Wednesday, February 27, 2019


1.  What movie is the picture from?

2.  What movie is this quote from?

Man, that's the first time I ever seen a Texan beat himself to the draw.

3.  What movie is this?

It began as a TV miniseries produced by Ted Turner.  The finished product pleased the millionaire so much that he decided to release it to movie theaters.  It may be the longest American movie (254 minutes) ever to appear in theaters.  It appeared in a limited number of cinemas and did not recoup its cost, but the publicity was golden and when it was first shown on Turner Broadcasting Network, it was the most viewed basic cable program up to that time.  The movie is based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel Killer Angels by Michael Shaara.  The title was changed to the battle name after it was discovered that potential viewers thought the original title indicated a motorcycle gang movie.  The National Park Service allowed filming on site, although much of the action was lensed at a nearby farm.    The film made use of over 5,000 reenactors.  There are also cameos by Ted Turner and Ken Burns.  Turner is killed during Pickett’s Charge (rumor has it by Jane Fonda masquerading as a Union soldier).  Burns plays an aide to Hancock.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

SCI-FI WAR MOVIE: Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

                “Edge of Tomorrow” (also known as “Live. Die. Repeat”) was a Tom Cruise vehicle based on a Japanese novel entitled All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka.  The film adaptation has been described as a combination of “Groundhog Day” and “Starship Troopers”.  It was a moderate box office success, but a sequel is on the way.  It was nominated for Saturn Awards for Sci-Fi Film (losing to “Interstellar”), Director (Doug Liman), Actor (Cruise), Actress (Emily Blunt), and Writing.  It premiered on June 6, 2014 to promote comparisons to D-Day.

                The film opens with Earth in the midst of an alien invasion.  The mimics are extraterrestrials who want to exploit Earth’s resources.  They are a whirligig of tentacles and very nasty pieces of work.  As in most alien invasion movies, they are vastly superior to Earth forces.  It will take a miracle to beat them.  Cruise plays Maj. William Cage.  He is a PR expert for the United Defense Force.  When he is tasked to embed with the planned invasion of France to start the retaking of alien-occupied Europe, he points out to the commanding general (Brendan Gleeson) that he is a talker, not a fighter.  This gets him assigned to the first wave – as cannon fodder.  His new squad and Sergeant Farrell (Bill Pullman) do not welcome him as a game-changer and as all predict, he is killed almost immediately.  But in the blink of an eye, he has gone back in time 24 hours.  He repeats the day over and over with the same result, except that each of his deaths is different.  Naturally, he cannot convince his mates that he is in a time loop.  Grunts and gunnies are not noted for their cognitive imaginations.  He does end up encountering another looper, Sgt. Rita Vrataski (Blunt).  She is known as the “Angel of Verdun” for her heroics in battle there.  She is one bad-ass warrior.  The kind of female you only find in sci-fi movies.  Together they must save Earth by destroying the alien “brain”.

                “Edge of Tomorrow” is a very creative movie.  Of course, this is mostly to the credit of the novel, but the screenplay has done a good job adapting it and Liman has done an admirable job bringing it to the screen.  It is not without its clichés.  Farrell is a stereotype, although Pullman plays him with such swagger that he is the upper echelon of his type.  The squad is heterogeneous, but we don’t find out if any are from Brooklyn.  The movie is totally focused on Cage and Vrataski.  They are great characters.  Cage is a role tailored for Cruise. In other words, he is a cocky asshole.  Cruise did his own stunts and was very hands on in the script tweakings.  He insisted on added humor, which works well.  Blunt is amazing as a character that would give Ripley a run for her money.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with this trend of strong female warriors in sci-fi films.

                This is clearly a war movie.  Alien warriors face off against an army.  The aliens are reminiscent of the bugs in “Starship Troopers”.  They do not fire weapons, but they are intelligent.  They purposely lost at Verdun to lure the humans into a grand invasion.  That invasion is one of the great battle scenes.  It is amphibious, but the Higgins boats are airborne.  Cage’s craft is hit and they have to drop in chaos and into chaos.  It’s a slaughter.  The mimics are much more difficult to kill than the bugs in “Starship”.  The invasion scene is repeated with different deaths for Cage so it doesn’t get old.  This movie not only has a training montage, it has a Cage death montage.  The movie finishes with a behind the lines suicide mission to take out the command center.  This is another pulsating scene that is unfortunately marred by a sappy ending.  I did mention they are making a sequel, right?

                Visually the movie is excellent.  The CGI is top-notch.  The aliens are scary and intimidating.  Once again, as in all alien invasion movies, they are virtually unbeatable and it will take a miracle for a happy ending.  Cage and his mates are equipped with exoskeletons called Combat Jackets.  They allow the soldiers to run faster and jump higher.  They are the futuristic equivalents of PF Flyers.  Unfortunately, they provide little armored protection.  They are armed with a high caliber machine gun and a rocket launcher.  Vrataski prefers to use a sword because she’s a badass.  As usual for this type of movie, the UDF apparently has no artillery and there is no shore bombardment before the invasion.  Even more perplexing, there is no evidence that nukes have been used even though Europe has fallen and appears to be uninhabited.

                “Edge of Tomorrow” is one of the best sci-fi war movies.  Cruise and Blunt make a good team and their acting is excellent.  The role was perfect for Cruise and Blunt is a revelation as one of the great sci-fi war heroines.  The rest of the cast is supportive, if marginalized.  There is plenty of action for the war movie lover and the scenario and aliens are unique so it is not simply a WWII movie shifted to the future.



Thursday, February 21, 2019

SCI-FI WAR MOVIE: Battle of Los Angeles (2011)

                It is possible to make a good sci-fi war movie, but it takes a big budget.  If you have a small budget, you are screwed.   That did not stop The Asylum from trying to play off the success of “Battle:  Los Angeles”.  That’s right, BLA got the mockbuster treatment.  A “mockbuster” is a direct-to-DVD movie made to capitalize on a major motion picture.  They usually have similar titles to fool rubes.  Of course, The Asylum would argue that they are simply giving fans more of what they liked in the original.  Well, if you liked BLA, do not watch this movie as a companion.  It was directed, written, and filmed by the auteur Mark Atkins (“6-Headed Shark Attack”) and premiered on SyFy. 

