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Not bad for the budget, but too sanitized
1 April 2013
Warning: Spoilers
Saint and Soldiers: Airborne Creed takes place in southern France during Operation Dragoon in August 1944. Three members of the 517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team, dropped over a dozen miles from where they're supposed to be, manage to find each other and head off to try to rejoin their unit. Along the way, they encounter Emilie, a female French resistance member who needs their help to rescue some members of her group. Their paths cross, directly and indirectly, that of a German 2nd lieutenant named Neumann.

First, I have to commend the makers on the look of the film: the cinematography is aesthetically pleasing, and clothing, weapons and even haircuts are, as far as I can tell, mostly accurate for the period. The Germans look a bit ragtag (e.g. wearing a mix of boots), but that's credible given that the German units occupying southern France were "minor league," scraped together from reservists and the like. The scenery and vegetation were (to my eye) a bit too western United States rather than southern France, but the makers clearly did their best to pick locations that weren't too obviously out of place (and they certainly did a better job than the producers of To Hell And Back).

The main problem with this film is that it lacks focus: the various stories being told are too insubstantial and insufficiently cohesive to hold the film together, and we're left wondering what the film was really about. Apart from an occasional burst of sadness, none of the characters display much in the way of emotion, probably because the script doesn't give them anything to be emotional about. The two characters with a modicum of back story are written out of the script two-thirds of the way through, though that's in a way fortunate, since they are also the most annoying (not least because they have recurring flashbacks to tell us something that was abundantly clear from their respective first ones and didn't need rehashing).

Moreover, the script is just too sanitized. Nobody swears, hardly anybody smokes (only two rapidly dispatched Germans), and the Neumann character seems to be meant to come off as sympathetic even though at the start of the film, he oversees the execution of Emilie's father and brother. If I had to sum this film up in one word, it would be "anodyne": an hour and half of pretty but eminently forgettable World War II wallpaper.
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Red Tails (2012)
Spectacular visuals, formulaic plot, lousy dialogue
24 January 2012
I'm going to give this film a passing grade because I was definitely entertained while watching it in the theater, and the aerial combat sequences were overall very well done and quite riveting. But this movie suffers from a standard set-piece war movie script that succumbs to too many clichés, provides no real surprises and a rather too pat resolution, and generally atrocious dialogue upon which the talent of many of the actors is completely wasted.

This movie may have been made with the best intentions, and it's a pleasure to see a film with an overwhelmingly black cast that isn't aimed primarily at a black audience, but frankly, both the Tuskegee Airmen and the actors portraying them deserved better, and no amount of flashy CGI can make up for that.
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Enjoyable enough, but jarring to those familiar with the setting
9 October 2011
"Attack Force Z" depicts a fictitious operation by a five-man team from Z Special Unit, a predominantly Australian special operations unit in World War II, who are assigned to infiltrate a Japanese-occupied island in (presumably) the Dutch East Indies to rescue the aircrew of a downed Allied aircraft. The team is plagued by recurring bad luck (which quickly alerts the Japanese to their presence) and by friction between the inexperienced team leader, Captain Paul Kelly (Gibson), and his more experienced but erratic subordinate, a Dutch lieutenant named Jan Veitch (Law), the team's most fluent Chinese speaker. When the team manages to enlist the aid of the local resistance, further friction develops between Kelly and the local cell leader, Lin Chan-Lang (Ko), who resents Kelly's holding back information about the plane's occupants. About halfway in, however, we do discover why Kelly is under strict orders to keep clam.

For a (relatively) low-budget war movie, "Attack Force Z" is pretty good. The costumes and weapons are about as historically accurate as feasible, and the filming location--Taiwan--is convincing enough as an island at the other end of the South China Sea. Particularly enjoyable is the fact that Asian characters speak their respective languages on screen, rather than accented English. This, however, does lead me to the film's main problem, at least to me, which is that it's a mess ethnographically and consequently linguistically. Because it was shot in Taiwan with a mostly Taiwanese (or otherwise ethnically Chinese) cast, the island's population appears to be entirely ethnically Chinese without a single speaker of Malay (as it was then called) in evidence, the occasional pitji cap-wearing extra notwithstanding. This also results in the somewhat unlikely situation of Veitch being fluent in Chinese rather than Malay.

