Wednesday, September 30, 2015

CRACKER? Tears of the Sun (2003)

                “Tears of the Sun” is a Bruce Willis action war film.  It was directed by Antoine Fuqua (“King Arthur”).  It was made by Willis’ production company for an astounding $100 million.  It did not cover its cost and got mixed reviews.  Willis and Fuqua did not get along during the filming and have vowed to never work together again.  The movie got substantial support from the Pentagon which allowed the first use of a nuclear aircraft carrier (the U.S.S. Harry S Truman) for a movie filming.  The cast included actual African refugees living in the U.S. 

                The movie is set in civil war torn Nigeria.  A recent coup has resulted in ethnic cleansing.  “Somewhere off the coast of Africa” lurks the USS Harry S Truman.  The U.S. government actually takes notice of the chaos and orders a Navy SEAL team to extract a doctor, some nurses, and a priest.  The eight man unit is led by Lt. Waters (Willis) and the over/under for survivors is four.  When they reach the refugee camp, the feisty Dr. Kendricks (Monica Bellucci) refuses to leave the natives.  A grumbling Waters agrees to take them to the egress site.  The priest and nuns insist on staying with the wounded.  When the priest tells Waters to “go with God”, Waters responds with “God already left Africa”.  Waters and Kendricks get off on the wrong foot.  If this was a romantic comedy, they would be married by the end.  Since this is a war movie, they will respect each other by the end (with future marriage a possibility).  When they reach the chopper, Waters throws Kendricks on board and leaves the natives behind – psyche!  If looks could kill.  But mission accomplished.  Man, that was a short movie.  But wait…  On the way back to the carrier, they pass over the refugee camp which has obviously been the scene of a massacre.  This melts Waters' heart and Willis realizes that he does not have a commercially viable movie unless the mission is expanded to include rescuing the abandoned refugees.  “It’s been so long since I’ve done a good thing.”  Apparently Waters does not consider killing bad guys to be a good thing.
Group shot of actors playing soldiers

                The movie now becomes a “valley of death” film as the group is stalked by the rebels.  The usual tropes are thrown in.  Maverick leader bucking higher authority.  Someone in the group is helping the rebels.  One of the refugees has a secret identity (but this ends up being a nice twist).  Bonding with the natives as hardened warriors are humanized.  Questioning of command decisions.  To keep the action junkies happy, there is a stop-over at a village to kick some rapiner ass.  It’s worth the wait as we get some great SEAL-type bloodletting.  So far betting the under is looking good, but that is about to change.  When Waters gets the obligatory reminder of his original orders, he explains to the denser members of the audience that “I broke my own rule, I started to give a f***.”  The movie is now “Von Ryan’s Express” without the train.  But with a huge explosion courtesy of F-18 Hornet fighter jets.  USA!!  The over/under ends up being a push.  I’ll leave it up to you to guess whether Willis had the balls of Sinatra.  Don’t bother guessing whether the natives reached safety.

Be careful when you wake up Bruce Willis
                “Tears of the Sun” was better than I expected.  It does not break any new ground and is totally predictable, but it is efficiently entertaining.  There is plenty of action and lots of ammo expenditure enhanced by not having to reload.  The deaths are realistic and sometimes graphic.  The chasing element adds suspense and the catching element adds gratuitous violence.  The score does a good job setting the mood and the cinematography is masterful considering the jungle foliage.  The dialogue is terse and there is no speechifying.  The cast is testosterone-laden, but not Cro-magnon.  The SEALs are “hey, yous” as 90% of the budget probably went to Willis’ salary.  When your second-bill is Cole Hauser (“Siege of Firebase Gloria”), you better have a lot of distractions.  The acting is fine in spite of this.  Willis is Willis and the others are appealing.  There is a little dysfunction, but no one turns out to be a jerk.  All the villainy is ladled onto the African rebels.  Kendricks is a strong female character and Bellucci (soon to be the oldest Bond girl ever) holds her own.
She'll probably look better than this in the new Bond movie

After seeing the movie, it is a bit surprising that it did not do well at the box office.  You could see where the film was Hollywood’s answer to our government’s lack of intervention in African genocide.  Sadly, the American public was apparently not interested in cinematic intervention either.  It’s not a bad time-killer and is not totally a mindless guy movie.  There have been much worse in this subgenre in this century.