                BoLA starts off with the legend-based premise that UFOs attacked Los Angeles in 1942.  Thank goodness this is not a documentary, because they have returned in this movie.  An alien spacecraft hovers over L.A. and four F-16s attack it.  One of the Falcons is piloted by a female (Theresa June-Tao)).  She shoots down some ICBMs that the aliens have reprogrammed in flight!  Is that possible?  When the air base is wiped out, only a few pilots escape cross country.  They encounter a F4U Corsair pilot named Rodgers (Dylan Vox) who is apparently from 1942 due to the Bermuda Triangle.  They need to get him to headquarters because he is the key to saving Earth.  They encounter a robot made out of a trash can and old car parts.  Later, they are chased by an alien craft until they are saved by a woman with a sword (Nia Peeples – the star of the movie) who leaps on the craft and destroys it!  To save Earth, a motley crew will need to infiltrate the alien mother ship in a totally original plot development.  But seriously, you have seen this before, but never this incompetently done.

                “Battle of Los Angeles” would be one of the worst movies ever made if it was not for the unintentional humor.  There are some truly hilarious moments to go along with all the head shaking ones.  For instance, when their solution to defeating the trash can robot involves pushing a car for about five minutes.  Mockbusters are not supposed to be boring.  But they are supposed to be laughable.  As with others of its ilk, one must wonder if Mr. Atkins expected the movie to be taken seriously.  I hope not.  If so, he is delusional and must worship Ed Wood.  I don’t need to tell you that the acting is abysmal (even Peeples) and the dialogue is atrocious.  Sci-fi babel is thrown in for cred.  The CGI is horrible.  Atkins would have been better off with F-16 models on fishing line.

                If you decide to watch this movie, drink heavily and view it as a comedy. 


Tuesday, February 19, 2019

A Private War (2018)

                        “A Private War” is a biopic of famed (within the journalism community) war correspondent Marie Colvin.  It fits squarely in the war journalism subgenre.  It was directed by Matthew Heineman and stars Rosamund Pike.  She was nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance.  It also was nominated for the original song “Requiem for A Private War” by Annie Lennox.  Stick around for the closing credits to hear it.  It’s quite good.  The movie was inspired by an article entitled “Marie Colvin’s Private War” by Marie Brenner in Vanity Fair.  It’s a good read and proves that the movie is pretty accurate.  It includes remarkable incidents in this remarkable woman’s life that were not covered in the film.

                        The movie is a full-circle movie in the biopic tradition.  It begins in Syria in 2012.  The camera pans upward to reveal a city of rubble from which Colvin is reporting.  Off screen, she is being interviewed.  She proclaims that the reason she put herself in dangerous situations like Homs, Syria is to get people to care about the plight of the civilians in war.  Her mantra was not to acknowledge the fear until the job was over.  Suddenly, we are in London eleven years earlier.  It is established that Colvin is a famous journalist and she is fearless.  She goes to Sri Lanka to visit a rebel village where the people are starving and dying from diseases.  She does not care about the military situation.  But she does have to embed with the military to get to her stories.  Unfortunately, this arrangement often puts her in the line of fire.  She gets caught in a fire-fight and loses an eye.  From here on, she wears an eye-patch.  She is also distinguished by her colorful bras that remind her that she is not a male correspondent.  She does crave the rush of adrenaline and is addicted to war like the male correspondents.  She also drink a lot like them.  What separates her is her focus on the women and children.  In one powerful scene she witnesses distraught parents as their little boy dies from shrapnel.

                        The movie globe-trots.  Colvin is in Iraq in 2003 where she meets photographer Paul Conroy (Jamie Dornan) who she teams up with.  They go behind the lines to uncover a mass grave.  She returns to England with a understandable case of PTSD and spends some time in a facility.  She’s a mess.  She chain-smokes (I counted 16) and is an alcoholic.  And she is a war junkie, of course.  “I hate being in a war zone, but I feel compelled to see it for myself.”  After being “cured”, its off to Afghanistan and its IEDs. Then to Libya during the chaos of the civil war against Gaddafi.  She interviews the dictator, who obviously likes her.  And finally, she is in Homs, Syria.

                        “A Private War” is one of the better war journalism movies.  It is also a good biopic.  I was not familiar with Marie Colvin before watching it and this makes me feel bad because she died covering a war that I and most Americans don’t care about.  Rosamund Pike is quite good and daring in her portrayal.  She has a scene where she goes full-frontal to show the physical effects the war has had on Colvin.  The rest of the movie deals with the emotional effects.  I’ve already mentioned her various problems.  Although accurate, she does behave like most male war correspondents from other war journalism movies.  If you have seen movies like “Salvador”, “Under Fire”, “The Killing Fields” or the recent “Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot”, you already know war correspondents crave the risk of chronicling war.  It is above average in the subgenre because of the performance of Pike and the direction of Heineman.  The narrative structure is intriguing, but it can be aggravating.  Although the movie does specify the time and place, the jumps are jarring.  There is usually no background explaining how she got where she is.  It is unclear how she got out of the mental facility, for instance.  The home front scenes are used to establish the downward spiral theme, but the memorable scenes are the ones when she and Paul are in a war zone.  For these scenes, the cinematography sometimes shifts to a war footage style that is effective in putting the audience with her.  There is a recurring flashback to a dead girl, but I did not get the full significance until I read the article.
                          The cast is fine.  Dornan is perfect as Conroy.  He is brave, mainly because he lets her talk him into insane acts.  Refreshingly, the movie does not have them fall in love and go to bed.  Tom Hollander plays her editor and it is a schizophrenic portrayal as Sean Ryan egged her on at times and yet seemed to be genuinely worried about her.  It is clear that she was going to do what she wanted to do, no matter what.  Stanley Tucci is wasted in the role of her lover.