Veitch is the most problematic character in the film. The original director, Phillip Noyce, left the project at least partly because he disagreed with the producers over the choice of John Phillip Law to play Veitch, and bluntly, he was right: Law simply doesn't pull off anything resembling a credible Dutchman. It's not entirely his fault, though, because the writer and producers don't seem to have ever so much as met a Dutch person, as is apparent from the fact that Veitch isn't even a Dutch name (insofar as I can make out, it's Scottish). Admittedly, I am myself Dutch and my paternal grandmother's family lived in the East Indies so this is a niggle that maybe affects me more than the typical viewer but it's emblematic of what's wrong with an otherwise perfectly enjoyable film. Enough so that I can almost overlook how all the team members manage to stay clean shaven despite not having time to shave.
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A story that really deserved a better movie
19 May 2006
Warning: Spoilers
"To Hell And Back" is based on the autobiography of Audie Murphy, the most decorated American soldier of the second world war, with Murphy playing himself. The film begins by establishing Murphy's humble beginnings as the eldest of several children abandoned by their father in rural north-eastern Texas. After their mother dies, Audie's siblings are put into an orphanage, and he joins the armed forces. After being turned down by the Marine Corps and the Navy, he joins the Army and soon arrives up in North Africa as a replacement with B (Baker) Company, 15th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division. (Given how susceptible Murphy is to sea-sickness, it was probably for the best that the more nautical services rejected him.) He is too late to see action in Africa, but he gets plenty as the division proceeds to fight its way through Sicily, the Salerno and Anzio bridgeheads in Sicily, lands in southern France and fights its way up to the German border. Along the way, Murphy rises through the ranks from private to lieutenant and is leading B Company before his military career is cut short by a piece of shrapnel just a few months before VE-Day. A number of episodes also touch on his background, such as when discovers that one of his squadmates abandoned his wife and child, much like Murphy's dad, and when he meets an Italian family where the father similarly disappeared.

It's a spectacular story (I should note I read the book before seeing the movie), and the film's main failing is that it really doesn't do the story justice. The combat scenes are too few and too sparse, given all Murphy went through, but the real problem is that Universal was too stingy with funds for extras and locations. The action takes place in the Mediterranean and France, in a variety of terrain and seasons, but none of the locations look like Europe; there's not a paved road, village or church steeple in sight, and the vegetation screams western United States. I would guess that the combat sequences were all filmed on the training grounds of the Fort Lewis Military Reservation (just up the road from where I live in Washington state) in the space of a couple of weeks in late spring/early summer. All the sequences of naval vessels, amphibious landings and aircraft are all plainly stock footage. Naples looks suspiciously like a "generic southern European town" set on a Hollywood backlot, and there are too few people on the street for such a major city. Similarly, the battle scenes seem to have way too few people in them, causing the front line to look about 30 meters long. ("The Big Red One" had similar problems, being mostly shot in Israel, though that location at least looks Mediterranean.) Furthermore, the film suffers from being too sanitized, and I don't just mean the language. Murphy and his fellow "dogfaces" look freshly shaved and showered at all times, with the creases still visible in their pants. Any mud on their clothing looks like the costume department painted it on. Rather than a harrowing ordeal, "To Hell And Back" feels like a day trip to the nearest National Park, with the enemy presenting only a minor and brief annoyance. Bill Mauldin's "Willie and Joe" cartoons did an infinitely better job of conveying the miserable conditions under which the infantryman did his job.

"To Hell And Back" is a perfectly adequate 1950s war movie, but it falls far short of the lofty goal it sets itself.
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Indispensable submarine movie
14 May 2006
When it comes that particular sub-genre of "military drama" movies that take place aboard submarines, the canon cannot be considered complete without "Run Silent Run Deep." It's not a flawless film, but nevertheless a very powerful one, and arguably seminal for the genre. This may well be the film which introduced the phrase "Ah-OOOO-gah! Dive, dive!" into the collective consciousness.

Plot synopsis: At the start of the film, it's late 1942, and Commander "Rich" Richardson (Gable) is commanding a submarine attacking Japanese shipping in the Bungo Strait. One of the escorting vessels, an Akikaze-class destroyer, counter-attacks and sinks the submarine with consummate skill. We skip ahead to mid-1943 and find Richardson in a desk job at Pacific Fleet headquarters at Pearl Harbor, obsessing over how to take revenge on the destroyer, which he has nicknamed "Bungo Pete," and which has sunk another three American submarines in the interim. When the position of commanding officer of the submarine Nerka becomes vacant, Richardson manages to wangle the job on the basis that the Nerka's next assignment will be to Japanese coastal waters, an area with which Richardson is well familiar. This, however, sets him at odds with the boat's executive officer, Lieutenant Bledsoe (Lancaster), who had originally been slated to take over command of the Nerka. Due to the losses incurred in the Bungo Strait, Richardson's orders are to avoid that waterway, but it is readily apparent to the viewer that Richardson fully intends to return to the Strait and sink "Bungo Pete." However, "Bungo Pete" is not the only threat that the Nerka faces...

