Monday, January 27, 2020

WAR SHORT: An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (1962)




The film is 28 minutes long and was featured on the classic "Twilight Zone" series.  It is a French film based on the famous short story by Ambrose Bierce.  It follows the story very closely.  It received the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and the Academy Award for Short Film.   Very appropriate because the film is creepy.  It is set in the Civil War and opens with a military order posted on a tree warning civilians that any sabotage of railroad bridges, tunnels, or trains will result in execution.  A well-dressed Southerner is about to be hanged from a bridge for violating that order.  As the noose is tightened, he dreams of his family.  What happens next is a miracle.  Seemingly. 

 The director was Robert Enrico and he has a distinctive style. The movie is mesmerizing. There is no dialogue and in fact, there are no sounds. The first half is covered by funereal music which shifts to bizarre midway through. But it’s the cinematography that stands out. Enrico uses everything in a cinematographer’s bag of tricks. There are long shots, close-ups, even some POV. There is some amazing underwater camera work. It is a clinic on cinematography. There are long tracking shots as the man runs home. During this scene, the tint of the movie changes.  It is a must see for war movie lovers, fans of film, and lovers of literature.

GRADE  =  A


Thursday, January 23, 2020

Should You Watch 68 Whiskey?


                       
                        “68 Whiskey” is a new Paramount Network show.  It is set in present-day Afghanistan and follows medics working in a NATO coalition base.  It is based on an Israeli series entitled “Charlie Golf One”.  Paramount is hoping for its next big hit after “Yellowstone”, but this show has no Kevin Costner.

                        The tone is set immediately as the first words uttered are “f*** me” coming from a slutty female clerk.  Grace (Gage Golightly) is making love to medic Cooper Roback (Sam Keeley) in the medical supply building.  Before the scene is over, we get the words pussy and shit.  Welcome to the Paramount Network.  Roback is a playa and a schemer.  He and his buddy Staff Sergeant Davis (Jeremy Tardy) are in the war to make money.  This includes betting big on a boxing match between Roback and a hulk named Sasquatch.  He happens to be Grace’s boyfriend, so a cliched love triangle is established.  It is also established that Roback and Davis are poor gamblers.  This is supposed to be a war series, so Roback goes on a medevac to recover a soldier who turns out to be off base for black market activities.  On the way back, for no good reason, Roback is forced to ride standing on the skid.  Oh, the reason was it was cool.  Sgt. Alvarez (Cristina Rodlo) screws up and the G.I. dies.  Cue the PTSD.  They also bring back a wounded local.  Maj. Holloway (Beth Riesgraf) is the hard-ass doctor who laments having to care for a civilian.  She is also not thrilled to find Roback is hoping to cash in on the dead guy’s black market items.  It seems Roback will always be one step ahead of the law.  He and Davis go off base to meet a local warlord to do a drug deal.  Medical supplies for hashish.  They manage to rip-off the warlord for a cache of hash.  These are our heroes.  They end up walking back to base with no one in hot pursuit.  Cliffhanger ending.

                        “68 Whiskey” wants to be a 2020 mashup of “MASH”, “Sgt. Bilko”, and “Three Kings”.  It fails miserably.  There is little humor and the drama is laughable.  I have no idea who the technical adviser is, but he should be fired.  A medic gives shots through children’s clothing.  A trio of soldiers wander through enemy territory with no noise discipline and then threaten a goat for bleating.  The same trio manages to get back on base with packs full of hashish, no questions asked.  Much of what happens has holes the size of IED craters in it.  You have to suspend reality a lot.  This would be okay if the show was a farce and winked at the audience, but it appears to have no idea what it wants to be.  Other than naughty.  There are three sex scenes in the first episode, the last one to porn-style music.  That medical supply building is going to get a lot of action.  I mentioned no Kevin Costner.  In fact, the series has no one I’ve ever heard of.  Paramount must have bust its budget on Costner because this cast is low rent.  The goat is the best actor. 

