Monday, May 30, 2022

Memorial Day (2012)


            “Memorial Day” was directed by Sam Fischer.  It was his debut as a director after working as a cameraman and cinematographer for over 20 years.  The movie was meant as a tribute to fallen soldiers. 

            The movie opens in Iraq in 2005.  Staff Sergeant Kyle Vogel (Jonathan Bennett) is wounded by an IED.  In the hospital, recovering from the shrapnel wound, he is prompted to talk about his experiences by a nurse.  He relates a story from his childhood.  On Memorial Day in 1993, the 13-year-old Kyle found a foot locker belonging to his granddad.  It turns out Bud Vogel (James Cromwell) was in the 82nd Airborne in WWII.  The elderly Vogel is the “get off my lawn” type.  He sits on a rocker on his porch drinking lemonade all day.  Kyle gets his grandpa to tell him about three items from the foot locker.  O-pa is reluctant to share his feelings, but a deal is a deal.   This is the framing device for the film.  It’s an unusual format for a low budget film, but it works well.  The first item is a pistol that Lt. Vogel took from a German officer during Operation Market Garden.  The second is a piece of shrapnel he got from a German grenade during the Battle of the Bulge.  The third item is a picture of him and his best friend.  He died near the end of the war.  While these flashbacks are occurring, the adult Kyle is dealing with suicide bombers and jihadi snipers in Iraq.  And the death of his best friend. 

            “Memorial Day” has the look and feel of a Hallmark movie.  It was low budget ($4 million) and small scale.  Without James Cromwell, it would be unmemorable.  Cromwell’s son John plays Lt. Vogel.  The movie is his first feature film.  He does a decent job, but looks too old to be a lieutenant in WWII.  Bennett is better at combat soldier than laying in a bed wounded soldier.  The rest of the cast is nondescript.  Some of the actors were from the Minnesota National Guard.  It shows.  They try hard, as does the movie.  It is dripping in sincerity.  It will come as no surprise to reveal that the closing scene has Kyle visiting the grave of his grandfather.  Corny, yes, but it’s a Memorial Day movie.  This scene fits snuggly in a movie that is overtly religious.  Lt. Vogel carries a rosary.  His best friend dies in a church.

            For action fans, there are some small-scale combat scenes.  It was unwise to set the first two WWII flashbacks in Operation Market Garden and the Battle of the Bulge.  History buffs like me can easily spot problems.  The paratroopers are traveling in trucks in Holland when they had no such transportation after paradropping (something the movie does not even attempt to recreate).  The Bulge scene is in nice weather. Vogel’s squad is in foxholes when the initial German attack surprises them.  Instead of being overrun, they defeat the attack easily.  None of the fighting is realistic.  The third flashback makes use of a P-38 and a P-51 (an odd pairing) for a strafe and bomb attack.  The scenes in Iraq are unfulfilling.  This coda fizzles and comes after the death of Bud Vogel’s friend, the logical conclusion of a film about death.

            I watched “Memorial Day” after googling Memorial Day war movies.  There aren’t many and I had already reviewed “Taking Chance” and “Gardens of Stone”.  “Memorial Day” seemed a logical choice, especially since I had not seen it before.  The only way I could recommend it is if you are in the same situation I was in.  If you are looking for a movie to watch on Memorial Day, it will certainly put you in the right frame of mind for the day.  Maybe it will inspire you to visit the cemetery.  Or, if you are a veteran, to talk to your children or grandchildren about your experiences.

GRADE  =  D+

Friday, May 27, 2022

Top Gun: Maverick (2022)


            In 2010, when Tom Cruise was 48, it was proposed that a sequel to the smash hit “Top Gun” be made by the team of producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Tony Scott. Unfortunately, Tony Scott died and the project was set back.  Eventually, Joseph Kosinski was given the directing helm.   It took twelve years for the project to make it to the theaters this week.  It was actually scheduled to be released in July, 2019, but it was delayed by having to shoot complex flight sequences, the pandemic, and scheduling conflicts. The effort that went into the film was impressive.  Cruise designed a three-month boot camp for the “pilots” so they could withstand the flight shoots and they had to be trained to film themselves while in the cockpits.  800 hours of footage was shot for the film, which is more than the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.  The US Navy cooperated with the film as it famously and profitably did for the original.  “Top Gun” stands as the epitome of a recruiting bonanza.  Clearly, the Navy is hoping to catch lightning in a bottle again.  It allowed the use of the carriers Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt.  And in exchange it got a script that didn’t rock the boat.  Yes, Maverick is a maverick, but that stereotype is so ingrained in aviation pictures that even the Navy can’t object.  The movie balances that with teamwork, so it is a positive portrayal overall.  Besides, if mavericks in the audience decide to enlist and find out too late that the Navy doesn’t actually condone loose cannons, so be it.