                        The home front scenes tend to be a bit melodramatic, but the war zone scenes make the movie into clearly a war movie.  You can see where the adrenaline came from.  She and Paul are often under fire.  It is obvious why she had more reason for PTSD than a regular soldier.  She was in the shit plus she witnessed the effects of war on innocent civilians.  And she deeply cared about bringing their stories to the world.  The movie is as accurate as you could expect for a biopic.

                        In conclusion, “A Private War” is a strong biopic of a strong, independent woman.  She deserved this movie and hopefully it will accomplish what she strove for – world attention to the effects of war on  civilians.

GRADE  =  B 

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  I was surprised to find that Colvin was an American.  The movie certainly leads you to believe she is British.  Not because of the accent.  Pike does an amazing job mimicking Colvin’s deep voice.  Must have been due to all the cigarettes.  She got a job with The Sunday Times on London and from 1886-1995 she was a Middle East correspondent.  She famously was the first to interview Gaddafi after the U.S. tried to kill him in a bombing raid.  He hit on her during the interview.  She interviewed Yasir Arafat twenty-four times.  Starting in 1995, she became the papers chief Foreign Correspondent.  She went to Chechnya, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, and East Timor.  In East Timor, she was responsible for saving 1,500 women and kids besieged by rebels.  The movie covers the last eleven years of her life.  It is admirably accurate in covering the events it chooses to highlight.  She did lose her eye when an RPG landed near her in Sri Lanka.  She spent the rest of her life wondering if she made a mistake by standing up and identifying herself as a journalist.  She did meet Conroy on the border of Iraq, but she sought him out.  He was famous in the journalism fraternity for trying to use a homemade boat to cross into Iraq. She nicknamed him “Boatman”.  They did witness the uncovering of a mass grave, but they did not work together for another seven years.  She did go in a mental facility for her PTSD.    The movie simplifies the interview with Gaddafi, she was actually one of three journalists that talked to him and Conroy was not with her.  In 2012, she crossed into Syria on the back of a motorcycle and ended up in Homs.  She did do her last broadcast on BBC, Channel 4, ITN, and CNN.  The movie uses the footage of Anderson Cooper.  Her death is close to what the movie shows, but it omits that French photojournalist Remi Ochlik was also killed by the artillery shell.  Conroy was wounded.  Similar to the movie, they had an opportunity to avoid the situation.  In reality, they had left the area in anticipation of an assault, but Colvin decided to return when the attack did not materialize.  Midway through the tunnel, Conroy had second thoughts, but Colvin said she was going on no matter what and Conroy caved.  Her two loves in the movie are fictional characters based on real people.  Her husband was Patrick Bishop.  They were married twice and both were dysfunctional.  Her lover at the time of her death was Richard Flaye.  His personality was similar to Shaw’s from the movie.  Kate Richardson is a composite of all the young journalists that Marie helped.  Norm Coburn is a composite for the several journalist friends/rivals that Marie lost over the years.  In particular, he represents Tim Hetherington (“Restrepo”) who died in her arms after being wounded in Libya.


Sunday, February 17, 2019


1.  What movie is the picture from?

2.  What movie is this quote from?

A man's hands never seem to get clean, even if he don't touch nothing. They just stay dirty. Sort of a special kind of dirt. G.I. dirt. I bet one of those criminologists could take a sample out of a guy's fingernail, put it under a microscope, and say, "That's G.I. dirt." The dirt's always the same color, no matter what country you're fighting in.

3.  What movie is this?

It is a combination war movie / propaganda piece.  It was meant to be one part of an eight part series on the Revolution of 1905.  It turned out to be the only one in the series that ended up being made.  It did not have the intended inspirational effect as it was not warmly embraced by the Russian people.  It actually lost the box office to “Robin Hood” the opening week.  It was a big hit outside Russia, however.  The movie is justifiably famous and is considered Sergei Einstein’s masterpiece.  It has been oft-copied by other directors.  The film is divided into five parts: (1) “Men and Maggots”  (2)  “Drama on Deck”  (3)  “A Dead Man Calls for Justice”  (4)  “The Odessa Staircase”  (5)  “The Rendezvous with a  Squadron”.  Interestingly, the staircase scene was not planned as part of the movie and was added during production.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Operation Finale (2018)

                        Adolf Eichmann was the biggest Nazi fish that got away after WWII.  He infamously was in charge of transporting Jews to the concentration camps.  Unfortunately, his role was not well known until the Nuremberg Trials made him a most wanted man.  He managed to escape Europe and ended up in Argentina.  Eventually discovered, he was brought to Israel for a famous televised trial.  “Operation Finale” tells the story of the mission to abduct him and bring him to justice.  It is partly based on the nonfiction book Eichmann in My Hands by Peter Malkin.  Malkin is the main character in the movie, along with Eichmann.  The movie is directed by Chris Weitz whose father was a German Jew who escaped Germany in 1933.  He spent some years in Great Britain and then came to the U.S. where he served in the OSS during WWII.  He later wrote books including biographies of some Nazi leaders like Joachim von Ribbentrop.  Chris would proofread his father’s books.  He brought thirty-year Mossad veteran Avner Avraham in as technical adviser.  The movie was filmed in Argentina.  The movie theater where Sylvia first meets Klaus Eichmann was the actual theater where the real figures met.  In the movie, the film that is playing is “Imitation of Life” starring Weitz’ mother Susan Kohner.

                        The movie opens with the claim that with the suicides of Hitler, Goering, and Himmler, Eichmann was “the remaining mastermind of the Holocaust”.  Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac) is introduced as a Nazi hunter in Austria in 1954.  Eichmann (Ben Kingsley) is living in Argentina under the name Peter Klement and is working at a Mercedes-Benz plant.  He lives outside Buenos Aires in an isolated farm house with his wife, young son, and adopted son Klaus (Joe Alwyn).   The Israelis have no inkling of his whereabouts until Klaus goes on a date with a girl named Sylvia.  On visiting Sylvia’s father (Peter Strauss), Klaus reveals the identity of his father.  Lotar Hermann is a concentration camp survivor and he contacts the authorities and the information is passed on to Mossad in Israel.  Rafi Eitan (Nick Kroll) is chosen to head up the project.  He chooses Malkin to head the team of abductors.  Malkin’s ex-girlfriend (Melanie Laurent) will go along to sedate Eichmann.  The plan is to positively identify Eichmann, kidnap him, bring him to a safe house, and then fly him to Israel on an El Al airliner.  It won’t be a spoiler to tell you that not everything goes according to plan.