Thursday, September 24, 2015

500th Post!!! City of Life and Death (2009)

               Believe it or not, this is my 500th post.  It is hard to believe I have reached this milestone.  It is especially hard to believe that there are still great war movies that I have not reviewed.  I would not bet against reaching my 1000th post at this rate.  Of course, that will mean watching a lot of crappy war movies.  I choose to post on a little known Chinese war movie because one of the most awesome facets of my blogging experience is it has forced me to broaden my cinema horizons.  I watched a lot of war movies since childhood, but never foreign ones and never ones with subtitles.   I had no idea what I was missing. 

            “City of Life and Death” is a Chinese war movie that is set in the Rape of Nanking during the Second Sino-Japanese War.  It was directed by Lu Chuan.  He also wrote the screenplay after reading many letters and diaries and interviewing Japanese veterans.  (He was surprised to find a lack of remorse as most of the soldiers excused their behavior as “everyone was doing it”.)  He was influenced by the book The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang.  The movie had some trouble getting past Chinese censors and was heavily criticized by many in China for its sympathetic portrayal of its main Japanese character.

                A series of postcards gives background leading up to the Japanese assault on the capital city of Nanking in 1937.  The bombardment of the city walls and the subsequent entry of Japanese soldiers leads to widespread panic amongst the Chinese soldiers.  Thousands of refugees flee the city, but not everyone.  Private Kadokawa (Nakaizumi Hideo) is in a unit that encounters a large number of Chinese civilians in a church.  Kadokawa’s arc begins when he accidentally machine guns some Chinese women hiding in a confessional.  This will be the last accidental killing in this movie.

                Not all the Chinese soldiers behave like the modern Iraqi army.  A unit led by Lu Jianxiong ambushes Kadokawa and his mates.  The Chinese put up a desperate fight reminiscent of the British defense at the Arnhem bridge in “A Bridge Too Far”.  The combat is in the South Korean style as in “Tae Guk Gi” and it is a blast, literally.  Lu, Shunzi (Zhao Yisui) and a boy named Xiaodouzi (Liu Bin) are taken captive.  At this point the atrocities begin.  A montage depicts the variety employed by the Japanese – burying alive, machine gunning, burning alive in a building.  Chinese soldiers are herded to places of mass execution.  By pure luck Shunzi and Xiaodouzi survive and take refuge in the “Safety Zone”.

                The Safety Zone is an area of the city that the Japanese have reluctantly allowed the Chinese citizens to take refuge in.  The zone is run by the few foreigners still in the city.  They are led by a German businessman named John Rabe (John Paisley) and an American missionary named Minnie Vautrin (Beverly Peckous).  Rabe has some cachet with the Japanese authorities because he is a Nazi and the Japanese are in awe of their allies.  In spite of that, the Safety Zone is regularly visited by Japanese soldiers for raping.  When Rabe is recalled to Germany because of his politically incorrect humaneness, his secretary Tang (Fan Wei) makes a deal with the devil to save his family.  (Tang is another example of how war makes us do things out of character.)  This does not stop the Japanese from demanding women be provided for prostitution in “comfort stations”.  Not long after, the Japanese come to clean out the Chinese soldiers hiding in the zone.  This includes Shunzi and Xiaodouzi.
                The Rape of Nanking used to be a forgotten event in history.  In the last twenty years it has finally gotten its due coverage.  This was partly through Chang’s bestselling book, but also through movies like “John Rabe” (2009) and “The Flowers of War” (2011).  “City of Life and Death” is the culmination of this historical enlightening.  It is as good a tutorial as you will get without reading on the subject.  The Nanking Massacre was a six week period in 1937 after the city fell to the Japanese.  Chiang Kai-shek decided to withdraw most of the Chinese forces, leaving only a token defense force.  This force did not put up much of a fight and the city fell easily, although the campaign had been a surprisingly costly one for the Japanese army.  By the time the city succumbed, only about twenty foreigners remained in it.  Most of them became members of an International Committee that was put in charge of the Safety Zone which was in the western quarter of the city.  John Rabe was the acknowledged leader of the group.  The Japanese were led by Prince Asaka who had been assigned to Nanking by Hirohito to redeem himself for having a “poor attitude”.  He instituted a “kill the captives” policy.  (Asaka was exempted from war crimes trial after the war as part of MacArthur’s grant of immunity to the royal family.)  The Japanese agreed to stay out of the zone as long as there were no Chinese soldiers hiding there.  There were.  This does not excuse the frequent incursions to rape.  It is estimated that 20,000 Chinese women were raped during the time period.  Many of these rapes resulted in mutilations and death.  The movie brings some attention to the “comfort women” who were forced into sex slavery for the Japanese army.  Overall, it is estimated that between 40-300,000 Chinese were killed in Nanking.  Virtually every Chinese soldier that was captured was executed.  Most infamously, thousands were machine gunned along the banks of the Yangtze River.  The movie chronicles the variety of methods used.

