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.


Sunday, December 25, 2016

CRACKER? My Way (2007)

                “My Way” is South Korean war movie that is not set in the Korean War!  That’s right, it’s a Korean war movie that is not a Korean War movie.  It was directed by Kang Je-gyun in his kick-ass style.  It was his first film in seven years.  I assume it took him seven years to recover from making “Taegukgi”.   He got a huge budget of $24 million, but the film flopped at the box office.  The movie is based on a true story.  You’ll question that by the end of the movie.

                “An Asian man wearing a German uniform was discovered by the U.S. military at Normandy on the D-Day, 1945 [sic].  Upon questioning, he was identified as Korean.”  From acorns grow mighty oaks.   The narrative starts in 1928 Seoul.  A Japanese family arrives.  The father is a diplomat and his son Tatsuo becomes running buddies with the son of a staff member named Jun-shik.   A running montage takes them through high school.  At a party celebrating Tatsuo’s winning of a marathon, a terrorist bomb gets Jun-shik’s father unjustly arrested and tortured.  End of buddies and beginning of bitter rivals.  Jun-shik (Jang Dong-gun) becomes a rick-shaw driver (convenient for a long distance runner) and Tatsuo (Joe Odagiri) goes off to college.  They meet again at the Olympic try-outs.  A riot resulting from the tainted result ends with Jun-shik and his best pal Lee Jong-dae (Kim In-kwon) getting conscripted into the Kwantung Army.  Conscription will become a recurring theme.

                Jun-shik and Jong-dae end up on the Mongolian border facing the Soviets.  We know we are watching a Korean war movie because Cossacks ride in with swords slashing, a guy gets run over by a tank, tanks set oil rigs on fire, etc.  The Soviets have a Korean female sniper who shoots only Japanese soldiers to avenge her and her mother’s rape and the murder of his father.  Don’t ask how she can tell the Japanese and Koreans apart, that would be racist.  Guess who arrives to take command of Jun-shik’s unit?  You thought he was a dick before, now he is a dick in command ( a D in C).  When Tatsuo orders Jun-shik to lead a suicide attack against Soviet tanks, Jun-shik refuses and is thrown in the pit with the sniper, of course.  They escape, but Jun-shik returns to warn about an incoming Soviet attack.  When a Soviet fighter strafes them, the sniper shoots it down with one shot!  Ridiculous, but super cool.  And very romantic!  The ensuing battle is incredible.  The Japanese run trucks into the tanks and then follow with a banzai attack of human bombs and Molotov cocktails.  The Soviets respond with flame-throwers, naturally.
                Jun-shik, Jong-dae, and Tatsuo end up in a Soviet prisoner of war camp.  Jong-dae is like a kapo in a concentration camp.  He is cooperating with the Soviets and likes it.  Jun-shik and Tatsuo are given the chance to settle their differences in a knife fight.  Korean war movie knife fights can give their combat scenes a run for their money.  Hatred turns to grudging respect.  They are about to be executed when word arrives that Germany has invaded the Soviet Union and they are conscripting all the prisoners.  Lucky for Jun-shik and Tatsuo, sort of. Remember that suicide attack scene from “Enemy at the Gates”?  You will when you watch Jun-shik, Jong-dae, and Tatsuo fight the Germans.  Jun-shik and Tatsuo survive and begin a mountain-crossing trek to Germany that ends with them in Normandy on June 6, 1944.

                “My Way” may have been a box office bomb, but for war movie fans it is da bomb.  Sorry. Just be aware that the plot is more implausible than a Trump victory.  Turn off your brain when you view it.  Please don’t watch it to learn what happened at D-Day.  Although I would not be surprised if it conforms to what is taught in South Korean class rooms.  Just pop the corn and watch it for the incredible combat.  The violence is cartoonishly graphic which makes it typical of the South Korean war movie subgenre.  If you have seen any of their movies, you know they like to kick it up to 11 on a scale of one to ten.  “My Way” will have you smiling in spite of the carnage.

                Director Kang has made a movie that is fun to watch.  He uses a wide variety of cinematography including POV.  The average shot length is very short.  You won’t get bored.  The score is epically pompous, but constrained.  The acting is surprisingly good, especially by Jang.  He has a lot of charisma.  This performance, in addition to his star turn in “Taegukgi”, makes him the John Wayne of Korean war movies. Kang manages to include a strong female warrior – to attract the ladies.  Hey dear, do you want to watch a Korean movie?  It has an appealing female character, no cursing, and no nudity.  Why is it rated R?  Honey, how am I supposed to know the Korean rating system?

