Friday, October 17, 2014

NOW SHOWING: Fury (2014)


                “Fury” is the new WWII tank combat movie starring Brad Pitt.  It was directed and written by David Ayer.  He earlier had written “U-571”, a movie for which he had to apologize for historical inaccuracies.  This time he took on a purely fictional story of a tank in the waning days of World War II Europe.  The tank is a M4A2E8 Sherman and it is participating in the drive into Nazi Germany.  The crew is headed by Sgt. “Wardaddy” Collier (Pitt) and they have been together since North Africa.  They are part of the 2nd Armored Division (the “Hell on Wheels” division).  The movie was filmed in the English countryside and had a budget of approximately $80 billion.  The producers relied on four authentic M4s and a Tiger 131 loaned by a museum.  The Tiger is the only operational one in the world and this was the first time a genuine one was used in a war movie.

                The movie opens in the aftermath of what must have been a tank melee.  The title tank is the sole survivor of its platoon, but the assistant driver was killed.  This opens the hatch for a green replacement from the secretarial pool named Norman (Logan Lerman).  He is not exactly welcomed with open arms (like all other replacements in war movie history).  Collier is determined to make a man out of him.  Actually, he is determined to make him into the type of man that they have become.  Norman will become a productive member of the crew once he learns to kill anything that moves and executes any S.S. bastard that crosses their path (because that’s what they would do to you).  The arc is initiated with Norman starting off as a reluctant warrior with some naïve morals.  He’s going to gain some testicles and lose that pesky conscience.

                The movie moves through the typical war movie flow of action followed by rest and exposition.  The combat scenes are amazing and among some of the best of recent war movies.  There is an assault across a field that features a dual with anti-tank guns.  Urban warfare of the tank versus sniper variety.  A four on one scrimmage against the Tiger which ends up accurately reflecting the odds against Shermans.  This particular encounter reflects back upon the opening title card that proclaimed that American tanks were outgunned and outmaneuvered by more advanced German tanks.  What sets Fury apart from this fact is that Brad Pitt is in command.  The final cataclysm involves the defense of a crossroads against a large S.S. infantry force.  It’s last stand time.  Surprisingly, the combat scenes are not shot in the “Band of Brothers” and “Saving Private Ryan” style.  They rely mostly on explosions and tracers with a medium amount of quick cuts.  Add to that the unique tank scenarios where you are racing to get that shot off before it’s your turret that is blown to Hell.  The action will have you on the edge of your seat, but not feeling dizzy.  You also will not need sunglasses to shade any bright colors.  This film’s predominant color is mud.  In case you don’t understand the enemy, the music is very Wagneresque. 

                Unfortunately, the rest and exposition scenes are troughs.  Some of the interactions between the crew and the maturation and acceptance of Norman are awkward.  There is a painfully forced blooding of the newbie that defies reality and is offensive toward WWII veterans.  Ayer’s attempt to show the truly horrible effects of war on the psyches of the “good guys” veers too far into the trite territory of “warfare strips away your humanity”.  There is also the equivalent of a dysfunctional family’s Thanksgiving dinner that includes the war trumps civilization theme.

                The combat scenes create enough good will from war movie lovers to overcome some curious flaws.  The film has some extended lulls between the balls to the wall (which happens to be the only graphic wounding that the movie does not depict) action scenes.  Curious partly because Ayer finds no opportunity to develop the characters.  They are all stereotypes.  Pitt plays the hardened leader who is haunted by losses (although he has apparently lost only one man in over two years of serious action).  The movie hints at some deep psychic wound, but never delivers.  It also implies that the crew blames him for something, yet they are ready to die for him with little questioning.  The crew is heterogeneous with the Bible-thumper named “Bible” (Shia LeBeouf probably not having to act too hard), the psychopathic hick named “Coon-Ass” (Jon Bernthal chewing scenery as a cracker, not a Cajun), and the obligatory minority wise-ass named “Gordo” (Michael Pena loving not having competition for audience appeal).  The acting is inconsistent.  Pitt is solid and obviously has watched film of previous actors playing the exact same role.  LeBouef is effective in leaving one to wonder if “Bible” is supposed to be a nutcase or a role model.  Depends on if you are a fundamentalist, I suppose.  Lerman is in over his head and makes the arc hard to believe.  He is cursing up a storm by the end, so there’s that.  Bernthal is the weak link.  You would be obnoxious too if you had dead meat tattooed on your fore-head.