                        “Operation Finale” is a well-crafted history lesson.  It combines the Holocaust and espionage subgenres.  The narrative is fairly straight forward and includes the usual cloak and dagger aspects of a spy movie.  The Holocaust references come through flashbacks.  Malkin’s character development involves flashbacks (really more nightmares) about the fate of his sister and her three children who died in the Holocaust.  He imagines various ways they may have died, including being placed in a poison gas van.  These scenes are effective in developing Malkin’s motivation.  How will he justify keeping this monster alive long enough to trial?  Isaac is excellent as Malkin.  He does not overplay the revenge motive.  Malkin is a professional and not even the team member who most questions the humane treatment of Eichmann.  The most indelible scenes are when Malkin and Eichmann talk as Malkin tries to convince the man responsible for the death of his sister to sign a document agreeing to go to Israel for trial.  These scenes are reminiscent of “Downfall” as they tend to humanize Eichman as that movie humanized Hitler.  To its credit, whenever “Operation Finale” has you thinking maybe he was “just following orders”, it follows with a flashback that proves he was more than just a clerk.  Kingsley is empathetic and menacing as Eichmann.  He carried a picture of Elie Wiesel to remind him what was at stake. The rest of the cast is very good.  Melanie Laurent is thrown in as Malkin’s love interest, but is not given much to do other than provide a female for the team.  It’s fun to watch Nick Kroll in a dramatic role and he is fine.

                        The movie does not really break new ground.  The plot is standard for this type of movie.  There is suspense, but it is dampened by the fact that you know they will succeed and you suspect it has been enhanced through artistic license (see below).  It has some clichés like redemption for the roguish Malkin.  There is some artificial dysfunction between Malkin and the orthodox interrogator and with the “let’s just kill him” agent.  The ex-girlfriend dynamic is mercifully rote.
                        The reason to watch this movie is for the history lesson which is done entertainingly.  Although it takes some artistic license for entertainment purposes, the movie is strong in historical accuracy.  It is not a docudrama.  The acting sets it apart from that type of movie.  Everyone knows about the Holocaust and the movie simply reminds us of the horror of it, but it is mainly focused on one of the great detective stories of the 20th Century.  The trial of Eichmann (which is just post-scripted in the movie) brought the Nuremberg Trials to a worldwide television audience.  By the way, Netflix streaming has a good movie on the trial called “The Eichmann Show”.  What “Operation Finale” does is bring Eichmann’s story to a 21st Century audience.


HISTORICAL ACCURACY:   The movie does not make clear how Eichmann ended up in Argentina, although it is clear that it was Argentina because of its pro-Nazi government.  In reality, Eichmann was captured by U.S. forces at the end of WWII and put in a prison camp but he had a false identity that allowed him to blend in as a generic prisoner.  When he discovered that he was about to be discovered, he escaped from a work detail and assumed a new identity.  He bounced around Europe until he was able to get documents through Nazi sympathizers to get to Argentina.  He arrived in 1950 as Peter Klement.  His wife and sons came in 1952.  The movie accurately depicts his family.  After a series of low-paying jobs he did get a job at Mercedes-Benz.  In 1960, they moved to the house on Garibaldi street and he did ride a bus to work. 

                        Eichman was not really infamous until Rudolf Hoess, the commandant of Auschwitz, ratted him out at the Nuremberg Trials.  Famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal learned from a letter that he had been seen in Buenos Aires, but the trail was cold until in 1956.  Lotar Hermann (who had escaped Dachau after being severely beaten and losing sight in one eye) determined that Peter Klement was Eichmann through talking to his daughter Sylvia’s boyfriend Klaus.  Sylvia did go to Eichmann’s house to confirm this.  Hermann contacted the prosecutor general of Hesse, Germany with the information and Fritz Bauer passed the information to Mossad in 1957.  Prime Minister Ben-Gurion personally ordered the abduction project.  The team was headed by Rafi Eitan, although he was skeptical at first, unlike in the movie.  The team arrived in 1960 and put Eichmann under surveillance similar to the film.  The capture was very close to the cinematic reenactment with the not-surprising exception that the second bus was actually a half hour later.  They spent nine days at the safe house and the big stumbling block was getting Eichmann to sign the agreement to allow himself to be taken to Israel for trial.  Malkin did talk him into it after several one-on-one conversations. He later admitted that the conversations caused him to realize Eichmann was a human being, not a monster.  I doubt there was the dysfunction with the main interrogator Zvi Aharoni or a moment when one of the team almost killed Eichmann.  One of the team members was a doctor who sedated Eichmann, but he was male.  The Hanna character is fictional, but Malkin is fairly represented.  He did lose a sister and her children in the war.  They died at Auschwitz.  Malkin was one of Mossad’s greatest agents.  He was also a good artist, as shown.
                        Not surprisingly, the movie goes off the historical rails in its attempt at a rousing finish.  They did disguise Eichmann as an airline crew member and he was sedated to look drunk, but the egress was actually suspense-free.  They did not leave the safe house in the nick of time and there were no problems getting on the plane and taking off.  Klaus and the Argentinian Nazis were not in hot pursuit, but they did arrive at the air port a half hour too late.  Malkin was not involved in the take-off, he stayed at the safe house to clean things up.  He took a train to Chile and eventually flew to Israel.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

The Catcher Was a Spy (2018)

                In 1994, Nicholas Dawidoff wrote a biography entitled The Catcher Was a Spy:  The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg.  Twenty-four years later, a movie studio decided Moe Berg’s story would be a profitable subject for a movie.  And yet, still no movie about his boss Wild Bill Donovan.  Less drugs, Hollywood green-lighters.  “The Catcher Was a Spy” was directed by Ben Lewin.  He was given a big enough budget to film on location in Boston and Prague.  He also got a nice cast, headed by Paul Rudd.

