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Monday, August 14, 2017

FILM REVIEW OF ''D-DAY SURVIVOR" (2017)



Amateurish writing, directing, and editing undermine director Ian Vernon’s “D-Day Survivor” (** OUT OF ****), an interesting, low-budget World War II indie epic about a ‘lost patrol’ during the historic Normandy Invasion.  A staple of war movies is the saga about soldiers separated from their command with no idea where they are in the general scheme of things.  Clocking in at a sluggish 95-minutes, “D-Day Survivor” generates occasional bursts of violence, but the film loiters all the way to its explosive finale.  The first third introduces the offbeat characters, with a minor skirmish involving attempted homosexual rape.  Eventually, the last third drums up some traditional combat, with an assault on a German pillbox.  Independent filmmakers deserve more leeway because they have nowhere near the resources of their major studio counterparts.  Compensating for his tight-budget, Vernon breaks new ground in “D-Day Survivor” with the depiction of deviant sexuality in the ranks.  Meantime, cinematographer Ivan D. Rennov, who has worked with Vernon on three earlier films, exploits the lush color and idyllic rural setting to make everything appear scenic.  Despite its picture-postcard splendor, “D-Day Survivor” suffers from a hopeless lack of momentum, until an inevitable rendezvous with the French Resistance.  Predictably, the underground allows filmmakers to send a woman into combat and add a trifling romantic subplot. Vernon’s lack of creative polish undercuts his best intentions, but his thematic concerns redeem his derivative narrative.

Mind you, a title with “D-Day” in it conjures up images of Darryl F. Zanuck’s “The Longest Day” (1962), Robert Parrish’s “Up from the Beach (1965), Samuel Fuller’s “The Big Red One” (1980), and Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” (1998). Sadly, we see only the “Survivor” and nothing of “D-Day.”  You won’t see any big ships and landing craft with soldiers scrambling across barb-wired beaches while machine guns stitch the sand.  Once you get over missing the historic, June 1944, Allied beachhead landings, you can understand the different direction that Vernon pursues because he lacked the budget to recreate the landings.  Instead, he presents an obnoxious, homosexual, British soldier who holds his unwilling prey at gun point and threatens to rape him.  Nothing like “Deliverance” occurs, but the gay soldier’s aggression makes homosexuals look depraved. You won’t find material like this in most traditional World War II movies, apart from “The Imitation Game” (2014) with Benedict Cumberbatch.  Classic novelist James Jones depicted instances of this in his World War II book trilogy that contained “From Here to Eternity” and “The Thin Red Line.”  Vernon scores a first with this unsavory subject matter which would have been objectionable in traditional World War II movies.  Happily, Vernon’s use of the initiation theme, plunging innocents into combat for their first baptism of blood on the battlefield, bolsters “D-Day Survivor.”  These characters and their actions stand out in “D-Day Survivor,” especially a reflective U.S. Army private. The quartet of young men who constitute the collective protagonist here face a gauntlet that shapes their respective fates.  Some characters can be annoying, particularly a vulnerable soldier who repeats virtually every word uttered by the other characters. A hopeless cretin who comes through at the least expected moments, he provides comic relief that is rarely humorous. 

British Army Paratrooper Private Johnny Barrows (newcomer Paul Harrison) finds himself alone in a field somewhere in France.  He bailed out over France with his battalion of paratroopers, but they missed their drop zone (like so many did on D-Day), and the Germans wiped out his comrades, leaving him the sole survivor.  Barrows crosses paths briefly with an affable German soldier, and they swap candy.  Later, our hero differentiates Germans from Nazis during a conversation with an arrogant Gestapo officer, Sturmbannfuhrer Dishelm (Richard Dobson of “Brood Parasite”), that they have captured.  Anyway, as they go their separate ways, the German soldier dies from a bullet in the back.  A British soldier fired on the German after Barrows allowed him to leave. Reluctantly, Barrows joins up with two lost British soldiers, Private Murphy (television actor James Boyland), his moronic, simple-minded friend, Private Fily (Guy Wills of “Looking for Eric”), and a taciturn American paratrooper, Private George (Adam Woodward of “The Black Prince”), who is suffering from shell shock.  This quartet trudge through rural France, with Murphy behaving like a bully.  Eventually, they come upon a U.S. Army jeep, with a dead driver and a defunct American general.  Since both jeep passengers are dead, Barrows suggests that they appropriate the vehicle.  They cruise down a road with Barrows behind the wheel.  Little do they know a German sign warning them about land mines on the road has been knocked down.  They hit a land mine, but they survive the explosion.

