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Great Planes: Republic F84 (2009)
A Perfectly Liminal Airplane.
The early post-war jet fighters weren't very adventurous in their design -- straight wings, upright tails. They looked much like rather streamlined World War II stalwarts.
The first American fighter of importance was Lockheed's F80, Shooting Star, which had clean lines but no juice. It was briefly replaced by Republic's F-104, Thunderjet, the subject of this program, but it hegemony was brief because it, too, was underpowered, needed a rocket-assisted take off, and was far from nimble. It was replaced by North American's F-86, Saberjet.
The early models of the F-84 looked rather neat, like a tube or a cigar humidor, with an opening in the nose and another in the tail, as if the jet engine had been supplied and the airplane built around it. It had nothing particularly new but was a summation of what at the time was known about jets and about aeronautical engineering.
At the outbreak of war in Korea, the USAF found itself with three different airplanes. The F-86 was obviously the fighter of the group. The F-84 went through several models and was adapted for the ground attack role. It carried a good deal of ordinance and could be fitted with a nuclear bomb. In addition to the usual six .50 caliber machine guns favored by the USAF at the time, it could carry a number of 5-inch rockets, useful against tanks. The low speed and lack of maneuverability were no handicap in attacking ground targets.
Through the 50s and 60s an enormous variety of models were developed for certain niche roles, such as reconnaissance, and they were used as front line airplanes by several countries. The last was retired by Turkey in 1982.
Patton 360: Siege Warfare (2009)
Metz: A Big Speed Bump.
It's 1944 and Patton's Army has charged across France and everyone is happy. That is, until "Eisenhower decides to hand the fuel over to Patton's rival, Montgomery," as the narrator puts it. It's not a conspiracy, although Patton may have thought it was. Both the British and Americans had advanced so far across France that they had outrun their supply lines -- not just fuel but other supplies as well.
Patton now faced a very heavily fortified position -- two underground forts with innumerable barbettes for artillery, built of thick, reinforced concrete and impenetrable to either Patton's tanks or the bombs delivered by ground attack aircraft.
The goal was the ancient city of Metz in northeast France but the two forts stood between them and Patton. Patton decided on a headlong attack using brute strength. The forts were manned by some SS troops but mostly by partly trained youngsters and landlocked sailors. They beat off Patton's attack and Patton was finally forced to use a pincer movement around the two positions. The fighting was fierce until the Germans troops were completely surrounded and gave themselves up. American casualties in the end amounted to about 55,000 men.
Patton was a coarse, aggressive, charismatic leader who believed in concepts like will power and destiny, a kick-ass general much admired by many of his men. He was, however, human enough to make mistakes, and the attack on Metz was one of them. He was about to pull off one of his more perceptive and successful stunts during the Battle of the Bulge, certainly regarded as one of his finest achievements even though no combat was involved.
Six Days Seven Nights (1998)
Good Thing It Wasn't Longer.
Ivan Reitman, the director, is usually able to pep things up but you can't breathe life into a corpse.
It wasn't possible to watch this thing all the way through but it wasn't necessary either because it's all so familiar from previous versions of the bourgeois lady stranded with the handsome roughneck on the island of Sarcastica. Or is it Moribunda? The formula was an enormous success with "It Happened One Night" in 1934, a commercial and critical success, and a lot of fun. There were imitations of course but the pattern seemed exhausted by 1941's "The Bride Came C.O.D.," which had Bette Davis sitting on a cactus. But periodically since then the coffin creaks open and another attempt to use a tried and true formula emerges. Well, what the hell. All the originals were in black and white, and nobody watches old movies anymore.
I really don't mind an occasional visit to the graveyard if the zombies turn out to be entertaining, but this is not. The anger and snottiness turn to love, sure, but it's not very funny. The jokes are the kind you might find in Laurel and Hardy. The dialog is bromidic. The performances are over pitched as if in an attempt to compensate for the uninspired plot.