                In 1936, Moe Berg (Rudd) was a back-up catcher for the Boston Red Sox.  He was called “Professor” because he was an intellectual.  He is included on a baseball tour of Japan headlined by Babe Ruth.  Berg was included not for his mediocre playing ability, but because he spoke Japanese.  While in Japan, he used a home movie camera to film Tokyo harbor.  When war broke out, Berg visited Bill Donovan (Jeff Daniels) of the OSS to show the film.  An impressed Donovan hired Berg and gave him a desk job handling the Balkans.  When Donovan learns that the Nazis are developing a nuclear bomb, he sends Berg to Italy to investigate a scientist named Heisenberg (Mark Strong).  He is accompanied by an OSS agent (Guy Pearce) and a physicist (Paul Giamatti).  Berg’s mission is to assassinate Heisenberg.

                “The Catcher Was a Spy” has the feel of a “movie of the week”.  The cast gives me the impression the producers had bigger goals.  The stars are way out of this movie’s league.  Dawidoff manages to get them to give sincere performances to match the movie.  Rudd is solid in a movie that lacks any humor.  It’s not heavy lifting as Berg is a strange dude.  But not interesting strange.  More like nerd strange.  The movie throws in a gay subplot (I already mention no humor, so you can figure out what I mean here).  This sort of thing is required for a 21st Century biopic.  The subplot goes nowhere and adds no tension.  But then, there is little tension provided by the rest of the plot.  For a spy movie, there is little cloak and dagger or edge of your seat suspense.  His mission is easy and his life is never in danger.  Other than a nifty combat scene where the trio has to follow an American unit through an Italian city that is being taken house to house.  When you are making a lame spy movie, don’t throw in a good combat scene to contrast with.

                One positive thing I can say about the movie is it is fairly accurate.  As you will see below, it uses the basics of Berg’s life as the structure for the story.  Clearly it enhances the entertainment value like every biopic.  I seriously doubt he was in firefight.  As usual, the final act goes off the rails the most.  Berg is a fascinating historical figure and deserved a movie, but so do a lot of more deserving individuals.  I mentioned his boss William Donovan as an example.  This movie does not make a strong case for Berg receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  (The biography below proves he deserved it.)  But my main beef with the movie is – who the hell green-lit this movie?  It made less than $1 million at the box office and that sounds about right.

GRADE  =  C-

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  For the very few people who saw this movie (and the fewer who care), here is the low-down on Moe Berg.  He graduated from Princeton and Columbia Law School.  He spoke several languages and read ten newspapers a day.  He became a professional baseball player and played fifteen seasons as a back-up catcher.  He was described as the “brainiest guy in baseball”.  He did appear on a radio quiz show called “Information, Please” which was great publicity for major league baseball.  He quit when the moderator began to ask him personal questions.  Casey Stengel said he was “the strangest man ever to play baseball”.  Was this because he was a closet homosexual?  The movie assumes that with no proof.  Twenty years ago, a movie would have avoided besmirching a man’s reputation, but I guess we have arrived at the point where depicting an historical figure as gay is a compliment.  I am for gay rights, but I wonder what Berg would have felt about the movie.  Considering his love of privacy, I think he might have sued.  I doubt he had a girlfriend like in the movie.  I really doubt he called her long distance from Zurich in the middle of the war.  He did go on a baseball tour of Japan with Babe Ruth.  (This was actually before he joined the Red Sox.)  While in Japan, he did surreptitiously film Tokyo harbor.  In his five years with the Red Sox, he played in less than 30 per year.  When he retired in 1939, he coached for two years.  After Pearl Harbor, he went to work for Nelson Rockefeller’s Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs and showed them his film.  It may have been part of the preparation for the Doolittle Raid.  In August, 1943, he switched to the OSS where Donovan put him to work on the Balkans Desk.  He was paradropped into Yugoslavia to investigate the partisan groups to determine which the OSS should support.  He recommended Tito.  The movie covers Operation AZUSA.  Berg’s mission was to interview Italian scientists to find out how close the Germans were to an atomic bomb.   I would be shocked to find that he was told about the Manhattan Project by Donovan.  (The movie would have us believe Berg knew about the project while the Vice President didn’t.)  When it was learned that Heisenberg was scheduled to give a lecture in Zurich, the OSS sent Berg to attend and assess whether Heisenberg was close to developing a bomb.  If Berg determined Heisenberg was a threat, he was to assassinate him.  Berg decided the Germans were not close to a nuclear bomb and did not make an attempt on Heisenberg’s life.  I doubt there was a confrontation as shown in the movie.  Heisenberg was captured after the war and interrogated.  The Anglo-Americans determined that he was not attempting to create a superbomb.  He spent the rest of his life in scientific endeavors.  Berg left the OSS and worked part-time for the C.I.A., but by the mid-50s he was unemployed and stayed that way for the rest of his life.  He lived with siblings until his death in 1972.  His baseball card is on display at the C.I.A.   

Saturday, February 9, 2019


                “Wunderland” is a WWII action movie written, directed, and starred in by Steven Luke.  It went straight to DVD.  It is set in the Battle of the Bulge.  It begins right before the German offensive and follows a platoon of men led by Lt. Cappa (Luke).  It opens with Cappa and four men sneaking up on and opening fire on a German artillery battery.  The scene closes with Cappa being wounded and clutching the cross around his neck.  A flashback takes us to the command bunker of Maj. McCulley (Tom Berenger).  Something is stirring in the Ardennes.  He orders Cappa and his platoon to plug a gap between the 99th and 106th divisions at a crossroads named Lanzerath.  Cappa’s men have seen a lot of action and are not thrilled about being sent back to the front line.  Isn’t the war almost over?  They dig in in a forest.  The rest of the movie involves either slaughtering Germans making frontal attacks on their position or Cappa and others going looking for Germans to slaughter.  For most of these forays, Cappa is accompanied by Sgt. Rock (I kid you not).