Eventually, our heroes ambush three Germans in a staff car and capture a Gestapo officer.  Since he is carrying a satchel of papers, they decide to bring him back alive.  Later, they encounter the French Resistance, and Margaret (Sophie Skelton of “Another Mother’s Son”) helps Barrows and his men launch an attack on a German outpost with a Tiger tank parked nearby.  Tactlessly, the Tiger tank is never utilized.  Presumably, not only Vernon but also our heroes are searching for bigger game.  They find it after they confront a German pillbox that has kept American troops pinned down.  The problem with Vernon’s pillbox is that it isn’t as sturdy as the pillbox that is devastated in an infinitely better World War II movie, Don Siegel’s “The Hell with Heroes” (1962), where exhausted G.I.s sought to stay alive under worse circumstances.  The destructive toll that the pillbox exacts in “The Hell with Heroes’ is extreme.  Comparatively, the “D-Day Survivor” pillbox is a picnic.  Hampered by his shoe-string budget, Vernon focuses on how these young, inexperienced soldiers cooperate to accomplish their objectives.  Only after they succeed as a team are they prepared to destroy the pillbox.  Nevertheless, “D-Day Survivor” qualifies as a routine World War movie.

FILM REVIEW OF ''THE DARK TOWER" (2017)

I’ve read some of Stephen King’s novels, and--with a few exceptions--I’ve seen most of the movies inspired by his novels.  Although he has never been one of my favorite authors, I’ve enjoyed reading some of his work.  Predictably, the novels surpass the movies. Nevertheless, I loved the two “Carrie” adaptations.  The 2013 remake with Chloë Grace Moretz topped the 1976 original with Sissy Spacek and John Travolta.  “The Shining” was a memorable novel, but the absence of CGI when it was produced in 1980 prompted director Stanley Kubrick to take liberties with the story.  Jack Nicholson saved the movie.  “The Green Mile” (1999) with Tom Hanks didn’t impress me, while “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994) ranked as the best King adaptation.  “Dolores Claiborne” (1995), “The Running Man” (1987), “The Dead Zone” (1983), “Stand by Me” (1986), “Apt Pupil” (1998), and “Christine” (1983) all qualified as above-average.  The ending ruined “The Mist” (2007).  Stuff like “Silver Bullet” (1985), the two “Creepshow” movies, “Maximum Overdrive” (1986), “Thinner” (1996), and “The Lawnmower Man” (1992) and its sequel were potboilers.

After watching what “Island of Lost Souls” director Nikolaj Arcel and “Fifth Wave” co-screenwriters Akiva Goldsman and Jeff Pinker, and Anders Thomas Jensen of “The Duchess,” did to King’s “The Dark Tower,” you have to wonder what were they thinking when they tampered with his bestseller.  Danish, art-house helmer Nikolaj looks clearly out of his element, and Goldsman, Pinker, and Jensen should have confined themselves strictly to the material in King’s novel.  Hopelessly incomprehensible, thoroughly enigmatic, and predictably formulaic, this dire adaptation of King’s magnum opus “The Dark Tower” (* OUT OF ****) displays little fidelity to the novel.  Pitting “Luther” star Idris Elba as the heroic Gunslinger, Roland Deschain, against Oscar-winner Matthew McConaughey as the evil Sorcerer, a.k.a. Walter Padick, ‘the Man in Black,’ the film struggles to generate any excitement and suspense.  Despite his ambivalence about the film, Stephen King has said, “‘This is not exactly my novel but this is very much the spirit and the tone and I’m very happy.’ Mind you, the performances are all beyond reproach. Stephen King enthusiasts may appreciate this version more than anybody who have neither perused King nor the eight novels comprising “The Dark Tower” series.  Curiously, I read the first novel in the franchise about The Gunslinger, and “The Dark Tower” contains only a microscopic amount of the book. “The Dark Tower” filmmakers have omitted more than half of the novel as well as eliminated some of its more sensational scenes.   Reportedly, they have inserted material from later books in the series, but they have neglected to account for many details that must have been left on the editing room floor. 