The film's primary flaw is that it places emphasis on the significance of certain facts without explaining why these are significant. This is likely a result of being adapted from a novel. It would be helpful to know, for example, that the Bungo Strait is the waterway separating the Japanese islands of Kyushu and Shikoku, and is one of the two exits from the Inland Sea into the Pacific. It is the obvious route for shipping to and from the military logistics center at Hiroshima, among others, and would therefore be a "target-rich environment" for American submarines. Another commentator on this site asks why a Momo-class destroyer "merely serves as target practice" while the Akikaze-class is considered a serious threat. The answer is that the Momo is a "2nd class" destroyer, older, slower and more lightly armed than the Akikaze. Most importantly, 2nd class destroyers did not have depth charges, and were thus unable to harm a submerged submarine. (It should be noted, incidentally, that what is referred to as the Akikaze-class in this film is more correctly known as the Minekaze class. "Bungo Pete" could not be the historical Akikaze, as this vessel was in the South-West Pacific at the time this film takes place.) As to the question why Richardson opts not to dive when attacked by aircraft, the answer is that a submarine IS visible from the air if it's only at periscope depth, while at the same time, being submerged forces it to run on electric (battery) power instead of its diesels, resulting in less speed and maneuverability. For the Nerka to gain protection from diving, she would have to go so deep that she could not continue the attack against the Akikaze.

The pacing in the film is very good, and the story carries no unnecessary ballast. It was probably to maintain this that much of the exposition was cut. However, this does cause certain events in the film to come off as contrived to the casual viewer, which is unfortunate, because actually the story is very consistent. Like a good detective story, the film gives you clues to future events instead of springing them on you (per the dictum attributed to Chekov that a gun fired in Act III should be visible on the wall in Act I). Gable and Lancaster may, strictly speaking, be too old for their characters, but they play them convincingly, and their interaction--especially Bledsoe's grudging but increasing respect for Richardson--is very credible. There are some war movie clichés, and you can plainly see the wires used on the sub and torpedo models in the underwater scenes, but this was, after all, 1958. If you like submarine movies, you'll love this one.
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Hidden Agenda (1990)
Potentially good movie ruined by heavy-handed script
14 March 2005
Warning: Spoilers
"Hidden Agenda" deals with the (rather clumsy) murder in Northern Ireland by British security forces of an American lawyer (Dourif) working for an civil liberties NGO, and the subsequent efforts of his girlfriend and co-worker (McDormand) and a high-ranking British police officer (Cox) who is assigned to investigate the incident to uncover what happened and why. It's certainly no secret that the British security forces overstepped the bounds of their authority on numerous occasions in Northern Ireland, and had the makers of the film concentrated in that, this could have been a fine political thriller.

Unfortunately, the team of writer Allen and director Loach lay it on way too thick as McDormand and Cox's characters uncover a conspiracy on the part of the Tory party and the British military-industrial complex to undermine the Labour party and bring Thatcher to power. This, of course, takes place at the instructions of the CIA (gasp!), and heavy-handed parallels to the 1973 coup against Allende in Chile (long one of Loach's hobbyhorses) are thrown in to drive the point home.

Once this less-than-hidden agenda on the part of the filmmakers becomes apparent, the remainder of the film becomes thoroughly predictable, and the viewer is struck by how forced and unrealistic much of the dialogue is, and all the talent of the cast cannot rescue it from becoming an annoyance. In conclusion, I can only recommend this film if you want to see an example of why Ken Loach is vastly overrated.
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Come and See (1985)
Very worthwhile, though not without annoyances
2 February 2005
Overall, I enjoyed (if that is the word) "Idi i smotri." The imagery is powerful, the scenery is magnificent, the military hardware is an anorak's dream, the overall plot is gripping and the climactic points in the action are nothing short of terrifying. In depicting the gruesomeness of war, this film pulls no punches whatsoever, and from that it derives a lot of its power. Even if you've seen "Schindler's List," "Saving Private Ryan," etc., this film will still shock you. The characters' motivations and thought processes are often somewhat incomprehensible, but given the situations in which they find themselves, this is understandable. However, the film is significantly longer than it needs to be, mostly because a great many scenes drag on well past the point of annoyance. Watching this film on DVD, I was mercifully able to fast forward through segments where nothing would happen for minutes at a time. Another point that niggles is the behavior of the Germans. Their almost casual brutality, even towards the Byelorussian police and militia collaborating with them, is perfectly credible. But there is a point in the film prior to which the Germans' behavior is cold and methodical ("gründlich"). Then, from one moment to the next (at the start of chapter 11 on the DVD), all discipline goes out the window and they start behaving as if they're at Club Med instead of in territory crawling with hostile partisans. This is rather jarring, and detracts somewhat from the film's credibility. All told, though, I thoroughly recommend this film, albeit it primarily to war movie buffs.
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Like the rifle it's named after, "One in a Thousand"
18 July 2004
For the viewer who comes upon it long after its making, "Winchester '73" has something in common with "Casablanca." While you watch it, you get this feeling that you're looking at a string of clichés encountered so often in the genre; then you realise that the clichés became clichés only after being copied from this particular film, and that they were so widely copied because this film was so great. In other words, it's a seminal work.