                The movie is definitely more enjoyable if you have not seen a lot of war movies.  I found myself recognizing all the characters (Norman = Upham) and themes from previous movies.  Heck, the movie ends with a last stand, who will survive scene.  “We ain’t never run before.”  And like all fictional cinematic last stands, don’t expect reality to interfere with the carnage.  It is instructive to remind that this last stand is not based on a true story like “The Alamo” or “Zulu”.  As usual in a war movie aimed at the general public, “Fury” builds to a climax that crosses over the line of reality into the realm of ridiculous.  However, up until the end the film is a pretty good portrayal of the lives of tankers.  The tank interior is authentic and the operation is well-enacted.  The soldier talk is not jarring, although the addition of a catch phrase (“best job I ever had”) is a bit lame.

                Once again I have the dilemma of not wanting to scare off any future war movies.  They come along so seldom these days that you have to lower your expectations to not be crushed by unfulfilled anticipation.  “Fury” is a bit better than I expected.  I was skeptical about a Sherman taking on the German army by itself.  The movie confirmed my fears, but it was not laughable and it’s not like we have a lot of great tank movies for it to live up to.  I am not a big Sherman fan, but I admire the men who went into combat in them.  This movie does them justice, but to be a truly great war movie it needed a better writer than David Ayer.  With that said, he has improved since “U-571”.

GRADE  =  B-

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

CLASSIC or ANTIQUE? To the Shores of Tripoli (1942)

                “To the Shores Tripoli” is a service film that was directly impacted by Pearl Harbor.  The movie was filmed at the Marine Corps Training Center in San Diego in 1941.  It was directed by H. Bruce Humberstone (remember that name when I discuss how good the movie is).  Adjustments were made in post-production to take advantage of the attack.  The movie was a big box office success and was credited with greatly increasing Marine Corps recruiting.
                The film begins with a dedication to the Marines and a reference to Wake Island (“Send us more, Japs!”).  Wealthy playboy Chris Winters (John Payne) arrives at boot camp to carry on the family tradition of being a Marine.  He’s not really into that macho bull shit and expects to be treated like God’s gift to the Marine Corps.  They wouldn’t dare make him peel potatoes.  His father, the ex-Marine, expects the Corps to make a man out of his worthless son.  Something has got to give.
                Winters meets a nurse, Lt. Mary Carter (Maureen O’ Hara), and targets her as his next conquest.  She is torn because she realizes he is a hound, but she can’t help being attracted to him.  She even sticks with him when she sees him with his gold-digger fiancé.  She can’t help it!
"I think I can help with that inflated ego"
                Winters other significant other is his Gunnery Sergeant Dixie Smith (Randolph Scott – “Randolph Scott!”).  If you want to know what kind of DI he is - think the exact opposite of R. Lee Ermey.  Smith is the sensitive type of drill sergeant.  He’s going to make a man out of Winters through soft love (as opposed to tough love).  He treats the rest of the recruits with equal restraint.  Boot camp is fraught with – nothing.  (Join the Marines – We’ll Treat You Right)  It turns out that Winters does not have to peel potatoes!  Surprisingly, Winters turns out to be a good soldier and leader.  In spite of all the love, Winters and Smith still have to have the obligatory fight.  It is one of the worst staged fights in boot camp fights' history.  Sarge lies and says he threw the first punch so Winters’ father will not die of shame.  Plus the Marine Corps needs a few good lounge lizards.  The men go on maneuvers.  Winters gets to save Smith’s life when the Sarge ineptly gets left behind at a gunnery target.  Could this movie get any stupider?  Yes.
Are they fighting or dancing?
                In spite of being made into a man, Winters decides to choose his fiancé and a cushy government job over the Corps.  They are riding off into the sunset when word of Pearl Harbor comes over the radio.  He doesn’t care.  Just kidding.  He races back to San Diego and his true loves – nurse Carter, Sgt. Smith, and the U.S. Marine Corps.  He joins his unit as it marches toward a transport ship.  He changes into his uniform as they march.  (Payne claimed this piece of “acting” was the hardest part of the shoot.  Being an actor is so hard!)  A guy in the crowd waves a flag while holding a placard that reads “Me Chinese”.  Gag!  Winters father calls out “Get me a Jap!”  Arrgh!  Mary is waiting to give him a kiss.  Barf!  Everyone sings the Marine Corps hymn.  Give me a break!
                “To the Shores of Tripoli” is one of the worst war movies I have seen.  If ever a terrible film benefited from timing, this one did.  The proximity to the attack on Pearl Harbor explains its popularity.  Plus, let’s face it, 1940s audiences loved patriotic crap.  A similar movie today would be laughed out of the theaters.  The producers deserve some credit for being crafty enough to tack on the ending.  The original ended with the standard smooch between the leads indicative that he was a domesticated male.
                The plot makes no sense.  The characters are all unrealistic.  Nurse Carter would not have fallen for Winters.  Smith is the biggest cream puff in drill sergeant history.  Winters is unrealistic, except in Hollywood terms where he is a stereotype.  It is painful to watch three good actors making asses of themselves.  But then, they all acted poorly in the film so there’s that.  The only positive I can say about it is that it was one of the first films shot in Technicolor.  Maureen O’Hara got her title of “The Queen of Technicolor” from this film.  Ironically, she was a brunette for the film instead of her trademark red hair.  Another example of how screwed up the movie is.
                Classic or Antique?  Dinosaur.

