Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Spirit of St. Louis

Year 4, Day 189 - 7/7/12 - Movie #1,186

BEFORE: Yes, I'm continuing the aviation theme - I could have watched this after "Amelia", but I didn't, so it comes here after another film named after a plane.  There's some extra significance this week, just as the war films tied in (in my mind, anyway) with the upcoming trench warfare of Comic-Con, in four days I'll be flying across the country to land at San Diego airport, which is also called Lindbergh Field.   Lindbergh's plane (or a replica, anyway) is on display at the airport terminal, I usually see it when I'm picking up my suitcase.

Tough to find a good link tonight - but John Lithgow from "Memphis Belle" was also in "A Civil Action" with Harry Dean Stanton, who was also in "How the West Was Won" with Jimmy Stewart (last seen in "The Shop Around the Corner").

THE PLOT: Charles Lindbergh struggles to finance and design an airplane that will make his New York to Paris flight the first solo transatlantic crossing.

AFTER: Ah, now I get the San Diego connection.  The plane was built by Ryan Airlines, located in San Diego (I call it "the city that means well").  So I've learned that, along with the fact that the plane on display in San Diego is indeed a replica, the real one is in the Smithsonian (as seen in "Night at the Museum 2").

I couldn't work this film into my upcoming "virtual world tour" - turns out not much of the film takes place in St. Louis, or San Diego for that matter.  I could have used it to metaphorically cross the Atlantic, but that would have meant breaking up two similarly-themed films, one set in New York and the other set in London. 

This movie has a strange structure - it's very non-linear for a film made in 1957.  The movie opens in Lindbergh's hotel room, the night before his famous flight.  From there it doesn't go forward, but backward to tell the story of how he got the notion to cross the Atlantic, and how he got the plane designed and built.

Once the flight begins, the timeline fractures again - probably because a long stretch of time with just a man in a cockpit is pretty boring, so they dropped in more flashbacks about Lindy's career in air shows and flying mail planes.  I wonder if they filmed his whole history, intending to edit it together chronologically, then needed to break up the monotony of the flight to Paris.  It's possible that today's non-linear mind-game films can trace their heritage back to this movie - but I'll bet the practice here was necessary, to keep the audience from nodding off.  Today's filmmakers tend to do it just to be "arty".

Lindbergh spent many hours in a confined space, with no human contact, fighting fatigue.  Which sounds a lot like my movie project, when I think about it.  I watch most of my films in a small basement room, with only a glass of Mountain Dew to get me through the most boring movies.  Lindy had a fly to talk to, and I have our cat, Data.  Lindbergh went on a long journey with no marked route, making minor course corrections.  Ditto - so perhaps Lindbergh is my new hero.

The guy was apparently anti-war, and anti-Semitic, and anti-Communist, for that matter.  But also said some unpopular things about eugenics, and also had at least one secret family in Europe, so maybe I'll hold off on the hero worship.

As a film, I'm not sure the story holds up - after all, we all know that his flight turns out to be successful (and the opening title card blows it, in case you didn't pay attention in school), so there's really no dramatic tension at all.  Oh, they tried to make it seem like he was off-course or in danger of crashing due to fatigue, but the surprise factor was close to nil.

RATING: 5 out of 10 runways

Friday, July 6, 2012

Memphis Belle

Year 4, Day 188 - 7/6/12 - Movie #1,185

BEFORE: Finally wrapping up the war chain - it's been a long, somewhat disturbing week.  But then, I suppose the horrors of war are supposed to be disturbing - I guess I'd worry more about myself if I wasn't disturbed by it all.

Linking should be a snap, between two films with such large ensemble casts - ah, yes, Nicolas Cage was in "Birdy" with Matthew Modine (last seen in "Cutthroat Island").  Actually he was last seen at my job a few weeks ago, but that's another story - he's friends with my boss and he's done some voice-work for animated shorts, so he sometimes drops by.  Nice guy.

PLOT: The "Memphis Belle" is a World War II bomber, piloted by a young crew on dangerous bombing raids into Europe. The crew only have to make one more bombing raid before they have finished their duty and can go home.

