Tuesday, October 18, 2016

LIVE: The Siege of Firebase Gloria

       Note:  Ever since my original, less than complimentary review of “The Siege of Firebase Gloria”, I have gotten considerable grief from fans of the movie.  Some of these complaints have come from people I respect.  This has encouraged me to give the movie a second look.  This relook has taken the form of one of my “Live” reviews, which means it consists mainly of snarky comments as the movie unfolds.  Basically, the less snark, the better the movie.

                Credits include:  “And Albert Popwell as ‘Jones’” -  who the Hell is Albert Popwell and why does he merit a “shoutout”?  //  a crawl gives background to the Tet Offensive and informs us that several American units got cut off – the movie is dedicated to those isolated units;  at least it doesn’t claim it is a true story  //  a Long Range Patrol led by Sgt. Hafner (R. Lee Ermey – a good reason to keep watching no matter what) moves into the village of An Lap – they find enough impaled heads to keep a budget-minded props department busy for a while  //  Hafner’s rotten kid brother from another mother Dinardo (Wings Hauser) befriends the lone survivor – a little boy that he named Pee Wee (since Short Round was already taken);  who needs a dog?  //  On gazing at a pile of kids, Dinardo:  “This is insanity.”  Hafner:  “This is effective.  Charlie has the valley by the balls.”  //  Dinardo discovers a VC cave hideout.  Hafner goes in armed only with a machete and rescues a tortured prisoner.  //  The squad approaches some Vietnamese who they strongly suspect are VC, and yet they bring the wounded grunt and the kid with them.  Naturally, a firefight breaks out with all the enemy killed (none wounded) and none of the Americans get even a scratch.  //  They are picked up by a chopper which proceeds to get shot down, but conveniently crashes in Firebase Gloria.  //  The defenders are all either smoking dope or drinking beer.  Just like “Platoon”!  Hafner and Dinardo meet the CO who happens to be the biggest druggie of them all.  Plus he’s naked.  His interview to avoid being fragged does not go well.  //  Suddenly, Hafner is in charge and kicking ass.  ( I would not be surprised if the same thing did not happen between Ermey and director Trenchard-Smith.)  //  Here comes Sgt. Jones from a one man recon mission.  Hey, Popwell is Clint Eastwood’s go-to black badass from his “Dirty Harry” films!  He did not “feel lucky” in “Dirty Harry” and he does not feel lucky to be in FBG.  I am watching a movie where the arrival of Albert Popwell significantly ups the entertainment value.   //   Hafner visits the aid station and finds that this obscure firebase has a contingent of nurses doing “field exercises” (or at least that is the excuse we are given for having round-eyes in the movie).  //  Speaking of chicks, two Vietnamese girls approach the camp but before they can say “me so horny”, Dinardo fires at them and they blow up.  It’s his idea of safe sex.  //  We meet the VC leader who seems like a worthy opponent.  We can empathize with him because he is being pressured by his bosses to wipe out the Yanks or the NVA are going to take over the war.  Those northern pricks!  His brilliant plan is to channel the WWII Japanese and launch a full frontal attack on the fort.  Only not at night like those pansy Japs.  // Banzai I -  think “Starship Troopers”, but with more theatrical deaths;  not a single soldier changes clips (in the entire movie);  the VC retreat after enough have been killed to sate the audience  //  After the battle, Dinardo sends some men out to finish off the wounded – not that there are many of them.  This must be the scene that the movie’s supporters claim makes the movie grittily realistic.  And some would say implies that American soldiers routinely committed atrocities and war crimes.  //  In a similar vein, Dinardo tortures a prisoner for information.  // Dinardo, Short Wave, and Murphy infiltrate the enemy camp at night to position some Claymores (without wires).  (Hey R. Lee, how about a “Mail Call” segment on how a Claymore works?)  These blow up later for some unexplainable reason other than the movie needed some more explosions.  //  Murphy talks about his upcoming nuptuals and Short Wave has only 17 days left in country.  I wonder if the movie will have a post script where Short Wave attends the wedding?  And Dinardo gives away the bride.  //  Banzai II  -  still daytime;  Dinardo shoots from the hip and uses a machete;  Hafner uses his bayonet;  some blood, but limited number of squibs so most deaths are clean;  the firebase is small and yet the Americans keep dropping back to their next line of defense – if this keeps up, the grunts will be defending on the outside of the wire  //  film throws in a hot shot chopper pilot named Moran (Gary Hershberger – the poor man’s Gary Busey) who gets the movie’s cheesiest lines besides the usual “yee has” and “shit yeahs”;  this character also gives the movie the chance to rain down death from above  //  Hafner and Dinardo discuss the war;  Dinardo:  “Fucking war.  They call it a police action.”  Hafner points out that the term refers to the Korean War – just kidding.  Hafner:  “This has dick to do with dinks.”  (how can you hate a movie with a line like that?)   I hope to remember that line instead of Hauser’s painful portrayal of a Marine tormented by the death of his brother.  I seriously consider shooting myself in the foot to get out of this scene.  //  While they are expostulating, the dinks sneak into the camp and behead a machine gun crew (these are the same guys who insist on daylight frontal attacks).  Hafner walks around with two severed heads and gives a speech.  (Just like when R. Lee would wake up his kids at home.)  //  Banzai III -  the VC leader leads this assault so he can have a duel with Hafner;  when the VC break into the aid station, the head nurse machine guns several (so much for pacifism!);  the VC commander shoots Dinardo as he rescues/kidnaps Pee Wee;  Dinardo gets his big death scene and Hafner gets to send him off like a man and ahead of a court-martial for war crimes  //  Pee Wee ends up with his own people instead of a psychotic American – boo!

