Wednesday, March 30, 2022

In Country (1989)

I tried to post this review yesterday, but my Internet went down. 

            When I realized today is National Vietnam War Veterans Day, I knew I needed to post a review of a movie about veterans.  So, I looked at my extensive collection of Vietnam War movie reviews and none seemed appropriate.  I then looked for a good movie about veterans to watch and review.  I didn’t want a movie like “Rambo: First Blood” where a vet snaps and violence ensues.  I wanted a movie that was more realistic about a vet suffering from PTSD.  I settled on “In Country”, a movie that had been on my to-be-watched list for years.

            “In Country” was based on a bestseller by Bobbie Ann Mason.  It was directed by Norman Jewison (“A Soldier’s Story”, “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming”).  Emily Lloyd was cast as the lead after a smashing debut in “Wish You Were Here”.  Although from England, you wouldn’t know it as she nails the Kentucky accent.  Bruce Willis was coming off his superstar turn in “Die Hard”.  It is hard to believe that he starred in “In Country” after that movie.  He was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor.  Reportedly Lloyd and Willis did not get along.  I wonder whose fault that was. 

            The movie opens with soldiers going off to Vietnam.  Their sergeant tells them:  “You depart today to fight the forces of godless communism… America is never going to forget you.”  There is a brief scene of a patrol moving through a swamp at night.  It looks like a swamp in Kentucky where the movie was shot.  Not a good start.  Suddenly we are in the present at the high school graduation of Samantha (Lloyd).  Her father was one of the men in the patrol and he did not come back from Vietnam.  Samantha was born after her father died and she knows little about him.  She wants to find out about him and about the experiences of veterans.  One of them is her uncle Emmett (Willis), who she lives with.  He has PTSD and is unemployed.  He refuses to talk about the war.  He is not mentally unstable, although during a thunderstorm he climbs a tree.  He does suffer from headaches and rashes, but he is not suicidal.  He is part of the local vet community and Sam interacts with other vets.

            Sam finds some letters her father wrote to her mother and his diary.  She camps out in the forest when she reads the diary.  Her father narrates what she reads.  The movie cuts back to the patrol in the swamp scene to show us what happened to her father.  (We know what she never finds out.)  The reading inspires her to take Emmett and her grandmother to Washington to visit the Wall.  This brings some closure, but the movie leaves Emmitt’s future up in the air.

            “In Country” is an interesting movie.  I was surprised that it did not amplify veteran tropes.  Emmitt and his friends have their problems, but none is Rambo or Travis Bickle.  Emmitt is typically laconic.  However, he is never on the verge of snapping.  He cares about Samantha and their relationship is the heart of the film.  The one memory of the war that he shares is the egrets that hung around the water buffalo.  He tells of a time when an explosion scared off a tree full of the white birds.  It was beautiful.  We assume that was a rare moment of beauty.  Emmitt is not a ranting cynic, but he does respond to Sam’s prodding by telling her: “Nobody cares. Nobody gives a shit.”   But she does.  She wants to understand and the movie wants to help the audience understand. 

            While the movie does not advance veteran tropes, it does perpetuate cliches about the grunts in the war.  There is reference to collecting Viet Cong ears.  The killing of a Vietnamese family is declared a common occurrence and excused as “that’s what they were sent there to do.”  Thankfully, those references are not hammered and Dwayne (Sam’s father) is not shown doing bad things. I know enough about the war to know the movie lays it on too thick about atrocities the boys did.  However, I am less sure about how the movie depicts the various veteran problems.  My father was a veteran, but he was a pilot so his experiences were quite different from Emmitt and the others.  I would be interested to know if members of this group who are veterans would find these observations to ring true.  (I paraphrased some of them.)

            -  “They didn’t let us win.”

            -  “My mind takes me where I don’t want to go.”

            -  “Your senses are so keen over there that when you come home everyone seems weak.”

            -  “You stop feeling after a few of your friends are killed.”

            -  “My dead buddies are still in my head.  They are waiting for me.”

            -  “There’s a hole in my heart.”

            -  “I’m half dead.”  

            The movie is well-acted.  Willis gives one of his best performances, although his commitment to the accent is not that of Lloyd.  Lloyd is great as the teenager who is unsure of her future and is aware that her father (who was about her age when he died) did not have a future and did not get to make decisions like the ones she is having to make.  The vets she interacts with have a variety of problems and the cast give realistic portrayals, even though only one (Jim Beaver as Earl) was a vet.  The movie does not make us pity their characters.  It is not intrusive.  We never find out what happened to Emmitt, for instance. 

