Saturday, January 14, 2017

BEST REVIEWED: 2016



                It is time for my annual list of best movies that I reviewed this past year.  At this stage in my blog, I would have thought that I would have seen every war movie of consequence, but that is far from being true.  I still have many movies on my to-be-watched list for this year, so I think I’ll be able to do one of these lists next January.  This particular list is a combination of movies I have never seen before, movies I saw in the theater, and some older favorites that I was reviewing for the first time.

10.  Son of Saul (2015)  Just when you think you have seen every good Holocaust movie, you run into another one.  This movie is a Hungarian film based on an incident where a child was found alive in the gas chamber at Auschwitz.  A sonderkommando takes it upon himself to give the boy a decent burial.  The cinematography is the highlight as the lens focuses on Saul throughout.  The sound effects also stand out.  This is a movie for anyone who is interested in the Holocaust and who enjoys outside the box filmmaking.

9.    The Ascent (1977)  This is a black and white Soviet film set in WWII.  Two partisans go off on a foraging expedition and are captured by the Germans.  They both face the dilemma of collaborating and living or being patriotic and dying.  This is another movie with eye-popping cinematography.  The acting is great and the dialogue, although sparse, is thought-provoking. 

8.  Sharpe’s Rifles  (1993)  I am a huge fan of the Sharpe series of historical novels set in the Napoleonic Wars.  I recently rewatched the movie based on the first novel.  Although made for TV, it is an excellent recreation of the novel and introduces Sean Bean as Richard Sharpe.  Because of the low budget, it does not have a sweep to it, but it is excellent at character development and the story has several well-meshing arcs.  It includes a strong female character, which is rare for a war movie.

7.  Admiral:  Roaring Currents  (2014)  This is a South Korean film based on a naval battle in the late 16th Century.  The Korean navy took on a Japanese fleet, but the movie is not so much a history lesson as an excuse for some of that gonzo Korean action.  Your ass will be sore from the kicking the battle scene delivers.  It lasts 61 minutes!  There is an outstanding main character and a loathsome villain.  The music is epic and the cinematography matches it.

6.  Wooden Crosses  (1932)  This is the French answer to “All Quiet on the Western Front”.  A replacement joins a seasoned unit and witnesses the horrors of war and the comradeship that makes it tolerable.  The movie is a realistic depiction of trench warfare.  There is a quantity and quality to the combat scenes.  It’s real strength is in its portrayal of soldier behavior.

5.   The Grey Zone  (2001)  A second movie about the same incident – the discovery of a living soul in the gas chamber at Auschwitz.  Before you say “what an amazing coincidence!”, I watched “Son of Saul” as a companion to this.  This movie is less micro as it also covers the rebellion by the sonderkommandoes.  It is an excellent history lesson and very well-presented.  The acting is excellent, even by David Arquette.  It has a blend of cinematography.  Most importantly, it gives you a lot to think about.  What would you do?  This is one of the best Holocaust movies.

4.  The Execution of Private Slovik  (1974)  It took me a long time to find this gem.  I had seen it when it first appeared on TV.  It tells the story of the only American soldier in WWII to be executed for desertion.  In that respect, it tells a story that needed to be told and it does it quite well for a low budget effort.  It helps that the lead is Martin Sheen who is outstanding in the role.  The nonlinear flash backs to Slovik’s past work well in setting up his “crime”.  The movie does not preach, but it is excellent at taking us through the court-martial procedure that led to Slovik’s death.

3.  Hornblower:  The Duel  (1998)  Here is the second movie on my list that is based on a series of historical fiction.  Horatio Hornblower is in some ways the equivalent of Richard Sharpe when it comes to Napoleonic naval warfare.  This made-for-TV film introduces the character, played by Ioan Gruffudd.  The movie uses scenarios from several of the novels with the central arc of Hornblower’s conflict with one of the greatest war movie villains.  The production values are quite good for a television movie.  The acting is stellar and the characters are vivid and well-developed.  The movie is an excellent tutorial on the life of tars.  There is also some good action and not one, but two duels.

2.  Star Trek:  Rogue One  (2016)  I recently reviewed this so you know I was thrilled by it.  I treated it as a war movie and it works as such.  The motley crew gathering and subsequent questing is an entertaining lead-in to the kick-ass multi-battle finale.   I had fun finding references to famous battles.  The reason why it did not place first is I can’t be sure I did not overrate it because there hasn’t been a good Star Wars movie since Empire.  Relatively speaking, it is a masterpiece.
    