AFTER: Another serviceable WW2 film, maybe not as action-packed as "Windtalkers" was.  It's a long flight from England to Germany on a bombing run, and though the flight is not without incident, it does leave long stretches of inactivity during the trip.  Conversations between the airmen only go so far, after all.  I did notice quite a bit of dialogue getting repeated, which is usually a bad sign - Modine's character mentions the "pickle-barrel" analogy twice, for example.

Certain conventions take over in a WW2 film - soldiers who mention their wives or girlfriends usually have a short life-span.  They might as well be beaming down to an alien planet on "Star Trek" while wearing a red shirt.  Characters talking about what they're planning to do after the war is another bad sign - because we're supposed to feel bad for those unrealized dreams.  On top of all that, this is the LAST mission for the Memphis Belle plane - after 25 successful missions (and any landing you can walk away from qualifies as a success) the plane is retired and the crew gets sent home.

Now, I don't know if that's a Hollywood addition, or a general rule in the Air Force.  Seems to me that if a crew works that well together and can fly that many successful missions, you'd want to keep them in action as long as possible.  But that's not for me to say.  Perhaps it's just a bit of dramatic irony - of course you wouldn't expect mission #25 to go smoothly, now, would you?

The airmen certainly don't - they try to exploit every bit of luck, from religious medals to their careful routines, to insure that they survive their final mission.  And when a reporter shows up to do a profile piece on the lucky crew, well, they see that as the kiss of death.  You don't tell a pitcher he's working on a no-hitter, and you don't take credit for Mission #25 until you've completed it...

There seemed to be a good amount of information about the inner workings of a bomber plane, and what it meant to go on a bombing run.  At the same time, the film did a fair job of getting inside the soldier's heads, and also making them 10 different and distinct characters.  All that can't be easy to juggle, from a filmmaking standpoint.

Also starring Eric Stoltz (last seen in "The Fly II"), Tate Donovan (last seen in "Nancy Drew"), Sean Astin (last seen in "Courage Under Fire"), Harry Connick Jr. (last heard in "The Iron Giant"), D.B. Sweeney, Billy Zane (last seen in "The Phantom"), David Strathairn (last seen in "Silkwood"), John Lithgow (last seen in "All That Jazz").

RATING: 6 out of 10 parachutes

Thursday, July 5, 2012


Year 4, Day 187 - 7/5/12 - Movie #1,184

BEFORE: There were still a few renegade firecrackers going off in my neighborhood as I started watching this just after midnight - the sounds of the street eerily mimicking the sounds of the battlefield in the movie.  Moving back to WW2's Pacific theater - and linking from "Patton", George C. Scott was in "The Hindenburg" with Anne Bancroft, who was also in "Honeymoon in Vegas" with Nicolas Cage.  That's the best I can manage tonight.

I am adding the James Bond series to the list, after realizing that I've only seen 2 of them all the way through ("Diamonds Are Forever" and "The Living Daylights", which may not even be the best two).  I figured when I was done with the list, I'd treat myself to a Bond box set, but the Encore channel is running 19 Bond films this month, and I can't pass up the savings.  It means my list won't get any smaller for the next 2 1/2 weeks, but that's my cross to bear.

THE PLOT:  Two U.S. Marines in WWII are assigned to protect Navajo Marines who use their native language as an unbreakable radio cypher.

AFTER: All in all, I think this one was pretty well put together.  As special effects have improved over the years, war films have become more and more realistic.  Which is great news for filmmaking, but can also have a detrimental effect, watching soldiers realistically getting blown up is starting to wear on me.  Whatever's happening to me at work, it can't be as bad as getting shot in the trenches or blown up by a grenade.  I'll try to remember that next week while I'm working a booth at Comic-Con.

The tension in this film comes from the real-life premise - sending Navajos in with the infiltrating U.S. Marines, so they can radio back critical information about the Japanese forces in code, without the Japanese knowing what the U.S. soldiers know.  Mostly it's the location of key armaments, so the Windtalkers need to be on the front line, yet the Marines are tasked with keeping them safe.  It almost doesn't make sense when you think of it that way.