 grade =  F-

Sunday, October 12, 2014

SHOULD I READ IT? A Man Escaped (1956)

                “A Man Escaped” is a French black and white film directed by Robert Bresson and released in 1956.  It is the true story of a member of the French Resistance who was captured by the Germans  in WWII.  The main character Fontaine (Francois Leterrier) is based on Andre Devigny who was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to the inescapable Montluc Prison.  7,000 men died at this prison.
                In the movie, Fontaine is arrested when he tries to escape in a car and he is beaten and thrown into a cell at the prison.  He discovers that with the help of a purloined spoon he can loosen some of the door panels and get into the corridor to make contact with the other inmates.  The prison has a shocking lack of security.  Colonel Klink ran a stricter prison camp.   The cells are never searched even though the authorities threaten it.  Fontaine gets a package which allows him to make ropes and he hatches a plan to climb out of the prison.  This becomes an absolute necessity when he is condemned to execution.  To complicate matters, a German deserter is thrown into his cell.  The dilemma is whether he should trust this young man named Jost (Charles La Clainche).  He decides to take him along. 
                “A Man Escaped” is a highly regarded movie.  It was shown at Cannes.  It got good reviews.  It is historically accurate in portraying Devigny’s experiences.  The movie does simplify a bit as he made numerous escape attempts with the subsequent tortures.  Some of the tortures were by the infamous Klaus Barbie.  The escape itself is very close to the actual escape.  That may be part of the problem.  The movie is lacking in suspense and has long stretches of boredom.  Surprisingly, the treatment depicted is not very harsh.  You certainly do not get the impression that 7,000 men died in the prison.  The acting is okay with Leterrier solid in the main role.  The soundtrack stands out because it uses Mozart.
                “A Man Escaped” is overrated.  Devigny deserved a movie and the movie does a good job as a documentary, but it is just too slow moving for me.  And I think the same would be said by most war movie lovers.
Grade  =  D  

Sunday, October 5, 2014

CRACKER? Operation Crossbow (1965)

                “Operation Crossbow” is a blockbuster wannabe that was released in 1965.  It is from the subgenre of war adventure similar to two other 1965 releases – “Von Ryan’s Express” and “The Heroes of Telemark”.  It fits the typical 1960s model of all-star cast and big effects.   The movie was directed by Michael Anderson (“The Dam Busters”).  It was made in England and has a mostly British cast.  A London power center was used for the underground missile facility.  The producer Carlo Ponti cast his wife Sophia Loren in what was basically a glorified cameo.  He then gave her top billing.  It’s nice to be sleeping with the producer.

                The film opens with Churchill demanding that his son-in-law Duncan Sandys look into the possible terror weapons the Nazis may be developing.  These weapons turn out to be the V-1 and V-2.  The V-1 is a pilotless missile launched against London via ramps in occupied Europe.  The V-2 was a supersonic rocket with a large warhead.  A subplot involves problems with the V-1 veering off and crashing before it can kill Brits.  The famous test pilot Hanna Reitsch (Barbara Rutting) is brought in to determine the cause of the problem. 