1.  All Quiet on the Western Front (1979)  Here is the third made-for-TV movie to make the list.  When I eventually get around to compiling my 100 Best War Movies list, it will include a number of television productions.  Most "best of" lists do not include this type of war movie, but I feel some of the best of the genre are made for TV.  In this case, I would argue that a television movie might even surpass the cinematic original.  The 1979 version is sadly forgotten by many, but it is an excellent retelling of the novel.  The battle scenes cannot match the original, but the acting is better and it obviously has a more modern feel to it.  This movie brought the greatest war novel to the “I only watch color movies” audience.  And it brought it in a remarkably underrated package.  My review is of the extended version.  That review will be my next post.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

FORGOTTEN GEM? Between Heaven and Hell (1956)




                “Between Heaven and Hell” is a WWII movie based on the novel The Day the Century Ended by Francis Gwaitney.  Gwaitney wrote a screenplay that clocked in at nine hours so the project went to others including Harry Brown (“A Walk in the Sun”).  It was directed by Richard Fleischer (“Tora! Tora! Tora!”).  The score by Hugo Friedhofer was nominated for an Academy Award which means the film could claim to be nominated for an Academy Award!
 
                The film is set on an undisclosed island in the Pacific in 1945.  PFC Gifford (Robert Wagner) is in a stockade for having assaulted an officer.  Gifford is a decorated hero so he is given the option of being transferred to a company of misfits in an isolated post.  The company is run by a Captain who insists on being called “Waco” (Broderick Crawford).  He is a tyrant who is hated by his men, except the two lackeys who lick his boots.  Gifford is not in Heaven or Hell, he is in Purgatory.

                A flashback informs us that Gifford was a cotton plantation owner before the war.  He treated his white sharecroppers like they were blacks.  He is married to the daughter of a Colonel and she thinks he is too harsh with his workers.  He tells her it’s just business.  When his National Guard unit is called up, he goes but for some reason he is only a sergeant.  (Shouldn’t a plantation owner be an officer?)    He has to share fox holes with cotton pickers – awkward!  Queue the empathy and comradeship.  Transformation complete when an upper class good ole boy friend sends Gifford and four of his new peers on a scouting mission. The Captain panics and opens fire killing three of the men and earning a butt stroke from Gifford and a trip to a punishment company.

                The movie morphs into a Western as Gifford is part of a squad that is put out as Jap bait and sure enough they take the bait.  It’s whittling time.  Gifford and his new best buddy Willie (Buddy Ebsen) are the last men standing.  Willie is a “cropper” and Gifford is one in spirit now.  This will impact his relationship with his workers when he gets home.  If he gets home.

                “Between Heaven and Hell” is a strange movie.  It appears to be making some type of social statement about the upper and lower classes in the South.  This being a Hollywood movie, Gifford finds redemption in war.  He learns the error of his ways when the crucible of war thrusts him into close proximity to the people who he had formerly looked down on.  It's a small world for planters and croppers in the Pacific.  He sees what he was in the Captain that kills his friends and what he would have become in the guise of Waco.  All of this is very tritely played.  Fortunately the cast is strong and the acting is fine.  Wagner is his usual solid self and you can’t go wrong with Ebsen playing a cracker.  Who but Crawford to play a villain?  The biggest disappointment in the movie is his anti-climactic death.
 
                For a war movie, the film has some good action, but not enough of it.  The invasion of the island is well done with footage of shore bombardment and air bombardment.  There are lots of landing craft.  The assault is intense and realistic.  Later, there is a very furious mortar attack with better effects than most war movies.  The isolated squad sequences are basically of the enemy are sneaky variety.  Were we still at this stage eleven years after the war?  The infrequency of combat makes Gifford’s combat shakes hard to swallow.  The PTSD subplot seems shoehorned in.  Portraying combat fatigue is not really Wagner’s forte.  You would think romance would be right up his alley, but the romantic dialogue with his wife is sappy.  In fact, the whole script is lame.  Pre-war snob learns empathy through camaraderie and combat and returns to America to make the South a better place.

                Forgotten gem?  The movie is an average WWII movie that tries to make a statement but does so ineffectively.