Also, the Marines assigned to protect them are also tasked with not letting them fall into enemy hands, which could mean killing them to protect the code.  So the same soldiers in charge of keeping the Navajo safe are also instructed to kill them if necessary.  Again, it almost doesn't make sense, but that's the military for you.

There's an extensive list of nitpick points on IMDB, but since I didn't notice them myself, I'm obliged to ignore them.  I do wonder if this film could have been better with another actor in the lead, since the presence of Nicolas Cage (last heard in "The Ant Bully") was a bit distracting. If felt like some of his trademark hangdog loser characters from films like "Honeymoon in Vegas" or "Leaving Las Vegas" creeped in, and this was supposed to be a decorated skilled soldier.

NITPICK POINT: If a soldier had a hearing problem and/or an inner-ear injury, hiding that fact might get him back to the front lines, but it would endanger not only him, but his fellow soldiers, if you think about it.

NITPICK POINT #2: It sure was nice of the Japanese soldiers to always scream, just before attacking the U.S. soldiers from a hiding place.  Very sporting of them to announce their location that way, allowing the Marines to kill them first.

I don't know if this is a N.P. or not, perhaps I just don't know enough about military tactics, but it seems like the ground troops needed to get close enough to the enemy guns to determine their coordinates, then call in air support to bomb the guns.  But why not just fly a plane overhead first to see where the guns are, then maybe bomb them at the same time?  Am I missing something, does it not work that way? 

Also starring Adam Beach (last seen in "Flags of Our Fathers"), Christian Slater (last seen in "3000 Miles to Graceland"), Peter Stormare (last seen in "Mercury Rising"), Mark Ruffalo (last seen in "The Avengers"), Noah Emmerich, with a cameo from Jason Isaacs (last seen in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1").

RATING: 7 out of 10 bottles of sake

Wednesday, July 4, 2012


Year 4, Day 186 - 7/4/12 - Movie #1,183

BEFORE: Maybe I should have watched this one first, since "MacArthur" was made as sort of an answer film to this one - but with the day off, I can watch a longer movie, even if I have to split it into two shifts.  Plus there's that iconic image of George C. Scott (last seen in "Firestarter") giving a speech in front of that giant flag - perfect for July 4, right?  Even if there's some kind of anti-war message in here, it still seems to fit.

Gregory Peck from "MacArthur" was also in "How the West Was Won" with Karl Malden (last seen in "Birdman of Alcatraz") so my luck holds out.

THE PLOT: The World War II phase of the controversial American general's career is depicted.

AFTER: Cross another Oscar-winner for Best Picture off my list - that makes 55.

Again, I'm not a military history kind of guy, so all the information I can get out of a film is good, juicy stuff.  I didn't know about the kind of bad press and backlash Patton got, how it led to the loss of his command, and how he was essentially used as a decoy for parts of World War 2.  The German army supposedly respected and feared him, so if they moved Patton to Egypt, the Germans would assume that he was going to attack Greece, and they'd move more troops there, leaving other areas less protected.

Patton is depicted here as eccentric, to say the least, but also a keen student of military history.  Talking about a previous battle involving Napoleon, say, he'd not only know the details but claim to have been there, at least in spirit.  But take away a general's command, and he'll do just about anything to get it back, including being polite, and even apologize.

He's also portrayed here as someone who didn't know when to shut up, or when to quit.  Maybe he just didn't know HOW to quit.  Once victory over Germany seemed assured, he wanted to start war with the Russians.  Makes an odd bit of sense, I suppose, since we were already there with soldiers and tanks and stuff.  But no, that's crazy, right?  Did Patton see the Cold War coming, or did he just not know how to function as a civilian?

Anyway, the film - at last I get some good battle scenes, not just people standing around pointing at maps and talking strategy.  Though there's plenty of that, too - did people in the 1970's not know the rule about "Show, don't tell"?  Watching a war take place is a lot more exciting than seeing people talking about it.

Also starring Michael Bates, Paul Stevens.

