Thursday, April 29, 2021

BOOK / MINISERIES: Piece of Cake


                Piece of Cake is a novel by Derek Robinson published in 1983.  Robinson spent some time as a pilot in the RAF in the 1950s.  He is famous for his aviation combat novels set in WWI or WWII.    Piece of Cake follows the exploits of Hornet Squadron in the early part of WWII.  The squadron of Hawker Hurricanes is sent to France during the Phony War.  They get their asses kicked back to England where they participate in the Battle of Britain.  This is not your standard hero-worshipping adventure story.  Robinson intentionally steps on British toes and snidely pops some historical bubbles.  His “heroes” are flawed, but human.  Very human – as in not immortal.  The squadron dynamics reflect the class structure of British society with the upper class pilots and the lower class ground crews.  Another theme is the vaunted RAF made plenty of strategic and tactical mistakes early in the war.  And its spectacular success in the Battle of Britain was exaggerated.  Hell, Robinson even questions whether victory in the Battle of Britain was necessary to prevent a German invasion.  The book was not popular until the mini-series came out.

                The book opens with Hornet Squadron naively unconcerned with the approaching war clouds.  The books black humor kicks in early as the squadron commander breaks his neck in a farcical accident.  The unit ends up with an upper class rich guy named Rex.  Rex is a charismatic leader and not only behaves like one of the boys on the ground, but uses his fortune to make sure that life on the ground is the opposite to that of the mud-crunching infantry.  The squadron is billeted in a French chateau and eats gourmet meals that are the envy of Fighter Command.  In spite of his twittishness, Rex seems a good commander, if a bit obsessed with flight discipline.  He insists on very tight formation flying to the point that the pilots spend all their time watching each other’s wingtips instead of the sky.  This is RAF doctrine and no one questions it until a Yank named Hart joins the squadron.

                Hart (CH3) is a brash veteran of the Spanish Civil War who takes an immediate dislike to Rex’s methods.  He is outspoken in criticizing the close formations and insists on flying loose so he can constantly scan for the enemy.  Rex and the others think Hart is an asshole troublemaker (e.g., a typical American). However, when the Sitzkrieg ends and several tail end Charlies get shot down, confidence in Rex wanes.   Some of the pilots conspire to end Rex’s reign and the squadron ends up back in England under the command of the redeemed Fanny Barton (who had earlier been suspended for an unfortunate friendly fire incident).

                The Battle of Britain continues the whittling down of the mates.  Some replacements barely register before they are gone.  The stress and exhaustion are sapping.  The combat is far from glamorous.  Several deaths are fiery.  There is an incident where they shoot down a German rescue plane and another where one of the pilots bails out and his plane crashes into a house.  War is bloody hell.  Bloody hell, will anyone survive this novel?  Yes.

                The novel is full of black humor.  For example, one of their commanding officers offers this unfortunately true analysis of war:  Didn't somebody say that war is a nasty business? Quite good for promotion, though.”  The dialogue by the pilots during down times is brilliantly witty.  The way they rag each other is genuine and could only come from an ex-pilot like Robinson.  Their antics like tray racing down the twin staircases may seem juvenile, but accurately reflect the fighter pilot mentality.  “Eat, drink, and be merry – for tomorrow we may be dead.”  That’s not to say that all the pilots go to their deaths singing a drinking song.  Each reacts to the stress differently.  Some are cowards, some crack up.  There are as many paths as there are journeyers.

                The book is populated by memorable characters.  Three standouts are Hart, Skelton, and Cattermole.  It’s noteworthy that Robinson chooses to make his alter ego an American.  He has Hart represent his own cynical view of the air war.  Hart questions strategy and tactics just as the historian in Robinson has questioned the official take on the Battle of Britain.  As an American, I gravitated towards this character and enjoyed his “I told you so” attitude.  I wonder if British readers felt the same.  Skelton is the Intelligence Officer who is basically the squadron nerd.  He’s never flown a plane and he wears glasses.  He is constantly questioning the pilots’ reports as to accuracy (which fits Robinsons’ theme that the RAF greatly “enhanced” the kill ratios).   He even questions strategy when higher-ups visit.  Everyone hates him, of course.  He is not a villain.  The novel reserves that position for one of the most loathsome characters in war novels – Moggy Cattermole.  Jerk, thief, bully, murderer, cheater, and ace pilot.  Robinson proposes you need people like this to win wars, but that’s hard to swallow.  As much as I looked forward to his death, he is unforgettable.

