honolulu.  It was directed by Fred Zinnemann and was based on the famous novel by James Jones.  It was released in 1953 and is black and white.  The movie was a huge hit and is still very popular.  It won 8 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Director, Cinematography, Editing, Screenplay, Sound, Supporting Actor (Frank Sinatra), and Supporting Actress (Donah Reed).  Lancaster and Clift were nominated for Best Actor but their split votes helped William Holden win for “Stalag 17”.  Kerr was nominated for Best Actress.  Sinatra’s win was the culmination of a campaign by him to get the role.  Apparently the myth of Mafia involvement (the basis for a subplot in “The Godfather”) is not true.  He got the role through persistence and help from his wife Ava Gardner who was friends with the studio head.  He accepted a salary of only $8,000.  The movie was filmed on location at Schofield Barracks.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

CRACKER? Attack on Leningrad (2009)

                Leningrad underwent a three year siege by the German army in WWII.  The citizens underwent terrible hardships during the siege.  But worse is what happened to a blond female journalist, apparently.  The movie was directed and written by Aleksandr Buravskiy.  It was a Russian/British production.  It is not based on a true story.

                The movie begins in September, 1941 which is when the siege began.  A battle scene has raw recruits arriving at the front line trenches in the middle of a battle.  They charge into no man’s land and a melee ensues.  The set is realistic, the wounds are graphic, and the action is pretty intense.  Hitler complains to Gen. Von Loeb that Leningrad is not falling quick enough.  But this is not going to be a movie about command decisions or combat between the armies.  It is going to be about a news reporter stuck in Leningrad.

                Katie Davis (Mila Sorvino) gets left behind when her flight takes the other journalists out of the danger zone.  She gets caught in a CGI bombing raid.  The effects are poor and it is a silly scene.  This is our first inkling that we are watching another Miro Sorvino direct-to-video effort.  What happened to this woman’s career?
                Katie is saved by a spunky Soviet policewoman named Nina (Olga Sutulova).  Nina puts up Katie with her family which includes her chess prodigy brother.  Katie and Nina bond in an excruciating scene.  The dialogue is horrible and the acting is atrocious.  A subplot develops when Nina finds out that Katie is the daughter of a traitorous Russian general.  Dilemma time.  Meanwhile, for balance, Von Loeb’s nephew is refusing to fly bombing raids against civilians.  He persists even after his uncle points out that the CGI fighters are not actually carrying the bombs they drop (like every fighter that drops bombs in war movies).  Nina helps open up the lake road that provides a supply line for the Soviets.  She might be able to get Nina out that way.  Unless this is a movie filled with stupidity.

                “Attack on Leningrad” is a terrible movie.  You would think you could set a drama in the siege and create some human interest and entertainment.  Buravskiy is not capable of doing that.  There is some taste of how hard the situation was for the civilians, but not enough.  Instead, we are supposed to be concerned for a journalist.  It doesn’t help that the journalist is played by recent Sorvino.  Gabriel Byrne does not cover himself in glory either.  The movie is just flat-out embarrassing.  For that reason, it is depressing, but not because of what the characters go through.  It is depressing that I sat through it.  It’s not often that I beg for a war movie to end.  This was one of those cases.

               P.S.  Check out the ridiculous poster!  Would you pay money to see that movie?

GRADE  =  F-

Thursday, October 11, 2018


1.  What movie is the picture from?

2.  What movie is the quote from?

 "You still think it's beautiful to die for your country. The first bombardment taught us better. When it comes to dying for country, it's better not to die at all."

3.  What movie is this?

This a very influential war movie released in 1925.  It was directed by King Vidor and was a huge hit.  The film cost $245,000 and made over $22 million.  It is the highest grossing silent movie in history.  The screenplay is based on a play by Joseph Farnham and the autobiographical novel Plumes by Marine veteran Laurence  Stallings.  It made a superstar of its lead John Gilbert (previously known for romantic roles opposite Marlene Dietrich) and boosted the career of Renee Adoree, who sadly died a few years later from tuberculosis.  Vidor had the cooperation of the War Department, specifically the 2nd Division and the Signal Corps.  Vidor watched hours of Signal Corps film to get the rhythm of battle and used some of the footage in the movie.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

CRACKER? Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation (2004)

                “Starship Troopers:  Hero of the Federation” is the sequel to the classic Paul Verhoeven film.  Although Verhoeven had nothing to do with this movie, it was written by the same screenwriter, Edward Neumeier.  He went on to write and direct “Starship Troopers 3”.  The director of this film was Phil Tippett.  Tippett is a visual effects wizard who was responsible for the remarkable effects in the first film.  He was nominated for an Oscar for that movie.  He basically directed the battle scenes.  ST2 was his first attempt at directing and he might want to stick to effects.  He spent about $7 million on it and that was about one twentieth what Verhoeven spent on the original.  ST2 was shot in just 26 days.  It premiered on the Encore Action network and then went to DVD.