RATING: 6 out of 10 bagpipers

Tuesday, July 3, 2012


Year 4, Day 185 - 7/3/12 - Movie #1,182

BEFORE: Moving on to World War 2 - I admit I remember very little about MacArthur from history class, so I'll take this as an opportunity to brush up on military history.  All I remember is his quote, "I shall return."  But where was he going?  And why did he leave? And when was he planning to come back?  So I've got my goals for the night.  Linking from "All Quiet on the Western Front", one of the actors (there were so many non-distinct ones...), Richard Alexander, was also in the 1958 film "The Big Country" with Gregory Peck (last seen in another WW2 flick, "The Guns of Navarone").

THE PLOT: The story of General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Allied Commander during World War II and United Nations Commander for the Korean War.

AFTER: OK, so I learned a bit about MacArthur's role in the closing days of WW2 and in the Korean War.  When Japan invaded the Philippines in 1941, MacArthur's forces were forced to withdraw to Bataan, and then Australia.  So when he vowed to return, it was to the Philippines, and it took about 3 years for his forces to retake the Philippines, after fighting his way back through New Guinea.

The big drawback in this film seemed to be that whenever there was a choice to be made between showing a battle or talking about it, they went with the latter.   There was one notable exception, the landing of troops on the beaches of Leyte, which visually reminded me of the D-Day scenes from "Saving Private Ryan".  But for the most part, this was a film that was light on the action scenes.

Unfortunately, a bunch of generals sitting around a map, discussing strategy, is not very cinematic.  Nor is meeting with President Roosevelt or President Truman and discussing plans for the Pacific Theater.  For that matter, neither is seeing MacArthur racked with doubt as his forces are taking Inchon.  Do you see where I'm going with this?  There should have been a way to work in some more battle scenes, and still remain a portrait of the man himself.

Once World War 2 ends, the problem only gets worse.  MacArthur then takes on the oversight of the rebuilding of Japan, and that leads to more meetings, more planning, and more decisions to be made about Japan's new constitution.  Boring, boring, boring.  I mean, these are important historical events, or so I've been led to believe, but it's just all talk, and no action.  If you get off on the politics of reconstruction, and land reform, then this is the film for you.

I appreciate the attempts to get into a famous general's head, but in doing so, they jettisoned all of the stuff that makes a war film interesting and exciting.

Also starring Dan O'Herlihy (last seen in "Fail-Safe"), Ed Flanders (last seen in "True Confessions"), Nicolas Coster (last seen in "The Electric Horseman"), Marj Dusay, Dick O'Neill, Addison Powell, G.D. Spradlin (last seen in "North Dallas Forty"), with cameos from Art "Jeopardy!" Fleming and Russell "The Professor" Johnson. 

RATING: 4 out of 10 propaganda broadcasts

Monday, July 2, 2012

All Quiet on the Western Front

Year 4, Day 184 - 7/2/12 - Movie #1,181

BEFORE: Another World War I film, and while I can't say that I'm enjoying these war films all that much, this film was an Oscar winner for Best Picture, so that sort of demands some attention.  I'm over the hump on Best Picture winners, after this there will just be 30 films I haven't seen out of the 84 winners.  I think I can link actors from "Paths of Glory", since Kirk Douglas was in the 1970 film "There Was a Crooked Man..." with Lee Grant, who was also in "Damien: Omen II" with Lew Ayres.  My thanks tonight to the Oracle of Bacon for providing the link.

THE PLOT: A young soldier faces profound disillusionment in the soul-destroying horror of World War I.

AFTER: Another war film that was tough to watch, and tough to get a handle on, quite frankly.  This film was released in 1930, at the cusp of the "talkies" era, and is not really a full-sound film, but not really a silent film, either.  It's got dialogue cards like a silent film would, but it's got music and sound, which is synchronized to the images, but was added later and not recorded on set.  It's kind of like an early Model T car that had to be pulled by a horse - the technology is there, but it's not fully functional yet.

It's hard to look past this weird format and judge the film on its merits, but I'll try and give it a go.  The question becomes, does this film work as a narrative?  It starts out as a story about 5 young soldiers, but as the war takes its toll in various ways, the cast keeps dying off.  (SPOILER ALERT: soldiers died in World War I)  Eventually the focus is on the one or two characters left - but it's still a weird way to run a film.

