Thursday, July 30, 2020

THE LAST FULL MEASURE (2019)


                The last year has been good for war movie lovers.  “1917”, “Danger Close”, “Da 5 Bloods”, “The Outpost”, “Greyhound” to name a few.  Did the trend continue with “The Last Full Measure”?  On first glance, it was doubtful.  It took twenty years to film because no studio wanted to finance it.  Writer and director Todd Robinson was persistent and finally got it made for $20 million, but it only made $3 million.  It must have been tough to hear “I told you so” about such a personal project.  In doing research for another film, Robinson had run across the story of William Pitsenbarger.  He was intrigued by the tale of a pararescueman who was awarded an Air Force Medal posthumously for actions saving 60 grunts in Vietnam and then had it upgraded to a Medal of Honor many years later.  Robinson assembled a cast of veteran actors and was able to film the Vietnam segments in Thailand.

                The movie gets off to a roaring start with an American unit from the 1st Army Division being ambushed over the credits.  From 1966 South Vietnam, we jump to Washington in 1999.  Scott Huffman (Sebastian Stan) works at the Department of Defense for the Secretary of the Air Force.  He is handed the folder of William Pitsenbarger.  Pits’ comrades have been pushing for years to have his Air Force Medal upgraded to the Medal of Honor.  Huffman reluctantly accepts the shitty, hopeless task.  He is not at all interested in justice for Pitsenbarger, since he is a Hollywood stereotype of the amoral bureaucrat.  Huffman goes on an odyssey to interview grunts who were impacted by the pararescueman’s efforts.  These awkward encounters are intercut with the ambush. 

                The veterans Huffman interviews are stereotypes too.  Tully (William Hurt) was a comrade of Pits who is determined to get his buddy the Medal of Honor because he personally knows the sacrifice he made.  Takoda (Samuel L. Jackson) has guilt issues from the ambush.  Mott (Ed Harris) rants about the brass sending them out as bait.  Burr (Peter Fonda in his last role) is just plain nuts.  Kepper (John Savage) lives a monastic existence in Vietnam and has a butterfly garden on the spot of the ambush.  If that’s not enough heavy-weights for you, throw in Christopher Plummer and Diane Ladd as William’s saintly parents.  They supported his going.  If not their son, whose?  It takes a while, but Huffman is eventually ready to risk his upward bound career for justice.  Now that he has overcome his own lack of compassion, he has to overcome his own bureaucracy.  And we’re not just talking about the brass, we’re also talking about politicians.  Double military justice villains!

                I know I have been a bit snarky about the movie, but it actually is better than you would expect.  Yes, it has tropes common in Vietnam veteran and military justice movies.  Although the veterans are stereotypes, Robinson has great actors playing the roles.  Which is bad news for the unknown actors playing their younger selves.  Big combat boots to fill.  Plus you get Christopher Plummer as the father.  I haven’t even mentioned yet that Dale F’in Dye appears as the general who used the unit as bait.  Yet, you’ll be surprised by his character.  The movie does not hammer an anti-Vietnam War or anti-military theme.  It is not lazy on PTSD.  Tully and the others earned their demons. 

                The combat is generic and a bit overblown.  But the unit did suffer 80% casualties, so it seems realistic in a Hollywood sort of reenactment.  You definitely get the impression that Pitsenbarger did something extraordinarily brave when he waved off his helicopter.  The spider holes and snipers in trees are nice touches.  Pits marks an M for morphine on a wounded grunts forehead.  You can tell Dale Dye was on set.

                The movie deserves credit for sincerity.  The orchestral music backs this up.  But it does not cross the line into cloying.  However, you might want to have some tissues handy.  It jerks tears effectively.  Mr. Pitsenbarger is dying of cancer and Tully has survivor’s guilt.  In the hands of these actors, prepare to have your emotions manipulated, in a good way.  Speaking of, it is apparent that this movie and “Da 5 Bloods” has solved the problem of making a Vietnam War movie with a veteran ensemble by setting it in the present day and flashing back with a bunch of star wannabes.

                The whole Huffman half of the movie has the feel of Hollywood enhancement for plot purposes. It is very predictable.  The reason to watch the movie is the accuracy with which it portrays the action of one of the bravest men who served in Vietnam.  William Pitsenbarger was involved in 300 rescue missions before his death.  On April 11, 1966, he saved sixty men’s lives at the cost of his own.  He was recommended for the Medal of Honor and an Army general downgraded it to an Air Force Medal.  He was the first Air Force enlisted man to receive that award.  That was quite an honor, but the downgrading (apparently due to lack of documentation) added injustice to the story and made it cinema-worthy.  This movie does an admirable job bringing his story to the screen.  By the way, stick around, after the final credits there are interviews with some of the men.

GRADE =  A-  



Tuesday, July 28, 2020

PICTURE, MOVIE, QUOTE #87


1.  What movie is the picture from?

2.  What movie is this quote from?  

“Graduation is only a few days away, and the recruits of Platoon 3092 are salty. They are ready to eat their own guts and ask for seconds. The drill instructors are proud to see that we are growing beyond their control. The Marine Corps does not want robots. The Marine Corps wants killers. The Marine Corps wants to build indestructible men, men without fear.”