                 Although the plot is outrageous, there are some interesting character developments and some unexpected deaths.  While a bit clicheish, with its themes of redemption for Tatsuo and perseverance for Jun-shik, the character arcs are competently handled and no one expects the movie to be ground-breaking in its structure.  Kang does “borrow” from some other war movies, like “Saving Private Ryan” for its beach landing scene and “Enemy at the Gates” as mentioned.  For you Old  Schoolers, the Jung-shik and Tatsuo dynamic has a touch of the Quirt / Flagg relationship.  You watch Korean war movies for the action, not the exposition.  Speaking of which, the dialogue is unmemorable.  That’s a good thing.  You sure don’t have to worry about bad jokes.  The Koreans are not exactly known for adding humor to their war movies.

                “My Way” is not the best Korean war movie.  That is still “Taegukgi”, but it is certainly in the top five.  Kang showed he still had it and if you don’t mind excess, the movie is highly entertaining.  For guys, anyhow.  It is not a date movie.  The violence is over the top and the plot is hard to swallow.  For those who automatically assume the story is total b.s. (like me),  there is an iota of truth to it.  There was a Korean named Jang Kyoungjong who was conscripted into the Japanese army in Manchuria at age 18 in 1938.  He was captured fighting the Red Army at the Battle of Khalkhin Gol and sent to a labor camp.  In 1942, he and other Korean and Japanese prisoners were pressed into service against the Germans.  In 1943, he was captured at the Third Battle of Kharkov.  He was put in an all-oriental unit called the “Eastern Battalion” and was stationed near Utah Beach on D-Day.  On that day, he was captured by American paratroopers.  He ended up in a prison camp in America and stayed in the U.S. after repatriation.  He died in 1992.  It won’t surprise you to find out this story is disputed.

GRADE  =  A-

Thursday, December 22, 2016

FACT CHECKING “300: Rise of Empire”

       I recently rewatched “300: Rise of an Empire” to see if my first impression from seeing it in a theater was reasonable.  I am a big fan of the first movie and, like most,  found the sequel to be a disappointment.  But I was not surprised because “300” was so groundbreaking and the vibe was impossible to recreate.  So Hollywood did what it is known for, it tried to give the audience the same, but bigger.  I have already reviewed it based on that trip to the multiplex, so it is not my intention to tweak that review.  Instead, let’s have some fun doing something the movie was never designed to withstand – fact checking.  Now don’t get all pissy about how you can’t expect the movie to be a history lesson.  “It’s just entertainment!”  I would be the first to admit that bringing a graphic novel to the screen makes it bullet proof when it comes to historical accuracy quibbles.  But since we’re unlikely to get a more serious take on the Persian Wars any time soon, let’s look at what the viewers of this film came away with.  With the caveat that the movie cannily structures much of the narrative as a tale being told by Queen Gorgo so you could argue that what you are watching is a Spartan bedtime story and you know how accurate bedtime stories are.

1.  Let’s start with the title.  Who dreamed that up?  You would have to stretch quite a bit to imagine that they are referring to the Delian League (sometimes called the “Athenian Empire”) which was created after the war.  Since Athens basically became an arrogant bully which forced other city-states to join and remain in its self-serving alliance, this would seem to clash with the movies theme of the war being fought for Greek freedom.  A much better title would have been “300:  The Fight for Freedom”.

2.  Battle of Marathon -  The movie wastes little time (4 minutes) to get to the Battle of Marathon.  It is a nice touch to reach back to cover the most famous battle of the Persian Wars.  It would have been nicer if there were a little truth in this segment.  Gorgo may have been told that the Persians were attacked as they disembarked on the shore, but in reality they had been camped there for several days before Themistocles convinced the Athenians to attack.  The movie does show the Athenians running toward the surprised enemy, but there is no reference to the famous tactical decision to weaken the center of the phalanx and double envelop with the wings.  In fact, as per the two films, the Greeks are shown fighting as individuals, not shields overlapping.  They do not run through a kill zone of Persian arrows.  In fact, the movie is very shaky on weapons.  Hollywood much prefers sword play to spear thrusting.  There would have been no horses available to squash a man’s head.  (Not that I would want that image removed from the film.)  Do I need to tell anyone that Themistocles did not hit Darius with an arrow?  Darius was not at the battle.  Nor was Xerxes.