GRADE  =  C     

Thursday, January 5, 2017

CRACKER? Kilo Two Bravo (2014)



                It’s the Christmas Holidays so I have decided to try to clear out some of my Netflix streaming queue.  Since I have seen virtually every mainstream war movie at this point, my queue consists mainly of straight to DVD type films.  The kind of movies I have to force myself to watch, convincing myself it is what I signed on for with this blog.  “Kilo Two Bravo” seemed to fit into this category of justifiably forgotten movies.  I, at first, mistook it for a documentary and had put it on hold for my future documentary binge.  I am embarrassed to admit that my other misread was thinking it was fictional.  All’s well that ends well, however.  You don’t have to repeat my errors and hopefully will check out this forgotten gem.

                “Kilo Two Bravo” is a British film directed by Paul Katis.  It’s British title is “Kajaki:  The True Story”.  It was filmed at Al Kaferin Dam in Jordan.  The movie tells the story of an incident involving a unit of British soldiers guarding the Kajaki Dam in Afghanistan in 2006.  The film made a splash in Great Britain partly due to some controversy, but was less than a blip in America.

                The movie opens with a culture clash between the British and the locals, but that will not become a theme.  The movie is not going to comment on the situation in Afghanistan.  However, the opening scene does establish the question:  “what the Hell are we doing here?”  Officially, the unit is stationed at an observation post called OP Normandy.  They are guarding a dam and keeping an eye out for suspicious Taliban activity.  The arrival of a replacement offers the opportunity to tour the camp and meet the lads.  The newbie is accepted with no problems.  The men get along fine.  There is no dysfunction.  This is not a Vietnam War movie.  There is a lot of soldier banter and camaraderie.  The area of operations is quiet, so they spend most of their time finding ways to waste time.  Like in actual war situations.  A good bit of that time-wasting is ragging each other.  Watch the movie with subtitles if you want the full effect of the banter because the accents are very thick.  At one point, a dog is seen with a missing leg due to stepping on one of the millions of mines left over from the Soviet occupation.  Foreshadowing.  The only action occurs when they call in a night air strike on suspicious activity.  Midway through the movie and I am wondering if this is a reality show.  Then one day…  A sniper spots what looks like a Taliban check point.  Why not take a closer look?  Who wants something to do to relieve the boredom?  A trio head down a dry river bed and pretty soon everybody’s boredom is out the window when the sniper steps on a mine.  This random step sets in motion a chain of events that run the gamut of human emotions.

                Now that you have seen “American Sniper”, how about watching a realistic movie about modern warfare?  Not every soldier is a warrior and most days are boring.  Except for those rare days when the shit hits the fan and men are forced to man up.  This is the way the war really was like in Afghanistan in 2006.  This is the way soldiers behaved.  This is the way they talked.  This is how they killed time.  This is how some died.

                The cast is not stellar, but that is appropriate for a film that is about the men, not individuals.  The acting is fine.  The actors (there are no females in the movie) are an ensemble and no one is trying to scene steal or scenery chew.  There is some outstanding wounded acting.  Some of the best I’ve seen.  You really feel their pain.  The standouts are David Eliot as Mark Wright and Mark Stanley as Paul “Tug” Hartley.  Stanley plays the medic who uses his pack and some tension-filled leapfrogging to get to the wounded. He is spot on in portraying a man who is at first overwhelmed by a situation he never imagined, but snaps out of it and shows bravery he never imagined he had in him.  Hartley was awarded the George Cross for this bravery.  Eliot plays the team leader who is wounded by one of the mines and yet continues to take charge and keep morale up in spite of life-threatening injuries.  He also got the George Cross.

                The movie is well made considering the small budget.  The location shooting in Jordan lends itself to great scenery.  They managed to find a location that matched the actual site.  The dialogue is soldierly.  One of the wounded says “give us a fag, mate.”  There is plenty of slang, including “dick rot”.  The dark humor associated with soldiers is a feature of the film.  The wounded are cracking jokes between cries for more morphine.  It’s not just the talk, the characters also walk the walk.  They act and react like Anglo-American soldiers would.  The war comes to a screeching halt as the unit does everything humanly possible to rescue their own.  (In that respect, it has a Vietnam vibe to it.)  The movie also is effective in depicting how complacency can lead to disaster.  Another theme is the randomness of casualties.  Surprisingly, Katis is not interested in indicting the war or the one’s running it.  This is not “Black Hawk Down”.  The camera stays with the men, we do not cut back much to command decisions.  An investigation of the incident uncovered several systemic problems, but the movie only hints at them.  There’s another difference between the movie and a documentary.  It’s the appealing personalities of the men that draws the conclusion that these men’s bodies were not worth protecting a dam in Afghanistan.  Don’t get that confused with “they weren’t worth a damn”.  These guys were and the movie makes that clear.