3.  What movie is this?

It is a war movie set in London during the Blitz of WWII. It was directed by John Boorman and was based on his own experiences as an eight year old boy. It was a British-American endeavor that was released in 1987. It was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Art Direction, Cinematography, Original Screenplay, Director, and Picture. It won the Golden Globe for Best Musical or Comedy.           

Saturday, July 25, 2020

FORGOTTEN GEM? Lafayette Escadrille (1958)




                    “Lafayette Escadrille” was supposed to be William Wellman’s (“Wings”) homage to the unit he was a member of in WWI.  The Lafayette Escadrille consisted of American’s who volunteered to fight for France before the U.S. entered the war.  Wellman, who started out in the French Foreign Legion and switched to the flying unit, was credited with three kills and was awarded with the Croix de Guerre.  He was shot down and survived the crash landing, but walked with a limp the rest of his life.  He wrote the story the movie was inspired by.  It was based on his experiences.  Several characters in the film are based on members of Wellman’s squadron.  The main character was a friend of his who kicked out of the unit for hitting a French officer.  He became a pimp and fell in love with one of his prostitutes.  He met Gen. Pershing and talked his way into the Air Service.  (In the movie, Thad Walker escorts a general to a brothel.  This was based on an experience Wellman had involving Pershing during the war.)  He was shot down and killed, his wife jumped into the Seine.  This was ending Wellman shot, but Jack Warner and Warner Brothers decided the film needed an upbeat ending so the studio took the film away from Wellman and reshot the ending.  It also changed the title. Wellman intended for the movie to be entitled “C’est la Guerre”.  He also intended for Paul Newman to play the lead with Clint Eastwood as his pal.  Newman became unavailable and the studio insisted on teen idol Tab Hunter and bumped Eastwood down to a minor role in favor of David Janssen.  You can’t have a teen idol die.  The studio was not interested in making the film and insisted Wellman make “Darby's Rangers” to get the greenlight.  And then it saddled Wellman with a low budget.  Wellman was so pissed by the whole experience that he gave up making movies.

                    The movie opens with Wellman narrating as the Lafayette Escadrille memorial fills the screen.  He proclaims that this will be the story of a man whose name is not on the memorial.  Flashback to Thad Walker (Hunter) stealing a car and hitting a kid on a bike.  He escapes only to have his father slap him around.  Next thing we know, he’s a stowaway on a ship to France.  He hooks up with a trio of Americans that includes William Wellman (played by his son William, Jr.) and decides to join them in enlisting in the Lafayette Escadrille.  Before that, he locks eyes with a girl in  a bar and it’s love at first sight (probably due to the sappy romantic music).  Renee (Etchika Choureau) is a whore with a heart of gold.  At the barracks, the narrator identifies Walker’s bunkmates (one of whom is a very young Eastwood) and proceeds to tell us most of them are going to die.  Hey, spoiler alert!  They are trained on a French monoplane by a French pilot who only speaks French.  No wonder so many die.  (In fact, the French speak without subtitles, as though the movie is a serious work of art.)  The training montage features silly comic relief with silly music.   Walker ends up going AWOL after slugging a French officer.  He shacks up with Renee.  This dude is in desperate need of redemption and we’ve been promised some dogfighting, so you know where this is heading.
                   
                    It’s hard to assign blame for this fiasco.  Wellman basically disowned the movie, so obviously he blamed the studio for the final product.  But even if you factor in the low budget and the amended ending, he controlled the story for the most part.  He accepted the poor performances by the actors.  Tab Hunter is no Paul Newman.  He created the insipid romance.  He vetted the terrible soundtrack and the silly, slapstick humor.  The humor is absolutely painful to watch, especially in the 21st Century.   Wellman is the one who decided to honor his unit by focusing on a character who is a jerk and did not deserve redemption.  It must have been heartbreaking to have most of his fellow fliers criticize the film, but at least he could argue it was not his fault.

                    There have been some good dogfighting films set in WWI.  It almost deserves its own subgenre.  In 1958 (actually the movie was finished in 1956, but the studio held its release in anticipation of Hunter’s anticipated music stardom), it was gutsy to come out with a movie to challenge Wellman’s own “Wings”, but also “Hell's Angels”, and “The Dawn Patrol”.  In fact, “Lafayette Escadrille” marks the last of the old-style WWI air combat films.  You would expect that the last of the old-school would go out with a lot of dogfighting and you would be wrong.  Nobody fires a tracer until the 1:24 mark and ends with a total of three minutes of forgettable action.  The next significant film in the subgenre was “The Blue Max”.  Talk about a huge jump!  There is not a single pratfall in “The Blue Max”.

