Thursday, March 5, 2015

CRACKER? Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)


                “Pan’s Labyrinth” is a Guillermo del Toro film that may or may not be a war movie.  It certainly fits into the fantasy genre.  The movie was written by del Toro based on notes and sketches he did in a notebook over several years.  Not only did he write the screenplay (which was nominated for an Academy Award), but he translated the dialogue and wrote the subtitles. He turned down double the budget offered by a Hollywood studio because the money came with the demand that it be done in English.  Was the movie a labor of love?  Duh.  The movie was a big hit with critics and discerning movie goers (you know – the ones who are willing to read subtitles).  It premiered at Cannes where it received a twenty-two minute standing ovation.  It ended up winning Oscars for Art Direction, Cinematography, and Makeup (which must have made Doug Jones who played the Faun and the Pale Man feel better about the hours he spent in getting make-up).  It was nominated for Best Foreign Film (it lost to “The Lives of Others” but probably should not have).

                The movie is set in Spain in 1944.  Although the Spanish Civil War has been over for five years, there is still a resistance movement called the Maquis.  These rebels are in the mountains standing up to the Franco government using tactics like sabotage.  Into this environment comes a little girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) and her pregnant mother.  They are going to meet her stepfather who is a captain in the Spanish army.  Vidal (Sergei Lopez) has been assigned the task of wiping out a rebel band in the area.  He plans on accomplishing this task by any means necessary.  Since he is a Fascist, you can about imagine what lengths he is willing to go to.  Plus he’s evil.  When he viciously executes two suspects you know this is not a kid’s movie.

                The movie follows two narrative tracks.  Vidal is hunting for the rebels and Ofelia is in a fantasy arc that has her performing tasks assigned by a Faun after a fairy takes her to a labyrinth on the grounds of the estate.  The Faun believes that Ofelia is the reincarnation of a princess who died and needs to return to her rightful place with her father the King of the Underworld.  The tasks come from the mind of del Toro and some drug use may have been involved.  The first involves getting a key from a giant toad and a dagger from a monster who has one eye and it’s in his palm (the Pale Man).  While Ofelia is living out her fantasy (or is it?), her stepfather’s war with the Maquis is a realistic portrayal of guerrilla warfare and counterinsurgency at its most brutal.  Vidal is getting increasingly frustrated as counterinsurgents tend to get.  His housekeeper Mercedes (Maribel Verdu) is with the insurgents and befriends Ofelia.  This is where the two stories intertwine.

                “Pan’s Labyrinth” is an amazing movie.  It is one of those movies that deserves multiple viewings.  The special effects are outstanding.  There is a mixture of CGI, animatronics, and make-up (that Oscar was a no brainer).  The scares are potent.  Stephen King (who saw the film with del Toro) squirmed when the Pale Man chased Ofelia.  If those images were in del Toro’s head for years, he must have lost some sleep.  The score fosters the eerie vibe and the cinematography is stellar.  The Oscar for Art Direction was well deserved.  Vidal’s room is designed to mirror the inside of his watch.  Did I mention this is not a kid’s movie?  Not only is it scary, but the non-fantasy segments can be gory.  Like most guerrilla wars.  There is a visceral fire-fight in the forest that includes execution of the wounded.  There is torture for confession.  And there is a dedicated counterinsurgent who would fit well in the Gestapo.  In fact, Vidal belongs in Satan’s secret police.  He is one of the most villainous characters I have encountered.  Lopez sinks his fangs into the role, but the rest of the cast is strong.  Baquero is perfect as Ofelia.  She auditioned so well that del Toro changed the age of the character to fit her.  Verdu is the rare strong woman in a war movie. 

                But is it a war movie?  It fits most definitions.  It not only is set in a war situation, but it includes combat.  However, for purposes of my 100 Best War Movies list, I think I will not consider it for inclusion.  I am currently leaning toward excluding movies that clearly fall into another genre before they would be considered to be part of the war movie genre.  This is why I probably will not include any Westerns on my list.  “Pan’s Labyrinth” is much more comfortable in the fantasy genre.  I do not think war movie comes to mind when people think of the movie.  with that said, it is a great movie and should be seen by all cinephiles whether they are war movie buffs or not.