The writers haven't bothered with credibility much, but that's okay because this is supposed to be a romantic fantasy. Still, it's momentarily painful when you realize that they didn't care whether the setting was supposed to be Polynesia or the Caribbean. Everyone speaks English, some with a French accent, others with a Spanish accent. It doesn't matter to the writers, for whom a foreign accent is a foreign accent, just like the 1940s when the heroes spoke American and the Nazis spoke British.
You have to be undemanding to enjoy this but the kids should get a kick out of it.
Patton 360: American Blitzkrieg (2009)
Through the Bocage, Into Brittany.
The series continues apace with participant and expert testimony, a judicious blend of combat footage and computer-generated graphics, spoiled by editorial techniques more suited to a thirty-second television commercial for an underarm deodorant.
Patton has been taken back from exile and now leads his army in an attempt to break out of the Normandy beach head, which is only some thirty miles inland. The Americans decide the quickest way to do this is to "pulverize" the German infantry and armor that are putting up such a spirited defense.
An armada of bombers and ground-attack aircraft are called in and flatten miles of French territory around the village of St. Lo. In his history of the landings, Steven Ambrose remarks that the GIs found the French civilians sullen and attributes this to regional character. It doesn't seem to occur to Ambrose that if you pulverize many square miles of France, you are going to destroy civilians as well as Germans and that they're likely to be less appreciative of their liberation. To compound the problem, one squadron of B-17s dumps its load on the American front line, killing many.
A flashback explains that Patton had been sent into exile for making "two monumental errors." One is slapping two soldiers, both from the First Infantry Division, in a hospital, suffering from combat fatigue. Patton, like many other Army officers, didn't believe in combat fatigue. But this isn't entirely accurate. The first soldier, Kuhl, also had malaria. And Patton didn't merely slap him. He dragged him by the collar to the tent entrance and kicked him in the butt, swearing and shouting that this coward would be sent back to the front at once.
The second soldier, Bennett, a four-year veteran, had been sleepless and was ridden with anxiety. He had a fever and showed symptoms of dehydration, including fatigue, confusion, and listlessness. He repeatedly asked to be returned to his outfit at the front but the medical officers turned him down. Patton called him a "yellow bastard," knocked his helmet liner off and pulled a pistol. The medical personnel had to separate them.
Exit General George S. Patton for a year. His exile was put to good use. He was designated commander of the First US Army Group in England and it was hinted that he would lead the invasion of Normandy. There was no First US Army Group but the Germans believed it.
At Normandy the skilled German defense remains and, in frustration, General Omar Bradley orders another armada of bombers and fighter bombers to pulverize the enemy. They do so, but they also repeat the mistake of the first armada and bomb American troops, again killing many, including Lieutenant General Lesley McNair, who is only identified later by the three stars on his lapel.
Patton takes his armored division down the Atlantic coast of France, isolating the German U-boat pens located there, then Bradley unleashes him and he attacks to the east, towards a town called Falaise, where the episode ends.
It's a minor carp but the narrator continues to mispronounce both German and French names. General Kluge become General "Clooge." Falaise becomes "Falay." Why didn't somebody TELL him?
Cut Bank (2014)
A decent psychological/crime thriller that takes place in Cut Bank, Montana. Cut Bank is supposed to be a small town, although we don't see any of it except a post office and outlying junkyards. Montana generally has a bad rep, I suppose because of the good survivalists who have taken to the mountains to be "off the grid" and because of an outburst of anti-Semitism some twenty years ago.
It's a mismanaged image. I spent some months working with Cheyenne and Blackfeet Indians in Lame Deer, Browning, and Billings and it's a civilized state once you get past the cowboy hats. Really. The anti-Semitic scrawls on the walls of Billings were followed by a sympathetic community response in which angry and dismissive letters were sent to the Rocky Mountain News and in some windows menorahs miraculously appeared. You can buy the NY Times at your whim.
Thank you for your kind attention. And now, are there any other questions?