GRADE  =  F

Monday, July 20, 2020

CLASSIC or ANTIQUE: The Wings of Eagles (1957)



            John Ford was talked into directing a movie about his good friend Frank “Spig” Wead.  His reluctance may have been due to the similarity in their personalities.  To reenact the pain Wead put his family through must have been uncomfortable for Ford, but Ford and Wead had been drinking buddies for years and Ford was with his friend at his death in 1947.  Ford visited Wead when he was in the hospital for paralysis and was one of the friends who encouraged him to write.  Later, Ford filmed several of Wead’s screenplays, including “They Were Expendable”.  In “The Wings of Eagles”, long-time Ford posse member Ward Bond plays Ford under the pseudonym John Dodge.  Ford loaned him his pipe, hat, hollowed out booze cane, and his three Oscars.  When Wead met with Dodge, there is a clip of “Hell Divers” playing.  Wead wrote the screenplay to that movie (but it was not directed by Ford).  This was the tenth Ford/Wayne film and the third of five Wayne/O’Hara films.  The movie was based on an article by Wead entitled “We Plastered the Japs”.
                “Anchors Aweigh” plays over the credits.  The Navy cooperated by providing the Naval Air Station at Pensacola and the aircraft carrier USS Philippine Sea.  The movie was dedicated to “the men who brought Air Power to the U.S. Navy”.  Wead played a major role in that.  It paid to be a maverick back in the early naval aviation days.  The first scene establishes the movie as one of the Ford/Wayne tongue in cheek entries, like “The Quiet Man”.  Wead has not even soloed yet, but he takes an Army guy named Hazard (Kenneth Tobey) up for a joy ride and ends up crashing in an admiral’s pool.  He gets court-martialed, but you know how much aviation loves mavericks.  The early flying days transitions to the home life where his wife Min is in the hell that is cinematic serviceman’s spouse.  She complains about the constant moving, but he doesn’t care.  Like she has a choice.  Meanwhile, Wead has this Maverick/Iceman thing going with Hazard (who is based on Jimmy Doolittle).  They compete in air races to prove the superiority of their air branches.  There are not one, but two, of the cliched barroom brawls between naval aviators and air corps pilots.  His neglect of his wife and family (his daughters don’t recognize him) is patched up with a simple “I’ve been a heel”.  Unfortunately, that brief moment of familial caring is interrupted by an accident that leaves him paralyzed.  And no, it’s not because Min hits him on the head with a frying pan.  Wead eventually overcomes his paralysis with the help of his friend Carson (Dan Dailey) and goes on to become an innovator in the development of escort carriers in WWII.
                “The Wings of Eagles” is an uneven blend of comedy and melodrama.  Actually, it starts off as a comedy and then makes a jarring shift to melodrama after the accident.  The good ole boy scenes are intermixed with the Spig and Min scenes.  Although Min is the typical service spouse who is second banana to the service, the relationship is unpredictable.  Wead really is a heal, but unlike a modern biopic, this 1950’s movie has to imply that he was going to mend his ways before the accident.  Wead is clearly more interested in snapping towels with his buddies and trading punches with his rivals.  The relationship with Hazard is your standard Quirt/Flagg rivalry.  You have to wonder how comfortable O’Hara was during the production.  There is a lot of smoking and drinking in the movie and that probably reflected the production as well.  However, the boys are familiar faces and Wayne has one of his better performances.  It helps that he is bed-ridden for a good chunk of the movie.
                As a biopic, the movie air brushes the warts mostly.  You get just a hint that Wead was a bad husband and father.  Maybe that was a good thing because if he had been distracted, we might not have come up with the idea of “jeep carriers”.  According to the film, Wead had a sudden “eureka!” moment that led to this naval innovation.  This is just one of several moments in the movie that seem to be artistic license.  But those moments are largely forgettable and eclipsed by the hospital scenes.  If you have seen this movie, the one thing you probably remember is the line “I’m gonna move that toe”.  Carson says it 31 times and Wead says it 65!  Speaking of biopics, how is it we have one for “Spig”Wead, and not for the much more interesting and significant Jimmy Doolittle?
                As far as the accuracy, two of the sillier moments are supposedly true, according to Ford.  He insists Wead did crash in an admiral’s pool and there was a brawl with cake throwing.  As far as the historical events, it appears to be a fairly realistic depiction of the major moments in Wead’s life.  The rivalry with the infant air force is played for entertainment but there were air races.  The post-accident career is simplified.  He did play a role in the development of jeep carriers (escort carriers) and they were initially viewed as being used to transport aircraft to the fleet carriers.  Unfortunately, the movie leaves the impression that became their key role in the war.  In truth, they played a much more important role as escorts for convoys in the Atlantic and as supplements to the big boys in the Pacific.  You have to feel sorry for the CVE’s  (“combustible, vulnerable, and expendable”) for getting short-changed.
GRADE  =  C  

Friday, July 17, 2020

CONSENSUS # 39. A Bridge Too Far (1977)




SYNOPSIS: "A Bridge Too Far" is an all-star battle epic from the subgenre founded by "The Longest Day". It is the story of Operation Market Garden in WWII Europe.  This was an attempt to seize several bridges leading into Germany.  The movie covers both the British and the American effort and also gives the German perspective.  It tends toward being command-centric, but has a lot of combat.