3.  Artemesia -  The Greeks loved to wet their beds over strong female warriors (that’s why they invented the Amazons), so I can see why they would have enhanced Artemesia to super villainous proportions.  Although Herodotus does not do this and he never felt constrained.  The fact is that she was a Greek queen who threw in her lot with the Persians.  This was most likely an attempt to bet on a winning horse and certainly not to avenge her family.  She apparently was an advisor to Xerxes, but he seldom listened to her.  She was famously proven right.  Her role in making Xerxes into a god is fantasy.  Do I have to tell you that she did not have a steaming hot sex tryst with Themistocles?  I'm not saying they should not have included that scene.

4.  the Athenian Assembly -  It would have met outdoors, not in a building.  The movie glosses over Themistocles’ remarkably persuading his fellow citizens to rely on the fleet and evacuate the city. 

5.  the invasion -  Nice job depicting the pontoon bridge across the Hellespont.  (Props please, historians!)  However, no war elephants. Sorry.

6.  Gorgo -  If you think Artemesia was some male screenwriters fantasy, why stop there?  Although Spartan women had more influence than any other women in Greece, the portrayal of Gorgo as co-ruler with her husband and then sole ruler after his death is ahistorical.  Since she is telling the story, we can assume she is clearly delusional.

7.  Battle of Artemisium -  The movies has three separate naval bouts representing the actions at Artemisium that happened coincidental with Thermopylae.  The first movie covered the gale that cost the Persians a third of their fleet.  This movie takes huge liberties in depicting the subsequent fighting.  There is a brief glimpse of the outnumbered Greeks in a circular defensive formation, but soon abandons this accuracy for a melee version of the movie’s infantry tactics.  By the way, normally the triremes would carry ten hoplites for defense and boarding.  The movie really ups the number and gives them incredible balance as they stand on the decks.  I guess the triremes were like giant surf boards.  The trio of battles builds to the cataclysmic Greek fire soaked inferno (replete with sea monsters!).  In reality, the main battle was something of a draw, but the Greeks retreated after word of the failure of Leonidas to hold the pass.  There is no reason to believe Greek fire was used in the battle.

8.  Athens is burned – True, but the city had been abandoned by everyone except the idiots that interpreted “rely on the wooden walls” to mean the walls around the citadel.  I suppose the movie fairly accurately depicts what happened to them.

9.  Themistocles uses Ephialtes to sucker Xerxes into attacking near Salamis -  The movie insists on bringing back every actor except Gerard Butler so what to do with Ephialtes?  Have him fill the role of Themistocles’ slave who was sent to Xerxes camp with word that the Greeks were planning on fleeing, so hurry up and attack them in the narrow strait.  Pretty please.  In reality, Artemesia advised Xerxes not to fall for the trap.  In other words, exactly the opposite of what the movie depicts.  

10.  Battle of Salamis -  Xerxes did watch from the cliff (on his throne with his ass-kissers).  That’s where the accuracy ends.  Well, there was a lot of ramming and boarding, but it was not the land battle asea that the movie depicts.  Artemesia famously read the handwriting on the sail and rammed a Persian ship to make her escape.  ONce again, the exact opposite of what the movie showed.  Xerxes supposedly witnessed this action sans binoculars and remarked “my men fight like women and my women fight like men”.  (Or as the movie would have it:  “my men fight like human blood splatter emitters, and my women fight like psychotic she-bitches.”)  

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

CRACKER? The Grey Zone (2001)

                When I teach the Holocaust, I present my students with a dilemma.  You are a Jew working in a concentration camp.  To stay alive, you have the job of removing the corpses from the gas chamber and bringing them to the crematorium.  One day a little girl is found alive among the bodies.  You and your fellow workers have to decide whether you will risk your lives by trying to smuggle her into the female population or turn her over to the S.S.  This dilemma is based on an actual incident.  That incident is part of the plot of a movie entitled “The Grey Zone”.  The movie was directed by Tim Blake Nelson (the goofy Delmar in “Oh, Brother Where Art Thou?”).  Looks can be deceiving, he was the only member of the cast or crew who had read the Odyssey.  He wrote the play that the movie is based on and then the screenplay.  His research came from the book Auschwitz:  A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account by Dr. Miklos Nyiszli.  The movie was filmed in Bulgaria.  Actual plans for the camp were used to make a 90% scaled replica of the crematoria and barracks.