ANALYSIS:  Trenchard-Smith went on to direct “Leprechaun 3 and 4” as well as James Belushi in “Sahara”.  Speaking of Belushi, the acting in “Firebase Gloria” is James Belushi-esque.  Only Ermey (and Popwell, of course) don’t deserve to be fragged.  Ermey, who apparently wrote the screenplay, hogged all the good lines for himself.  He plays himself and makes sure it’s not his character that sets up the Claymores.  Without him, the movie would not be the great Vietnam War movie that it is (according to its fans).  Hauser, who is inexplicably top-billed, acts like the kind of guy that would go on to write “Uncommon Valor”. But let’s face it, no one watches this movie for the acting or the plot or the proper use of weapons.  They watch it because it is combat porn.  And there are three big set piece battles.  Sure, they are redundant, but who can get enough of gook slaughtering?


Monday, October 10, 2016

CRACKER? Gray Lady Down (1978)

                “Gray Lady Down” was an addition to the venerable submarine subgenre of war movies.  It was based on the novel by David Lavalee entitled Event 1000.  That title refers to U.S. Navy terminology for a rescue of a sunken submarine’s crew.  It was directed by David Greene (“Friendly Fire”).  It attempted to tap in to the craze for disaster films in the 1970s, but barely made a blip at the box office.  The movie stars Charleston Heston sporting his Moses beard.  The production got cooperation from the Navy and the Department of Defense.  The USS Trout was loaned to stand in for the movies USS Nautilus.  Footage and a full-scale model were provided by “Ice Station Zebra”.

                It’s Commander Blanchard’s (Heston) last cruise before a desk job.  Should be a piece of cake, right?  On a foggy night, the sub is running on the surface when they encounter a Russian freighter that lacks radar.  Since the Nautilus does have radar, you would think it could easily avoid a freighter.  However, what would be entertaining about that?  The resulting collision tears a giant hole in the engine room and the sub goes down in deep water.  Well below crush depth, of course.  The American-built sub withstands the pressure, but settles precariously on a ledge.  The angle makes rescue by a DSRV (Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicle) problematical.  The DSRV goes down and it looks like the rescue will go off without a hitch until a “gravity slide” covers the escape hatch.  Complications, complications.  What we need here is an iconoclastic genius!  Keith Carradine - enter stage right.  Carradine plays Lt. Gates.  Gates commands an experimental mini-sub named after him.  It’s called the Snark.  Fresca product placement!  Leaks, mechanical breakdowns, command dysfunction, etc. ensue.  The dominoes elicit the following line from Heston:  “I’m beginning to feel like a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest.”  (A line recycled probably from the uncut version of “The Ten Commandments”.)  Somehow the movie manages to throw in an underwater explosion.  If you have seen any disaster movies, you know there will be survivors and some who sacrifice so there will be.  Did you think the Navy cooperated with a movie that showed its DSRV as a failure? Do you think recruitment to the submarine service would be improved by having the crew perish?  Cooperation comes with some script vetting, after all.