                John Rabe and Minnie Vautrin are significant figures in the story.  Rabe has been likened to Oscar Schindler.  He is credited with saving as many as 250,000 Chinese.  Upon his recall to Germany, he tried to bring light to the inhumanity of the Japanese actions.  The Gestapo was having none of that and he was forced to keep silent.  Vautrin was a missionary/teacher who ran Ginling College which was within the Safety Zone.  She tirelessly worked to minimize the Japanese depredations on her students and Chinese civilians who took refuge there.  The stress was too much and she ended up committing suicide when she returned to America.  (Coincidentally, Chang also took her own life.)

                “City of Life and Death” is an amazing movie.  Don’t be scared away by its subtitles and black and white cinematography.  The black and white suits its bleak storyline.  Chuan felt the overabundance of the red from bloodshed would distract from the central theme.  That theme had to do with the dehumanizing nature of war.  Chuan came under much criticism for portraying the Japanese soldiers as regular joes corrupted by the stresses and stimuli of war.  When they are not committing atrocities, their behavior is normal.  Perhaps reflecting the nonremorseful attitudes Chuan discovered in his interviews.  Most of the backlash was related to the Kadokawa character.  He falls in love with a prostitute, shows empathy for a comfort woman, saves another from rape, and intervenes in the execution of Shunzi and Xiaodouzi.  He is the only Japanese character with a conscience, but as the framing device for the plot, one can understand the anger of some Chinese critics.  Chuan’s decision to blame the war for what motivated the Japanese soldiers is at odds with Chang’s take on the event.  She was criticized for the opposite.  Her book makes the case that the Japanese committed the atrocities because of their culture.  Based on my knowledge of military history, I lean towards Chang on this.  If I were Chinese, I would have been a little upset with the movie as well.  Chuan was being na├»ve and exculpatory.  Several armies went through more stressful and costly campaigns than the Japanese at Nanking without giving in to bestial passions on the unprecedented scale seen there.  This would be a good time to mention that the movie is harsh in its depiction of those atrocities and yet it comes nowhere near depicting them to their actual extent.

                As entertainment the film has no weaknesses.  The acting is outstanding by a great cast.  Most important, there are several strong female characters.  Most intriguing is the prostitute Xiaojiang (Jiang Yiyan) who refuses to cut her hair to hide her femininity and later is the first to volunteer to sacrifice herself as a comfort woman.  Hideo does a fine job as the conscience-stricken Kadokawa.  His transformation is subtle.  The cinematography is noteworthy.  There is some well-blended CGI in the opening assault on the city walls and the big battle scene is furious and exciting.  It comes early in the film, but there is no anti-climax in the rest of the story because there are several powerful scenes to come.  This is another similarity with “Schindler’s List”.  These scenes are allowed to take their time which is against recent trends in movies.  The score is understated, but effective.

                I have seen over two hundred war movies since starting this project.  When I finished reviewing the Greatest 100, people asked what I would do next.  I told them there were still many more movies to watch and I still had to compile my 100 Best list.  Currently I am reviewing movies that are worthy of consideration for that list.  I originally thought that if I had not seen the movie yet, it could not be that great.  I have been proven wrong several times already.  “City of Life and Death” is a good example.  It will definitely make my 100 Best War Movies.