                        I am not that familiar with Paramount Network, so I can not tell you who its target audience is.  I would guess, based on this series, it is not aiming for conservatives.  If you love the troops, you will find Roback and Davis less than medal-worthy.  They con a na├»ve kid soldier into going with them, not telling him about the drug deal which involves them trading medicine they stole from the base.  Then they introduce him to hashish.  Roback is insubordinate much of the time.  He’s supposed to be a likeable rogue, but he is not appealing.  A subplot has Alvarez being discharged and deported because she is an illegal alien.  Liberals will be incensed by her treatment.  Roback complains about the “asshole who wants to be reelected”.  There is a Blackwater type organization doing something nefarious.  (I’ll never find out what.)  Surprisingly, their Col. Potter is a firm, but fair leader.  The series is not trying to lampoon the brass.  I guess the satirizing is meant to be of the system.  Roback and Davis’ entrepreneurship is meant to be a thumb in the eye of the corrupt war effort.  Too bad you will root against them.  They ain’t Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John.  In fact, the logical approach would have been to bring “MASH” to Afghanistan.  Now that’s a winning formula.  This is a mess.  

GRADE  =  F

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

PICTURE, QUOTE, MOVIE QUIZ #76


1.  What movie is the picture from?

2.  What movie is this quote from?

"Sir, I got lost on the way to college, sir."


3.  What movie is this?


  In some ways it is a dinosaur marking the end days of the epic old school war movies like “The Longest Day”.  Similar to that film, it features an all-star cast and tells the story from both the American and enemy perspectives.  Unlike “The Longest Day”, it is not based on a book by Cornelius Ryan and thus does not have Ryan’s deft blending of commanders and grunts roles.  The movie was a disappointment at the box office in spite of its revolutionary Sensurround technology that was supposed to make the audience “feel” the battle.  (It was one of only 4 movies made with this dead-end technology).
            

Sunday, January 19, 2020

CONSENSUS #51. Birth of a Nation (1915)




SYNOPSIS:  “The Birth of a Nation” is the story of two families during the Civil War and Reconstruction.  The Stoneman’s are Northerners and the Cameron’s are Southerners and slave-owners.  Ben Cameron is in love with Elsie Stoneman.  The war breaks the friendship of the families.  The movie concentrates on the Cameron family as it has a pro-Southern point of view.  Ben Stoneman goes off to war and the film has a grand depiction of a battle.  During Reconstruction, Congressman Stoneman is a Radical Republican who is interested in turning over the South to black rule.  Ben fights against this by joining the KKK.       

BACK-STORY:  “The Birth of a Nation” was the first major motion picture and is both famous and infamous.  It was directed by D.W. Griffith and the innovations he incorporated into the production are mind-boggling.  The movie created cinema as we know it today.  Relative to its budget, the movie became one of the most profitable films in history.  When it opened in New York City, tickets were an astronomical $2 (equivalent to about $18 today).  The success was in spite of the controversy with regard to its treatment of blacks.  The NAACP encouraged boycotts of the film and it was banned in some cities.  

TRIVIA:  Wikipedia, imdb, TCM

1.  It was based on Thomas Dixon’s novels The Clansman and The Leopard’s Spots.  The original title was going to be “The Clansman”.

2.  The NAACP tried to have it banned.  It was banned in some cities like Los Angeles and Chicago.

3.  It was the first movie ever screened in the White House. President Wilson was a Southerner and not noted for progressive ideas on race, but he is incorrectly credited with the famous quote:  “It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”  Most likely, Dixon made up the quote and attributed it to Wilson.  However, his historical take on Reconstruction appears on a title card in the movie and the plot fits his pro-segregation views.

4.  Director DW Griffith was the son of a Confederate officer and had a negative view of Reconstruction.  Surprisingly, he was taken aback by the backlash to the film’s racism.

5.  West Point provided the artillery and technical advice.

6.  The movie cost the enormous sum of $110,000.

7.  It was the highest grossing film until “Gone with the Wind”.  It’s premiere engagement at a NYC theater cost $2 a ticket which would be equivalent to $17-20 today.

8.  Most of the African-American characters were played by whites in black-face.  Especially if the character came in contact with a white actress.