An ambitious young man, Liam Hemsworth, is shooting a video of his pretty girl friend who is running in the Miss Cut Bank. That would be Teresa Palmer. I'd vote for her. In the background, by accident, he films two men on a highway some hundred yards away. One masked man shoots a mailman, piles the body into the mail truck and drives away. The two unseen witnesses are aghast.
But the writers have gotten too clever and tried to trick the audience. Apparently both Hemsley and his girl friend are part of a staged murder and robbery. The general idea -- which is pretty turgid -- is that the mailman (the hulking, bony, aged, bitter Bruce Dern) and a mute Indian giant are all part of a plot to stage the crime and then sell the video to the media for a fortune.
They might have gotten away with it too, if it weren't for the sluggish but decent Sheriff Vogel (Malkovitch) and an Ed-Gein-like recluse (Michael Stuhlbarg) who is determined to get the parcel he's been eagerly waiting for. He smells bad. He's rarely seen in public. He doesn't speak much and never blinks behind those eyeglasses, so thick that belong in the tower of a lighthouse.
One by one he tracks down the criminals who are holding his parcel and -- well, he gets the information he wants. What does the parcel contain, you ask? A child's lunch box. That's all.
The plot has scenes that lack any credibility. The filthy psychotic Stuhlbarg has confronted Dern in a remote house. He quietly demands his parcel. He's holding a crowbar. So what does Dern do? He starts insulting Stuhlbarg, ridiculing him. That's just one instance.
The production owes something to the Coen brothers' "Fargo" and there are scenes that evoke memories of Jamie Gumm's basement in "The Silence of the Lambs." But "The Silence of the Lambs" made your hair stand on end and puckered your sphincters, and "Fargo" was an ironic delight. "Cut Bank" is not boring, and it's somewhat atmospheric, but it lacks poetry and the characterization is clumsy. What is Billy Bob Thornton's problem, for instance? The performances are uniformly good except for Liam Hemsley, who is tall and bulky and can't act. His girl friend can, and so can the other principals so that his flattened affect stands out prominently.
Patton 360: Baptism of Blood (2009)
In this episode, Patton's Seventh Army has landed on the southern coast of Sicily and his rival Montgomery has landed on a peninsula in the southeast. The plan is to have Montgomery move by the shortest route northward, past the volcanic Moun Etna, take the city of Messina, and cut off the escape route of the German and Italians. With Messina in Allied hands, the Axis powers are stuck on the island of Sicily.
Monty gets bogged down at a bottleneck involving a highway and a bridge just at the base of Mount Etna. Patton's role has been to advance along Monty's west and protect his flank, but Patton get permission to make a reconnaissance in force towards the Sicilian capital of Palermo on the north coast.
It's a little difficult to describe without maps, but the general picture is one of Patton abandoning his role as Monty's protector and barreling off towards Palermo on his own. He takes the city too, which, the narration suggests, makes up for the disastrous failure of his command to warn the anti-aircraft batteries of a huge flight of C-47s carrying paratroopers and towing gliders. The unwitting pilots fly into a barrage and the flight is broken up with many casualties.
So the situation is this. There are two cities on the important northern coast of Sicily -- Palermo and Messina. The latter lies only a few miles from the tip of the Italian mainland.
Montgomery and Patton are rivals and both are determined to take Messina. Patton is farther away but hasn't yet met much resistance. Monty is closer but the fighting along his highway is fierce. Each wants to beat the other to Messina. Patton seems to be rather enjoying himself. He's rushed in a kind of cavalry charge across the entire island while Monty has been slogging it out around Mt. Etna. It's a ridiculous game but for both leaders Messina is a cathexis.
Patton, now unleashed, begins another mad rush across Sicily's northern coast but this time the skillful German general in charge -- Kesselring -- has established a firm defensive line around Messina and the American charge is blunted, much to Patton's frustration.
The series continues to be reasonably accurate and informative and the editorial techniques distracting and sometimes insulting to an adult viewer.
Memories Of You.