Saturday, September 19, 2015

CRACKER? The Railway Man

                “The Railway Man” is “based on a true story”.  It is the story of one of the British soldiers who worked on the Burma railway famously covered in “The Bridge on the River Kwai”.  It is a biopic about Eric Lomax who wrote a best selling autobiography that the movie is based on.  It is a British-Australian production directed by Jonathan Teplitzky.  The film got a lukewarm release and floundered at the box office.

                The movie opens in England in 1980.  Lomax (Colin Firth) meets Patty (Nicole Kidman) on a train and although she is way out of his league, romance develops.  She is a nurse and he is a mentally fragile ex-POW who is obsessed with trains.  He needs to be “put back together”, but Patty has her work cut out for her.  He hallucinates about his experience in the prison came.  In particular he remembers a translator named Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada).  Nagase was a member of the Kempetai (the Japanese version of the Gestapo).  At one point Lomax attacks a debt collector.  His friend Finlay (Stellan Skarsgard) was with him in the camp.  Finlay encourages him to hunt Nagase down.  A newspaper article reveals that Nagase is living in Burma where he shows tourists the famous bridge and maintains a museum dedicated to the Kempetai.  Lomax decides to track Nagase down and get closure by killing him.

                While the movie is developing Lomax’s PTSD, it is flashing back to the reason for it.  Lomax (Jeremy Irvine) is in the signal corps in Singapore.  When the British army surrenders, Lomax and his fellow engineers are sent to work on the railway.  They build a clandestine radio to follow the war events.  When the radio is discovered, Lomax is singled out for brutal punishment.  Nagase (Tanroh Ishida) is the interpreter during the torture sessions which include water boarding.

                “The Railway Man” is a sincere attempt to meld the prisoner of war subgenre with the PTSD subgenre.  The story is an important one since we tend to overlook the long-term effects of being a prisoner of the Japanese.  “Bridge on the River Kwai” was a great movie, but it did not adequately cover the brutality of the treatment and did not attempt to cover the post-war.  In fact, “The Railway Man” is more of a psychological drama than a war movie.  In some scenes, it plays like a horror movie (complete with the music).  It is not really a POW movie as there is not much on life in the camp and it only briefly depicts the building of the railway (and there is nothing about the bridge).

                The acting is a highlight.  It is obvious the main players were sincere in their portrayals.  Firth and Kidman underplay their roles, which is appropriate.  The rest of the cast is fine with Sanada perfect as the elderly Nagase.  The score is excellent at setting the mood and it is a very moody movie.  The cinematography is a bit showy with off center shots featured. The weakness is in the script.  Too much of the film is predictable.  It has several tropes.  The strong woman who saves the broken man.  The secret radio that is discovered by the guards.  The veteran haunted by demons.  The closing confrontation between bitter enemies.  Although the movie was complemented for its frank treatment of Kempetai interrogation techniques and some critics had their eyes opened about Japanese treatment of American prisoners, this is not the first movie to depict Japan’s disregard for the Geneva Convention.  “The Great Raid” does a better job with prison conditions, for instance.  The torture scenes break new ground, especially the water boarding.  One has to wonder whether the current enhanced interrogation controversy was a factor in the inclusion of that scene.

                Eric Lomax’s story is a good one and certainly deserved a movie.  The dual aspect of the story is entertaining and the acting is strong.  It is within my margin of error when it comes to historical accuracy (see below), but just barely.  As is typical, it sticks fairly close to the story until the enhanced final act.  It does make a good companion to “Bridge on the River Kwai”, but there are much better movies about the Japanese prisoner of war experience.


HISTORICAL ACCURACY:   Lomax was in the signal corps and was captured at Singapore.  He was put to work on the Burma railway.  He and five others were caught with a radio and were all brutalized.  The movie implies that Lomax voluntarily stepped forward and took the blame, but actually they all were punished by having to stand in the hot sun for hours without food or water.  They were stomped on and beaten with  axe handles resulting in two deaths.  Lomax was singled out for the interrogation stage.  He was left lying on the ground for two days with ribs cracked and arms and legs broken.  He was placed in a small box for hours.  The water boarding was accurately depicted.  Nagase was the interpreter.  Lomax was found guilty of “anti-Japanese activities” and spent the next five years doing hard labor and living in a filthy jail cell.