9.  Joseph Henabery, one of the assistant directors, played 13 characters, including Lincoln.

Belle and Blade  =  N/A 
Brassey’s              =  4.0
Video Hound       =  3.8
War Movies         =  N/A
Military History  =  no
Channel 4             =  #92
Film Site                =  yes
101 War Movies  =  yes
Rotten Tomatoes  =  no 

OPINION:  How can a movie be both great and terrible?  Watch “Birth of a Nation” and see.  If you changed the word “writing” to bullshitting and the word “true” to false in the Wilson quote, you’d be spot on.  The film did hit the nation like a lightning bolt.  If it had come out ten years later, it would not have been successful.  It was the spectacle that drew people to the theater outside the South.  This is the best explanation for why the movie did well in the North.  Griffith was a master movie-maker.  His innovations helped cinema take off.  The movie was the “Citizen Kane” of its day.  The cinematography is astounding even today.  The battle scenes are epic.  The score is grand.  The problem is the plot is ahistorical and the stereotypes are vile.  It may be great filmmaking and entertaining story-telling, for that time.  But it is a reprehensible work of racism.  I strongly feel it does not belong on this list. 

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Catch-22 miniseries (2019)



Last year I went to the WWII museum in New Orleans for a special advanced showing of Hulu’s miniseries “Catch-22”.  It was an ambitious attempt to bring the famous Joseph Heller novel to the small screen.  The 1970 film is highly respected, but the novel is massive and complicated so a two-hour movie could not really do it justice.  The miniseries is more than twice as long as the Mike Nichols’ movie.  This new version was developed and written by Luke Davies and David Michod.  They took on the difficult task of transforming the nonlinear, farcical novel that Buck Henry had ably adapted for the movie.  George Clooney got involved as an executive producer and directed two of the episodes.  He also took on a minor role.  Although a prestige production for Hulu, the rest of the cast was fairly unknown except for Kyle Chandler and Hugh Laurie in small roles.  The miniseries got good reviews, but only Emmy nods for Sound Effects and Special Visual Effects.  It was filmed in Sardinia and Italy.  The film used some authentic B-25s.

                        Davies and Michod decided to make the miniseries linear, probably as a sop to Hulu’s audience.  It opens with the main character Yossarian (Christopher Abbott) in training to be a bombardier.  He is having an affair with his commanding officer Scheisskopf’s (Clooney) wife.  He tells her that he chose the air corps because he figured that by the time his training was over, the war would be over.  So it is established early that Yoyo is a coward.  The rest of the show covers enough bombing missions to prove he would have to be very brave to handle his job without being affected by it.  Although the movie runs for 270 minutes, it basically covers two storylines.  One is Yossarian’s attempts to get sent back home and the other is the black market machinations of Milo Minderbinder (Daniel David Stewart).  There are ten missions spread out through the narrative and one montage.  Interspersed with these are some scenes that develop some of the other characters.  Col. Cathcart (Chandler) is a martinet who is constantly upping the number of missions necessary for ending your tour.  It starts at 25, but will go up throughout the miniseries.  Major Major (Lewis Pullman) is a mousy incompetent who is appointed squadron leader.  Maj. – de Coverley (Laurie) is in charge of renting rooms when new cities are occupied.

                        The writers had some options when they took on Heller’s book.  Buck Henry decided to do a greatest hits wrapped around the Yossarian / Minderbinder threads.  Snowden’s death was his nonlinear device to explain Yosarrian’s breakdown.  Davies and Michod could have simply replicated that with their own take on the characters and added more scenes and characters from the book.  They could have amped up the black humor and silliness of the novel.  Instead, they decided to play it relatively straight and concentrate on Yossarian’s efforts to get to the mission goal.  There is little added from the book and some scenes were not in the book or movie.  This was a poor decision because the movie is not so well known or recent that Hulu’s viewers would have wanted a different approach.  And then you have the fans that did not want the novel tampered with.  With 270 minutes, the logical approach would have been to cover more of the book and allow the actors to give their own takes on the books’ characters.

