Saturday, September 20, 2014

SHOULD I READ IT? Closely Watched Trains (1966)


“Closely Watched Trains” is a film from the Czech New Wave movement.  It was directed by Jiri Menzel and was based on a novel by Bohumil Hrabat.  It was filmed in central Bohemia.  The movie was critically acclaimed and won the Best Foreign Film Oscar.  The Czech New Wave was an attempt by directors to make the pubic realize that they were complicit in the system of suppression and incompetence that ran communist Czechoslovakia.  The movies were characterized by long, unscripted dialogues, dark and surreal humor, and amateur actors.  The movement came to an end with the Soviet crackdown in 1968.

The movie is set in a train station in occupied Czechoslovakia during WWII.  Milos (Vaclev Neckar) is starting his job as a station guard.  He comes from a long line of slackers.  His mentor is a ladies’ man named Hubicka (Josef Somr) who is the train dispatcher.  The villain is a Czech collaborator named Zednicek.  He shows up at the station to explain that the Czech armies are conducting a strategic retreat on all fronts to lure the Soviets into a trap as per Hitler’s plans.  He spouts that the Axis are fighting for humanity!  Milos is in love with Mesa, but he is a wimp and she is a tramp.  When they hook up, he has an “accident” and is so humiliated he attempts suicide.  Then some other things happen that are hard to explain or understand or find compelling.  One of them involves Hubicka rubber-stamping the butt and thighs of a lusty girl who works at the station.  The movie culminates in an attempt to sabotage an ammunition train.

The best I can say about the movie is it is a good primer for Cinema 101.  There is some interesting cinematography, but it is pretty tame.  There is a little deep focus, some off center, and some shots through doorways.  It is not worth the time you will have to put in to watch this movie.  Plus you have to read the subtitles!  There are long stretches of boring and several WTF moments.  Like why is the jerk Hubicka suddenly a heroic Resistance operative?  I spent the first thirty minutes wondering when something was going to happen.  There is some lame Czech humor.  There is amateur acting by amateurs.  Neckar was a pop star who was recommended to the director.  The acting is what you would expect from a silent movie and the music contributes to that vibe.  One positive aspect that I can point out is that you get to see a Czech woman’s butt!  Oo-la-la.  How did the communists allow that?

Once again we have an artsy-fartsy foreign film that leaves me scratching my head and wondering if I just don’t get it.  I imagine there may be some who read this review that shake their heads in condescension.  I have seen a lot of foreign war movies since starting this blog four years ago and I have liked many of them.  There are some truly great movies, but there also are some that are very overrated.  This is one of them.  I would have given it an F if it wasn’t for the cinematic flourishes and the lusty ladies.  I also have to give kudos to the producers for making a movie that was daring for its time.  The movie still sucks.

GRADE  =  D     

Saturday, September 13, 2014

BOOK/MOVIE: Ice Station Zebra (1968)

                “Ice Station Zebra” is a movie based on the novel by Alistair MacLean.  It was released in 1968 and was a box office hit.  The film was nominated for two Academy Awards: special effects and cinematography.  It was directed by John Sturges (“The Great Escape”).  The U.S. Navy cooperated by providing the nuclear sub USS Ronquil for interior shots and some underwater footage.  Too bad the Navy did not mention that submarines are called boats, not ships.

                The movie opens with a capsule landing in the Arctic.  Both the Americans and the Soviets want it.  The nuclear sub Tigerfish commanded by Capt. Ferraday (Rock Hudson) is sent to Ice Station Zebra to rescue the personnel at the weather station.  The sub will carry some passengers including the shady Mr. Jones (Patrick McGoohan) and an “anti-Russian Russian” named Vaslov (Ernest Borgnine).  The boat also carries a unit of Marines led by the hard-ass Capt. Anders (Jim Brown).  Ferraday wonders what these guests have to do with the rescue of some nerds.

a black guy on a sub who is not the cook!
                Once under the ice cap (a hot topic for 1960s audiences), the Tigerfish encounters an act of sabotage that tests the crush depth of the hull (sub clichĂ© alert).  Someone on board is a saboteur.  A saboteur who apparently does not mind dying a horrible death.  After surviving this trope, the sub breaks through the ice to get to the station.  After battling a blizzard, a rescue party reaches the station with only the loss of some expendables.  The station has suffered a fire that was not accidental.  Jones and Vaslov are looking for the capsule.  The soundstage is about to get a lot more crowded as Soviet paratroopers arrive to join the party.  We could be looking at the start of WWIII.