                “Gray Lady Down” is not as bad as you would expect.  It is middle of the road for the subgenre.  And, by the way, I’m not sure it really is a war movie.  Unless you want to believe my conspiracy theory that the Soviet freighter meant to sink our sub.  (Or how about this one?  Commander Blanchard purposely disregarded his radar in order to provoke World War III so he would be able to avoid the desk job.)  Regardless, it certainly is a submarine movie.  This is proved by the escalating series of crises common to this subgenre.  You get many of the greatest hits -  flooding compartments, lack of communication, fear of crushing, and so forth.  All of this drama is competently performed.  The cast is fine.  The recognizable stars are strong, especially Carradine.  His character is stock, but he brings a twinkle to it.  He balances Heston’s pomposity.  I have to admit that Heston does not chew the scenery as a much as usual.  However, the supporting cast is weak.  It includes Christopher Reeve in his film debut.  (You know you are in trouble if Moses and Superman can’t save you.)  The special effects are those of a made-for-TV movie.  But at least they are not laughable.  The music also reminds of a TV movie.

                Will “Gray Lady Down” crack my 100 Best War Movies list?  Obviously not.  But it is a fairly entertaining movie. 

GRADE  =  C      

Sunday, October 2, 2016

WORTHY SEQUEL? Breakthrough (1979)


            “Breakthrough” is a sequel to the famed “Cross of Iron” which means it continues the adventures of one of the great war movie characters – Sgt. Steiner of the German Army.  The original, directed by Sam Peckinpah, is one of the great war movies and has a cult following.  It certainly called for a sequel – directed by Peckinpah and starring the perfectly cast James Coburn.  The fact that the sequel has neither of them is a major red flag.  Coburn was set to star but backed out at the last minute.  I assume he finally got around to reading the script.  His replacement was a ridiculously too old Richard Burton.  Burton was 53 years old and looked at least ten years older than that.  His heart was not in the project and his drinking was a problem.  Sticking with the decision to hire old has-been actors, the producers tabbed three other “Longest Day” veterans – Robert Mitchum, Rod Steiger, and Curt Jurgens.  This quartet has the dubious distinction of appearing in one of the great war movies and one of the worst.   Director Andrew McLaglen sandwiched this movie between “The Wild Geese” and “The Sea Wolves” so it is obvious he had a fetish for old stars embarrassing themselves in action roles.

            The movie opens in May, 1944 which would be a few months after the events in “Cross of Iron”.  So now we know Steiner survived the climactic fight.  And so did his nemesis Capt. Stransky (Helmut Griem) who is still a thorn in his side.  The movie seems to start off right with a scene with plenty of action, however it does not take long to silliness to set in.  Steiner is sent to destroy a railroad tunnel.  When his men peer in to see the light at the end, it turns out to be a T-34.  Although he takes out the tank, Steiner perplexingly does not blow up the tunnel and follows this up with a confrontation with Stransky.  Steiner once again can’t play nice with generals and gets himself court-martialed.  The punishment is a head-scratching two week leave in Paris!  While there, Steiner steals Stransky’s girl.  I’m not making this up, people. Just as our hero is celebrating his bizarre punishment of being shipped from the Eastern Front, the D-Day invasion occurs.  Look out Allies, Steiner’s band of misfits has joined him and they are assigned the defense of a French village.  This is a seventies war movie, so we need a political subplot of Steiner getting involved with his Hitler-conspiratorial Gen. Hoffman’s (Jurgens) attempt to negotiate surrender of his forces.  The negotiation involves a Col. Rogers (Mitchum) and Gen. Webster (Steiger).  They spend the first half hour complaining about their arthritis.  Just kidding.  Luckily the talking does not prevent the big set piece battle for the village.  Unluckily, there is a battle for the village.  This scene defies polite description.  Make sure you have been drinking heavily by the time you reach this stage of the movie (if you make it this far).  Richard Burton was.