GRADE  =  A 

Friday, February 27, 2015


       The second story in our readalong is appropriately about the Battle of New Orleans.  Appropriate because it is the bicentennial anniversary of the famous battle.  Here in Louisiana we take that battle seriously and do not buy the bull crap that because it was fought after the Treaty of Ghent was agreed to, it was laughably useless.  Would the British have given New Orleans back if they had taken it?  Highly unlikely.  You know why that is a big "what-if"?  Because Andrew Jackson whipped British ass so we did not have to find out the answer to that question.  The story is entitled "The Battle of Lake Borgne" by George Eggleston.

        Most people, including Louisianians, don't know that the climactic showdown of January 8 was the third of three noteworthy actions.  George Eggleston included the stories of these two neglected actions in his book "Strange Stories from History" which was published in 1886.  Eggleston aimed his book of nonfiction short stories at a young audience and they read like adventure stories.  Surprisingly, the stories are not "gosh-wow".  The two I read as part of this project are on the Battle of Borgne and the "Battle in the Dark".

        The "Battle of Lake Borgne" tells the story of the British assault on a small flotilla of American gunboats that were trying to prevent a British landing on the shore of Lake Borgne.  Eggleston does an excellent job outlining the British and American strategies.  We understand why the battle took place and the advantages and disadvantages of each side.  This builds to the description of the action which has a ring of swashbuckling to it.  Eggleston does exaggerate the fighting for his boyish audience (it actually lasted only five minutes), but he does not blatantly tamper with history.  He is much more constrained than a movie would be. 

       The second story tells the tale of the night assault by Jackson on the British camp.  Eggleston refers to Jackson's army as a "posse comitatus of ragamuffins".  Possibly the only time that awesome phrase has ever been used in literature.  His description of the chaos of the attack is outstanding.  I have never read anything better that points out why generals are reluctant to roll the dice on night actions.  This passage, more than the main battle of January 8, confirms what a bad-ass Jackson was.  Eggleston makes the pitched battle in pitched dark exhilirating.  Since most readers will not know the outcome, there is quite a bit of suspense.  I loved the description of how units would identify themselves and then wade in if it turned out they were on opposite sides.  Needless to say there was a friendly fire issue.

      Eggleston closes the story with an aftermath that outlines the importance of the tactical defeat for the Americans.  He only briefly touches on the main battle, but manages to destroy that old chestnut that the Americans used cotton bales as part of their barricades.  You the man, Eggleston!

       At first I was a little upset that the story was nonfiction.  I assumed all the stories would be fictional.  I read enough nonfiction already.  However, because of the nature of Eggleston's style and the audience he was writing for, the story reads like fiction.  Since I have a bit of the fourteen year old boy in me, I really enjoyed it.  It has a certain verve to it.  More importantly, Eggleston is quite complimentary of the British.  He is not just stoking the flames of patriotism.  He credits bravery when he sees it.  Not only is the story entertaining, but it does a better job on the history of the battles than I found in several encyclopedia entries.


Next up:  The Boy Commander of the Camisards

Saturday, February 21, 2015

CRACKER? The Great Santini (1979)

       “The Great Santini” is a military movie based on the novel by Pat Conroy.  Conroy used his own father as the main character and the novel is the story of growing up in a family run by a domineering military man.  The movie was directed and co-written by Lewis John Carlino.  It opened so poorly that the studio tried changing the name to “The Ace” and then sold the rights to HBO.  The reviews were so good that the studio tried reopening it, but its debut on HBO destroyed its box office.  The movie did receive two Academy Award nominations -  Best Actor (Robert Duvall) and Best Supporting Actor (Michael O’Keefe).