                           Surprisingly, the best thing about the series is the missions.  The B-25 interiors are authentic.  The CGI flak is intense.  The sound effects match.  You can see and feel why Yoyo is worried about his life expectancy.  At one point, a fellow bombardier gets splattered on his windscreen.  The problem here is the experiences do not match Yossarian’s reactions.  His is not a consistent descent into PTSD.  He remains dedicated to his bombing with some exceptions.  Bizarrely, after doing his best to avoid missions, Yoyo changes strategy and does multiple missions to reach 50 (the montage).  He is dedicated on all of them and gets off each bomber with a smile on his face.  (Unlike the Yossarian of the book, he does not care which pilots he flies with.)  By the way, even though he is freelancing, he is always the lead bombardier.  The key mission where Yoyo decides to go around a second time to bomb a bridge is placed too late to make sense.  Even more perplexing, the death of Snowden is in the last episode!  It is not used to explain why Yossarian is so motivated to get out of combat.  Instead, it is treated as a breaking point that leads to Yossarian adopting a no clothes policy.  Here is one example of the series going beyond the movie/book, but this does not happen enough to become a characteristic of the show.  The writers were too tame in this respect.

                        The critics have been kind to the series, although the Emmys were not impressed.  However, if you have seen the movie and/or read the book (which I have, twice), this miniseries is a severe disappointment.  The movie’s characters channeled the book’s well and the cast was outstanding.  This ensemble is definitely second-rate, but the script gives them no opportunity to make their characters interesting.  It was a poor decision to cast actors that mostly look alike.  And, in spite of the expanded length, the other air crewmen like Nately, Orr, Arfy, McWatt, etc. are short-changed.  Hell, we don’t even get Gen. Dreedle.  Clooney’s Scheisskopf is substituted as a mustache twirling villain.  Only Minderbinder makes an impression and only Daniel David Stewart is in a league with his cinematic equivalent (Jon Voight).  The series adds two Italian lackeys for Milo and forgoes many of the unseen characters from the book, like Hungry Joe.  Across the board, the characters are boring in comparison to the book/movie.  It is infuriating for fans to see the Chaplain depicted as a typical chaplain!   Nately’s whore likes him!  Did the writers even read the book?  Christopher Abbott is adequate as Yossarian, but his performance lacks nuance.  Yoyo is unlikeable and much more of a straight coward than Alan Arkin’s portrayal.

                        This series needed to be as black, if not blacker, than the movie/book.  There is little humor in the series.  In a telling moment, Yossarian’s scrotum surgery (not in the book) forces him to wear silly pants.  It was  too late to shift to farcical.  Why would you add a scene where Yoyo spends some time in an Italian village and skip some of the iconic scenes? You had 270 minutes!  There is no briefing with Dreedle’s WAC being the focus.  Milo does not have a cotton problem.  There is no Luciana.  Arfy does not visit Yoyo during a mission.  The key scenes that are reenacted are all inferior to the movie.  For example, Kid Sampson’s death is played for shock value and makes no reference to Doc being on board McWatt’s plane. 

                        I do not understand the critics who have complimented the miniseries.  To me, it is a big disappointment.  The decision to disregard the tone of the book and not simply expand on what the movie covered is head-scratching.  To take beloved characters and remove their quirks is inexcusable.  The changes that were made to the story dilute the satire.   There’s no verve.  Next time, use “MASH” as the template.

GRADE  =  D




Friday, January 10, 2020

NOW PLAYING: 1917 (2019)



                        Well, it finally arrived in town.  Was it worth the wait?  “1917” has been on war movie fans’ radar for some time now.  You’ve probably seen the commercials and already know the basic plot.  Two British soldiers must deliver a message halting an attack that will be walking into an ambush.  The idea came from a story director Sam Mendes’ grandfather told him.  Mendes went on to co-write the story with Krysty Wilson-Cairns.  This is Mendes’ second war film after “Jarhead” in 2005.  He shouldn’t wait so long for his next one.  “1917” recently won the Golden Globe for Best Drama.  He won for Best Director.  He owes a lot to his cinematographer Roger Deakins.  This was their fourth collaboration.  Deakins is one of the premier cinematographers and this may be his masterpiece.  He won the Best Cinematography Oscar for “Bladerunner 2049” and has won four BAFTAs and 14 Oscar nominations.  In 2011, the American Society of Cinematographers presented him a Lifetime Achievement Award.  He is the surest of bets at the upcoming Academy Awards.