                There have been many Holocaust movies, but few have dealt with the Sonderkommandos.  These were the “special units” that removed the bodies from the gas chambers.  They were given better food and housing, but they joined the corpses after a few months.  The movie is set in Auschwitz II – Birkenau in August, 1944.  Dr. Nyiszli (Allan Corduner) meets the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele and decides to collude with him on his human guinea pig experiments.  He figures the arrangement will help keep his wife and daughter out of the gas chamber.  He also has the attitude that at least some science might come from the experiments.  The other plot line involves a plot by some of the sonderkommandos to blow up the crematoria and the gas chamber.  They are aware that the clock is ticking on their employment.  In order to blow up the buildings, a trio of extremely brave women are smuggling gun powder to them from the munitions factory. 

                The movie hits several Holocaust images – the band playing as the Jews enter the “showers”, the burning of the Hungarian Jews in pits, the sorting of belongings.  However, the movie is not interested in depicting life in the camp.  In fact, the sonderkommandos are living a much better life than the typical prisoners.  They are literally feasting in their comfortable barracks.  This is not “Schindler’s List”, it is closer to “Escape from Sobibor” because it deals with resistance to the “Final Solution”.  Unlike that movie, “The Grey Zone” digs deep into ethics and choices.  The sabotage plot is going well until Hoffman (David Arquette) discovers a young girl among the bodies.  Nyiszli is brought in to help her recover.  He is let in on the plot.  Now we have two dilemmas.  What to do with the girl and should Nyiszli use his new knowledge to save his family?  He is under pressure from an S.S. officer named Muhsfeldt (Harvey Keitel) to tell about any plotting in exchange for preferential treatment for Nyiszli’s family.   These two arcs will get us to the explosive final scene.

                “The Grey Zone” is an outstanding movie.  The reason it is not well known is it is grim, even for a Holocaust movie.  It also did not get much in the way of marketing.  It made less than $1 million! The budget was a measly $5 million.  Not a lot of it went to the cast, which is not all-star, but does have some excellent actors.  Harvey Keitel is great as Muhsfeldt.  The character is not your typical evil Nazi and is not predictable.  In fact, the whole movie is unpredictable – other than the obvious failure of the plot.  David Arquette plays against type as Hoffman.  He has a very powerful scene involving a Hungarian Jew who argues with him before going in the gas chamber.  It is one of several shocking moments in the movie.  The standout among the cast is David Chandler as Rosenthal.

                Aside from the great acting and interesting blend of cinematography (mostly hand-held and some POV), the strength of the movie is in the provoking of thoughts.  Should the girl be saved?  Is Nyiszli a villain or a man doing whatever it takes to save his family?  Are the sonderkommandos in need of redemption?  Most importantly, what would you do in the circumstances the movie posits?  The film is a welcome addition to the Holocaust subgenre of war movies.  It is instructive of the sonderkommandos and covers several aspects of Auschwitz that are seldom portrayed in Holocaust movies.  It also is based on a true story so there is a history lesson here.  (See below for how accurate the movie is.)

                “The Grey Zone” is one of the top five Holocaust movies.  It is tough to watch because most of the movies in this subgenre have relatively positive endings.  This one is entertaining, but depressing.  Shouldn’t you be depressed when you finish watching a Holocaust movie?  I’m not criticizing movies like “Schindler’s List” or “Escape from Sobibor” because they tell true stories and those stories emphasize the strength of the human spirit.  But we need movies that question human behavior and decisions made under difficult circumstances.  Thank God this movie will be as close as you get to the “what if?” scenarios Nyiszli  and the gas commandos faced.


HISTORICAL ACCURACY:    The movie accurately depicts the work of the sonderkommandos.  These were squads of Jews who were forced into the “special units” when they first arrived at the camp.  Their job was to remove the corpses from the gas chambers and transport them to the crematoria.  It was not unusual for them to come into contact with the bodies of dead family members.  In exchange for this work, they were isolated from the rest of the prisoners and lived in their own barracks.  The barracks was nicer and they were well fed.  They were given food, medicines, and cigarettes accumulated from the victims.  The feasting shown in the movie was probably exaggerated, but they certainly were better off than the other Jews.  They also were protected from being shot by the guards for minor infractions or just because the guard was having a bad day.  Since they were “bearers of secrets”, they could not be allowed to survive, so every three months or so they were liquidated.  The replacement sonderkommandos’ first job was to dispose of their predecessors.