                Lt. Col. “Bull” Meechum is introduced as “the warrior without a war”.  He is a hard-drinking asshole who is prone to jeopardizing his career by showing contempt for his superiors.  He runs his family like a Drill Sergeant.  The further he is from action, the more hell they catch.  None of his family is remotely like him.  His wife is a classic military wife, but not a classic war movie wife.  She does not give her husband any ultimatums and he does not have to choose the service over his family.  In this respect, she is more typical of a military wife than what you see in most war movies.  She loves her husband, but has to act as buffer between him and his children.  His oldest son Ben (O’Keefe) is a star basketball player, but too sensitive for Bull.  In a crucial scene, Bull bullies his son in a one on one basketball game.  Bull really hates to lose.  Later, he forces Ben to man up during one of his high school games.  Bull hates any show of weakness.  He refers to his youngest son as “a little homo”.  His daughter Mary Anne (Lisa Jane Persky) plays the role of the rebellious teenager.  She is feisty and funny and Bull does not know what to make of her, of course.

"I order you to take a dive, son"
                A subplot involves the friendship of Ben with a black teenager named Toomer.  Since the movie is set in Beafort, South Carolina (and shot on location there), Toomer is the target of local racists.  Ben gets caught in the conflict and it culminates in a tragedy.  The crisis results in a family moment of catharsis that moves them on the path to reconciliation and the movie toward a happy ending which is thankfully avoided.

                As I mentioned, “The Great Santini” is not really a war movie, but it can be described better as a movie about a military family.  Having grown up in a similar family, I can attest to the realistic depiction of a family that is run by a Lt. Col. as though it is a military unit.  I am pleased to say that the family dynamics in my family were not as Hollywood-worthy as those of the Meechum family.  Thankfully, Bull is not representative of all fighter pilots during peacetime.  The movie takes your stereotypical hot shot pilot and gives him a family in peacetime and then lets matters take their course.  The movie has been commended as an accurate portrayal of a fighter pilot’s family, but  while that fraternity certainly chaffs at the lack of action, only a small minority take it out on their families like Bull does.  They are the ones whose sons write novels about them.  My father may have awakened his kids with “It’s time to get up in the morning!” like Bull does, but he and his comrades were more warriors doing their peacetime job than warriors without a war.  Hollywood loves outsized personalities so we get troglodytes like Meechum.   By the way, I have read that the Marines cooperated with the film because they found that Bull’s outstanding leadership qualities and his deep-down love for his family would make him the new Sgt. Ryker.  But Ryker was not such an asshole and did not inflict himself on a family.

the cowed and the Bull
                The strength of the movie is in the acting.  The cast is excellent.  Duvall is his usual outstanding self and has a rare role where he hams it up a bit (another is the similar Kilgore from “Apocalypse Now”).  He does such a good job that you wonder if the movie does not have a happy ending after all.  O’Keefe is able to stand his ground against a force of nature.  Danner is perfect as the anachronistic wife.  I can only wonder if my own mother would have put up with a Meechum-like husband or what it would have been like to have a father like him.  I know I appreciated my father after watching this movie.

                The movie has a made-for-television feel to it because of the low budget.  In spite of that, it gets the atmosphere right.  Filming in South Carolina adds to the Southern flavor and lends itself to the subplot of racism.  The scene in the high school gym reminded me of many small town gyms I have been in.  The flight scenes are excellent and that is attributable to the cooperation of the USMC which provided a squadron of F-4s.  The movie even manages to get a mock dog fight in.

                “The Great Santini” is an excellent soap opera set in a military context, but it cannot be considered for my 100 Best War Movies because I am not comfortable with it as a war movie.  Plus I cannot get past feeling it misses its mark due to the main character being odious, in my opinion.

GRADE  =  B-

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

CRACKER? Hell is for Heroes (1962)

                “Hell is for Heroes” is an anti-war movie released in 1962.  The movie originated with writer Robert Pirosh who had already scored with “Battleground”.  Pirosh was a veteran of WWII.  He had been a Master Sergeant in the 35th Division and served in the Battle of the Bulge.  He was awarded the Bronze Star.  The incident in the movie was supposedly based on his experiences.  Unfortunately his war experiences did not prepare him for working with Steve McQueen.  McQueen arrived on set unhappy and stayed that way.  He did not want to be in the film and made it clear to everyone involved.  It was not method acting.  He was a huge pain in the ass and Pirosh (who was supposed to direct) walked out on the production.  Don Siegel (his only war movie) replaced him which was probably for the better as he was able to stand up to the obstinate star.  The filming was an unpleasant experience for all involved with his fellow actors being nettled by McQueen’s surliness.  Siegel put his stamp on the movie by insisting that it be bleakly anti-war.  He took all of Pirosh’s black comedy out, but the studio forced him to include the Bob Newhart telephone monologue. 