            How do you tarnish a great movie and character?  See this movie.  Thankfully, few did.  It is horrendous.  The acting is wooden. Or should I say geriaratric?  Burton is not even the worst performer.  Just the most disinterested.  Steiger chews the scenery as much as his false teeth will allow.  The dialogue is laughable.  The plot is inane.  The action is ridiculous.  This is one of the worst war movies ever made and one of the most disappointing.

NOTE:  Check out that poster.  The artist does not even bother to make the main stars look younger!  But he does manage to get two women in separate clenches.  Kudos!
GRADE =  F-             


Sunday, September 25, 2016

SHOULD I READ IT? Katyn (2007)

                “Katyn” is a Polish movie about the infamous Katyn massacre of WWII.  It was based on the book Post Mortem:  The Story of Katyn by Andrzej Mularczyk.  It was directed by acclaimed Polish director Andrzej Wajda (“Kanal”) who was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Oscar by the Academy Awards in 2000.  Wajda, whose father was a victim of the massacre, was 83 when the film was made.  The film was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film.  The production was encouraged by Polish President Lech Kaczynski for political purposes. 

                The movie opens in the aftermath of the German/Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939.  Refugees are caught between the two invading armies.  Anna (Maja Ostaszewska) and her daughter are searching for her husband.  She finds Andrzej (Arthur Zmjewski) in a prisoner of war encampment.  He could easily escape, but is honor bound to stay with the others.  He and the other officers are sent eastward by train. Andrzej keeps a diary that will later be crucial in determining the Soviets were to blame for the massacre.  It is not just the Polish officer corps that is purged.  Andrzej’s father is a college professor who is part of the round-up of the intelligentsia and sent to a work camp. 

                Both the Germans and the Soviets use propaganda to blame the other for the massacre.  Poles are pressured to go along with the communist version. Poles in the know, like Andrzej’s friend Jerzy, are faced with accepting the lie or trying to get along with the Soviets.  Anna is one who is trying to get to the bottom of the mystery.  She eventually receives her husband’s diary which becomes crucial evidence as its last entry is in 1940 and the execution site was in Soviet territory at that time.  Queue flashback to the executions.

                “Katyn” is a great history lesson.  Most Americans are uninformed about the Katyn massacre.  And Americans from the Greatest Generation were misinformed about the event.  For the good of the alliance, Roosevelt and Churchill basically swallowed Stalin’s version of what happened to avoid rocking the boat.  It was not until 1990 that Gorbachev admitted to the lie.  The truth is that after the Soviets conquered eastern Poland, the NKVD under Beria (with the approval of Stalin) liquidated Polish officers, police officers, and members of the intelligentsia like college professors.  Basically, the Soviet government attempted to eliminate people who might lead resistance to communist rule after the war.  The executions took place in 1940 in the Katyn Forest and prisons at Kalinin and Kharkiv in Russsia.  About 22,000 men were murdered.  Although the movie is fictional, there was a diary kept by a Maj. Solski.  The movie accurately depicts the dilemma the Polish people were put in.  The movie is sympathetic towards the Poles who chose to cooperate.  However, the heroes are the ones who tried to resist.

                I have to admit that until the flashback kicked in I was wondering what the big deal was.  The sequence on the executions is mesmerizing and gut-wrenching.  The killings are chilling (and accurately depicted).  It caused me to reassess the entire film.  It is well acted and is noteworthy for its strong female characters.  The movie concentrates on the effects of the massacre on several Polish women. It interweaves the characters well.  Andrzej is actually a framing device as his tale opens and closes the film.  And cements the theme that the Soviets were bastards.  This is one of the few movies where the Nazis are the lesser of two evils.  The movie was obviously directed by a master.  The cinematography is excellent, especially in the executions scene.  The movie is unpredictable and thought-provoking.

                “Katyn” is a must see because who’s going to read some book by a Polish dude?  Yet, we should all be aware of one of the greatest atrocities in history.  Plus you’ll learn that communism is bad.