                The movie’s decision to jump to 1980 bypasses Lomax’s first marriage.  He was married for 37 years and had three children.  That marriage did not end amicably as Lomax did meet Patty on a train and the ensuing relationship contributed to the end of his first marriage.  The movie also takes liberties with the time frame because in reality, the confrontation with Nagase occurred twelve years into the marriage.  They did learn about Nagase from a newspaper article.  They read his book “Crosses and Tigers” and learned that he was a changed man.  He had spent the post-war years atoning for his participation in war crimes (for which he was exonerated because of work in body recovery for the Allies, as stated in the movie).  Nagase became a devout Buddhist and did acts of charity.  He raised funds to build a peace temple (not a Kempetai museum) near the River Kwai bridge.

                An exchange of letters and phone calls over a two year period led to the reunion in Thailand.  The meeting was an act of closure, not revenge, for Lomax.  The two men became close friends and Lomax spent a week in Lomax’s home town as an honored guest.  The whole scene in the museum is total hog wash.  Speaking of which there was no Finlay.  The character appears to have been based on Jim Bradley who was a bunkmate of Lomax’s in the camp.  His death in the movie is ridiculously false and inserted purely for plot purposes.

Here is the poem featured in the movie:

At the beginning of time the clock struck one
Then dropped the dew and the clock struck two
From the dew grew a tree and the clock struck three
The tree made a door and the clock struck four
Man came alive and the clock struck five
Count not, waste not the years on the clock
Behold I stand at the door and knock.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

CRACKER? Valkyrie (2008)

                “Valkyrie” is based on the true story of the plot to assassinate Hitler.  The assassination and the implementation of the government takeover were known as Operation Valkyrie.  The main conspirator was Col. Claus von Stauffenberg who is portrayed by Tom Cruise.  The movie was directed by Marc Singer.  It is his first and only war movie and he treated it as a thriller based in a war.  The film had a bit of a difficult gestation.  Tom Cruise’s association and his Scientology beliefs made many Germans (including the Stauffenberg family) skeptical about the film and at first there was opposition to filming in Germany.  However, support from German newspapers and filmmakers eventually overcame the roadblocks.  Singer was even allowed to film scenes in the Bindlerblock (now called the Memorial to the German Resistance) where the plot was centered. 
SPOILER ALERT:  Someone tries to blow up Hitler 

                The other obstacle that had to be overcome was the lukewarm studio reaction to the project.  Tom Cruise was damaged goods, although his performance in “Tropic Thunder” had generated a lot of good will.  The idea of a World War II epic with a heavy dose of Nazism in it was also cause for concern.  In spite of this, United Artists poured $75 million into the project.  Some of that money went to building a replica of the Wolf’s Lair which took three months.  When the movie was completed the studio was not sure what to do with it.  The release date was pushed back until a test audience gave it a seal of approval.  At that point the suits decided it warranted a Christmas release because nothing says "Noel" more than a Nazi death plot.  The movie did not start off strong at the box office and got mixed reviews, but it ended up making $83 million domestically and over $200 million worldwide.
Why wasn't Tom Cruise in front of
a firing squad used to market the movie?

                The movie opens with German soldiers taking an oath of loyalty to der Fuhrer.  This is a crucial scene because it explains the anguish most of the conspirators will go through in violating that oath.  One of those soldiers who breaks that pledge is a Col. von Stauffenberg.  We meet him in Tunisia in the waning days of the Afrika Korps’ defense of North Africa.  He mouths off about S.S. atrocities and clearly is at a tipping point in his loyalty toward Hitler.  An air attack by two P-40s on his column results in grievous injuries including loss of an eye (from bombs dropped that the planes clearly do not have - cliche alert!).  Stauffenberg’s fighting days are over and his plotting days have begun.  He will be a newcomer to the conspiracy as Maj. Gen. Trasckow (Kenneth Branagh) is already actively trying to kill Hitler.  He manages to place a bomb on the Fuhrer’s plane when he visits the Eastern Front, but unfortunately it fails to work and Trasckow has to rush to Berlin to retrieve the incriminating evidence.  This is the first scene that makes you wonder how much of the screenplay is enhanced for entertainment value.