                Although not part of the franchise, “Wunderland” is similar to the “Saints and Soldiers” series.  Actually, it is closest to “War Pigs” (which Luke appeared in), which has Mickey Rourke in the Berenger role.  It is low budget, but Luke has made the best of his funds.  The uniforms and weaponry seem pretty authentic.  For instance, the Germans have MG42’s with their distinctive sounds.  The sound effects are nicely done.  There are a few vehicles that look like WWII vehicles.  There is a limited use of CGI as the movie prefers to look real, if small scale.  Whereas there is only one Sherman, Luke did manage to get a commendable number of reenactors for the German assaults.  They die better than the usual actors in movies like this.  Better than the Spanish infantry in the epic “Battle of the Bulge”.  No one has to act wounded, of course.  Cappa and his men are dead-eye shots.  Surprisingly, they sometimes reload.  It appears Luke cared about fidelity.

                The introduction to the movie gives accurate background to the battle.  I was stunned to find out that there was a platoon that defended Lanzerath against several German frontal assaults and the bodies did pile up in front of their position.  This holding action, which ended when they had to pull back from lack of ammunition, threw off the German time table. This incident would make a good movie. But this isn’t it.

                Where I give credit for trying to stick to historical facts, the movie has many flaws.  The acting is wooden, although Luke is sincere and Berenger seems fairly interested in earning his pay check.  I have seen much worse acting in movies like this.  The dialogue is not laughable, but Rock is forced to say “I’m way too old for this”.  I don’t know about the German dialogue since they speak German and there are no subtitles.  Kudos.  Luke shot the movie predominantly using a Steadicam.  It does not have the “Saving Private Ryan” look, but it is competently lensed.  The same cannot be said for the editing.  Some scenes make no sense.  Starting with the opening scene which implies we have started at the end and flashbacked to get us full circle.  Instead, the real ending has Cappa and Rock in a Malmedy Massacre type scenario.  It’s cross-clutching time again, but the movie is not overtly religious.  The one thing that you will never forget about the movie is the transitions from snow to no snow to snow again.  Luke can fairly say “hey, the behemoth ‘Battle of the Bulge’ couldn’t get this right either!”.  That is true, but it doesn’t change the fact that it is a disconcerting element of his film.

                In conclusion, “Wunderland” was savaged by the critics.  I am not as harsh since I have seen similar movies that are truly terrible.  At least Luke tried hard to get it historically right.  That means it earns some good will.  It doesn’t mean that it is a good movie.  It is merely watchable, but I don’t think Luke was hoping for more than that.


Thursday, February 7, 2019

CHINESE WAR PIC: Air Strike (2018)

                I saw a trailer (see below) for this movie a while back and have to admit, as much as I look forward to any war movie, I was very skeptical about this one.  When a trailer makes the movie bad…  (Speaking of trailers, the DVD begins with trailers for FOUR Bruce Willis straight to DVD movies.)  Here are the Rotten Tomato ratings on them – 0/6/13/0)  Let’s find out if my skepticism was justified.

                “Air Strike” (the Chinese title actually translates as “Big Bombing”) is also known as “The Bombing” or “Unbreakable Spirit”.  It was directed by Ziao Feng, but more importantly, art directed by Mel Gibson.  It was filmed in Shanghai for $65 million dollars, most of which must have gone to Bruce Willis’ salary.  A little coinage was thrown Adrien Brody’s way. I’m guessing he was paid a handsome hourly rate for his one minute of air time.

       The movie begins in 1937 with China getting its ass kicked by Japanese invaders.  The Chinese retreated to the provisional capital of Chongqing which the Japanese were determined to bomb the hell out of.  We know this because one minute into the movie, there is a CGI-enhanced bombing of the city.  This will not be the last time bombs fall in this movie.  Col. Jack Johnson (Willis) plays a military adviser training a Chinese fighter squadron.  He must be extremely good because his charges, flying Soviet Polikarpov I-15s (think Brewster Buffaloes), are able to duel with Japanese Zeros.  One of the pilots loses his brother, so we have the requisite vengeance-fueled character.  The Japanese know he is the one who dropped leaflets over Nagasaki and they are out to get him.  For this purpose, an evil Japanese ace is thrown in to hiss at.  Stay with me here.  Another subplot has another pilot, turned secret agent, trying to get a truck carrying a secret decoder to headquarters.  The Japanese air force is also out to get him.  You can expect some strafing to go along with all the bombing.  The truck agent picks up a woman and four kids and a shady Chinaman.  Another female character is a feisty female photojournalist who hooks up with the avenging aviator.  The cursory exposition takes place between bombings, dogfights, and truck-trek obstacles.

       At this point, you are probably wondering if my review is going to praise the gonzo nature of the film and recommend it as a guilty pleasure or condemn it as a piece of crap.  If you predicted choice B, you would be correct.  The plot, such as it is, is merely an excuse to chronicle a series of terror bombings.  The subplots are silly and include a mahjong tournament!  Realism does not apply.  Unintentional laughs abound.  When the truck’s road is blocked by an unexploded bomb, they get past it by driving on two wheels.  At one point, Jackson plots strategy in front of a table-top map with model airplanes on it.  This crapfest builds to a crescendo of nonsense with the crash-landing of a P-40 using a truck for landing gear, with Jackson cheering them on.  Spoiler alert: there is also a cliff involved.  To top that, the movie concludes with a slapstick routine involving another UXB.  You’ll finish the movie shaking your head about what you watched and about Bruce Willis’ career.

                The discouraging thing about the movie is the Chinese are capable of better (see “Operation Red Sea”), but this movie is made by slackers.  The CGI is bad.  If you take a drink every time a plane loses a wing, you will be drunk before Bruce Willis takes off with a cigar in his mouth.  Which reminds me to mention that Jackson is a besmirching of Claire Chennault.  Willis gives a half-ass rendering of whoever he is channeling.  He obviously was in it for the pay check.  The rest of the cast is mediocre.  They are basically there to be bombed, strafed, or shot down.