            The movie opens with Tom Cruise apologizing to the audience for what they are about to see.  Just kidding.  He thanks you for waiting 36 years for a sequel.  (One of the longest waits in cinematic history.  The two “Coming to America” movies were 33 years apart.)  This thank you by the star will be the last original thing you will see in the movie.  However, for every “Aliens” and “Back to the Future 2”, there are lots of movies that comfort food their audience with a copy of the original.  That’s where the money’s at.  The credits run over aircraft launching from a carrier to the updated “Highway to the Danger Zone”.  After 36 years, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (bet you didn’t remember his full name) is just a captain.  Because he wants it that way, so there!  Admirals, like his buddy and protector Ice Man (Val Kilmer in a touching appearance), don’t get to fly.  Maverick is a test pilot of a secret project to build the first Mach 10 aircraft. (The movie takes place in the present and yet Maverick is flying a plane that is almost 7 Machs faster than the fastest plane today!)  The project is going to be shut down by a desk jockey admiral, but Maverick is a maverick and you can guess what happens.  Instead of getting canned for costing his country billions of dollars, he is sent to Top Gun school to train a new generation of fighter pilots for a secret mission.  (As a retired teacher, I enjoyed seeing the class clown have to teach the class.)  He literally throws the book away.  Get it?  He gets three weeks to train them for an ingress down a winding canyon to destroy the Death Star.  Oops, I mean to bomb a nuclear weapons facility in an unnamed nation.  To make matters AWKWARD, one of Maverick’s students is the son of Goose.  “Rooster” (Miles Teller) understandably holds a grudge against the man who killed his father.  Another is Hangman (Glen Powell).  If Maverick and Ice Man had had a baby, he would have been Hangman.  He is cocky and doesn’t care about his wingmen, but he’s damned good, dammit.  There’s a black guy and a woman.  If you think the movie is going to kill them off, breathe easy.  His charges are skeptical about what this dinosaur can teach them, until they go out mock dogfighting and “daka!-daka!-daka!” (“Battle of Britain” shoutout.)    Sooner than expected (surprise!) they are put on board a carrier and four planes are sent off on the suicide mission.  Under no circumstances will Maverick be going.  Wait, what?  Get ready for some shit-hot flying followed by dogfighting against TIE fighters.  Oops, I mean fifth generation enemy fighters (Soviet SU-57 stealth fighters).  (Hey, Congress, how did you let our enemies get better fighters than we have?!)

            I have not hidden my feelings about “Top Gun”.  Many have proclaimed the sequel to be better.  That would be true if “Top Gun: Maverick” had come first.  But as what is essentially a reboot, it loses some of its sheen.  The reviews have been amazingly good. I have to assume that most critics have not seen a lot of aviation combat movies.  If they had, they would have recognized several stodgy cliches.  It’s almost as though the screenwriters (all three of them) are baiting people like me.  Maverick recreates his motorcycle riding.  A superior officer (actually two) who has been long from the cockpit, tries to stifle an ace pilot’s creativity.  A pilot pretends not to be able to hear an abort order.  A pilot gets reamed by his commanding officer for disobeying orders.  A pilot has a past death on his conscience.  A veteran pilot has to bring the tiger out of a potentially great rookie. The pilots blow off steam at a drinking place (cue the soundtrack songs).  There’s a healthy competition between pilots.  Frenemies learn to respect each other. Redemption for the main character.  The mission gets moved up before they are ready.  Yada yada yada.  To the cliches, you have to add the related problem of predictability.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m talking predictable for war movie lovers, not your average movie goer, who should enjoy this movie much more than buffs.  Nothing major happened in this movie that I did not expect.  Including one of the most ridiculous shark jumps I’ve seen in a while.  I literally sat there saying to myself:  surely, they aren’t going to go down this road.  Yep, they sure are.

            The movie is not terrible.  The cast is good and the performances are not grating.  Cruise is strong in what was clearly a labor of love.  At 60-years-old, he looks young enough to be a very old captain.  He even goes shirtless without embarrassment in the unintentionally face-palming beach football game.  (Gay men demographic, check!)  And it ends with the sweaty, shirtless hunks dog-piling.  (Something even “300” didn’t dare do.)  Jennifer Connelly as Maverick’s love interest is only 8 years younger than Cruise, so that was not bad for Hollywood.  Penny is feisty and takes two whole dates before succumbing to Maverick’s charm.  The young pilots are not really fleshed out, other than Hang Man and Rooster, but at least the movie steers away from stereotypes.  For the most part.  We still get the nerdy WSO (Weapons Systems Officer) named Bob (Lewis Pullman).  He doesn’t get a nickname.  This is one of the few jokes in an otherwise serious movie.  (Not that I didn’t smile when I wasn’t supposed to.)

            The aviation fans will go to this movie to see the flight scenes and they don’t disappoint.  The movie reboots the mock dogfights with Maverick now Viper.  F-18s can do some things the venerable F-14s could not do.  And cinematography can do a lot more than 36 years ago.  However, on the 92nd anniversary of the groundbreaking “Hell's Angels”, we still see a lot of views of the faces of pilots (thankfully with their nicknames on their helmets).  My enjoyment of the flight stunts was tempered by my irritation at Cruise for lying about the film not using visual effects.  Did he really think aviation enthusiasts would believe a plane and its wingman could be split by another flying vertically between them or a series of planes flying between the girders of a bridge?  That’s right,  we’re supposed to believe the US Navy allowed its F-18s to be used in highly dangerous maneuvers for a movie.  Sure!