Jake Chambers (newcomer Tom Taylor) is a vividly imaginative, 14-year old lad, with a psychic gift that enables him to ‘shine.’  Basically, Jake can read minds and conduct mental conversations with others who share his ability.  The allusion to Stephen King’s earlier epic “The Shining” is unmistakable.  Jake’s sympathetic mother Laurie (Katheryn Winnick of “Cloud 9”) and his abrasive stepfather Lon (Nicholas Pauling of “Doomsday”) are anxious about their troubled son. Jake misses his biological father, an NYC firefighter who died in a conflagration, and he resents his stepdad.  He gets into a fight with another student at his New York City school over his apocalyptic drawings.  Laurie and Lon convince him to spend a weekend in psychiatric facility. Jake suspects that the people who have come to take him are sinister, shape-shifting aliens, and he flees.  Walter, a.k.a. ‘the Man in Black’ (Matthew McConaughey of “Interstellar”) surprises Jake’s parents after the youth eludes his envoys.  Walter orders Lon to “stop breathing,” and Lon keels over stone cold dead on the floor.  Walter enters Jake’s room. He projects himself into the past and scrutinizes those ominous drawings that plaster one wall of Jake’s room.   Pictures of a dark tower, a gunslinger, and a sorcerer recur in Jake’s sketches.  Afterward, ‘the Man in Black’ incinerates Laurie on the spot without a qualm.  Meantime, Jake finds a house in the city that contains a portal between the Earth and the post-apocalyptic world called Mid-World.  Mid-World resembles a parched, desolate wasteland inhabited by woebegone people. Jake befriends the last living Gunslinger, Roland Deschain (Idris Elba of “Pacific Rim”), and explains that Walter has been abducting children, torturing them, and using their minds to demolish the Dark Tower.  The Dark Tower is a soaring spire, sort of a primeval Empire State Building, that looms at the center of the universe and preserves the balance between Good and Evil.  Walter,’ the Man in Black,’ longs to destroy the Dark Tower.  Moreover, he believes Jake is the best candidate to topple the iconic structure.  Roland has been pursuing ‘the Man in Black’ to exact vengeance because Walter killed his father, Steven Deschain (Dennis Haysbert of “Waiting to Exhale”), who taught Roland how to handle those six-shot revolvers. Miraculously, Walter has survived many attempts on his life by Roland.  Essentially, Roland blasts away at him, but Walter snatches the bullets harmlessly out of the air before any can strike him.

Clocking in at 95 spartan minutes, “The Dark Tower” is boilerplate Stephen King.  Unfortunately, the filmmakers reveal little about Mid-World, the portals connecting it with Earth, and most of all the background of the mysterious Dark Tower.  The filmmakers in “The Dark Tower” seem to parcel out only bread crumbs of information, while they have glossed over the ground rules dictating behavior so as not to interfere with Roland’s single-minded, vengeance-driven pursuit of ‘the Man in Black.’  Inexplicably, Roland can reload his Remington revolvers with incredible speed, and he doesn’t have to shuck the cartridges physically from the loops in his gun belt to achieve this feat!  We never learn what makes the minds of children so toxic to the tower. Ultimately, “The Dark Tower” qualifies as a formulaic sci-fi-fantasy-Western-horror epic that should have retained more elements of King’s original story.

Monday, August 7, 2017

FILM REVIEW OF "DUNKIRK" (2017)



Traditional armchair generals should know Christopher Nolan's World War II epic "Dunkirk" (** OUT OF ****) has little to do with the battle of Dunkirk. You won't see German Panzer Corps careening through Belgium and plowing into France. In fact, the only Germans in "Dunkirk" are either flying aircraft (so cannot see them) or show up as infantry from unknown units. Instead, "Dunkirk" confines itself strictly to the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Forces (B.E.F.) in three segments: one on land covering one week, one on sea covering one day, and one in the air covering one hour. Of course, much, much more occurred at Dunkirk than just the wholesale evacuation. Presumably, the "Dark Knight" filmmaker didn’t want to overwhelm himself with an ambitious battle extravaganza. "Dunkirk" was produced for $100-million, and likely millions went to publicity. So, if you're looking for something like "The Longest Day" (1962), "Battle of the Bulge" (1965), "Anzio" (1968), "A Bridge Too Far" (1977), "Saving Private Ryan" (1998), and "Hacksaw Ridge" (2016), prepare to be disappointed. "Dunkirk" doesn't recreate historic battlefield combat, not even the infamous Wormhoudt Massacre.  Adolf Hitler’s Waffen-SS soldiers slaughtered as many as 80 British soldiers along with some French POWs. The cold-hearted SS crowded these prisoners into a stable, tossed in stick-grenades, and then finished them off with bursts of machine gun fire. Something like this might have given "Dunkirk" greater dramatic gravity. Instead, we see neither German tanks nor troops storming through France and Belgium. This 107-minute movie boils down to a series of survival episodes that occurred at Dunkirk.  Notably, the RAF preferred to confine their resources largely to the island in preparation for the inevitable Battle of Britain, later made into the exemplary film "Battle of Britain" (1969). Along with the RAF, the courageous Royal Navy and the Small Boat Owners emerge as the heroes who rescued the BEF waiting anxiously on the beach.