                In its defense, it does not claim to be based on a true story, but it is still sloppy history.  The biggest boner is having the Chinese fighters competing with Zeros (which were not in service at the time of the film, by the way) and having any chance whatsoever.  The CGI has fighters doing acrobatics that even the Zero could not pull off.  Surprisingly, the numerous bombings are fairly accurate because Chongqing was continually bombed from February, 1938 to August, 1943.  Most of the bombs were incendiaries, whereas the movie features high explosives, of course.  In the first two days of the terror bombing campaign, five thousand civilians were killed.  There were a total of 268 raids and it seems like the movie shows all of them.

                In conclusion, I mentioned drinking during the movie and that is the only way I can recommend it.  Watch “Operation Red Sea” instead.  Or any South Korean war movie.


Wednesday, February 6, 2019

5th TIMES THE CHARM? Journey’s End (2018)

                The one hundredth anniversary of WWI inspired the re-adapting of R.C. Sherriff’s play for the fifty time.  Sherriff, a WWI veteran, set his play in the Spring Offensive (also known as the Ludendorff Offensive) of 1918.  This was the low moment of the war for the British as the Germans broke out of the trench stalemate and threatened to reach Paris and end the war.  It was a particularly tense time.  The play was a smash hit in 1928 and was made into a movie as early as 1931.  “The Other Side” followed one year later.  In 1976, the setting was changed to the war in the air for “Aces High” and there was a made-for-TV movie in 1988.  Directed by Saul Dibb, the most recent version came out in the 100th Anniversary of the offensive it is set in.

                The movie begins during the stalemate before the surprise German offensive.  A British unit is spending its six days of each month in the front-line trench.  Capt. Stanhope (Sam Claflin) uses alcohol to cope with the stress of commanding men in the hellacious conditions of the Western Front.  He is tightly wound and cynical, but respected by his men.  His butler, so to speak, is Lt. Osborne (Paul Bettany).  Osborne is an ex-schoolmaster who is called “Uncle” because of his age and fatherly demeanor.  One of Uncle’s jobs is to put the drunken Stanhope to bed.  Sharing the dugout is the slacker Lt. Hibbert (Tom Sturridge) who is either a coward or a realist, depending on your view of the war.  Lt. Trotter (Stephen Graham) is a regular lad who looks at the war as a job that has to be done.  All that’s missing from this mélange of stereotypes is a green, gung-ho officer.  Enter Lt. Raleigh (Asa Butterfield).  Raleigh is the type who worried that the war would be over before he could get into it.  “He’s keen.”  This is 1918!  To make his wild-eyed innocence more awkward, he has a past with Stanhope.  Not only is Stanhope Raleigh’s idol from school, but he is Stanhope’s sister boyfriend.  Stanhope’s stress level hits its peak as he worries about Raleigh (and thus his sister) finding out who he really is. 

                I won’t get started on why they remade a movie instead of doing something original.  I suppose most people are not familiar with one of the most famous WWI stories, so it serves a purpose.  If you happen to have seen the 1931 version, this version updates the story with modern cinematography and set design.  And it’s in color!  Plus, it’s the hundredth anniversary of the Great War, so it made sense to honor the war with this movie.  This makes me wonder what the hell is going on with the Daniel Radcliffe “All Quiet on the Western Front”. 

                I have not seen the play, but I have to believe this movie does it justice.  It definitely comes off as a play on film, but the sets (a dugout and a trench) are excellent.   A movie can give you rats and mud.   Cinema can also give us the action that the play implies.  There is a nifty trench raid scene (which is staged in the daytime).  The colonel actually tells Stanhope that capturing a prisoner may help win the war!  With that said, the film is not interested in condemning the officer corps.    It is also not interested in giving the perspective of the enlisted.  It does make clear the gulf between the officers and the men.  We do get the impression that the men are fatalistic, but resilient.  Everyone (except Hibbert) has a stiff upper lip. 

                The main reasons for watching it is the acting and the dialogue.  The cast is good with Bettany taking honors as Uncle.  The plot is predictable.  Even if you have not seen the other versions, it’s clear it will not end well.  There are several “dead meat” characters.  And they did not even have to show pictures of their significant others.  The movie is depressing, but doesn’t this reflect the war?  I have read that all war movies should be anti-war.  That is true, which means WWI movies are more consistently anti-war than any other war movies.  The movie is not just a one-dimensional “war is hell” screed.  It is also a character study and although the characters are all stereotypes, they do represent the variety of officers in the British army in the war. 

                “Journey’s End” is a must-see for war movie lovers and students of WWI culture.  I suggest you watch it and then watch “Aces High”.  “Aces High” transfers the story to a fighter squadron and thus escapes the confines of the stage more than this version does.  It has a lot more action, if you are into that.


Tuesday, February 5, 2019

PTSD MOVIE: The Yellow Birds (2018)

                Almost every war movie that has come out of the wars with Iraq have involved PTSD.  “The Yellow Birds” is typical of the subgenre.  It is based on the novel by Kevin Powers.  Powers enlisted in the Army at age 17 and served in Iraq as a machine gunner.  The book is based on his experiences in the Army and when he returned home.  The Bartle character is based on him.  The book was critically acclaimed.  The movie was directed by Alexandre Moors.  It was originally supposed to star Benedict Cumberbatch and Will Poulter.  The film was shown at the Sundance Festival and was awarded the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Cinematography. However, the audience reaction caused the film to be reedited.  It had a very limited release.