                Stauffenberg is recruited into the plot and takes charge of the disparate conspirators.  He is full of charisma, enthusiasm, and balls.  He realizes that they have not given enough thought to what happens after Hitler is dead.  He suggests they use the already in place Operation Valkyrie plan.  That plan provides for the Reserve Army to deal with a national emergency.  Stauffenberg daringly attends a meeting of Hitler’s inner circle to get him to sign off on adjustments to the plan.  After two aborted attempts, Stauffenberg manages to bring a briefcase with explosives to a strategy meeting hosted by Hitler.  He leaves the building confident that the explosion has killed the Fuhrer and heads back to the Bindlerblock to set up the new government.  Hitler’s miraculous survival causes the plot to unravel despite the efforts of Stauffenberg and the true believers.  As Gen. Beck (Terence Stamp) opines, “this is a military operation, nothing ever goes according to plan.”
"What do you mean we killed Moe Howard?"

                “Valkyrie” is a big budget effort and the effort shows.  The cast is international and stellar.  Cruise is the only  superstar, but the rest of the cast are recognizable talents.  They are also recognizable as the real historical people they play.  A sampling of their pictures alongside their characters shows the great work of the casting director and the make-up artists.  (They may look like the people, but don't expect them to sound like them.  "If Cruise doesn't have to attempt an accent - neither do we!")  This was not a vanity project for Cruise and although he is not the best actor involved, he does a satisfactory job portraying Stauffenberg.  He deserves credit for the eight months of research he did in preparing for the role.

                The money was not just spent on the salaries of the cast.  Rebuilding the Wolf’s Lair must have been expensive.  Singer went to great trouble to get the details right.  He used authentic P-40s for the one combat scene.  Not that anyone would notice, he acquired thirty period teletype machines for the scenes set in the communications room.  To top that off, the messages we see arriving are all actual messages from the archives!  The sets and costumes are spot on.  I found little of the usual carping about improper insignia, etc.  The score is excellent and fits the mood well in an understated way.

                The plot is suspenseful, especially if you don’t know much about what happened.  The movie manages to juggle numerous characters without too much confusion, although a second viewing helps.  One weakness is there is not a lot of character exposition.  We do not clearly know why Stauffenberg is motivated to break his oath and kill a leader he admired at one time.  Providing this insight would have substantially increased the length of the film probably.  Most importantly, the movie does not smack of Hollywood excess.  Stauffenberg is not an action hero.  But he undoubtedly is a hero and the movie does an admirable job doing justice to the brave members of the conspiracy.  Many viewers will learn for the first time that there was a significant resistance to Hitler.  Not all Germans were cowed by the Nazis.  However, the movie does leave the impression that if Hitler had still been winning the war in 1944, he would not have been in danger of assassination.
the first attempt - giving Hitler a yellow card

                As far as the accuracy, the movie is reminiscent of “Downfall” and is an excellent companion to it.  Like that other Hitler epic, “Valkyrie” is amazingly accurate.  I will be posting a “History or Hollywood” on it in the future, but for now I can preview that nothing happens in the movie that is significant tampering with history.  For instance, the seemingly Hollywoodish first attempt via a bomb on the plane is basically what happened with the tweak of having Tresckow retrieving the package instead of an aide.  Why not use Branagh for that?  All the real historical personages are portrayed as they were, not just in looks.  The reenactment of the July 20 attempt is excellent and the movie even uses some Hollywood theatrics to show what should have happened.  It is important to note that although some people are familiar with the bombing, the movie does an admirable job depicting the ensuing events which are less well known.  “Valkyrie” is basically a big budget, all-star documentary.  You need not look or read elsewhere if you want to know the story of the assassination attempt.  This movie is the gold standard for its topic.

                I have to admit that when I first heard about this movie I was upset.  Part of that feeling was due to concern about Cruise making a historical movie, but mainly because I questioned the potential for a movie about a failed attempt to kill Hitler.  I just could not imagine that there would be a substantial audience for that subject.  Why would Hollywood spend $75 million on a war movie that no one wanted?  I still feel the money could have been better spent on a film about the St. Nazaire Raid, for instance.  However, I have to admit I was wrong.  “Valkyrie” is an excellent movie on a subject that deserved treatment.  It’s nice to know a movie like this can make money.  It is definitely one of the 100 Best War Movies.