            “In Country” is perhaps the best movie about Vietnam veterans.  That is partly because it is not really about veterans.  The main character is not Emmitt, it is a teenage girl who is on a quest to find out about her father.  The veterans interact with her in a natural way.  They are not caricatured.  There are no happy endings for them, nor do they crack under the pressures of PTSD.  They appear to be more characteristic of Vietnam vets than we have seen in many movies.  I’d like to know if this community agrees with that.  

GRADE  =  B 

Friday, March 25, 2022

Rogue (2020)


            What if we took the hot chick from “Transformers” and made her into an action hero?  Someone had that bright idea in 2019 and gave Megan Fox to writer/director M.J. Bassett.  Bassett had her for 22 days.  That’s how long it took to film the movie.  This took place in South Africa.  The movie made $243,000 which I am sure did not cover Megan’s salary and certainly did not ensure an action franchise for her.  Maybe if there had been a nude scene.  Oops, spoiler alert!  Before you stop reading, the movie not only has mercenaries and Islamic terrorists, but also lions!

            Samantha O’Hara (Fox) is a tough leader of a mercenary team that is tasked with rescuing a governor’s daughter. Asilia (Jessica Sutton) is being held for ransom by a terrorist group.  There is an explosion in the first five minutes, so we get Fox and explosions!  Calling all fourteen-year-old boys.  The unit slaughters bad guys without a scratch in rescuing the girl.  We know Sam is tough because she has to be talked into rescuing Asilia’s two friends, too.  Make that one friend as the other is eaten by a crocodile as the first of the inevitable whittling down of the “who will survive?” group.  They are on the run from the terrorists and their leader Zalaam (Adam Deacon).  They reach an abandoned lion farm where they take refuge.  All they have to do is survive until morning and a helicopter will pick them up.  Easy peasy.  Except for the human and animal terrorists out there in the night.  Imagine “The Ghost and the Darkness”, only with terrorists as well as rogue lions.  It’s almost a horror war movie and as with all horror movies, don’t expect many people left standing. 

            I would not classify “Rogue” as a war movie, unless you insist on including mercenary movies in the genre.  But since I watched it, I’ll review it.  And no, I did not watch it because I am a big Megan Fox fan.  I’m not a teenage boy.  I’m a critic and as usual I found her performance wooden.  Putting a weapon in her hands does not distract from this.  The rest of the cast is no- names since no money was left over after paying Fox.  But if you force me to pick a standout that would be Philip Winchester as the survivable Joey.  He had starred in the British special forces series “Strike Back”.  But no one watches a movie like this for the acting, or even to see Megan Fox attempt to act.  We watch it for the expenditure of munitions and the slaughtering of bad guys.  And this one adds lion-chomping.  In that respect, the movie is competent.  The chase scene at the beginning is well-staged and the numerous deaths are not cartoonish.  The mercenary losses are realistic.  All this goes out the window when the movie reaches the lion farm.  It’s the Alamo over again with the terrorists playing the Mexicans.  Except the protagonists win, of course.  The besieged never miss and no enemy ever is just wounded.  Or just nibbled on.  Speaking of which, the lion CGI is not good.  Come on, “The Ghost and the Darkness” was 24 years earlier!  

            The one thing “Rogue” has going for it is not Megan Fox, it’s the lions (and the crocodile).  In fact, the movie supposedly had a noble purpose of shing a light on the Lion Farms to get them banned.  I don’t think enough people will see it for that result to ensue, plus I think that might have gotten lost in the “terrorists are bad” theme.  But truthfully, the biggest takeaway from the film is Megan Fox is a badass!


Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Resistance (2020)


Today is the anniversary of the birth of the most famous mime artist in history.  Marcel Marceau was born in 1923.  At age 5, he saw a Charlie Chaplin and his future career was determined.  But first, he had to weather the Holocaust.  During the occupation of France in WWII, he joined the resistance and helped save Jewish children.  Recently a movie was made about his exploits.

            “Resistance” (which is a terrible title) is a biopic about the famous mime Marcel Marceau. It was written and directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz.  It’s box office was killed by the pandemic.  Let’s see if that was bad luck or deserved. 