                The movie concentrates on attempts to stop the V-2 program.  Photoreconnaissance  discovers the factory at Pennemunde.  Churchill calls a meeting to decide what to do.  His scientific adviser Lindemann (Trevor Howard) is your typical pompous, pooh-poohing egg-head.  He argues that the site is not worth the effort.  It would take the total resources of Bomber Command and could result in all 600 bombers being lost and thus the war lost.  What a Debbie Downer!  Luckily Churchill is sane and gives the green light.

                The bombing results in the deaths of several key V-2 personnel, but the program continues in a new underground facility.  A plan is hatched to send a team to infiltrate the factory.  Naturally one of the operatives has to be a handsome, brash Yank.  Lt. Curtis (George Peppard) and proper Brit nerd Henshaw (Tom Courteney) are paradropped behind enemy lines.  Curtis has an encounter with Sophia Loren so she can appear on the movie poster and on the marquee.  The lengths the movie goes to shoe horn her into the plot is laughable, but the resolution is satisfying and she is lovely.

                Curtis gets a job in the factory.  Meanwhile London is being hit by V-1s in some pretty spectacular explosions.  To make matters worse, the V-2s add to the destruction.  Something needs to be done.  Bomber Command schedules a bombing raid, but someone needs to open up the launch door so bombs can go down the hatch.  This looks like a job for James Bond or Lt. Curtis.  Prepare to see what one man with a submachine gun can do to lots of Germans and what collateral explosions look like.  Spoiler alert: we win the war.

                The movie is loosely based on the truth.  The V-1 (known as “buzz bombs”) and V-2 are accurately portrayed in their use and effects.  Hanna Reitsch is an actual person and one of the most fascinating figures in the war.  She was Hitler’s favorite pilot.  She became famous for her test pilot skills.  She worked on perfecting the notoriously fickle Me-163, one of the first jet fighters.  She was awarded the Iron Cross.  She flew into besieged Berlin in the last week of the war in Europe to deliver Goering’s successor to the Bunker.  She personally tried to persuade der Fuhrer to escape with her.  Imagine if he had taken her up on her offer.  Her test flight in the movie is close to reality.  She actually was trying to determine why the piloted version of the V-1 was crashing on landing.  The piloted version was developed as a possible “kamikaze”, but even Hitler would not give final approval.  This version was launched by another aircraft, not by way of a ramp like the unmanned version.

                Several characters in the film are historical.  Lindemann was Churchill’s scientific adviser and he was skeptical of the terror weapons.  He thought they were most likely a Nazi deception to divert Allied resources.  Churchill did overrule him at a meeting and had Sandys pursue Operation Crossbow.  This included the bombing raid on Pennemunde depicted in the film.  The movie exaggerates the deaths of key Nazi scientists, but the damage to the factory and the subsequent relocation to an underground site was close to reality.  At this point the film leaves reality behind.  None of the operatives are based on real people and the mission is pure bull.  I found no corroboration for the bombing of the underground rocket base.

                “Operation Crossbow” is a misfire.  It has no flow to it and parts are boring.  There is little suspense which is surprising for this subgenre.  The action is stereotypical with a one man army vibe.   The cast is distinguished, but some of the performances are flown in (in the case of Loren, probably literally).  Peppard was forced to make the movie for contractual reasons and this might explain his wooden performance (although he was sort of known for those kind of performances).  Howard has one of his few bad roles as the dunderhead Lindemann.  There is a good turn by Anthony Quayle mainly due to the twist in his character.  The dialogue is average, but kudos for the characters speaking the appropriate language.  (That’s right young people, you will have to read subtitles.)  There is no welcome humor to cut the faux suspense.  The strength of the movie is its effects.  It blows up things real good.  One shot has a row of apartments destroyed by a buzz bomb.  (The producers found a row of flats scheduled for demolition.)  The music is pretty epic and sounds, not surprisingly, like Anderson’s “The Dam Busters” (a great score to crib from).

                Speaking of cribbing, “Operation Crossbow” wants to be “The Guns of Navarone”.  Unfortunately, it is a stupid movie with too many implausibilities.  The public got that buzz and it did not do well at the box office even after they moronically changed the title to “The Great Spy Mission” under the theory that people were not going to it because they were thinking it was a medical movie!  (Medieval medicine, I suppose.) 

When I eventually do my post on the best movies of its subgenre, it will not be near the top.  For now, here’s a taste:

1.       Where Eagles Dare

2.        Kelly’s Heroes

3.        Inglorious Basterds

4.        The Dirty Dozen

5.       Guns of Navarone

6.       The Eagle Has Landed