It sort of works as a series of war-set anecdotes - the struggles for food, the visit from a commanding officer, flirting with French women - but as a start-to-finish story, it doesn't seem to hold up.  Or maybe it's just too depressing.  Wait, is that the point?

According to the introductory segment that ran on TCM, this was made as an anti-war film, but by the time it was released war was looming again in Europe, so the film got sort of unsuccessfully re-purposed as a pro-war film.  There sure is a big gap between the war experience the young soldiers were promised, and the one that they got - it's hard to see any positive aspects of soldiering.  There must be some, right?

For the kids, I suppose this serves as an archive on the ways war used to be fought, before smart bombs and drone planes and super long-range missiles.  Yes, people used to fight up-close and personal, diving into a trench in the ground to kill someone with a knife.  If it seems barbaric, that's because it was.  And maybe that's the point.  But it's tough to make an anti-war film without being preachy - this film sure couldn't do it.

Also starring William Bakewell, Ben Alexander, John Wray, Louis Wolheim.

RATING: 3 out of 10 spools of barbed wire

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Paths of Glory

Year 4, Day 183 - 7/1/12 - Movie #1,180

BEFORE: Tossing it back to World War I - the great war, the "war to end all wars".  Yeah, how did calling it that work out?   This is one of the few Kubrick films I haven't seen - "Spartacus" is still on the list, and I have no desire to see "Barry Lyndon", but I am a fan.  How do you classify a man who made such vastly different films, from "Dr. Strangelove" to "Full Metal Jacket"?  "Lolita" and "The Shining"?  One of my faves, "2001: A Space Odyssey", and also (ugh) "Eyes Wide Shut"?

Anyway, I'm linking from "Casualties of War" through Michael J. Fox, who was also in a comedy called "Greedy" with Kirk Douglas (last seen in "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea").

THE PLOT: When soldiers in WW1 refuse to continue with an impossible attack, their superiors decide to make an example of them.

AFTER: This is a film that tries to get to the heart of what it means to be a soldier.  A foot soldier, that is, because there's a very deep distinction here between the men in the trenches and the officers who seem to be living in luxury.  The generals come and visit the trenches and wish the men luck (gee, thanks), then get upset when the men don't run on to the battlefield quickly enough.  Try to die a little faster, won't you?

This puts the soldiers in a terrible position - when tasked with a difficult assault, they can either rush forward and die, or retreat and face charges.  The top brass here set impossible goals, and then look for scapegoats when the goals are not met.  But the impossible nature of the attack cannot be proven, and neither can it be proven whether the soldiers were unwilling or able to carry out their orders.  Either way, the effect is the same.

Instead of going through the expense of a court-martial, and the trauma of a firing squad, why not just send the men back into the trenches?  It sort of seems like that will produce the same result.  But then this brings up a lot of questions about the existential nature of things - how do men act when they think they might die, and do they act differently when they KNOW they're about to die?  When a condemned man gets injured, why do they try to save his life?  It seems odd to save a man's life so that he can be properly executed, but I'm sure it happens.

Kubrick did find the beauty in the horror of war (or is it the other way around?) with a long battle sequence with no dialogue - the sounds of explosions and the colonel's whistle combining to make a strange form of music.  It's sort of comparable to the "Blue Danube" sequence from "2001", only much more disturbing.  Maybe it's more like the rape scene from "A Clockwork Orange". 

NITPICK POINT: These are French soldiers - and not one of these actors speaks any French, or has anything even close to a French accent.  Really, no one's even going to try to sound French?

A reminder that my rating (unlike those of professional reviewers) is based on how much I enjoyed the film, not how brilliant or relevant it is.  This film is very thought-provoking, but it was tough to watch,  so that has to be factored in.  Still, it ran under 90 minutes, and for Kubrick, keeping it short was probably tough for him to do.

Also starring Ralph Meeker (last seen in "The Dirty Dozen"), George Macready (last seen in "Tora! Tora! Tora!"), Adolphe Menjou, and Richard Anderson (last seen in "The Long, Hot Summer")

RATING: 4 out of 10 bayonets