                “Ice Station Zebra” was meant to be the next “Guns of Navarone”.  It did do well in ticket sales, but it is not on the same level as “Guns” and is much inferior to another MacLean movie that came out in the same year – “Where Eagles Dare”.  The main problem is the movie’s plot has enough holes in it to sink a battleship, much less a sub.  The plot twists are ridiculous and several key plot elements make little sense.  You know a movie has flaws when it has four screenwriters (including MacLean).  The acting is average with Hudson ruggedly handsome, but a bit wooden.  McGoohan is fine as the enigmatic Jones, but Borgnine chews the scenery.  Although it seems the script reserved a spot for Jim Brown, he is underused.  The movie is technically blah.  The underwater cinematography got good reviews, but seems quaint by today’s standards.  The opening special effect of the capsule landing could not possibly have been what the film was nominated for an Academy Award for!  The Arctic scenes were obviously filmed on a soundstage.  At no time do you think they are at the North Pole.  The score is repetitive and thus boring.  The editing is sloppy as evidenced by footage of F-4s thrown in with the MIGs.

                The story was supposedly based on two actual incidents.  In 1959, an American surveillance satellite came down in the Arctic and was acquired by Soviet agents.  In 1962, the CIA in Operation Coldfeet searched an abandoned Soviet weather station at the North Pole.  The plot that evolved from these two boring incidents makes the film a Cold War curio.  It does not hold up well and recent talk of a remake is a head-scratcher.  Is Hollywood that bereft of originality?  Never mind. 

filmed on location at the North Pole (or on a sound stage)
                The movie is very different than the novel.  First, all of the names (including the sub) have been changed, for God knows what reason.  Second, several characters have been added.  The book does not have Vaslov and Angers.  Only Carpenter (as Jones is called in the book) comes aboard.  More importantly, the novel is a standard mystery set in the Cold War, whereas the movie is a Cold War espionage film. For this reason, the movie concentrates on events and characters on the sub and only uses the station as a site for the final military confrontation.  A major part of the book deals with the survivors of the fire at the station.  There are no survivors in the movie.  Speaking of pyrotechnics, the book has two disaster scenes on the sub.  The movie deftly recreates the plunge to crush depth, but omits the later fire that almost deprives the crew of its last vestiges of oxygen.  The biggest difference is the movie branches off into a trite Cold War confrontation for its climax.  There are no Soviet paratroopers in the novel.  MacLean concentrates on the who-dunit aspect of the story.  We even get the cliched gather-all-the-suspects-around-a-table scenario.

                It is hard to choose between the book and the movie.  The novel is not MacLean at his best and the movie is not one of the better MacLean adaptations.  I definitely enjoyed the book more.  As a fairly well done mystery, it does keep you wondering who the villain is.  And the revelation is plausible, although MacLean has to back-fill sheepishly to explain how two disasters (either of which would have sunk a real sub) weren’t meant to be serious.  There is also a lot more cat and mouse in the book.  The characterizations are more developed and several crew members are memorable.  The movie only cares about the main actors.  In its attempts to be an action/adventure tale, the movie has several laughable plot developments and builds to a ridiculous conclusion.   The movie may have been Howard Hughes’ favorite, but he was nuts.



Wednesday, September 10, 2014

CRACKER? Attack! (1956)

“Attack!” is a 1956 film from Robert Aldrich (“The Dirty Dozen”) based on the play “Fragile Fox”.  The movie was low budget and was shot on the back lot in just 35 days.  Because of the plot, the Pentagon refused any cooperation.  Shame!  Aldrich had to rent two decidedly inauthentic tanks.  This justs adds to the “charm” of the film.  (First use of the word charm in a review of this movie.) 

The film is set in WWII Belgium before the Battle of the Bulge.  A depleted American platoon led by Lt. Costa (Jack Palance) is assaulting a pill box and gets pinned down.  The company commander Capt. Cooney (Eddie Albert) is a coward who refuses to support the attack.  Costas survives and is in a bad mood, to say the least.  It turns out that Lt. Col. Bartlett (Lee Marvin) is propping up Cooney for future patronage from Cooney’s father who is an influential judge.  Costas is very cynical and the only thing that prevents him from fragging Cooney is his friend Lt. Woodruff (William Smithers).  Woodruff is the buffer between Costas and Cooney.  He wants Cooney gone, but doesn’t want his friend in Leavenworth.