In this confusing mystery thriller, Mark Strong is John Washington, a man capable of entering the memories of others by holding hands with them and processing some inscrutable kind of mystical humbug. Strong is tall man with staring eyes. He never smiles. And he wears a trendy day's growth of hair both on his face and his nearly bald head. For a professional soothsayer he dresses all in black like someone who frequents biker bars. I frankly don't get this style, which is common on the screen these days. Is this how they dress on Rodeo Drive? I ask because I never see anyone dressed like this on the streets. That about ends my sartorial column for the day.
He's nearly broke and still mourning his wife but reluctantly takes on the case of a troubled sixteen-year-old girl, Anna, who was expelled from a tony prep school and now lives at home in her parents mansion. She claims to want to get away from all this. There is no cogent explanation provided of exactly why she would want to get away from a life of luxury, but there it is. Her parents, she claims, are keeping her prisoner. Her step father, who may or may not have abused her, wants to send her to an institution where "she can be properly cared for." Is she lying? Is she mentally ill? It's Strong's job to find out by sharing her memories.
Anna is played by Taissa Farmiga, Vera's younger sister, whom she only resembles when regarded from certain angles. Her outstanding feature is her paradoxically penetrating and helpless eyes, large and moist and clear. She's also quite attractive in a teen-age way, and looks rather like one of the more popular girls in your high school chemistry class. But hers is the kind of beauty that is fungible and can quickly be exchanged for a thirty-year stretch in San Quentin. All you'd have to do is what any normal man would do, a light touch of that delicate shoulder and, poof, you're doing drawings of the bars of your cage.
Her acting ability is hard to judge, unlike Vera's, which is exceptional. Her character is more or less locked into the role. She plays a talented artistic girl, very bright and very savvy, and her lines are delivered with a kind of chop, spoken quickly and in a monotone, as if she'd been born not in New Jersey but in the San Fernando Valley.
Given these strictures, she handles the role quite well, and although the contours of her features aren't as engagingly asymmetrical as those of her sister, who, in certain photographs, looks like Venus rising from the sea, it would be interesting to see more of Taissa Farmiga. That's pronounced Far-MEE-gah, by the way, a Ukranian name.
I've kind of skipped the plot for the simple reason that I don't understand it.
Man -- did this script need some tightening. It appears that when Strong taps into Farmiga's memories of childhood and school, while he's trying to figure out what's wrong with her, her memories come and go in flashes and they can be lies. How can a memory lie? Well, in actual fact, they lie all the time to fit certain narratives we construct for ourselves.
No evidence is more powerful in a courtroom than a witness standing up, point at the suspect, and saying, "I saw him do it." Yet, as Elizabeth Loftus and others have amply demonstrated, eyewitness testimonies suck. And if we can unwittingly fabricate memories about others, imagine the parade of fantasies that make up our own image of ourselves, in which we have so much invested.
It could have been a fascinating story and in some ways it's well done. At least the director has kept the glitz to a minimum and has handed the camera to someone who doesn't hold it as if he were a spazz. But the writers should be sent to bed without supper and expelled from school.
The Paper (1994)
It's the story of the staff at one of New York's lesser newspapers, their professional trials and personal tribulations. The cast is seasoned and the performances professional. No complaints. Marisa Tomei gives what is perhaps the most credible performance with Robert Duval close behind. Michael Keaton is fine in the lead.
The problem -- and it's getting to be a big problem these days -- is that there isn't an original idea in it. The script seems to have been written in accordance with some kind of algorithm developed by the MBAs who now run Hollywood. Let's say it's "viewer friendly" for viewers who think of "continental food" as swank.