                        The film opens on April 6, 1917. (I am not sure if it is a coincidence that that is the day the U.S. declared war.)  We meet mates Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) as they walk and talk their way to headquarters.  Thus begins the soon to be legendary continuous shot that will take us through the movie.  The general needs the duo to halt an attack scheduled for the next morning.  The Germans have withdrawn from their front-line trenches and the British plan to take advantage of this.  Unfortunately, intelligence discovers that it’s a trap and two battalions of 1,600 men will be slaughtered if the attack takes place.  Blake and Schofield will have to make a trek through no man’s land to deliver the message.  As an incentive, Blake’s brother is in the doomed battalion.  At this point, the viewer needs to treat the movie like an odyssey.  Think Odysseus with his adventures.  None of that could have really happened, right?  Same with this movie.  They cross a no man’s land that checks all the boxes for the mise-en-scene -  dead horses (with flies, nice touch), dead body on the wire, rats eating dead bodies, destroyed tank, etc.  You do not want to see this movie in smell-o-vision.  Or right after eating.  The odyssey includes stops in the deserted German front-line trench for a haunted house vibe, a deserted farmhouse for an encounter with a German fighter pilot (the only CGI), crossing a bridge under sniper fire, a chase scene in a German occupied village, and riding some rapids.  There’s even a siren’s song by a British soldier (“Poor Wayfaring Stranger”).  Only one of the buddies will make it.  This needs no spoiler alert if you have seen the trailers or the first ten minutes of the movie.

                        “1917” is a movie that can be nitpicked.  The sniper angles don’t match his position, for instance.  As in most episodic war movies, no one person could have had all these experiences.  Mendes is up front about his grandfather’s reminiscences being enhanced and the movie does not start with a claim that it is based on a true story, so you will enjoy it more if you just go with the flow (like Schofield in the river).  Try not to imagine what the front lines must look like to set up the scenario, you’ll get a headache.  The central premise is flawed as Operation Alberich (February-March, 1917) was a planned withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line, but did not involve a feint to draw Allied forces into an ambush.  Plus, the British advanced cautiously, and not beyond the vacated front-line trenches.  While it is likely none of the incidents happened as portrayed, none of them is unbelievable.  It’s easy to overlook the implausibilities if you have an eye for brilliant cinematography.  It is mesmerizing.  But not in an overly showy way.  Some viewers, who don’t read up on movies before seeing them, may not even notice the continuous take.  It is so seamless.  Note the transitions from the camera following to camera leading the duo.  Non-cinephiles will probably remember the realistic sets and gruesome details of trench warfare.  The set designer deserves a lot of credit.  For the continuous take, it was necessary to have an extensive trench system.  Imagine “Paths of Glory” multiplied by ten.  No movie has depicted the trenches more accurately.  This includes the German trenches, which are shown accurately as superior to the British ones.  You will also see the most realistic no man’s land on film.

                        Nothing can match the technical virtuosity of the movie.  The plot is molded to the perspective of just two men, and then one.  This limits the narrative.  It also limits informing the audience about soldier life and behavior.  There is a soldier banter scene in the back of the truck, but the movie is much stronger on the visuals of the war than on the men.  There is some exposition between the leads and some cursory character development.  We do know that Schofield is a decorated veteran of the Somme who regrets a trip home.  He is the cautious one whereas Blake has the motivation of saving his brother.  The actors are fine, if unspectacular in these roles.  There are some showy cameos by the likes of Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch.  Mark Strong makes the best impression as a captain that Schofield runs into.  In the movie’s most insightful exchange, he tells Schofield to make sure there is an eyewitness to his delivering the order because some officers just want to fight.  Other than this spot on take on command decisions in the Great War, the movie is not a typical WWI hate fest on the donkeys leading the lions.  This is not the Iliad, it’s the Odyssey, after all.