                “Kilo Two Bravo” has its own niche in the modern war movie genre.  It deals with an incident that did not involve a single gunshot.  The enemy makes no appearance.  The explosions are not inflicted Hollywood style.  The suspense is not what is around the corner, it’s the next step.  All this is done with no music to push your buttons.  The buttons are pushed by the graphic wounds and the men’s reactions to them.  Not just the wounded men’s reactions, but their helpless, frustrated mates.  Before you sit in your recliner and get frustrated with the never ending Afghanistan War, remember what the men fighting the war are going through.

GRADE  =  A

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  It goes to show how little the media cared about the war in Afghanistan by 2006 that I had trouble finding information about the incident.  I will have to buy and read Patrick Bishop’s 3 Para to get the full story.  But until then, here is what I found.  3rd Battalion, Parachute Regiment was assigned to guard Kajaki Dam.  One of the outposts was called “Normandy”.  On Sept. 5, 2006, a sniper team was ordered to get a closer look at a possible Taliban check point.  Although maps of the mine fields were available, Lance Corporal Stuart Hale took the trio into a dry river bed and stepped on one of the mines left behind by the Soviets.  His leg was blown off.  Hale later vouched for the accuracy of the movie.  Lance Corporal Mark Wright organized the relief force.  Unfortunately, Stu Pearson became the second victim in a manner and form similar to Hale’s.  A British Chinook Casevac helicopter arrived, but could not land near due to the mines.  The chopper was not equipped with winch equipment, which became a major controversy in the aftermath of the incident.  At this point, while trying to clear a path to the helicopter, Wright either stepped on another mine or the prop wash set one off.  Wright was wounded as depicted in the movie.  He had a bad arm wound and wounds to the neck, face, and chest.  In spite of this, Wright continued to supervise and keep morale up.  The medic, Paul “Tug” Hartley worked to keep the wounded alive.  The arrival of an American Black Hawk took several more hours, but it did have winches and the wounded were evacuated.  Wright died on the way to the hospital.


                The movie revived criticism of the British military’s role in the tragedy.  The movie does allude to the communication problems due to faulty radios.  The lack of a map is not clearly presented, nor the lack of mine extraction kits.  The winch problem was later explained by the Ministry of Defense as tragic bad timing as the theater winches had been shipped back to Great Britain because of issues with functionality.  Although the movie does not attempt to assign blame, the Ministry of Defense withdrew cooperation with the production after seeing the script.  It also sent a letter to Para members to avoid discussing the film in public and to not wear uniforms to showings.   

Saturday, December 31, 2016

NOW SHOWING: Rogue One (2016)



                Usually when a new war movie is released, I try to get to the theater as soon as possible to review it so all my fans (both of them) will know whether to go see it.  In this case, I waited until everyone else in the country had seen it.  The reason is I had a gut reaction against it.  After having been burned by all the Star Wars movies since the second one, I was not exactly going to camp out over night for this one.  The belatedness was not due to it not being a war movie.  While certainly firmly in the sci-fi genre, it does fit secondarily into the war genre.  In the future, I will be compiling my top ten sci-fi war movies.  (One of many projects that will keep me semi-retired.)  Let’s see if this one will make the list.

                “Rogue One:  A Star Wars Story” is the first in a proposed trilogy of Star Wars stand-alones.  Someone at Lucasfilms had a discussion with their boss and convinced him that although the last five Star Wars films were fantastic and not at all pieces of shit, maybe a different approach might be fun.  Coppola bought it, thankfully.  Gareth Edwards was tabbed to direct and he decided to develop immediate good will from the non-Koolaid drinkers by jettisoning the opening crawl that even people from Outer Mongolia associate with Star Wars movies.  He got the green light to populate the movie with two outstanding actors and the ghost of another and then fill in the cast with unknowns.  And most importantly, he decided to Hell with four year olds.  Sorry Jar Jar Binks and Ewoks fans.