BACKSTORY:
A Bridge Too Far is basically a sequel to The Longest Day and suffers a bit in the comparison. They are both based on books by Cornelius Ryan. ABTF was released in 1977, three years after the book. It has a similar format as its sister film the all-star cast in a war epic. The movie was something of a flop which should not have been a surprise given that it was about a mostly British affair and a loss at that. Given the odds stacked against it, the movie mirrors the event it portrays in that respect.

TRIVIA:  wikipedia, imdb, TCM

1.  It is based on the book by Cornelius Ryan.  He also wrote The Longest Day.

2.  One thousand paratroopers using Dakotas were used in the drop scenes.

3.  Dirk Bogarde had been on Montgomery’s staff .  He was an intelligence officer who was sent to Arnhem during the battle.  He took issue with the portrayal of Gen. Browning, as did Browning’s family.

4.  All the lead actors agreed to work for “favored nation” fees which was $250,000 per week.  Robert Redford was an exception.  He was paid $2 million for two weeks work.

5.  Director Richard Attenborough shot 2.7 million feet of film, equivalent to more than 500 hours.


Belle and Blade  =  2.5
Brassey’s              =  4.0
Video Hound       =  4.4
War Movies         =  3.1
Military History  =  #94
Channel 4             =  #7
Film Site                =  yes
101 War Movies  =  yes
        Rotten Tomatoes  =  no
 
OPINION:
The obvious thing to do is to compare this movie to The Longest Day. In some ways it is a sequel and we all know about sequels they seldom live up to the original. However, ABTF has some big shoes to fill and it is probably asking too much for it to surpass or even equal its parent. Technically, it is a superior film. The airborne landing scene and the fighting in Arnhem are superior to any action in TLD. Compare the combat in Arnhem specifically to the scenes in Ouistreham and you will see what I mean.
Another comparison is ABTF is more command-centric than TLD. There is only one grunt character Dohun. TLD is full of privates. I do not know if it reflects the difference, but Sean Connery portrays a private in TLD and he has been promoted to general by ABTF ( think on that ). It does not have to be either/or as TLD proves with its blend of scenes showing the strategic ( the generals ) and the tactical
( the foot soldiers and their officers ). ABTR does not blend as well.

I admire the guts of the producers in making a movie that is a history lesson and a downer at that. I cannot believe the marketing people were thrilled with that. Kudos for swimming upstream.

The movie came out in the mid-seventies and reflects the transition from old-school war movies ( like TLD ) to the more cynical modern war film ( Patton ). It clearly reflects the post-Vietnam view of the military and warfare in general. The emphasis on SNAFU, clueless strategists, the waste of human lives, and pressing on with flawed plans are apparent in the movie.

"A Bridge Too Far" is sadly underrated, but not here. It is fairly treated on this list.  I can see why people who don't care about history might not be excited about it, but as a war movie lover it is a real treat.

Monday, July 13, 2020

NOW STREAMING: Greyhound (2020)



                I had been waiting for this movie for a couple of years.  I heard about it early because they filmed on the USS Kidd which is a floating museum in Baton Rouge, La.  I have been on the ship numerous times and have even slept on board several times.  Those overnites were with my History Club.  It was always a great experience, other than worrying about what those teenagers might be getting into.  Sleeping in a berth on a warship is something every war movie fan should have on their bucket list. 
                It took longer to see the film than I anticipated.  It’s release was delayed by the pandemic and the studio ended up deciding to junk the theatrical opening and go straight to streaming.  It just so happened that the new Apple + TV was hoping to get attention in the crowded streaming market and it bought the film for $70 million (the movie cost $50 million).  I bet Apple is praying people like me go beyond the free trial.  The movie was directed by Aaron Schneider (his second feature film), but I would guess he deferred to star Tom Hanks.  Hanks wrote the screenplay based on the novel The Good Shepherd by C.S. Forester.
                The movie opens with some quotes from Churchill and FDR to set the stage.  The U.S. Navy is helping escort troop and supply ships across the Atlantic.  The convoys are most vulnerable when they are transiting the “Black Pit” which refers to the area in the North Atlantic where there is no air cover.  The USS Greyhound leads a group of four destroyers that are escorting a 37-ship convoy to Liverpool.  Commander Krausse (Hanks) is new to the ship and this will be his first escort mission.  The movie jumps straight into the “Black Pit” and it does not take long for things to heat up.  For the next two days, it will be a cat and mouse game with a wolfpack of German u-boats.  Greyhound is in the thick of the fight and by the time it reaches air cover again it will run the gamut of experiences a destroyer might have in the Battle of the Atlantic.
                There is a thriving subgenre of submarine movies, but few movies from above the surface.  “Greyhound” differs from the similar “The Enemy Below” because it focuses just on the destroyer.  In fact, other than a flashback to Krause proposing to his girlfriend (Elisabeth Shue) which seemed to be thrown in to get a female on the poster, the movie takes place only on the Greyhound.  Clocking in at a tidy 91 minutes, the movie eschews character development in favor of almost nonstop action.  Even Krausse is a cipher, although we learn he is religious and a cool customer.  It may be his first escort mission, but he knows his craft.  The movie does not have time for the usual clichés.  The crew does not side eye their new captain.  He does not have to earn their respect.  There is a brief head-scratching moment, but it quickly turns out that Krausse is a u-boat killer.  There is no dysfunction as Krausse’s exec Lt. Commander Cole (the reliable Stephen Graham) is loyal and competent.  In fact, the whole crew performs well.  Hanks’ screenplay makes a point of sub-plotting an African-American messmate, but there is little time to develop anyone.  Hanks and the Greyhound dominate.
                In lieu of character development, the movie concentrates on action.  It helps if you are knowledgeable about WWII submarine warfare and nautical terminology.  The dialogue is heavy on jargon and is not dumbed down for a mass audience.  Kudos to screenwriter Hanks for doing his research.  I had to do a lot of translating for my wife (ex. starboard is right and port is left).  Hanks throws in some cryptic quotes, but the most creative dialogue comes from a u-boat captain that taunts Krausse.  It’s a bit cheesy and unrealistic, but fun and reminiscent of an earlier style of war movie and adds that “USA! USA!” emotion.  The action is a buffet as we see a variety of combat, but if you know anything about the ferocity of wolfpack attacks, the movie does not steer into outrageous.  It all could have happened, just not to one destroyer on one mission.  Hey, it’s a movie.  