"Winchester '73" is a joy to watch. The broad lines of the plot are somewhat predictable, but mostly because you've seen them copied so many times in later movies, and nevertheless it still contains a number of twists which surprise you. The dialogue, the pacing and Mann's direction are excellent. Stewart shines in particular, and if you're a fan this is a "must-see," but he is not alone in delivering a good performance. Remarkably, many of the most thoughtful and/or witty lines go to minor characters. Because this makes these characters (much) more than cardboard cutouts, it lent additional realism to the film.

This is a remarkably underrated film, and well worth keeping an eye out for. The DVD also contains an interview with Stewart which provides some background on the film.
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Equilibrium (2002)
Derivative, but pretty good all the same (spoilers)
3 October 2003
Okay, let's get the obvious out of the way: "Equilibrium" has a lot of elements which have been done before. Other commentators have mentioned 1984, Brave New World, THX-1138, Fahrenheit 451, and arguably The Matrix. The setting is a not-too-distant future where a totalitarian state, Libria, masquerading as a utopia keeps its citizens in line by requiring them to stay doped on a chemical called Prozium which severely dampens emotions. The utopian element is that nobody suffers sadness, and that since hatred is eliminated, war supposedly becomes impossible. We soon see the main drawback, which is that the concomitant elimination of guilt, empathy and compassion causes the behaviour of the state's agents in particular to verge on the sociopathic in seeking out and eliminating "sense criminals," i.e. those who will not part with or seek to recover their emotions. Citizens collect their Prozium at a distribution centre called an Equilibrium, from which the film in part draws its title.

The élite of the enforcement community are the Tetragrammaton Monks, also known as "the Clerics" for short ("tetragrammaton" literally means "four-letter word" and originally refers to the ineffable name of God in Hebrew). Apart from their supremely honed combat skills, the Clerics possess quasi-psychic powers which enable them to detect emotion and materials which elicit emotion, the essential ingredients of "sense crime." The main character, John Preston (Bale), is one such Cleric, and rather good at his job.

A series of events cause Preston to to get back in touch with his emotions. First, he discovers his partner, Partridge (Bean), is committing sense crime; when Preston attempts to arrest Partridge, Partridge forces Preston to kill him. That night, Preston dreams of his wife, who was arrested and executed for committing sense crime. In the morning, Preston accidentally (?) breaks his ampoule of Prozium, and passes up the chance to get a replacement from the Equilibrium because there's an urgent assignment. This assignment is the arrest of a suspected sense criminal named Mary O'Brien (Watson); Preston later discovers that O'Brien was Partridge's lover. The upshot of all this is that Preston gives in to his curiosity and stops taking Prozium.

The parallels with George Orwell's "1984" are obvious: instead of "thought crime" there is "sense crime," instead of "Big Brother" there is "Father," and instead of "telescreens" there is "Prozium." But Preston, fortunately for him, is no Winston Smith.

I admit I rented this movie expecting some kind of "1984 Light," but hey, I'm a Sean Bean fan (whose appearance is unfortunately brief), and I like Christian Bale, so what the heck. As a result, I found "Equilibrium" surprisingly good. True, the setting is derivative of "1984," but if we're going to start condemning films solely on the basis that they're derivative, we can ditch 99% of all movies made over the past 30 or 40 years, even "Brazil." True, the action sequences are reminiscent of "The Matrix" films; how many action sequences made since 1999 have NOT been reminiscent of "The Matrix"? At least "Equilibrium" compares favourably in that the makers have resisted gratuitously using "bullet time" (*coughcough*Charlie'sAngels*harrumpfcough*), and while the action sequences aren't as spectacular as those in the "Matrix" films, they don't drag on as long either (taking note, Messrs. Wachowski?). Moreover, "Equilibrium" actually leaves you in suspense whether the main character is going to pull it off, or even live to see the end of the film.

The bottom line is that while "Equilibrium" may draw on a number of earlier sources, it combines the elements into an excellent movie in its own right. Well-paced, chillingly disturbing, suspenseful, and action-packed, this is a thinking man's action flick.
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Badly fails to live up to its potential (spoiler alert)
25 September 2003
"Ghosts of Mars" takes place in 2176; in this setting, Mars is in the process of being terraformed and colonised by mankind. Aside from the main city of Chryse, there are a number of outposts, mostly small mining towns. A five man police team is sent to one of these outposts to pick up a prisoner, James "Desolation" Williams, and bring him to Chryse to stand trial on multiple murder charges. But upon arrival, the team discovers the population of the outpost, Shining Valley, has been brutally massacred, and Williams--stuck in the town lockup along with several other prisoners--has nothing to do with it. It soon becomes apparent that the killings have been committed by other colonists, who have each been possessed by some homicidal entity; as can be readily guessed, the entities in question are the "Ghosts of Mars" mentioned in the title. The policemen and the prisoners have to team up to fight their way out.