                The movie opens with a recruiting commercial to hearken back to the original.  I’m not sure that was a wise reminder.  However, this will be the last taste of the satirical bent of the earlier film.  ST3 is set after the war portrayed in the first.  The Federation is taking the war to the Arachnids, but this particular mission is SNAFU.  The invasion of a bug planet is not going well and a unit is surrounded on a hill.  General Shepherd (Ed Lauter) stays behind to hold off the hordes while the remnants of his command withdraws to an outpost.  The outpost looks like a haunted lighthouse straight out of Scooby Doo.  The members of this “lost command” are heterogeneous and include some female soldiers.  They are led by a psychic Lt. Pavlov Dill (Lawrence Monoson) whose personality matches his name.  He is shaky as a commander and something of a dick.  Fortunately for the survivability, the outpost houses a jailed war hero named Dax (Richard Burgi).  (The original idea for the movie was to have Sgt. Zim in this role, but Clancy Brown was not available.  Shame.)  Dax is the kind of malcontent that you want around if you are surrounded by marauding Indians at a stage coach station.  He assumes command and saves the day, at least for now.  Soon after the first onslaught, the General arrives having survived his suicidal rearguard action.  What?  This seems a bit fishy, or buggy in this case.  The outpost has a force field around it which allows for exposition and character development.  This is exactly what we do not want with our cheesy combat porn.  Speaking of which, if you are expecting the same level of mayhem as in the first film, you are naïve and disappointable.  ST2 plays more like a horror movie set in a haunted house.  It has shades of much better sci-fi movie from the aliens-take-over-our-bodies subgenre.  This means the exterior scenes concentrate on squashing the bugs with firepower and the interior scenes are aimed at claustrophobic dysfunctionality of “The Thing” ilk.  Both themes add up to your basic “who will survive?” scenario.

                ST2 had only one option to be memorable which was to embrace the campy nature of the first and just balls it up.  Ladle the molten cheese so thick that the audience would forget the inherent suckitude of the effort.  There is terrible and there is terrible with a flair.  This movie has no flair.  The acting is horrible, but just like everything else in the movie, not entertainingly horrible.  The dialogue is as cheesy as the acting.  “Come on, you apes.  Ya wanna live forever?” Surprisingly, the movie does not even try to top the combat of the original.  In the seven years between the Federation’s victory and this expansionist move the Arachnids have not evolved like virtually every other sequel monster.  These bugs are decidedly less bad-ass.  We must have crushed their morale.  To make up for the reduction of kickassery, Tippett has upped the ick factor.  If you like having your tummy turned, this is the movie for you.  Like most cheap horror movies.


Wednesday, October 3, 2018

CLASSIC OR ANTIQUE? Pimpernel Smith (1941)

                In 1934, Leslie Howard made a classic movie called “The Scarlet Pimpernel”.  It was the tale of a British aristocrat who used his quick wits and disguises to rescue Frenchmen during the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution.  Seven years later, he revisited the premise and applied it to the situation in Europe right before the outbreak of WWII.  Howard was inspired by the story of the rescue of an anti-Nazi Hungarian leader.  He worked on the project for three years and ended up producing and directing.  The film was a big hit in Great Britain.  It was released in America as “Mister V” (I have no idea why they renamed it).  Churchill chose to show it to the officers of the HMS Prince of Wales on his way to meeting FDR for the conference that resulted in the Atlantic Charter.  When Raoul Wallenberg saw it in Sweden, it inspired him to rescue numerous Jews from the Holocaust.  The movie has some major street cred.  The movie claims to be a fantasy based on real people and events, but you should view it as preposterously entertaining propaganda.

                Howard plays Horatio Smith.  Smith is a professor of antiquities at Cambridge University.  He is absent-minded and anti-female.  No one would guess he is the daring “shadow” who has been sneaking Nazi targets out of Germany.  The mission portrayed in the movie is to rescue a German pianist who is anti-Nazi.  He plans to do this via a Nazi approved archeological dig that he tells them will prove the German civilization has Aryan beginnings.  So, if you’re wondering how a British professor has the opportunity to be rescuing right under Nazi noses, there you have it.  Don’t overthink.  The professor takes six of his students with him, including a brash American (I know that is redundant) named David (Hugh McDermott).   They will piece things together (the clue comes from a wound Smith gets while masquerading as a scarecrow!) and end up teaming up with their prof.  Smith’s nemesis is a Goering-like Gestapo chief named von Graum (Francis Sullivan).  He is pompous, but not buffoonish.  However, he does not get snark well.  He suspects Smith and their interplay is the highlight of the movie.  The movie has a running joke about von Graum’s claim that Shakespeare was German.  At the end of one of their exchanges, Smith says “Parting is such sweet sorrow.”  When Von Graum asks “what is that?”, Smith responds with “One of the most famous lines in German literature”.  To show the level of intelligence of the script, Smith refers to the theory that the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s plays.  Von Graum sics  Ludmilla (Mary Morris) to flirt the truth out of the Professor and provide us with romance. 

                “Pimpernel Smith” is an entertaining propaganda piece from WWII Britain.  It is a showcase for the wonderful Leslie Howard.  He made it because he felt he needed to weigh in on the Nazi threat and show Brits what they were fighting for.  It was one of the first movies to reference the concentration camps, although the scene in one of them is ludicrous and far from showing the horrors of the Holocaust.  The movie’s theme is more of a fist in the face of the Nazis.  The movie closes with the obligatory speech by Smith which concludes with him promising Von Graum:  “I shall be back.  We should all be back.”  That is a bit trite, but most of the dialogue is crisp and there are some humorous lines.  Smith describing a skeleton uncovered at their dig:  Buried with all his weapons, you see, presumably, in the belief that there might be a rearmament program in the hereafter, eh, Mr. Spencer? An ancient Teuton.”  Howard dominates the movie.  He has a bravura scene where he goes to Gestapo headquarters in disguise and snarks the hell out of them.  (The scene reminds of “To Be or Not to Be”.)  The rest of the cast is average, except Sullivan who makes Von Graum a worthy adversary.  He is atypical for a comedy Nazi.  Otherwise the movie is predictable, but you expect that.

                “Pimpernel Smith” is available on You Tube and is well worth a watch.  Although not particularly well known, it is a classic and it stands the test of time well because the dialogue is intelligent.  The words balance the silliness and Howard moves it to a B.