                 The CGI is not a problem.  I was not distracted by it.  It helps that a real Fletcher-class destroyer was used for the interiors and exteriors.  Actually, the CGI was mainly used to create the horrific North Atlantic climate conditions the convoys had to battle.  This was no pleasure cruise, u-boats or not.  Besides giving the recliner-sailing audience a feel for the conditions, the movie is an excellent tutorial on anti-submarine tactics.  And a nice homage to the men who risked their lives escorting convoys.  I hope some of the veterans of WWII tin cans get to see it in the museum theater at the USS Kidd memorial.  By the way, the Royal Navy gets its due and there should be no complaining like with “U-571”.
                The year 2020 really sucks, but it has actually been a pretty good year for war movies.  Just in the last week I have seen “The Outpost” and this movie.  And I didn’t have to go to a theater.  Same could be said for the excellent “Danger Close” and the better-than-expected “Da 5 Bloods”.  “Greyhound” is only the third best of that quartet, but it is still a must-see for war movie fans.  This movie has no frills.    It probably should have been longer to allow for fleshing out of the characters, but it is refreshing to see a movie that concentrates on the warfare aspect of a war movie without going the combat porn route.  Get that free trial.  Plus Apple TV + has some other good war movies you can watch in a week.
GRADE A


Thursday, July 9, 2020

Sunday, July 5, 2020

NOW STREAMING: The Outpost (2020)