"So my dumbass agent gets me stuck in this stupid
movie and I'm gonna make everyone pay."
                The movie is set near the Siegried Line in 1944.  A squad is sent to an outpost to deceive the Germans into remaining on the defensive.  It is your typical heterogeneous unit of potential survivors.  Thrown into the mix is the recent replacement named Reese (McQueen).  He comes with a chip on his shoulder the size of a log.  He was recently demoted and is surly about it.  It seems he is a decorated warrior who “cracks up when the pressure is off.” On the other hand, his comrades are not happy with the advent of new pressure.  Their mission is to maintain a stretch of the front line and make the more numerous Germans across no man’s land think they are a much larger unit.  This involves stunts like rigging up a jeep to sound like a tank.  When they discover a listening device in their bunker, this gives Newhart (who plays clerk PFC Driscoll) to do one of his popular telephone routines pretending they have a much larger force.  This is one of the most bizarre moments in war movie history. 

                The attempts at deception are only semi-successful because the Germans raid during the night and let the whittling begin.  We started with eight and won’t end up with eight.  For some faux tactical reason, Reese convinces the men that tit deserves tat.  He leads a raid on a German pill box.  This involves a suspenseful crawl through a mine-field (suicidally using their hands instead of knives to probe).  Reese sets himself up for redemption in the climactic assault against the Siegfried Line.

"Is there a stand-up comedian down there who
can do a routine to trick the Germans?"
                “Hell is for Heroes” has developed a cultish reputation over the years.  This is in spite (or due to) its limited budget and Siegel’s direction.  The movie was filmed mainly at the studio and they should have been thankful they did not have to film in Siegel’s back yard since the suits were very stingy.  The cast was constantly angry about things like malfunctioning weapons.  The movie ends abruptly because they ran out of film!  The obstacles overcome (including McQueen) adds to the mystique of the movie.

                The cast is first rate with James Coburn, Bobby Darin, Fess Parker, and Nick Adams.  McQueen dominates as was his wont, but he gives a remarkable performance as one of the iconic anti-heroes.  Of course, you could argue that he was not actually acting.  He was acting out.  He certainly has the thousand yard stare down pat.  It was Newhart’s debut and his phone routine, while hilarious, is out of place in this particular film.  Unfortunately, other than the Reese character, there is little character cdevelopment. 

"Listen buddy, I won the pool to kill McQueen."
                The movie has a made-for-television feel to it -  specifically, “Combat!” (which Pirosh went on to create).  The movie even has music straight out of that TV series.  The dialogue is sparse with little of the soldier banter you would expect from men awaiting possible death.  The action is well-staged with some good combat scenes.  At one point Reese is fighting hand-to-hand and throws his helmet at a German.  Most of the action takes place at night which adds to the vibe.  This was not a Siegel touch, but instead was called for because of the brutally hot daytime temperatures.  The cinematography has some bells and whistles and the sound is good for a low budget effort.  The set is nice with authentic looking dragon’s teeth and fox holes.  The weapons are fine with Reese using a grease gun (a very cranky M3), but not carrying the correct ammunition.  The technical adviser must have slept through most of the production.

                Pirosh’s script was reworked a bit and ended up being Siegel-worthy bleak.  It does not avoid clich├ęs as it has a fallen hero who finds redemption.  The old heel to hero arc.  It is firmly in the “who will survive?” subgenre.  It lacks in realism as some of the deceptions are borderline silly, but it’s hard to get upset with a movie that does not care what you think about Newhart doing one of his comedy routines.
               Does it crack my 100 Best Movies list?  I doubt it, but it is a must-see for war movie buffs 

GRADE  =  B-