            If you think of Marceau as a man who brought smiles to millions, the movie immediately makes it clear there will be few in this film.  In the first scene, a young Jewish girl named Elsbeth (Bella Ramsey) witnesses the deaths of her parents.  This establishes the movie as a Holocaust film about a mime.  I’m pretty sure it is the only one.  This particular mime has no interest in the plight of the Jews, although he is one of them.  He works in his father’s butchers shop, but he wants to be a performer.  Would you believe his father is against that career?  Marcel gets involved with the Jewish resistance when he reluctantly entertains Jewish children who are being hidden in Strausburg, France.  They later relocate to Lyon in southern France.  When the Nazis occupy Vichy France, the resistance gets a diabolic foe in one Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighofer).  We first meet the future “Butcher of Lyon” as he beats to death a homosexual.  Evil established.  Normally, you would bet on the butcher versus the mime, but Marcel is not just an entertainer.  He becomes an underground operative.  Besides the expected cloak and dagger of hiding the children, the movie firmly plants itself in the resistance subgenre with your typical capture, torture, rescue scenes.  This builds to a daring escape to Switzerland with some children.

            The obvious comparison is to “Life is Beautiful”.  Both movies try to inject humor into a very serious subject.  At least in this case, it is a true story.  Or based on one.  I was unable to determine how historically accurate it is.  Marceau was definitely in the resistance and did help with the sheltering of children, but the incidents in the movie certainly have the feel of apocrypha.  He was recruited by his cousin Georges Loinger  (Geza Rohrig) into the French Jewish Resistance.  Loinger was a much more significant figure in the rescuing of Jewish children, but he was not a mime.  As far as Marcel entertaining the kids with miming, it rings true.  He did take up the art as a child who was inspired by Charlie Chaplin.  The two women in his life seem fictional and their scrapes with Barbie are likely historical enhancement.  However, the movie bookends itself with Patton commending Marcel’s actions.  Marcel did end the war as a liaison officer for the Third Army.  I would like to think Patton did not let Marcel perform his miming for the troops.  Hadn’t they suffered enough?

            “Resistance” is another misguided attempt to inject humor into the Holocaust subgenre.  Marceau was a great entertainer and a middling resistance figure.  Choosing him as the focus of a resistance movie was pandering to get viewers.  Mime-lovers are likely to be disappointed.  There are surprisingly few mime routines in the film.  (I wonder if Eisenberg was happy with this, considering he went to a lot of trouble to go to mime camp, so to speak.)  This might explain why Eisenberg’s performance is not great.  His Marceau gives a taste of his future fame, but the movie is mostly about Marceau the resistance agent. To gin up his heroism, the film has the usual unrealistic escapes and coincidences.  For instance, the children practice hiding in trees and then have the opportunity to do so on the way to Switzerland.  Not to worry, no children come to harm in the escapades.  The plot makes use of the evil Nazi hot on the trail trope.  Barbie is a cartoonish figure that reminds of a brutal Snidely Whiplash. 

            There have been many WWII resistance movies made and a few are very good.  The ground has been plowed a lot, so a 21st century example needs to be different.  “Resistance” attempts to be out of the box, but aside from a central character who later became different, it plows the same ground.  It is even shakier as a Holocaust film as it makes light of the plight of children.  Do we now need a Holocaust film with a happy ending?  If you want that, then watch “Escape from Sobibor”.  If you want a resistance film about an operative who uses her talents, then watch “Black Book”.  

GRADE  =  C-

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  The movie takes some liberties to enhance the entertainment value of the tale, but it is based on some actual history.  Marcel Mangel became interested in mime when he saw a Charlie Chaplin movie at age 5.  He was living a typical childhood in a Jewish family in France when the Germans came.  He changed his last name to Marceau to hide his Jewish identity.  His cousin Georges Loinger was a prominent member of the French Jewish Resistance (the OJC) and was credited with saving 350 Jews from deportation to concentration camps.  He recruited Marcel and his brother.  Their father had been sent to Auschwitz where he died.  Marcel participated in the hiding of Jewish children and the smuggling of them to neutral countries.  At one point, he was part of a group that sheltered many children in an orphanage.  He did use his miming skills to entertain the kids.  He did lead a group to Switzerland, although it was not as dramatic as depicted.  In an incident not shown in the movie, he once disguised 24 kids in a Boy Scout troop and went on a hike to that country.  He eventually joined the French army and then was plucked to Patton’s Third Army as a liaison officer because of his fluency in French, English, and German.  He had his first public performance before 3,000 soldiers in Frankfurt, Germany near the end of the war.