Basically, this film is a cheap re-hash of "Aliens" with a dash of "Pitch Black" thrown in, only nowhere near as good as either. I liked the sets (including the vehicles), which effectively conveyed a "frontier" feel; we feel there's more advanced technology available, but it probably requires spare parts which can't be acquired or made out here in the back end of beyond, so the locals go with more low-tech stuff which they can keep operating. The costumes go a fair way to conveying this feel as well, and hey, you can't deny the obvious appeal of a film which features Natasha Henstridge and Clea DuVall in tight black leather. But that's about where it ends for production values: most of the props (weapons, lights, radios) look distinctly 20th century. No attempt has been made at creating something like the famed M41A pulse rifle; the best the armourer produced was a brace of pump-action shotguns with some pointless bits glued on, some stock Beretta 92s (which, by 2176, would be some 200 years old) and a single HK G36K. What money there is in the film looks like Monopoly™ bills; you'd expect it to at least be laminated or something.

But that's not what grates about "Ghosts of Mars." The main problem is that this is truly a horror movie, in the sense that the main thing moving the story along is all the characters behaving in implausibly stupid ways. The ruling council knows something's wrong in the outlying colonies, but does not make the slightest effort to investigate. The supposedly hard-as-nails team leader (Grier) gets herself killed off by running off into the darkness without waiting for backup. Henstridge's character resolves every standoff (and there are several) by immediately having all the cops surrender their weapons, without so much as a murmur of protest from the rest of the team. The protagonists fight their way to the train station, only to find the train is not there, despite the fact that the building where they started is 50 metres from the train station, with a direct line of sight; in other words, they could have known the train wasn't there by looking out of the window. Dr. Whitlock (Cassidy), the character who is supposed to provide the exposition, takes so long to do so that even Henstridge's character has worked it out already (about half an hour after the audience has), making the exposition mostly superfluous. The only thing we discover from the exposition is that Whitlock inadvertently unleashed the ghosts in the first place, something she gets all broken up about (or she would, had Cassidy not mailed in her performance), despite that fact that there was no sign at all of this anguish previously.

Continuity is definitely a problem in this film, since the characters seem unable to remember events which took place five minutes ago. Williams (Ice Cube) claims nobody ever looked out for him, despite the fact that his brother and two close friends just died trying to rescue him. There are also technological aspects which make no sense; a constant factor in the film is that dust storms, which disrupt radio communications, are a frequent occurrence on Mars and there just happens to be one between Shining Valley and Chryse. The obvious answer to this problem, one would think, would be to lay an insulated land line, which could have been installed along with the train tracks.

Overall, "Ghosts of Mars" had a lot of potential, but it suffers from indifferent acting, mediocre directing and downright awful writing. It's not unwatchable, but that's about all that can be said for it.
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Magnificent, thought-provoking (albeit depressing) courtroom drama
16 September 2003
"'Breaker' Morant" is based on true events, and deals with the court-martial of three subalterns during the closing stages of the Second Boer War (1899-1902). The officers are members of a mostly Australian unit called the Bushveldt Carbineers, created to fight the Boer commandos (in the original sense of the word) by employing their own tactics against them. The charges against them are that they committed murder by summarily executing captured Boers. That they have done so in not in question, but in their defence they argue that they were acting in accordance with standing orders, not least because the operational nature of the Carbineers would be hampered by having to keep prisoners under guard. The British command is keen to distance itself from this claim for various reasons; it might galvanise Boer resistance, and give Germany an excuse to provide material support to the Boers (thus extending a war which was already a serious drain on the British Empire's resources), and (though this is left unsaid in the film) cause discontent about the conduct of the war in those parts of the Empire supplying the manpower for the war, i.e. Britain, Australia and Canada. Instead, the British command clearly wishes to portray the three protagonists as "rogue elements" and sacrifice them for the sake of political expediency.

"'Breaker' Morant" is about injustice, hypocrisy and incomprehension. The injustice is not that lieutenants Morant, Hancock and Witton are innocent of the charges brought against them--they're not. The Second Convention of The Hague may have been only two years old at the time, but the custom of not killing prisoners was well-established long before, and at no point do we see any of the protagonists object to the standing orders. The injustice lies in the fact that the body which is trying them for their crimes--the British army--is the very body which ordered them to commit these crimes in the first place.

The incomprehension is that of the home front; in a brief flashback of Witton's relatives giving a going-away party, we see the expectation among the civilians that "our boys will knock 'em for six" but behave like gentlemen while doing so. Brief as the scene is, it is plain that the civilians understand only in the most abstract way, if they understand at all, that war is a messy business in which winning requires killing people in unpleasant ways. As Major Thomas, the protagonists' defence counsel, comments, "The barbarities of war are seldom committed by abnormal men. The tragedy of war is that these horrors are committed by normal men in abnormal situations." While I can agree with this observation, it does not alter the fact that the acts committed by the protagonists were of such a nature as to be have been formally outlawed, even within the context of war, two years previously.

