August 10, 2013

Movie Review: Stalingrad (1993)

The best thing about the cold feel nothing. - Lt. Hans von Witzland (Thomas Kretschmann)

Director: Joseph Vilsmaier

Writers: Jürgen Büscher, Johannes Heide, Joseph Vilsmaier, Christoph Fromm (uncredited)

Producers: Mark Damon, Hanno Huth, Michael Krohne, Günter Rohrbach, Joseph Vilsmaier

Studio: Senator Film

Major Stars: Dominique Horwitz, Thomas Kretschmann, Jochen Nickel, Sebastien Rudolph, Sylvester Groth

Of all the battles humanity has fought, from the plains of Megiddo to the alleyways of Fallujah, none has been bloodier than the Battle of Stalingrad. From August 21, 1942 to February 2, 1943, the armies of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia fought tooth-and-nail for the Soviet industrial city of Stalingrad. When the battle ended, there were over two million German and Russian casualties combined. As a comparison, the United States suffered slightly less than 1,100,000 casualties for all of WW2, Europe and Pacific theaters combined.

It is against this horrific backdrop that we follow a squad of Wehrmacht soldiers in the film Stalingrad. It is a powerful anti-war film, driving home the horrors of war from a viewpoint we rarely see here in the United States.

The film opens in Italy in the summer of 1942. The Germans bask in the sun on leave after driving the British back into Egypt in North Africa. We primarily follow two soldiers, Obergefreiter Fritz Reiser (Dominique Horwitz) and Unteroffizier Manfred “Rollo” Rohleder (Jochen Nickel). Their squad acquires a new lieutenant, Hans von Witzland (Thomas Kretschmann). They are then sent east to take part in the great battle for Stalingrad. Once there, they discover how horrible war can be.

Stalingrad captures what the Battle of Stalingrad was like. Cynical soldiers trying to survive the decisions of officers and generals dancing to Hitler’s tune. Bloody street-to-street fighting that would often find the two sides facing off in the same factory or warily watching each other across a street not 10 yards wide. The creeping realization for the Germans that they underestimated the Russians. And the cold…you can feel it coming off the screen.

It’s not easy using the Germans as your protagonists; after all, this is Nazi Germany you are talking about. But Joseph Vilsmaier does a good job of showing all the different elements that existed in the Wehrmacht. You have the true believers and the cynics. But no one gets a free ride. There are multiple points where a character could have spoken out against a wrong being committed by their leadership and didn’t, making them complicit in the atrocity. By the time they find their voice and their guts, it’s too late.

August 9, 2013

Movie Review: Ironclad (2011)

If you weren't sleeping through Social Studies or World History during your education, you heard about the Magna Carta. The ancestor of the Declaration of Independence, it was signed by King John of England after a barons' rebellion in June of 1215. So John had his power reduced, the barons had more freedom and that was that. Right?

Of course not. King John was ripped about what he saw as a block against his God-given right to rule. So he went about putting the barons back under his thumb in The First Barons' War. And that is where Ironclad begins. King John (Paul Giamatti) is moving against the Barons, and Rochester Castle is the key to all of England. So before he can take it, the Archbishop of Canterbury sends Lord Albany (Brian Cox) and a renegade Templar Knight (James Purefoy) named Marshall to find some men and hold Rochester Castle against King John until Prince Louis of France can arrive to support the barons.*

The plot really is that simple. There is some sub-plot about the young wife (Kate Mara) of the castle's lord (Derek Jacobi) falling in love with Marshall, but is it at it's core a "men on a mission" movie sent in 13th Century England. And it's good.

First off, it's realistic. Producer Rick Benattar actually recreated Rochester Castle on the studio. It is grimy, dirty and poorly lit. The courtyard is full of mud. It looks like the real thing. The battle scenes are full of blood and gore, just like a real battle with swords and axes would be. One highlight is a man getting his arm severed and then another man getting beaten to death with the severed arm. That had to have happened at least once in England in the 13th Century.