                A good war novel teaches as well as entertains.  This is a good war novel.  You will learn what the air war situation was from a British point of view.  The naivete and overconfidence before the Luftwaffe was finally encountered is apparent.  The book clearly discusses the faulty tactics and their evolution.  More importantly, Robinson puts us in the boots of the pilots and takes us into their world.  The book was criticized for its harsh portrayal of “the few”, but surely you have to admire their performance and sacrifices under extremely harsh circumstances.  They weren’t superhuman, but the obstacles were.

                As I mentioned, the miniseries resurrected the book.  The 6-part BBC series ran in 1988.  It is very faithful to the book with some understandable adjustments.  For instance, the squadron is equipped with Spitfires (most likely because of availability).    Some of the deaths are different and at least one major character dies in the series, but not in the book.  Most of the significant incidents are recreated.  All of the themes are explored, but with less emphasis on the tactics and the inaccuracies of British gunfire and claims.  The series does not clearly depict why Rex’s close formation style of three plane “vics” was disastrous and certainly does a poor job with the subsequent development of the “finger four” formation where the planes were paired with a wingman to watch its back.  The series has some fairly good aerial footage, but little effort was made to be realistic.

                Where the miniseries stands out is in the acting.  All of the cast fit their book character.  Tim Woodard is stuffy as Rex, David Horovitch is calming as the WWI vet adjutant “Uncle” Kellaway, Boyd Gaines plays Hart as not a cowboy, but as a weary mercenary for liberty.  Acting honors go to Neil Dudgeon as Moggy.  He is spot on.  The cast is not all-starish although Jeremy Northam (Fitzgerald) went on to “Emma”.  Surprisingly, the teleplay decided to chop the female American reporter Jacky Bellamy who goes from swallowing the party line to cynic over the course of the book. In the book, her relationship with Hart is fascinating and unexpected.

                The series cuts down on the quantity and quality of insults the pilots hurl at each other.  The book is much funnier than the series.  The series also can not match the book for the dogfights.  The budget did not allow for realistic aerial scenes.  They used actual footage and some footage from the movie “Battle of Britain”, but it becomes repetitive.  We see the same plane blowing up numerous times (sometimes with the negative reversed).  It is also difficult to determine who is being shot down or killed.  They all look the same in the cockpits.  Another problem is the series does not finish strongly.  The last hour feels like a rush to get everyone killed before the final credits.  With that said, it is certainly the best TV series about fighter combat and well worth the watch.  If you don’t want to read the book, it will suffice.

BOOK  =  A+


Monday, April 26, 2021

T-34 (2019)


                    “T-34” premiered at Comic-Con Russia in 2018.  If this is a red flag for you, don’t watch it.  It was directed and written by Aleksey Syodrov.  Several T-34 tanks were remade for the film.  A village was built for one of the big set pieces.  The movie was a big hit in Russia and up until recently was the second highest grossing film in Russian history.

                    The movie is the story of Lt. Nikolay Ivushkin (Alexander Petrov).  In Dec., 1941 he is pressed into service commanding a T-34 tank defending a village alone.  What follows is a gonzo battle between his tank and six panzers.  How gonzo?  Nikolay takes out two tanks with one round.  It comes down to a duel with an evil Nazi named Jager (Vinzenz Kiefer).  When the dust from the destroyed village clears, Nikolay is a captive.  Three years later, he is in a concentration camp.  Jager is put in charge of a unit of Hitler Youth who will command the tanks that will turn the war around.  He has the bright idea of training them against a real T-34 with a real Soviet crew.  He recognized Nikolay and tabs him for the role.  He threatens to kill his Russian interpreter Anya (Irina Starshenbaum) to get Nikolay to agree.  He picks a driver and a gunner and they hatch a plan to escape during the mock battle.  And, what the heck, they’ll bring Anya with them. 