Bartlett orders Cooney to capture the next town.  Cooney decides a full scale effort (which would involve him facing flying metal) is uncalled for and orders Costas to lead a squad into an Alamo on the outskirts of the town.  Before leaving, Costas tells Cooney that if he leaves him hanging again, “I’ll shove this grenade down your throat.”  He forgets to add “sir”.  It’s “last stand” time.  Costas is shocked, shocked to find that Cooney pulls a Cooney.

you don't want to get Costas angry
It’s Hitler’s last great counteroffensive time as the Battle of the Bulge hits the company.  Bartlett arrives and literally slaps Cooney into defending the town at all costs.  Cooney does not have the cowardice slapped out of him.  Instead, he snaps and is psychiatrist couch-bound.  Unless Costas has survived the Alamo.  Indeed, Costas arrives in a friggin’ fraggin’ mood, but is distracted by having to take out a German tanks with a bazooka.  He then suffers one of the best woundings in war movie history.  The final scene takes place in a basement with Germans rampaging above.  Things are said, things are done.  Issues are resolved.  Not a happy ending, but satisfying.
Eddie Albert channeling the opposite
of his WWII persona

Talk about getting bang for your buck.  The only thing low budget is the sets and the tanks.  This was Aldrich’s seventh movie and he is definitely showing his style and panache.  The film does have the stage vibe you often get when plays are transferred to film, but he uses cinematic touches to negate that.  His camera shoots through barriers and doorways.  There are shots from above and diagonal views and deep focuses.  It’s a bit showy, but adds to the appeal of the movie.  The score gets attention with sometimes discordant piano music.  The acting is outstanding with Palance successfully treading the line between scene-chewing and scene-stealing.  It is a remarkable performance with tremendous energy.  Costas is one of my favorite war movie characters.  The rest of the cast is perfect.  Marvin is loathsome and Smithers (in his first big role) is solid.  Kudos to Eddie Albert (a war hero, as were Palance and Marvin) for daringly playing against type.  John Wayne would have never accepted a role like that and he was not even a veteran.  The supporting cast includes Buddy Ebsen, Robert Strauss, and Richard F’in Jaeckel (of course).  If you are of my generation, you will feel very comfortable watching this movie.   The combat scenes are fairly good for a play, but you’ll remember the dialogue more than the action.  The movie blends violence and exposition well.  There are some good lines.  My favorite comes from Pvt. Bernstein (Strauss), who after he encounters Bartlett and Cooney, says: “When you salute them two, you have to apologize to your arm.”  There is some good comic relief in the film. 

after the war, he used his shooting skills to
uncover some buubling crude
If your heart goes out to the officers instead of the enlisted men, you might not enjoy this movie.  It is not so much anti-war as it is anti-brass.  It tends to be moralistic in its anti-authority theme.  Other themes include;  the military is like politics, the higher up you go the more corrupt the officers are, and following orders can really suck.  Released in 1956, it was a harbinger of the 60’s wave of modern war films.  The fact that it is relatively unknown and did not do well at the box office shows that Americans were not yet ready for this type of flag furler.  This is 2014 – see this movie!   It will definitely crack my 100 Best list. 
P.S.  Check out that awesome poster.  Jack Palance is one of the few human beings that actually could pull a grenade pin with his teeth.  And for once the tag line is accurate.  And that is one kick-ass trailer.  Old school style. 

Grade  =  A-

Saturday, September 6, 2014

CLASSIC or ANTIQUE? The Wooden Horse (1950)

                “The Wooden Horse” is an extremely British Old School war movie.  It is based on a novel by Eric Williams which I can remember reading as a teenager.  He wrote the screenplay.  The movie is set in a German POW camp (Stalag Luft III) in 1943.  The camp is inhabited by mostly British airmen.  There is a tunnel going out from the washroom, but it is far from completion and far from a sure thing.  If only a tunnel could begin closer to the wire.

                John (Anthony Steel) and Pete (Leo Genn) are pondering this dilemma when John notices some prisoners doing leap frog.  (The only appearance of leap frog in the entire history of war movies.)  He adds leap frog to Trojan Horse to get vaulting horse.  The escape committee reluctantly agrees and we have ourselves a prison escape movie.  The first bit of suspense is John and Pete going out at night to steal lumber from a conveniently destroyed building in the camp.  This is the only WWII POW movie I have seen that has the guard dogs roaming the camp after dark.  Why didn’t all the other ones think of that?  Seems like a great way to reduce midnight forays.  They use the wood to construct a vaulting box (which you would think would be such an unusual item that the Germans might ask where the wood came from). 