            Chances are, you won’t be as picky as I am.  And few of you are children of fighter pilots, so you don’t have a dog in this hunt.  If you liked “Top Gun”, you will like this new and improved version.  Your knowledge of aviation combat cliches will be reinforced which will make you more knowledgeable about the subgenre.  Next up, “Top Gun:  Rooster”.


GRADE  =  C-   

Thursday, May 26, 2022

FORGOTTEN GEM? Red Ball Express (1952)


                        After the breakout from Normandy, Eisenhower’s forces ran into a logistics problem.  For instance, Gen. Patton’s Third Army was not getting enough gas to sustain its momentum.  The solution was to rush supplies to the front via trucks.  This effort became known as the Red Ball Express.  It began on August 25, 1944 and lasted 83 days.  At its peak almost 6,000 vehicles were involved, transporting 12,500 tons of gas per day up to 400 miles one way.  It came to an end after the port of Antwerp was open for business.  The press played up the story, so a 1950’s black and white drive-in flick was a given.  It was directed by Budd Boetticher who was famous for his westerns.  He had Maj. Gen. Frank Ross as his technical adviser.  Ross had been in charge of the operation.  He probably shook his head a lot on the set.  Sidney Poitier was making his third film and it boosted his career.  He replaced James Edwards who had to drop out when he refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. 

                        The movie opens with background about the military situation.  (Something viewers at the time did not need, but is absolutely needed today.)  Gen. Gordon (clearly meant to be Patton) demands gas!  A supply guy puts it succinctly:  “War is an inch worm, the head has to stop while the tail catches up.”  The plan is to designate a private road for the trucks to use to carry jerricans and other supplies to the front.  The trucks will be driven by “goldbricks, troublemakers, and misfits”.  Lt. Campbell (Jeff Chandler) is in charge of one of these dysfunctional units.  There are soap opera elements.  For instance, Campbell has a past with Sgt. Kalek (Alex Nichol) who blames him for the death of his brother.  The mixing of African-American soldiers with whites causes friction.  Corporal Robertson (Poitier) and Pvt. Wilson (O’Brian) get into a fight to prove this and to initiate a bonding arc.  Another arc has Campbell earning the respect of his African-American drivers.  And the unit gaining the respect of tankers.  There is a lot of respect-gaining in this movie.  In spite of all this infighting, the unit still has time to fight the Germans.  The movie builds to a special mission where the truckers have to deliver fuel to a (I mean the) cut-off tank unit.  It’s all much more exciting than the actual problems the unit went through.  Uncinematic stuff like maintenance and lack of sleep.  And lack of encounters with the enemy.   Boring!

                        The Red Ball Express deserved a minor motion picture in the 1950’s.  But let’s face it, we’re not talking about the Devil’s Brigade here.  The unit was a nice story, but driving trucks over muddy French roads is hardly the stuff of entertaining cinema.  So how do you get fannies in the seats?  Hollywood enhancement, of course.  Put the men at each other’s throats.  Anchor it with a major star who has to deal with this bull shit.  Add a racial dynamic.  For poster purposes, the movie has some donut dollies (“real American dolls”) and a French girl that Partridge (Charles Drake) goes AWOL to see.  Top it off with a B-movie set piece that is ridiculous, but manages to wed fire with explosions and gunfire.

                        The movie is inconsequential, but it’s not a toss-off.  The cast is fine with some familiar faces, if you are a Baby Boomer.  For Baby Boomer war movie lovers, it is a comfortable watch.  You won’t have to do any heavy-lifting mentally.  You’ll see nothing you haven’t seen before.  It is all predictable and cliché-ridden (respect and redemption).  All of the characters are stereotypes.  The gruff, but fair commander.  The soldier with a grudge against him.  The activist black.  The ladies’ man.  It is exactly what you would expect from a 1950’s homage to the Red Ball Express.  You know you are not getting a history lesson.  It does show some of the dangers, but tritely.  Those dangers did not include driving through burning cities and the truckers were not a motley crew.  In fact, 75% of the truckers were African-Americans who were good at what they did.  Unwisely, the movie chose to emphasize the integrated nature of the unit instead of treating it as a black unit.  Clearly, that would be different if the movie was remade.  It is also highly unlikely that a remake would feature the song “Lift That Load” four times.

                        I was going to conclude this review with the recommendation that you watch a good documentary on the Red Ball Express instead of this movie.  However, when I went to YouTube, the doc I found is entitled “Rolling to the Rhine” (  It is typical propaganda fluff, but certainly more accurate than the movie.  Not a shot is fired in the documentary.  It’s mostly trucks driving down roads or trucks being repaired.  Only black truckers are shown.  So choose between the romanticized truth and the fictionalized truth.

GRADE  =  C-