                        2019 was not a good year for war movies.  The best was probably “Danger Close” which was an excellent battle movie.  “1917” is a much more personal take on war and is more of a trek movie than a combat film.  It is superior to the last significant WWI film -  2011’s “War Horse”.  While not in the top five WWI movies, “1917” is a worthy entry into a subgenre that has a high percentage of quality.  There is a much higher percentage of good WWI combat movies than the WWII equivalents.  Probably because the war itself lends itself to a purer anti-war feeling.  “1917” will not be remembered as a great anti-war film, but it is entertaining and more a tribute to the soldiers than any recent WWI movies.  You can’t help but be moved as the fodder listens to that haunting song before going over the top.  It will certainly get Academy Award recognition and is better than “Dunkirk” as Mendes substituted dazzling cinematography for Nolan’s tri-perspective, nonlinear approach.  Two directors at the top of their game.  Put me in the Mendes corner.

GRADE  =  A



Saturday, January 4, 2020

SHORT: Cat Shit One (2010)



                        “Cat Shit One” is a war short.  It is animated using CGI.  The film is based on a manga comic set in the Vietnam War.  There it followed a recon unit.  For some reason, the film has been moved to Afghanistan.  It is a sequel to the comics.  The main characters are Packy and Botasky.  They are private contractors.  (I had to read this because it is unclear in the film.)  Their mission is to rescue a hostage and a local asset from the clutches of some jihadis.

                        The film opens with Packy and Botasky observing a village where the jihadis are holding the hostage and collaborator.  Botasky is a sniper and Packy is his observer.  But he’s more than just an observer, he’s a killing machine.  He’s a rabbit Rambo without all the emotional baggage.  This bunny is a cool customer.  That’s right, he and Botarsky are bunnies.  The jihadis are camels (with towels on their heads).  Packy goes into the ville and Botarsky does his thing from a hill.

                        This is a fun little movie.  It’s combat porn with rabbits and camels.  There is a high body count and the violence is graphic.  Blood spurts.  There are RPGs for explosions.  But it’s bunnies doing it so you can watch this with your kids (or grandkids).  Just kidding, don’t do that.  The plot plays out like a SEAL movie done in animation.  And what animation.  It is amazingly crisp.  You see the tiniest details in the terrain.  The rabbits have distinct facial expressions.  When they talk, it’s not distracting.  And there are no poorly rendered humans.  The action is non-stop.  RPG rounds come flying at you and there is slo-mo of the shells ejecting ilk.  It’s a thrill ride for 21 minutes.  This does not leave a lot of time for exposition.  But the two rabbits have personalities.  Packy is a veteran and imperturbable.  He moves like an operative would.  (All of the characters are bipedal.)  Packy uses an SR-47 (an AR-15 adapted to take AK-47 magazines).  Botasky is greener and a bit panicky at first.  This sets up his redemption arc. 

                        The movie is one action set piece.  The jihadis are simply there to be killed.  One nice touch is they speak their own language and there are no subtitles.  Not that you need to know what they are saying.  I’m guessing it is some variation of:  “Death to American bunnies!”   The soundtrack is a blend of pulse-pounding action music and there is some Middle Eastern thrown in.  Overall, the production is outstanding.  The only thing that is disappointing is if it is one of a kind.  It was released in 2010 and there has been no sequel.  Pity.

You can watch it here:  Cat Shit One

GRADE =  A



Thursday, January 2, 2020

PICTURE, QUOTE, MOVIE #75



1.  What movie is the picture from?

2.  What movie is this quote from?

"Sir, Custer was a p-ssy. You ain't." 


3.  What movie is this?


It was released in 1980 and was the first of three films made in Australia that marked the arrival of Australian cinema as a force in war movies.  The other two films were “Gallipolli” (1981) and “The Lighthorsemen” (1987).  The film was directed by Bruce Beresford, has an all-Australian cast, and was shot in Australia.  It is based on the play by the same name.  It was a box office success in America and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.