Another trope, which occurs in this film but repeated in every war of the 20th century, is that "only a combat soldier can judge another combat soldier." As it happens, I am a former soldier (who never saw combat) who later helped prosecute war criminals while a civilian; I think this line is unadulterated bullsh*t. That said, this opinion comes with a caveat, which is that those civilians and non-combat soldiers who would pass judgement should understand that expecting soldiers to both fight cleanly and to win may be (and often are) mutually exclusive.

Of course, standards have changed somewhat since 1901; when Morant remarks "it's a new kind of war, George; it's a new war for a new century," the difference he indicates is that it is the first time white men visit atrocities upon each other which both had been quite content to inflict upon non-whites for most of the previous century. At one point in the film, Lt. Hancock pulls a dum-dum round from a Boer's ammunition pouch as an indication of the Boers' disregard for the laws of war. However, a (somewhat apocryphal) story from the opening stages of the Boer War (not in the film) tells of how the Boers lodged a protest with the British after finding dum-dum rounds in a killed British soldier's ammunition pouch; the British reportedly apologised profusely, explaining that the soldier had been issued these rounds in error, as these were intended only for use against blacks. The Boers accepted this explanation without further complaint.

But however you may feel about the politics underlying this film, it is a joy to watch. The quality of the production values is top notch, and had I not been familiar with Edward Woodward and Bryan Brown, I could have believed this film was made this year, rather than in 1980. The directing and acting are also superb. At the heart of this is the script, which carried no dead weight of unnecessary scenes; likely, this is due to the fact that it was originally written (and written well) for the stage. The story might easily be transposed to any number of conflicts since the Second Boer War in which military victory demands taking nasty measures; it could easily be rewritten to Iraq in 2003 ("Well, Peter, this is what comes of empire-building."), and for that reason it deserves more recognition than it's received. Magnificent; see it ASAP.
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Never mind the ballistics, here's the pathologist
14 September 2003
When I say "Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever" was incredible, I don't mean that in a good way. All the main characters are current or former US federal agents, presumably to keep it interesting, but all the action takes places in Vancouver, BC, which, last time I looked, was not in the United States. The basic storyline was fairly straightforward (and rather hackneyed), but the motivations of the various characters were utterly incomprehensible. The film was somewhat on the short side, and I couldn't escape the feeling that the three scenes which might have tied together the loose ends inexplicably ended up on the cutting room floor. Banderas phoned in his performance (for God's sake, enunciate, man), and the musical score was just irritating. The only two things "Ballistic" had going for it were the presence of some rarely-seen hardware (fun for you firearms buffs) and some spectacular action sequences (though these were plagued by some annoying clichés, such as a protective vest preventing all injury to a character, and henchmen showing complete disregard for personal safety), and these were simply not enough to save this turkey. Avoid.
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Best seen with background knowledge, not as it.
7 September 2003
"Lepa sela lepo gore" takes place during the Bosnian War of 1992-95. The action does not take place in chronological order, but the main events take place in 1994. We open in a military hospital in Belgrade, where three Serb fighters, among whom the main character Milan Tanovic, are brought in after being wounded in eastern Bosnia. A series of flashbacks takes us through the fight in which they were injured; after being ambushed by a larger force of Muslims (which turns out to be led by Milan's childhood friend Halil Pasic), the group (originally somewhat larger) is bottled up in a disused tunnel not far from Milan's village. From other flashbacks, we learn how the various members of the group got involved in the war, and track the group's progress to the moment of the ambush. Most of the memories from before the war, however, are Milan's alone; especially those relating to the tunnel and to Halil.

It should be borne in mind this film was made shortly after the Dayton Peace Accords, while Milosevic was still firmly in the saddle in Serbia. Perhaps it is for this reason the film does not delve into the political issues behind the war. Indeed, it is interesting to note what is left unsaid in the film. The Muslims commit a couple of atrocities in the course of the narrative, but it should be noted that the Serbs have been shown torching one village after another, after looting everything that wasn't nailed down and smashing everything that was. Up to the moment they are ambushed, we never see them do any actual fighting; and given the amateurish behavior that allows the Muslims to get the drop on them ("Ooh, look, a parachute flare. Let's all sit in the open and look at it..."), there is little reason to think they've ever gained much combat experience. At least, not against enemies who can shoot back.

This, however, arguably says more about the war than about the men involved. As one of the characters notes, "They say war brings out the best and the worst in men. So what's the best?" The film proceeds to show us, if not the best, at least the better points of the characters.