                I used to look forward to the occasional war movie opening in theaters.  The rareness of new war movies made those trips to the theater with my note pad special.  I would have to find a seat with some light and sometimes sat in the aisle to use floor lights.  I wonder if those days are over.  I still have not seen “The Last Full Measure” and “Greyhound” has been pushed back.  I may have to get a trial subscription to Apple+ just to see it.  “The Outpost” actually is playing in theaters, but none near me.  I do not know whether I would have gone to see it if it was nearby.  Thankfully, I did not have to.  One effect of the virus is some movies are going straight to streaming.  In this case it costs $7, but that is about what it would cost in a theater and I got to sit comfortably on a non-sticky floor. 
                “The Outpost” is based on Jake Tapper’s book The Outpost:  An Untold Story of American Valor.  Tapper was not embedded like Sebastian Junger in “Restrepo”, but the soldier behavior is authentic due to Tapper doing extensive interviews with the participants.  Rod Lurie (“The Last Castle”) was a good choice as director since he graduated from West Point and served in the Army.  Some of the participants acted as technical advisers and a few even act in the film.  It was filmed in Bulgaria where an accurate mock-up of the post was reconstructed.  The movie got the stamp of approval from Gold Star families who attended a private screening.
                The movie leads with background that basically tells the military history neophytes that locating a base in a valley surrounded by mountains is not a good idea.  Combat Outpost Kamdesh was called “Camp Custer”, but could better have been called “Camp Dien Bien Phu”.  The movie sets the menacing scenario early on with the arrival of new targets by way of a nighttime helicopter ride.  The naïve newbies are informed the choppers don’t dare ingress except on a moonless night.  At daybreak, the camera pans over the surrounding mountains to give the audience a clear idea of the lunacy of locating an outpost there.  Welcome to the Alamo.  Sure enough, at the 6:30 mark, the first shots are fired by Taliban fighters hiding in the rocks on a slope.  And meet the American army in Afghanistan because after the elimination of those insurgents, Staff Sgt. Gallegos (Jacob Scipio) physically abuses sad sack Pfc. Yunger (Alfie Stewart) for firing close to him.  Another soldier has a hashish problem.  However, before you get the impression that the movie is a hit piece on the American military, the movie settles into a realistic portrayal of the dynamics within a unit isolated in a post surrounded by the enemy.  If you haven’t seen “Restrepo”, some might be shocked by how the soldiers talk to each other and interact.  As Specialist Carter (Caleb Landry Jones) complains, it’s like living in a frat house.  His inability to participate in the towel-snapping gets him ostracized.  Those familiar with the modern American army in Iraq and Afghanistan (see “The Kill Team”) will notice that none of these men talk about getting their first kill.  They have more of a Vietnam attitude of just surviving.  Their mission matches their position – hopeless.  Their commanding officer Capt. Keating (Orlando Bloom) tries to implement the strategy of wooing the locals away from the Taliban with infrastructure funds, but it’s a pipe dream and his men know it.  One speaks for all:  “We want their hearts and minds, they want our blood and guts.”  The movie only swipes at the brass, but it is clear the REMFs are clueless and the ROEs are ridiculous.  The cynical view of the counterinsurgency efforts is personified by Staff Sgt. Romesha (Scott Eastwood).  He’s the kind of guy you’re going to need when the shit hits the fan.  That won’t be long because the foreshadowing clearly indicates to fasten your seatbelts.  You’ll need to keep your seatbelt on for 35 minutes of unrelenting combat as you wonder if there will be as many survivors as in the Alamo.
                I usually approach new war movies with some trepidation, especially if I have been waiting for them.  They are so rare that it can be depressing when the promise does not match the product.  Here is one that is worth the wait.  It was intended to pay tribute to the soldiers at Camp Keating and it does so.  The ensemble of mostly unknown actors is excellent and we get a star-making turn by Eastwood.  Orlando Bloom was the box office get and his role reminds of Guy Pearce in “The Hurt Locker” (you’ll see what I mean.)  The actors behave like soldiers.  I do not know if there was a boot camp, but they seem comfortable with the language and the interaction.  If you knew little about American soldiers, you’d mistake hate for love.  This is why the Carter character is crucial.  While a cliched redemption character, he represents the typical soldier who will give his life for a comrade, no matter their relationship.  The best moment in the film comes at the end when a counselor asks him if Mace (the man who he risked his life to save) was his friend and he simply says “no”.  There is some character development, especially Romesha, Yunger, and Carter, but there is a bit of “Black Hawk Down” in the “who was that?” deaths.  (I’m pretty sure the one who shows a picture of his dog dies.  Kudos for tweaking that cliché.)  The enemy is totally faceless, aside for some Afghan elders who look 80, but probably were 40ish.  The fighters are fodder, but there are enough of them and they have mortars and RPGs so the assault is very hairy.
                The movie is basically two parts (although technically it is divided between the various commanding officers).  The first part touches on the hearts and minds strategy and throws in the occasional harassment of the outpost, but it is mainly focused on portraying the lives of the men.  It is very effective at this.  By the time you get to the second part, which is the battle, you do care about the men.  The combat is not quite Korean, but certainly kick-ass.  It is reminiscent of “Danger Close”, but more intimate as the hand-held cameras put us in the thick of it.  Like being in a Humvee under fire.  The deaths are unpredictable and random.  Two of the commanders’ deaths are shocking and that’s before the final battle.  The combat is intense and suspenseful.  You’ll be amazed that these same men who were grabbing ass the night before are risking ass by running through fire to help each other.  We may be sending frat boys overseas, but they step up like a Band of Brothers when the going gets tough.
                I have to admit I was not familiar with the Battle of Kamdesh.  Like most Americans, I have not followed the Afghan War since its early years.  But then, it hasn’t gotten a lot of press coverage since the tennis ball was thrown elsewhere.  This movie was necessary to remind us that there were actual battles after the easy initial conquest of the country.  The battle was a pyrrhic victory in a pyrrhic war.  But that wasn’t the fault of the men of Bravo Troop 3-61 Cavalry.  They did us proud and now their battle is the most famous in the war.
GRADE  =  A
HISTORICAL ACCURACY:   I haven’t read the book yet, but my research indicates the movie is admirably accurate.  The biggest problem is with the compression of time, which is a common fudging in historical movies.  PRT Kamdesh was established in that valley because it was a choke point for Taliban weapons and soldiers.  It was also conveniently located for the counterinsurgency efforts popular at the time.  The movie alludes to the three-part strategy of separating the locals from the insurgents, linking the public to the government, and buying friendship through infrastructure projects.  Keating is used to show this, but Keating’s death occurred a couple of years before the battle.  He did die in a truck accident as shown in the movie.  There were other commanders between him and Yllescas.  Yllescas was mortally wounded by a command detonated IED similar to the movie.  It appears the Broward character was invented to represent blind obedience to the Rules of Engagement and as a foil for Romesha.  Lt. Bundermann was in command on Oct. 3, 2009 when more than 300 insurgents attacked with a variety of weapons including mortars and RPGs.  The mortar pit was taken out.  The enemy did penetrate the perimeter within 48 minutes and the Afghani National Army soldiers did not put up much of a fight before fleeing.  (Think ARVN when you think ANA.)  The movie neglects to mention the Latvian soldiers that also manned the outpost.  It also does not show the fact that the jihadists set fire to several buildings.  The defenders did fall back and it was at this point that Romesha led the counterattack depicted in the movie.  He actually did say “We’re taking this bitch back.”   His Medal of Honor performance is well-portrayed, except it leaves out his role in coordinating air support.  Carter’s arc is also accurate.  He did risk his life carrying ammunition and saved Mace.  Romesha and Carter were the first two soldiers to survive to receive the Medal of Honor in the same battle in over fifty years.  The use of transfusions to keep Mace alive was vetted by Chris Cordova, who was on set for the scenes in the aid station.  The movie downplays the amount of time and effort by the helicopters, A-10s, B-1, and F-15s.  8 Air Force Distinguished Flying Crosses were awarded.  Portis did arrive with the Quick Reaction Force, but it was at nightfall.  Stoney Portis visited the set and admired the authenticity of the recreation.  The reconstruction must have been based on memories since the outpost was hastily destroyed two days later.