                The idea is to get a cadre of friends to spend hours vaulting while either John or Pete digs the tunnel after being transported inside it to the site of the hole.  The movie handles the “what if a klutz tips over the horse” conundrum with a nifty little fake-out.  The film goes through the rollercoaster ride of crises.  Crisis 1 – a cave in that leaves a visible hole in the camp yard.  Crisis 2 – they are making slower progress than needed.  Crisis 3 -  The Germans raid the sand disposal site.  Once those three are averted, we get a montage complete with calendar to advance us to the escape.

                John and Pete allow their main vaulter Philip (David Tomlinson) to escape with them, but he insists on separating after the wire even though the producers tell him they don’t have enough film to follow two stories.  Once they are out John and Pete head to the rail station and take a train to the coast where the plan is to hitch a ride on a Swedish ship.  Crisis 4 -  they get chased away when they try to board a ship.  Luckily John speaks several languages and they hook up with some French workers who are quasi-Resistance.  Crisis 5 – Pete is tailed by a Gestapo-looking sinister dude.  Surprise, he’s not as evil as he seems. 

                John and Pete end up on a Danish ship with their patron Sigmund.  Apparently musical scores are not forbidden in Denmark because the moment they step ashore, the score kicks in.  A stop off at his sister’s apartment allows us to ogle a hot Danish chick.  John and Pete are chaste, but my eyes weren’t.  They will have to go by fishing boat to Sweden, but first…  Crisis 6 – John and Pete versus a German sentry.

                “The Wooden Horse” is a nice little movie, but it is not special.  I would have to put it is the middle of the pack in the subgenre of POW movies.  The acting is fine especially from the leads.  Nobody is flashy and there is no scene chewing.  They are all properly British.  However, the Germans are not your typical sinister, competent foes.  The commandant looks like an accountant and is neither malevolent (“Hart’s War”, “Stalag 17”) nor a noble fellow knight of the air (“The Great Escape”).  He does not play a major role and there is no bĂȘte noire of a camp guard.   A bonus for the ladies is John often has his shirt off.  Kudos to the horse which is stoically wooden and gets a rousing round of applause from the prisoners when it is hauled off to wherever the Germans took vaulting horses that aided escapes.  I assume an inescapable camp where they have placed all the scheming gymnastics apparatuses (apperati?).

                 The direction is very straight forward.  The cinematography does not stand out other than in the quick-cut, varying perspectives of the sentry fight scene.  Where the direction goes off reservation is in the score.  There are long stretches where there is no music setting the mood.  This is commendable, but might partly explain why the movie has a suspenseless feel to it.  There is also a curious lack of the British humor you usually find in their war films.  The best moment is when a German guard hears some classical music playing on a record player and comments “Beethoven, he’s a good German”.  A Brit retorts “Yeah, he’s dead.”   Speaking of which, the dialogue is sparse and unflorid.  The movie is not cloyingly patriotic.  It gets where it is going on the strength of the tale with few flourishes.

                  The set is German POW camp lite.  Unrealistically pristine.  Check out those cushy pillows and the pajamas laid out by their maids.  Not to mention the civilian-like grooming.  These are the cleanest, best-dressed, well-coiffed prisoners in war movie history.  Even after coming out of the tunnel John and Pete are not grimy and their hair is perfect.  The underground scenes are a highlight.  It is not an elaborate set-up like in “The Great Escape”, but appropriately claustrophobic.   

                The plot does flow well.  It efficiently takes us through the usual arc.  Idea – approval – plan – execution with problems solved – escape with one huge dilemma – journey to freedom with roadblocks.  The drawback is there is a lack of suspense for the most part.  The movie whiffs on several opportunities.  For instance, after introducing the concept of a German shephard menacingly patrolling the camp after dark, the prisoners easily distract the dog for the lumber run.  Another example is when John has to spend a night in the tunnel.  The movie glosses over what must have been a terrifying experience.  Basically, none of the crises is edge of the seat.  There is never any doubt that John and Pete will make it.  There is some doubt about the fate of Philip, but you are left waiting for a post script since the film fails to follow him once they exit the camp.  Hint:  this is not the type of movie that is looking for an expendable.

                Classic or Antique?  Somewhere in between.  Let’s call it Classtique.  It is entertaining and a must see for those into the subgenre, but not in the upper tier of those films.  I don’t think it attempted to be.

grade =  C