                The opening narration sets the theme.  “The war tried to kill us in the spring and the summer.  Tried to kill us every day, didn’t explain itself, didn’t tell us why it brought us there.  It just took.  It killed some of us before we knew we were dead.  Pretty soon it was hard to tell who was alive and who was a ghost.”  Murphy (Tye Sheridan) and Bartle (Alden Ehrenreich) meet in boot camp and become best friends.  We don’t even get a montage before the buddies are in the shit.  To build the case for PTSD, they are on a rooftop in an Iraqi city and Sergeant Stirling (Jack Huston) lights up a car that drives toward their position.  Collateral damage claims the lives of some civilians and we are supposed to feel Stirling is a combat junkie, but what else was he supposed to do?  Other scenes expand on the “I hate this place” vibe.  IEDs and ambushes.  Comrades die in your arms.  It turns out that Murph is not cut out for this.  He ends up going missing and the mystery has not been solved by the time Bartle returns to the states.  Before he left, he promised Mrs. Murphy (Jennifer Anniston!) to take care of her son.  This pressure and his experiences in Iraq turn him into a stereotypical homeless vet.  Mrs. Murphy wants to know what happened to her son and so does the Army.

                “The Yellow Birds” is the rare war movie mystery.  This makes it different than your typical vet returns with problems movie.  The mystery is the only thing original about it, however.  The characters are cliché and the combat is what you visualize when you think Iraq.  It is also different in that it is nonlinear.  This works well.  The closest equivalent to this movie is “Courage Under Fire”.  Not equivalent cast-wise.  Bartle and Anniston are strong, but there is no Denzel Washington to be found.  The combat scenes are brief, but realistic for Iraq.  Unfortunately, the movie does not make a strong case for it being Hell.  Bartle and especially Murph come off as being fragile.  Since Powers was actually in the thick of it, I have to assume the movie’s structure did not allow time to really develop the reasons for Murph’s actions and Bartle’s reactions.
                “The Yellow Birds” could have been much better, but it is a sincere effort and considering how few war movies are being made these days, it is worth a watch.

GRADE  =  B-

Saturday, February 2, 2019

SCI-FI WAR MOVIE: Battle: Los Angeles (2011)

                “Battle: Los Angeles” (also titled “Battle: LA” or internationally “World Invasion:  Battle Los Angeles”) is a war movie with aliens in it, according to director Jonathan Liebesman.  He was inspired by the styles of “Black Hawk Down” and “Saving Private Ryan”.  The quasi-documentary style was an attempt to replicate video footage of Marines in Fallujah, Iraq.  The seed of the script came from a legendary incident called the “Battle of Los Angeles” which occurred in 1942 after Pearl Harbor.  Panic over the war situation led to a barrage of anti-aircraft fire to stop a supposed Japanese attack.  Apparently, this was an extreme overreaction to a weather balloon.  (The same incident inspired the movie “1941”.) The movies budget was $100 million and it grossed over $200 million worldwide.  It was filmed in Louisiana due to financial incentives.  The production had extensive cooperation from the Pentagon including using Marines as extras and the use of Osprey aircraft and helicopters.  The actors were put through a three-week boot camp to learn platoon tactics and how Marines behave.  Technical advisers were provided for realism.

                The movie is set in the present.  Sgt. Nantz (Aaron Eckhart) is about to retire, unless something unforeseen prevents it.  That unforeseen event is the arrival of aliens via meteors.  They make an amphibious invasion onto the beaches of L.A.  Nantz is assigned to a new platoon whose mission is to help evacuate civilians from the city before it is bombed to stop the aliens.  The clock is ticking.  They are ambushed at the start by alien infantry.  The alien warriors are biological creatures with exoskeletons that have weapons and communications implanted.  They are 8 feet tall and hard to kill, but not invulnerable.  Although robotic, they are equivalent of Soviet infantry from WWII.  The aliens get air support from drones that quickly establish air superiority.  Nantz’s platoon, led by a green Lt., takes refuge in a police station for the last stand portion of the movie.  They find a few civilians to protect.  From the police station, the movie kicks into the escape through enemy lines sequence.  This results in a nifty fire-fight on an overpass.  Some will eventually reach safety  In the final act, Nantz and his suicide squad must save mankind by taking out the alien command center. 

                “BLA” is surprisingly good for a combat porn movie.  It has a high percentage of action, but it is not graphic because Liebesman wanted a PG-13 rating.  There are lots of explosions and copious expenditure of ammunition.  The aliens are a worthy foe and although superior, they are not “War of the Worlds” superior.  Although the movie emphasizes that they have only one weak spot, they are actually pretty easy to kill. The fire-fights are fairly equal and the tactics of both sides make sense.  The Marines use covering fire and fire and maneuver.  They have current weapons, mostly the M4A1 and M16A4.  Curiously, the American forces are missing artillery support, bombers, and helicopter gunships.   And, of course, no nukes because that would be too easy.  The aliens are armed with machine guns and grenade launchers.  Their drones fire phosphorous explosives.

                The plot is basically that of a WWII movie.  There is nothing original, but it is competently done.  There are some clichés.  Nantz is in need of redemption.  The green Lt. earns respect through self-sacrifice.  The enemy “brain” must be destroyed.  The characters are stereotypes with the addition of the now standard strong female warrior portrayed by Michelle Rodriquez (who else?).  There is only cursory character development because that is not what the audience came for, plus you have seen all the personalities before.  Thankfully, they are not forced to mouth trite dialogue and the acting is fine.  Eckhart makes a good anchor and he put his heart into the role.  (He broke an arm in a fall and continued without a cast.) The boot camp must have worked because the actors have the Marine ethos down.  They move like Marines.  Speaking of movement, the cinematography makes heavy use of hand-held cameras and you get the impression you are with them as they maneuver.  The CGI is not cheesy and the aliens are impressive, if derivative of films like “District 9”.  Kudos to the drone designer.  Those are original and their ramshackle look has led to the fan theory that the aliens are attacking Earth not only for its tropeish water resources, but possibly because warfare has decimated their home planet.

                BLA is an underrated sci-fi war movie.  It is entertaining, especially if you look at it as intended – a war movie with aliens in it.  The action is consistent and the plot, if predictable, moves briskly.  It does have an “America, fuck yeah!” vibe to it, but sometimes we just need to revel in patriotism.  Especially when it comes to protecting our country from despicable aliens who have come to take our H2O.