Friday, July 3, 2020

4th TIMES THE CHARM? 7 Days in Entebbe (2018)




                
                 “7 Days in Entebbe” (also known as “Entebbe”) is the fourth movie to tell the tale of the Israeli raid to rescue hostages held by terrorists in Entebbe, Uganda.  The others were “Victory at Entebbe”, “Raid on Entebbe”, and “Operation Thunderbolt”.  The most recent of those was made over forty years ago.  All are based on Operation Thunderbolt or Operation Entebbe.  This movie was directed by Jose Padhilla.  The screenplay used Saul David’s book Operation Thunderbolt as its source.

                On June 27, 1976, an Air France flight from Tel Aviv to Paris is hijacked by two German terrorists named Wilfried Bose (Daniel Bruhl) and Bridgette Kuhlmann (Rosamund Pike).  They and two Palestinians took over the plane in midflight, taking the crew and over 200 passengers hostage.   They land in Libya to refuel, where Bose allows a woman who feigns a miscarrying pregnancy to be released.  The airliner moves on to Entebbe, Uganda where the terrorists expect support from notoriously anti-Israeli tyrant Idi Amin.  They are not disappointed.  The Jews and non-Jews are separated in the terminal and Bose and Kuhlmann demand that the Israeli government pay $5 million and release 53 prisoners.  Bose is the idealist.  He is not a Nazi!  Kuhlmann is the tougher of the two.  The Israeli government must decide whether to negotiate or rescue.  Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Defense Minister Shimon Peres represent the two options.  Rabin argues for negotiating and Peres is in favor of direct action to free the hostages.  Meanwhile, Bose and Kuhlmann argue reality versus revolution.  You don’t need a spoiler alert to know that the Israeli’s go with the kick-ass commando rescue option.  This means prepare for intercutting between the government deliberations, the treatment of the hostages, and the planning and training for the mission.  The commando arc concentrates on a conflicted soldier and his dancer girlfriend.  The movie builds to the raid which is framed with a modern interpretive dance routine.  This device does separate the film from the other three movies.
                If you are going to make a fourth movie about an historical event, you better bring something new and better to the table.  This movie does not do that.  Since the other three were made soon after the event, you could thank the producers for updating the story and presenting it to an audience that might not be aware of the event.  Unfortunately, “7 Days in Entebbe” squanders its opportunity with stilted story-telling.  It is unengaging.  This is a major flaw in a movie that depicts one of the great raids in history.  It does stick to the facts for the most part, but lacks the suspense that a good documentary would have.  Since its not a documentary, we should get inside the heads of Bose and Kuhlmann.  All we get is the typical psychobabble common to action movies.  Bruhl and Pike are hot actors, but their performances don’t justify their new status.  The passion is not there and it doesn’t help that Bose and Kuhlmann are both written as blah characters.  The back and forth between the government officials is standard fare and boring since we know there will be a raid.  So we spend the whole time waiting for the big payoff.  And it’s not big.

                The biggest problem with movies like this is the more fidelity to the facts, the less entertainment value.  You can go the “Braveheart” route and say to Hell with the historians, or you can go the “Tora! Tora! Tora!” route and be accused of boring your audience.  “Entebbe” leans more toward avoiding artistic license.  This makes the raid commendably accurate, but seemingly easy and unsuspenseful.  And the framing device using the dance is a misfire.  You won’t care about the passengers because none are developed and the cursory attempts to develop empathy for Bose and Kuhlmann is misplaced considering the audience for the movie.  Since 9/11, we don’t want to understand what makes terrorists tick, we want the visceral thrill of seeing the best country in dealing with them do their anti-terrorist thing.