Overall, "Lepa sela lepo gore" is a damn fine war movie; it has an engaging and gritty story, is not without its (darkly) humorous moments, the characters have depth, and hopefully it may give some insight into the human condition. It should not, however, be mistaken as being historical. It shares the tendency of many films made in the former Yugoslavia about the wars of the 1990s to attempt to mask the transgressions of the own ethnic group by overemphasizing those of the others. Thus, in "Lepa sela lepo gore," we are shown the victims of the Muslims' atrocities, but not those of the Serbs'. This film should probably be seen after familiarizing oneself with the Bosnian War, not as a way of doing so.
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Ambush 1941 (1999)
Gripping small-unit war movie
29 June 2003
"Rukajärven Tie" is set in the opening stages of the "Continuation War." In 1941, the Finns sought to take advantage of the German invasion of the Soviet Union to seize back--with interest--the territory the Soviets had captured from Finland in the Winter War of 1939-40. The main protagonist is Eero Perkola, a subaltern commanding a platoon of Finnish bicycle infantry which is participating in the invasion. Once in Russia, Perkola is surprised to run into his fiancée, Kaarina, whom he thought to be safe in Helsinki, but who has joined the women's auxiliaries. Perkola requests his battalion commander to transfer the auxiliaries away from the front. The battalion commander agrees, but asks Perkola to take on a special mission in return; Perkola's platoon is to reconnoitre forward of a gap in the Finnish lines to ensure the Soviets are not preparing to counter-attack in that sector.

This puts "Rukajärven Tie" into the "Lost Patrol" (as in the 1934 John ford film) category of war movies: a small unit making its way through hostile territory, harassed by groups of hostile fighters. Of course, this film is about Finns. It helps to have some knowledge of the historical situation to comprehend this film, but it's not vital. The soldiers do not see the war as some "crusade against godless communism," they're looking for payback, and while ideological differences within the unit are touched upon, the Russians (note: the Russians, not the Soviets) are clearly the common enemy, and the bitterness (in varying degrees) of the Finnish soldiers is clearly evident. War movies of this kind depend on suspense rather than spectacle, and this film has suspense in spades.

The soundtrack contributes to the highly evocative atmosphere in the movie, from the excellent musical score to the buzzing of mosquitoes whenever the action takes place near any body of water. Otherwise, this film is an anorak wargamer's delight, featuring weapons very rarely seen in war movies (such as an SVT-40 Tokarev rifle in the hands of a Russian sergeant, and several Lahti-Saloranta M26 light machineguns), bicycle-mounted infantry (ubiquitous in many early 20th-century armies, but rarely seen in movies), and displaying the highly informal nature of the Finnish armed forces (the only salute in the film is a mark of respect, not of regulations). Incongruously, the platoon behaves amateurishly on occasion, e.g. bunching up while exposed to possible enemy machinegun fire, etc. but this is a minor distraction.