                The incident involving the young girl (she was probably around 15) was based on Nyiszli’s recollection.  The girl possibly survived by being under the crush of bodies with her face pressed against the wet floor.  When the men discovered her, they called for the doctor and he revived her.  At this point, he brought the matter to Oberscharfuhrer Eric Muhsfeldt who he had a relationship with through his work with Mengele.  Nyiszli thought he could convince the officer to let the girl be filtered into the female work groups, but Muhsfeldt did not think the chance of discovery was worth it.  He had a guard shoot her.  The incident involving the girl was not connected to the uprising.

                The plot to blow up the crematoria and gas chamber is based on an attempted uprising by Sonderkommando XII in Auschwitz.  Small amounts of gunpowder were smuggled from the munitions plant on site by three Jewish women – Ester Wajcblum, Ala Gertner, and Regina Safirsztain.  The trio passed the explosives to Roza Robath who was part of the resistance.  The planned rebellion had to be moved up when word spread that their time as body disposers was about to come to an end.  On Oct. 7, 1944 they attacked the SS and Kapos with two machine guns, knives, and grenades.  They killed three and wounded twelve.  Part of a crematorium was destroyed, but for the most part the uprising was a failure.  Some did manage to escape, but were soon recaptured.  200 were executed in a manner similar to the movie.  The four women were ferreted out after the event, tortured, and executed.

                Miklos Nyiszli was a Jewish doctor who arrived at Auschwitz with his wife and daughter in 1944.  He volunteered as a doctor and caught the attention of Josef Mengele.  Mengele put him to work doing autopsies and helping with his experiments.  Some of this involved Mengele’s twins.  His work and a bribe saved his family from the gas chamber.  They all survived the war.  Some historians dispute his information about the Sonderkommando.

                Erich Muhfeldt was a mass murderer who was executed for war crimes after the war.  He participated in the mass executions that attempted to cover up Madjanek when the camp was destroyed after the escape.  He then ended up at Auschwitz and was in charge of Sonderkommando XII,  He did have a creepy relationship with Nyiszli similar to the one shown in the film.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

CRACKER? Windtalkers (2002)

                What would motivate Chinese director John Woo to make a movie about the Navajo code talkers of WWII?  Woo, noted for his cartoonishly violent movies like “Broken Arrow” and “Face/Off”, even sunk his own money into it as a producer.  He must be a huge history buff.  And had a strong desire to bring the story of the “windtalkers” to the general public.  Kudos to him for that.  Unless he botched the job.
                Woo spent an unbelievable $115 million on a movie about a footnote to history.  The movie was shot on Hawaii and had cooperation from the Department of Defense.  The DOD allowed Woo to use Kaneohe Marine Corps Base for a boot camp for the actors to learn how to be Marines.  For authenticity, the movie included actual Sherman, Sheridan, and Japanese Hago tanks.  The tanks fit the war, the actors and script did not.

                Meet Ben Yahzee.  He’s a Navajo Indian who is leaving the reservation to serve his country and represent his tribe's contribution to winning the war.  But wait, he’s going to have to share the screen with a white man.  How ironic!  Sgt. Joe Enders (Nicholas Cage) is the only survivor of a fire fight in the Solomons in 1943 that reminds of the fire fight in “Tropic Thunder”.  Except that this scene is even more ridiculous.  Enders returns to Hawaii with loss of hearing and PTSD.  Ben is sent to Camp Pendleton for communications training in a new program using the Navajo language to send messages that the Japanese will be unable to decode.  The men will be used mainly as artillery spotters.  Because of the importance of the code, each Navajo is paired up with a regular Marine for protection of him and the code.  To protect the sanctity of the code, their body guard has been instructed to not let the code fall into enemy hands.  Since the code is in their heads, this means the partner must make sure their charge is not taken alive. 

                Enders is paired up with Ben.  Their Hollywoodesque relationship starts rocky, but they eventually bond to the point where you question whether Joe will be able to carry out his orders in the eventuality (actually, certainty) of Ben being on the cusp of captivity.  To double the chance of a dilemma scene, the movie has another partnership involving Ben’s buddy Charlie Whitehorse (Roger Willie) and Sgt. Pete “Ox” Henderson (Christian Slater).  And there is a Pvt. “Chick” Clusters (Noah Emmerich) as our requisite racist.