"Dunkirk" opens with several British infantrymen sauntering down a road inside the Dunkirk city limits as the Luftwaffe showers them with propaganda leaflets. No sooner have they had a moment to glance at these surrender summons than gunfire erupts from an unknown source. As they scramble for cover, unseen shooters kill all them except Tommy (newcomer Fiona Whitehead), who crosses a street and comes under fire then from French troops. They wave him toward their lines, and later he wanders onto the beaches. As far as he can see, queues of troops are standing on the beach awaiting transport. "Spectre" lenser Hoyte Van Hoytema's atmospheric cinematography shows these soldiers in their brown uniforms standing like ducks in neat, orderly rows on white beaches. These scenes resemble something out of "Lawrence of Arabia" in all their sprawling immensity.  Van Hoytema's cinematography adds to the spectacle of the event. Not long afterward, as Tommy tours the beach, screaming Stuka dive-bombers plunge from the skies, seeding the beaches with bombs. The worst death in "Dunkirk" occurs when one of these bombs blast a British soldier to smithereens as he shoots vainly at a Stuka. Tommy meets another soldier under mysterious circumstances on the beach. Might he be a German saboteur? Without challenging him about his strange behavior, Tommy pitches in to help him. They become fast friends who desperately break the rules and the lines so they can get aboard a transport. Cheekily, they seize a stretcher case awaiting transport and dash to an embarkation station. They reach the ship at the last minute, but they are sent packing because they weren’t Red Cross personnel. Nolan has these two heading off to find passage elsewhere by any means whatever. Their exploits turn into shenanigans as they deal with one setback after another, even after they stow aboard a ship.

Although the RAF lost fewer planes than the Luftwaffe: 145 to 156, "Dunkirk" shows no more than six Spitfire fighters cruising the English Channel in search of prey. Again, budgetary concerns may explain the aircraft shortages. Also, Nolan doesn't go for too much CGI, so he resorted to cardboard cutouts of troops on the beach. Nevertheless, we get one hour's worth of the RAF giving the Luftwaffe utter Hell. Predictably, one pilot perishes in a crash, another ditches in the sea, but the third is far more fortunate. RAF pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy of "Mad Max: Fury Road") riddles repeatedly the Luftwaffe in "Dunkirk's" most exciting scenes. Christopher Nolan does a decent job of staging several tense scenes of soldiers confronting catastrophe. Unfortunately, apart from Tom Hardy's RAF pilot, Kenneth Blangah’s Naval officer (rarely endangered), Mark Rylance as an intrepid civilian sailor, and Cillian Murphy as a shell-shocked soldier, celebrity movie stars of prominence are far and few between in this epic. Indeed, most of the actors are unknown, except perhaps for "One-Direction" singer Harry Styles. Suspense works best when a character is conspicuous enough either as an actor or as a character for us to care about. Everybody is virtually a nobody in "Dunkirk." Meantime, evoking sympathy for soldiers so desperate that they take refuge in a beached ship and become targets seems like the province of a horror chiller. Quoting the cliché, they die like fish in a barrel during target practice. Indeed, two of the soldiers trapped in the boat are the same duo who have tried to bluff their way board a Red Cross ship. Oscar winning actor Mark Rylance has one of the better roles as a small boat owner who has already lost a son in the RAF. The episode with the shell-shocked soldier involving the inconsequential treatment of a civilian teen is the least savory scene. Nevertheless, Rylance's character is never in jeopardy. Often wearing an aviator's oxygen mask, Tom Hardy looks like the villainous Bane from Nolan's "The Dark Knight Rises," but he comes closest to being a blood and guts hero. Ultimately, despite its heartfelt tribute to British resiliency in the face of annihilation, "Dunkirk" qualifies as a fair war movie.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

FILM REVIEW OF ''EASY RIDER" (1969)