                    If you are expecting a realistic movie about the Great Patriotic War, skip this.  It was described by some Russian critics as “Fast and Furious” in tanks.  Premiering at a Comic-Con clues you in on the fact that Syodrov was aiming his movie at the younger generation, not Russia’s greatest generation.  This is clear from the ridiculous plot developments.  Parts of the plot make no sense.  Parts make total sense to anyone who has watched war movies because the movie does not avoid cliches.  The hero versus the villain, ending in a duel.  Nikolay and crew are given a special mission.  The hero has leadership thrust on him.  A romance is shoe-horned in.   And then there are the violations of the laws of physics and weaponry.  I did mention “Fast and Furious”.  So just keep drinking and enjoy the mayhem.  It is entertaining in a mindless way.  And the acting is a decent.  Even though Nikolay and Jager don’t break any new ground in the hero versus villain trope, they are well-played. 

                    But all anyone cares about is the tank battles and here the movie hits its target audience.  We follow shells via CGI, but those shells are being fired by real tanks.  The interiors give some verisimilitude and the firing procedure seems to conform to reality.  That’s where reality ends in the battles, but they are action-packed.  There are several tank duels in the three big action set pieces.  This is the kind of movie that if the test audience was wowed by a shell grazing a tank, why not do it again?

                    I can see the appeal of the movie and it does have its fans.  But it defied reality too much for me and I do not believe Syodrov meant for it to be taken tongue in cheek.  I think he expected for younger people to say “yeah, that could have happened”.  No, it couldn’t.  So, if you found problems with “Fury”, you will not like this movie.  But if you liked “White Tiger”, you’ll love “T-34”.  It’s a better movie.  But that’s not saying much.

GRADE  =  C+   

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Incendies (2010)


                    “Incendies” is a Canadian film directed and written by Denis Villeneuve.  He was inspired to adapt the play by Wajdi Mouawad.  The title is French for fire or conflagration, an appropriate title for a story that is set in a civil war.  Although the setting and characters are fictional, it is most likely based on the Lebanese Civil War.  The movie was filmed mostly in Montreal, with a few days spent in Jordan.  It took only 40 days to finish.  The completed film was a highlight of numerous festivals and got great reviews.  It won eight Genies (the Canadian equivalent of the Oscar), including Best Motion Picture, Director, and Actress (Lubna Azabal).  It was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards.

                    The movie catches your attention immediately with a scene where soldiers are shorn of their locks.  It’s a scenario common in every war movie with a boot camp section, but here the “soldiers” are boys.  The scene closes with a defiant look from a boy who has three dots tattooed on his ankle.  Who is this boy?  The mystery begins.  Fast forward to years later.  Twins Jeanne (Melissa Desormeaux) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette) are in the office of a notary for the reading of their mother’s will in Canada.  She left a letter expressing an unfulfilled promise to find her son who she had put in an orphanage back in the old country. She wants them to find their brother. And while they are at it, find their father, too.  Simon thinks the idea is daft, like his mother.  He just wants to bury her and be done with it.  Jeanne insists on traveling to the Middle East to initiate a search.  By the end of the movie, you may think Simon was right to let sleeping dogs lie.  The notary, their mother’s employer and friend of the family, warns them that “death is never the end.  It leaves tracks.”  Those tracks are going to take the twins to an unforeseen explanation for their mother’s strange behavior and her enigmatic last words.  I won’t spoil the rest of the plot because it is a movie that rewards people who enjoy mysteries and plot twists. 

                    The film has a nonlinear structure.  The first half intercuts Jeanne’s journey to find her brother with flash backs to her mother Jawal’s (Azabal) experiences during the civil war.  And boy did she have some experiences, mostly tragic.  She spends fifteen years in prison and becomes famous as “the woman who sings”.  The second half has Simon reluctantly joining his sister to search for his father.  The revelations they uncover are going to rock their world.

                    “Incendies” is a remarkable movie.  I’m always intrigued by war movies that go outside the box.  In this case, it is a mystery set in a war.  Appropriately, the war is a civil war.  That means Nawal’s odyssey is made more tragic by the internecine nature of that type of war.  Made worse by the religious factor that the Middle East is infamous for.  Christians versus Muslims will recur throughout Nawal’s story.  This is particularly evident in a scene where Christian militiamen stop a bus full of Muslims.  Because what happens is realistic, it is one of the harshest scenes you will find, even in a war movie.  Speaking of realism, while its depiction of the brutality of a civil war is true, the dominoes that have to fall to reach the shocking conclusion are open to nit-picking.  But if you get fixated on the odds of plot developments, you’ll miss the point of a very entertaining movie.