                The unit’s first action is on Saipan in 1944.  Our quartet are in the thick of a charge on a Japanese-held hill.  Apparently, the valuable Navajo artillery spotters are also needed for suicidal shock charges.  Ben radios coordinates to the USS California.  The Japanese intercept, but they are perplexed by the gibberish.  The system works!  We’re going to win the war!  Later, the unit suffers from some friendly artillery fire and wouldn’t you know their one radio is hit.  Following their training, Ben disguises himself as a Japanese soldier and takes Joe “captive” so they can get to a Japanese radio.  I am not making this up.  If you think the movie has jumped the shark (Navajo code for destroyer, by the way), you don’t know John Woo.  We still have more exposition between Ben/Joe and Charlie/Ox.  And Chick is in need of redemption.  And the audience is not combat porn sated yet.  Queue the gasoline explosions.

                If you are wondering why it took a war movie fan so long to review a war movie, it’s because I like good war movies and I am reluctant to watch movies that give off a stench of suckitude.  Sometimes my sense of smell is off, but usually my pessimism is warranted.  Of course, you don’t have to be a seer to predict a war  movie by John Woo is going to be bad.  Not to mention that Nick Cage is the star.  Cage is the Razzie Cage in this film.  He drags the rest of the cast down with him.  Even Mark Ruffalo disappoints.  Beach keeps his dignity and continues his reign as the greatest modern portrayor of Native Americans in war movies.  I’m not sure he wants to show up at the Navajo Reservation any time soon unless he has a well prepped excuse for his involvement in this historical travesty.
                I have recently been ruminating on the two types of combat movies since ‘’Saving Private Ryan”.  One type attempts to be just as realistic in its depiction of combat as the Omaha Beach scene in that film.  The other type attempts to show extreme combat as armchair cinephiles imagine it to be.  “Windtalkers” is squarely in the second category.  Or should I say categorie.  It has all the traits.  Lots of flaming bodies.  Grenades give off flames.  A flamethrower goes up in flames.  Are you noticing a popular image in these films?  Let’s not forget unlimited ammo without reloading.  Blood splatters on the camera lens.  Hip shooting.  Trampoline deaths.  You know – John Woo does WWII.  Throw in a laughable score and a predictable and clicheish script and you have one of the worst war movies ever made.

                It’s highly likely this will be the first and last movie honoring the Navajo code talkers.  That is a shame because they deserved better.  It hopefully will be the last war movie directed by John Woo.

GRADE  =  F-

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  The Navajo code talkers were born from the mind of Philip Johnston.  He was a WWI veteran who had grown up on a Navajo reservation and thus was well-versed in their language.  One of the very few non-Navajos who could claim this.  He suggested to the military that their unique language could be used as a code.  The military was surprisingly receptive to the idea.  Perhaps because Cherokee and Choctaw Indians were used for similar communication in WWI.  The testing phase went well and in May, 1942, the first 29 code talkers began training at Camp Pendleton.  Eventually 421 Navajos were trained.  They were trained to use their language to send messages to other Navajos.  For military terminology, they substituted Navajo words.  “Turtle” meant “ tank”, for instance.  There were a total of 411 terms that had to be memorized for security reasons. The Japanese never came close to reading the messages.  The "windtalkers" first saw action on Guadalcanal.  They also served on Tarawa, Saipan, and Iwo Jima.  They had their greatest success on Iwo where on the first two days they transmitted over 800 messages accurately. Later,  Code talkers were deployed to Korea and Vietnam.  Because of the top secret nature of the program, historians did not take notice until it was declassified in 1968.  Three years later, President Nixon issued a certificate of appreciation.  In 2000, the original 29 were honored by Congress with Gold Medals and the other members got Silver Medals.

                The movie is based on a seed of truth, but goes way off the tracks.  The central premise is that the code was so valuable that no code talker could be allowed to be taken alive.  For that reason, each Navajo was paired with a Marine to not only protect them, but kill them if necessary.  I suppose it’s possible that some audience members might buy this.  However, it’s pure bull shit.  In reality, they were assigned a body guard, but it was a response to several incidents where Marines opened fire on some of them because they looked like Japanese.

                Woo attempts to show their heroism in battle and I could be wrong on this, but I find it hard to believe that they were the warriors depicted in the film.  It would make little sense for such valuable communicators to be in the line of fire.  Being a forward artillery observer is certainly dangerous, but it would seem to me that they would not be leading assaults.  I found no evidence that any died in combat.