GRADE  =  C-

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:   The movie takes a few liberties with the facts.  Nothing that would cause a historian to foam at the mouth.  Kuhlman was more brutal than the cool customer of the movie.  Bose is accurately depicted personality-wise.  Kuhlmann did not phone her British boy friend from Entebbe.  Rabin and Peres did hold the positions shown in the film.  The chronology is basically as it was.  The takeover was as shown.  One of the passengers did fake a miscarriage to get freed.  The passengers were divided, but it was based on Israeli Jews versus non-Israeli Jews.  The movie perpetuates the myth that the airline crew volunteered to stay with the hostages, when actually they were given no choice.  The planning and training for the raid is realistic.  The main soldier character is fictional, as is his girlfriend.  Choosing to make the soldier a conflicted one is not exactly representing the majority of the commandoes.  They did use a black Mercedes to fool the guards into thinking it was Amin.  Unfortunately, that night the guards were aware that they great leader had switched to a white one, so they challenged the Israelis.  Against orders, and with what could have been disastrous results, the guards were silenced, but this ended the surprise.  The rescue of the hostages was anticlimactic because Bose refused to open fire on the hostages and another terrorist was shot immediately, but not before a hostage was hit in the crossfire.  The other two hostages that died were killed by friendly fire.  The other terrorists, including Kuhlmann, were tracked down in other parts of the terminal.  The firefight with the Ugandan soldiers occurred mainly during the egress.  Some of them were in the control tower as shown.  One of these was the man who killed the mission leader Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu (Benjamin’s older brother).  Netanyahu was not killed early as in the film.  The movie does not depict the destruction of parked MiGs on the airstrip to prevent pursuit.   In a post script not mentioned in the film, the fourth hostage victim was not killed in the raid.  Dora Block had been taken to a hospital because a bone got caught in her throat.  Idi Amin had her murdered in revenge for the success of the mission.   

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

WTF? Frankenstein’s Army (2013)



               
                “Frankenstein’s Army” is the rare horror war movie.  As though war is not horrible enough, right?  This hybrid of two genres is a Netherlands film that was directed by Richard Raaphorst.  It was his first feature length film.  It stars no one you have ever heard of.  They did not spend the production money on actors.  The movie is of the “found footage” school.  It is reminiscent of “84 Charlie MoPic”.

                The movie starts with a Soviet patrol behind enemy lines in Nazi Germany in the latter days of WWII.  They are accompanied by a documentarian named Dmitri who is filming and interviewing them along the way.  Their mission is to locate the source of a radio distress call from a surrounded Soviet unit.  When they reach the site, they discover a pile of nun corpses.  The nearby church is some type of bizarre factory.  In it they encounter a weird monster which kills their commander.  Dmitri reveals that the real mission is to find and capture a Nazi scientist who is creating “zombots” for Hitler.  The monsters come in a wide variety and are increasingly jawdropping.  Some that were featured included:  wall zombot, crypt monster, moxquito, machete, dragger, propellerhead, grinder, and razor teeth.  There is one with a propeller for a face.  All of them are belligerent.  The basement of the “factory” is a maze in the best tradition of a cinematic haunted house.  The claustrophobic setting lends itself to some gonzo action scenes.  Doctor Frankenstein (a descendant of you know who) is moving on to an experiment that attempts to combine the brain of a Nazi and the brain of a communist.  What could be worse?  Let me suggest the combining of the brain of a war movie lover with that of a horror movie fan.

                “Frankenstein’s Army” is a throwback to the old drive-in movies.  It is weird and different.  And entertaining if you are of the right frame of mind.  Since I do not watch a lot of found footage movies, I found the POV to be intriguing.  Without it, the movie would have been nothing special.  Oh, that and the monsters.  Amazingly, no CGI was used to create the creatures.  Whoever designed them must be hell to sleep with.  One thing is for sure – most of the budget was spent on the monsters.  Little was left for the cast.  The actors are stiffer than the creatures.  The movie does not bother with character development, but who cares when you have such cool monsters?  Although the movie fits into the “who will survive?” subgenre, I did not care who would survive.  And that was not because they were godless communists.  The movie makes up for plot with gore and violence.  It is pretty graphic and bloody.  For example, Dr. Frankenstein removes the skull of a living person and then plays with the brain.  Don’t eat anything while watching this movie!  You really can’t ask for much from a movie like this, but it could have used a little humor to add to the camp value.  It takes itself a bit too seriously.  I guess the director did not want death threats from the zombotics.  On the surprising side, it is not very clicheish or predictable.  It could care less about females, children, or rabbits in distress.

                I rewatched “Frankenstein’s Army” since I recently watched the similarly plotted “Overlord”.  It is the better movie, although it did not get a major release and was not associated with JJ Abrams.  It is simply more fun and horrific.  I could not believe what I was seeing most of the time. 

Grade =  B