This film has almost everything most people could ask for; sex, violence and though the plot is a little thin in places, there's lots of character development to make up for it. I loved it.
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Wag the Dog (1997)
Cute idea, but execution overloads suspension of disbelief
31 January 2003
This film has a neat enough premise; the US president gets caught with his hand in the underage cookie jar right before election time, and his hatchetman Conrad Brean (De Niro) goes out to divert public attention. To do so, he enlists the aid of Hollywood producer Stanley Motss (Hoffman) and the two cook up an entirely fictitious war for the president to deal with and solve in statesmanlike fashion. It certainly captured the public's imagination at the time (Clinton & Lewinsky), went through a revival in the Balkans during the Kosovo crisis (in the film, the phony war is with Albania, which borders on Kosovo), and at the time of writing, with the US economy in trouble and war with Iraq looming, is being dredged up again. But "Wag the Dog", I am sad to say, has a fatal flaw in common with most conspiracy theories: its credibility ceases about five minutes after the opening credits. We are made to believe that every single person enlisted in Brean and Motss's project can be trusted to "never say a word about this to anyone." Surely, only dead men tell no tales, but a trail of dead actors, gaffers and special effects people would be noticed (okay, maybe not the actors). It's never made clear to us whether the war is completely fictional, or its causes are fictional but the war is all too real. In the former case, any journalist arriving in Albania would presumably notice a marked lack of US troops; in the latter, one would expect more (in fact, any) footage of Brean threatening the careers of various generals. Motss cooks up a fictional SpecOps unit for dramatic purposes, with the explanation that nobody's heard of it because it's so secret; this unit then parades down the Washington Mall, its members' faces visible to all and sundry, in highly distinctive garb (the half-black/half-leopard print beret... please!), contrary to practice of every existing SpecOps unit. Most of the cast of "Wag the Dog" deliver a fine performance; the direction and production values are more than adequate. All of it is ultimately wasted on a script which is riddled with holes through which you could drive an 18-wheeler.
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No Man's Land (I) (2001)
A promising, but ultimately flawed, small-scale war drama
14 November 2002
No Man's Land starts out as a very promising war movie as three wounded soldiers, two Bosniaks and one Serb, find themselves stuck in an abandoned trench between their respective armies in 1994. The Bosniaks cannot leave because one of them, Cera, has had his body booby-trapped while unconscious; the Serb, Nino, cannot leave because the second Bosniak, Ciki, is holding him as protection against Serb artillery. Unable to come up with a solution, the commanding officers on both sides call on UNPROFOR to resolve the situation. It is at this point that the film starts to display its flaws, and a number of these must be laid at the door of Danis Tanovic, both director and author of the screenplay. Tanovic appears to harbour an - admittedly understandable - bitterness towards the international community, particularly the United Nations, for its role in the conflict, but in getting his message across, he takes a series of liberties with realism. Tanovic portrays the UNPROFOR personnel - with the exception of the French Sgt. Marchand - as too petty, incompetent, cowardly and callously apathetic to get risk getting involved, and while there may have been some truth to this, Tanovic lays it on so thick it becomes gratuitous. Symptomatic of this is a moment where Marchand's superior, Cpt. Dubois, berates the journalist Jane Livingstone for listening in on his company's radio frequency; those familiar with UN peacekeeping mandates know that the troops are explicitly required to broadcast "in the clear" so that anyone can listen in. In another scene, a British colonel flies in from Zagreb, bringing his overly blonde and leggy "secretary" with him - considering the colonel's supposed obsession with his media image, this is too much for the viewer's willing suspension of disbelief to take. In conclusion, what might have been an excellent war drama, with tension being periodically relieved by wry humour, is ultimately marred by Tanovic's rather heavy-handed axe-grinding.
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Somewhat forced blend of history and Hollywood
3 October 2001
Enemy At The Gates initially reminded me of a lot of other films; three which spring directly to mind being Saving Private Ryan for the grueling slaughter of almost helpless troops in the opening ten minutes, Shot Through The Heart for the opposing snipers theme, and Full Metal Jacket for the tension of urban close-quarters combat. This is not a historical document on the battle of Stalingrad, nor does it pretend to be, though the events depicted are, by and large, historically accurate, down to the character of the Russian sniper Zaitsev (Law). It should be noted, however, that the central character Zaitsev was by no means the only sniper of note at Stalingrad, and while some Soviet sources claim the duel with Koenig (Harris) actually occurred, this is not widely accepted, as no reports from the period make mention of it. Overall, I found the film gripping and entertaining as the relationship between Vassili Zaitsev, a conscript who finds himself used as a propaganda tool due to his skill as a sniper, and Danilov (Fiennes), the political officer who acts as his "agent", develops. The mutual love interest Tania (Weisz) acts as a catalyst to the rivalry as Zaitsev comes to resent Danilov making political capital of him, which justifies the presence of the, presumably, historically inaccurate romance in the film. While a number of points jarred about the film, the accuracy of the uniforms, equipment, and vehicles is commendable from the point of view of a military history buff like myself. The actors do a fine job overall, and a number of the performances were refreshingly out of character - Law is distinctly rough around the edges for a change, and Bob Hoskins is almost unrecognizable as Nikita Kruchschev. However, both Harris and Fiennes leave an annoying amount of ambivalence as to the motivations and psychological makeup of their characters. A flaw in scripting of Zaitsev is his sudden hate towards Koenig at the end, despite the fact that Koenig has been picking of his comrades for the best part of the film. Also, given the carnage inflicted upon the troops on both sides and the civilians stuck in the middle, there is marked lack on the part of all characters of revulsion and resentment for the fact their political leaders are putting them through the meat grinder. Apparently, only American troops gripe about feeling their lives are being wasted for no good reason. But all this does not detract from the fact that Enemy At The Gates is well-researched, well-made, and thoroughly entertaining overall.
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When Trumpets Fade (1998 TV Movie)
Not a war epic, and all the better for it
3 October 2001
Due to the fact that the two films came out close together, it is tempting to compare When Trumpets Fade to Saving Private Ryan. This would be a mistake. Unlike Private Ryan, Trumpets is not an epic set to a background of a crucial point in history, like D-Day, nor are the central characters members of an elite unit who are given a "heroic" assignment. Instead, the main character, Manning (Eldard), starts off as a private reluctant to risk his life, but who finds himself promoted and burdened with increasing responsibilities he does not want as his unit suffers horrendous attrition attempting to fight its way into Germany in late 1944. Manning's dilemma both contrasts and parallels that of his company commander, Captain Pritchett (Donovan), who has to balance achieving the objectives he has been assigned and keeping as many of his men alive as he can, and succeeding at neither. The greatest contrast with Private Ryan, however, comes in the form of the replacement troops, all green recruits with no combat experience - a far cry from Captain Miller's seasoned Rangers. Rounding it off is Dwight Yoakam as the nameless battalion commander who is unapologetic about driving his men to the slaughter, but whose face betrays the fact that, as with Captain Pritchett, their deaths weigh heavily upon him. When Trumpets Fade successfully showcases combat at its most gruesome and frustrating as Captain Pritchett's company batters itself to pieces against its target with nothing to show for the effort and bravery of the men except an ever-increasing pile of American corpses. But we get two good looks at the face of a German squad leader, portrayed by Frank-Michael Köbe, and in it we can see the despondency of a man who knows that he is fighting only to postpone the inevitable defeat of his country. A gritty, realistic, and depressing, but nonetheless excellent film.
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