                The movie opens on some backwoods planet named “who cares?”  Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelson) is a genius scientist who is needed by an evil less genius scientist named Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) to finish their big project – a weapon that can destroy planets.  Galen has been hiding for years, but Hollywood finds him.  In the process, his daughter Jyn decides to postpone her well-rehearsed escape long enough to see Krennic kill her mother.  Revenge motive established, the movie jumps fifteen years.  Fifteen years of feist-developing.  She is rescued from a labor camp because the rebel Alliance needs her to make contact with her father.  A defector pilot named Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) has been sent by Galen to clue them in on a weakness in the Death Star he has helped Krennic complete.  A hot shot rebel named Sans Holo, actually Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), and his wise-cracking robot K-2SO (think C3PO with a ‘tude) are to accompany Jyn (Felicity Jones) on a mission to locate her father.  Cassian has the corollary secret order to eliminate Galen.  Their stop at Jehda City results in a nifty bout of urban combat, but the end result is not positive for Jehda City.  Evil weapons gotta be tested. On the plus side, the massive explosion sets Jyn and her rapidly growing gang of rogues free from internment.  (I hope the screenwriters feel guilty about this plot device.)  Now it’s off to Eadu to rescue Daddy (or assassinate him).  When they return, the rebel council has a decision to make.  With the threat of the Death Star confirmed, some want to cave and others want to go down in a blaze of glory.  Although the comments are divided evenly between the wimps and the kamikazes, the tribal council decides to surrender without a vote.  This is in spite of a spirited call to arms by Jyn.  She does convince some of the braves to leave the reservation to kick and receive kicked asses. And get the plans to the Death Star. It’s a suicide mission behind enemy lines – did I mention it’s a war movie? Our original motley crew is supplemented by some nameless (the screenwriters having run out of super cool names) equivalents of Colonial Marines (“Aliens” reference).  What follows is a mash-up of the Battle of Leyte Gulf,  the Battle of Britain,  Omaha Beach, and the Raid on Telemark. And Hiroshima.  Something for everyone (above the age of four) – sabotage, espionage, dog fights, infantry vs. tanks, ships colliding, etc.  The tactics are acceptable, considering Dale Dye was not on the set.  The screenwriters must have researched the Battle off Samar and copied the moment when a tug boat was used to shove the Nagato into the Yamato. 

                In an interview, Edwards stated that he looked upon the project as a war movie.  He was not kidding.  It has elements of several war subgenres.  It appears that if you want to combine those subgenres into entertainment that does not defy reality, you can set it in a galaxy far, far away.  Ironically, the movie actually starts with a standard Western trope.  The old “you killed my ma” theme.  The main template is the motley band on a quest.  The core unit is heterogeneous, naturally.  (But no one is from Brooklyn.) This includes the hot shot, the feisty female, the spiritual blind monk, his Vikingish mercenary buddy, and the wise cracking robot.  I have to admit I am a sucker for these quest groups.  And I have learned to not get too attached to the members.  I advise the same to you.  Don’t expect some dysfunctionality.  The film is all black or white, there are no greys.  Speaking of black, the villains are worthy of the white hats.  Darth Vader has his best performance since “Empire”.  The movie makes perfect use of him.  It is not a stunt like you would have expected.  But even the stunts work.  Peter Cushing’s face appears as Governor Tarkin.  Before you overdose on umbrage, it is amazingly seamless.  Spoiler alert:  Cushing has been dead since 1994.  Normally I would make a crack about his winning the acting honors, but the living cast is good, too.  Felicity Jones is great as Jyn.  She and the rest of the heroes should be in for some big pay days in the sequels.  (Those of you who have seen the movie will be laughing at that prediction.)  For you war movie fanatics, that’s Jiang Wen of “Devils on the Doorstep” as the bearish Blaze Malbus (who wins name honors).  He and the others make you forget that the two real actors (Mads Mikkelson and Forest Whitaker) are barely used.  Maybe they will have bigger roles in the next film.

                “Rogue One” is an outstanding movie.  If not for nostalgia and the desire to not get beaten up by a mob of pocket-protecting geeks, I might argue that it is the best Star Wars movie.  It is undoubtedly better than all but “New Hope” and “Empire” and much better than the last one.  It does not pander to its audience.  The nods to the other films are subtle and not ham-fisted like in “The Force Awakens”.  The closing scene is a perfect lead in to “A New Hope”.  If you ever wondered “who had to die to get those plans?”, now you’ll know.  But it’s the action that will be remembered.  The last half hour has everything but the kitchen sink thrown in (and blown up).  The film manages to intercut between the “naval battle”, the ground support air battle, the foot soldiers, and the infiltration.  You’ll wish you had Saw Gerrera’s air tank.
 

GRADE  =  A