Watching Dennis Hopper’s classic, counterculture, road trip “Easy Rider” (1969) co-starring Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson, you may wonder what made this movie such a zeitgeist for its time.  Of course, the America of 1969 was turbulent in ways that seem a far cry from contemporary America.  The divisive Vietnam war dominated the headlines. Civil Rights activism had culminated with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, and hippie movement with all its flower power had flourished. Reportedly, after Columbia Picture's chief executive Leo Jaffe saw “Easy Rider,” he observed, "I don't know what the f*&k this picture means, but I know we're going to make a f*&k of a lot of money." When you look at the film, the simple plot amounts to little more than a picaresque journey, with our protagonists on a cross-country trip from California to Florida.  They pause along the way to meet a variety of people: a rancher, a commune, hostile Southern diners, and Florida duck hunters who have a blast.  Essentially, “Easy Rider” is a fish-out-of-water fable, with Captain America (Peter Fonda of “The Victors”) and Billy (Dennis Hopper of “Rebel Without a Cause”) as the fish-out-of-water. At the time that it was made, Dennis Hopper was a noted character actor.  Peter Fonda had starred in a few American International drive-in movies, most notably “The Wild Angels,” and Jack Nicholson of “The Raven” was earning his living as a character actor, too.  “Easy Rider” made star of all three.  Arguably, Nicholson went the farthest. Indeed, Nicholson is the heart of “Easy Rider.”  Simultaneously, Nicholson’s small-time lawyer George Hanson inhabits both world: the establishment and the counterculture. Nicholson has the best lines, too.  The meditation that he provides on the meaning of ‘freedom’ are point-on, brilliant. He explains to Billy that Wyatt and he represent a threat to Americans who had pigeon-holed by society’s expectation. Sadly, when Nicholson exits “Easy Rider,” the film never recovers from his passing.  Lenser László Kovács makes everything look spectacular, with our heroes tooling through gorgeous landscapes straight out of vintage westerns.  The source music from Bob Dylan, Roger McGuinn, Jimi Hendrix, Steppenwolf, Fraternity of Man, The Electric Prunes, Smith, and The Byrds enhance the scenes, especially Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild” as our heroes hit the road.  Although American International Pictures and other low-budget film companies had exploited “The Wild One” to produce scores of yarns about violent, murderous bikers, “Easy Rider” departs from that formula.  Wyatt and Billy are unarmed and don’t go searching for trouble.  Interestingly, Hopper had filmed a chase with DEA helicopters in hot pursuit of Wyatt and Billy.  Scenes like this would had imitated past motorcycle movies and detracted from the film’s message.  Hopper lensed “Easy Rider” as if it were a documentary, with real-life locals are supporting characters.  Furthermore, he filmed everything on location, using natural light.  The jail cell that Wyatt and Billy occupy with George Hanson is the actual deal. 

Peter Fonda was no stranger to motorcycles when he made "Easy Rider" with Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson. This seminal saga cost roughly $360-thousand and reaped $60-million at the box office. Basically, "Easy Rider" is all about intolerance and the Generation Gap in America during the 1960s. A couple of hippies sell cocaine to a wealthy gent (Phil Spector) and then set out for Mari Grais in New Orleans. Along the way, they pick up an alcoholic lawyer, George Hanson (Jack Nicholson of "The Terror") and rednecks ridicule them as they try to eat in a cafe.  Although the older men deride our heroes, the young, impressionable girls in another booth idolize them. Later, these evil rednecks attack our heroes in the wild, and beat the lawyer to death. "Easy Rider" is a forerunner of "Deliverance." In "Easy Rider," rednecks slaughter the angelic but stoned motorcyclists, while the rednecks rape the sportsmen in "Deliverance." Since Hollywood could not depict back rape back in the 1960s, particularly man-on-man--sadistic homosexuality, the rednecks simply beat them up. Captain America (Peter Fonda) and Billy encounter intolerance from traditional society and die as a consequence of being too different. This is liberal, gonzo film-making at its zenith and it exerted considerable effect on Hollywood and the industry at large. The word is that Fonda and company smoked real marijuana on the set which reflects the indie nature of this venture. Columbia Pictures didn't understand this counter-cultural masterpiece but they embraced its millions. "Easy Rider" couldn't have come at an more opportune time in Hollywood and social history. The imagery of the film influenced the cultural landscape and it appeared at a time of deep social unrest in the post-Civil Rights era. So if the marginal plot—call it existentialism—does nothing for you, the portrait of America and the intolerance displayed toward the hippies stands as an accurate barometer of the times. "Easy Rider" couldn't have been made much earlier because the Production Code Administration had only recently been dismantled in favor of a rating classification system. Fonda and Hopper don't so much deliver believable performances as they inhabit their costumes. Jack Nicholson is simply brilliant as the doomed lawyer George Hanson who understands the moral conscience of the terrain. He summarizes this when he tells Billy, "What you represent to them is freedom." The soundtrack features many tunes of the times that immortalize this picture. For the record, Billy dies from the first shotgun blast. Despite its laid-back pace and routine plot, “Easy Rider” ranks as a landmark picture and speaks volumes about bigotry in America.