When we first meet Marisa Tomei as the wife of editor Michael Keaton, for instance, she's preposterously pregnant. There is not a single moment of doubt in the savvy viewer's mind that there is later going to be a scene in which she gives birth or miscarriages or something on the screen. It would never occur to the people who greenlight this sort of pabulum that a movie can have a pregnant character who doesn't deliver, as in the Coen brothers' immeasurably superior "Fargo." I dislike "political correctness" as much as anyone, and this is political correctness gone berserk. Duval is editor-in-chief. He's old and sick. His prostate is the size of a bagel and he has a hacking cough -- and he smokes CIGARETTES! OMG! Nobody else among the frenzied staff of this tabloid smoke. We're clearly meant to feel sympathy for a generous boss but we also think, "Why doesn't the stupid jagoff quit smoking?" That sentiment carries a good deal of contempt. In a sense, Duval is getting what he deserves for his filthy habit.
And when Marisa Tomei meets an old friend, Catherine O'Hara, for an al fresco lunch, O'Hara consumes more white wine with the salad than Tomei, who looks on worriedly. The stringest norms don't leave anyone much wiggle room.
Keaton is a vigorous young man who is offered a job at a higher salary at the prestigious New York Sentinel (read "Times"), but when we see the job interview we know at once that Keaton won't take it. The interviewer is Clint Howard, the director's brother, and while Duval is in his shirt sleeves over at the New York Scuttlebutt, Clint Howard is cool in his blue dress shirt and bow tie and weirdly stylish hair cut. It all goes with his built-in sneer.
The story has its amusing moments but they're punctuated by the pathos that a good commercial product must carry. But Howard's not alone in his hackitude. He's had plenty of company, like Penny Marshal and Rob Reiner.
I guess you can tell I didn't like the script much. Sometimes -- sometimes -- it feels as if we're all being strangled by bourgeois values and the need to be PC. I can't even take a Saturday night's walk in my fishnet stockings and crimson stilettos without all these "proper people" howling with laughter and throwing empty yogurt cups at me. Tsk Tsk.
The Funeral Services Will Be Held At Midnight.
The men in this movie are threatened with death by dehydration. Hollywood is already algor mortis because of a dearth of ideas. They're remaking everything, in this case an emblematic movie of 1943 starring Humphrey Bogart. It was a nicely constructed flag waver full of comforting stereotypes.
This remake is in color and has more impressive shots of the desert and the tank that is struggling across the dunes. Otherwise -- stay away.
I don't know what happened to the industry, but I can take a guess. When the old studios were grinding away back in the 40s when the original appeared, they were run by men who had grown up with the business and could impose their personal values on the products.
The Warner brothers cranked out tough message movies. If you wanted a "nice family" movie, Louie B. Mayer at MGM would be happy to accommodate you. A mogul could take a chance on a movie that might not earn its money back just because he LIKED the story.
The entire economic structure has changed, and in the same way it's changed in publishing. Jack Warner is dead and so is Charles Scribner. The various production companies are now run by MBAs who think of nothing but the bottom line, preceded by a dollar sign.
So we have unchallenging movies now based on cartoon characters, comic book heroes, and even video games like "Battleship." If there were an original idea in Hollywood now it would die of loneliness.
The movie is an insult. Pfui.
Company of Heroes (2013)
Not Worth It.
It's a long step downward from "Band of Brothers" to this ill thought-out imitation, but I suppose that successes like "Band of Brothers" and "Saving Private Ryan" can't be ignored. There's gold left in that vein.
I didn't watch it all the way through. My dolorimeter reading was bouncing around in the red.
But it's worth a brief summary. "Band of Brothers" followed a unit -- Easy Company of the 101st Airborn -- from jump school to the end of the war. The goal was simple: To do one's job and stay alive if possible. "Saving Private Ryan" gave us a more tangible goal: Save Private Ryan. The goal here is to save the world from extermination by Hitler's atomic bomb. Now THERE is a goal!
All of that is too dull for "Company of Heroes." There's a nude scene, Germans who speak English -- including Jurgen Prochnow, the talented and handsome young KaEl of "Das Boot," now a mass of wrinkles and evidently in need of another paycheck -- tanks that don't look like any tank ever built, slow motion deaths, a sniper who never misses, and -- well, why go on? The photographic techniques are copied from "Band of Brothers," as is the title.