Second, the cast is solid. You have Giamatti really nailing King John as someone who believes that his rule is his birthright and no baron will tell him otherwise. He is arrogant, petulant, intelligent and cowardly all at once. Purefoy is adequate as Marshall, a man who speaks more with his sword than his mouth. But what helps is having men like Cox and Jacobi in supporting roles. It just elevates the quality of the film as a whole.

Director Jonathan English has done a good job combining the "men on a mission" motif (usually found in Westerns and WW2 films) with the "last stand" genre (think Zulu) and then grafting that to the Middle Ages. I'd like to see more of them. The battles are shot up close and personal, with all the yelling, screaming and dying you'd expect from a pitched sword battle. And the special effects are solid; the final breaching of the keep is pretty spectacular.

Negatives...well, the whole romance subplot b/t Purefoy and Mara is pretty tacked on. And the historical accuracy is hit-and-miss, but that is more a sticking point for nerds like myself.

But Ironclad is a fun little film if you enjoy these kind of flicks. I caught it on VOD when it first came out. Now you can see it on Netflix Instant.


* Sounds weird, but the French and English were still pretty close at this point. Asking Louis to take the throne from John wouldn't be out of line and would be "keeping it in the family" so to speak. The English king held lands in France at this time and was, in a very real way, the vassal of the French King. Having a king be the vassal of another you know why the English and French fought so much.

August 8, 2013

I Take Pictures

This is a flower at the base of Gorham Mountain in Acadia National Park in Maine.

Movie Review: Enemy At The Gates (2001)

All these men here know they're going to die. So, each night when they make it back, it's a bonus. So, every cup of tea, every cigarette is like a little celebration. You just have to accept that. - Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law)

Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud

Writers: Jean-Jacques Annaud and Alain Godard

Producer: Jean-Jacques Annaud, Alain Godard, Roland Pellegrino, Jörg Reichl, John D. Schofield, Alisa Tager

Studio: Paramount (US)

Major Stars: Jude Law, Ed Harris, Bob Hoskins, Rachel Weisz, Ron Perlman, Jospeh Fiennes

Enemy At The Gates is a film that looks good and has some really fantastic moments. But its average script and complete disregard for reality drag it down well below where it should rank.

The story is a simple one. During the brutal Battle of Stalingrad during World War Two, Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law) is conscripted into the Red Army and sent to fight in the battle. He survives his initial taste of war and proves himself handy with a rifle. So handy, in fact, that he gets promoted to the sniper division and makes a name for himself killing German officers. They respond by sending Major Erwin König (Ed Harris), an accomplished sniper himself, to take Zaitsev out. And that is the basic spine of the story.

Let’s get the accolades out of the way first. The cinematography of the film is really something to appreciate. Whether it is the hellish crossing of the Volga River or the barren landscape where the two snipers stalk each other, the look of the movie is great. Kudos to Robert Fraisse on a job well done. He has had an interesting career. He started shooting soft-core (Story of O, Lady Chatterley's Lover) but also lensed Ronin and Hotel Rwanda. He even won an Oscar in 1992 for The Lover. Go figure

Law and Harris play their roles really well. Law portrays Zaitsev as a simple peasant who doesn’t want to be where he is but recognizes that he is good at what he does and that it serves a larger purpose. Harris is excellent as König, nailing that icy arrogance the Prussian officers in the German military always seemed to possess. He is willing to hang children to draw out Zaitsev and that didn’t seem to be a stretch for the character.

And the opening sequence is just jaw-dropping. The bombing of Stalingrad and the soldiers crossing the Volga to a burning Stalingrad, while being strafed and bombed by Stuka dive-bombers, is amazing to behold. There was a reason that at the Soviets’ low point in Stalingrad, the average life expectancy of a new private was 24 hours

With all that said, there are some problems. First is the script. It’s not bad, but there is nothing memorable about it either. It kind of just sits there and gives the characters something to say as we kill time between the sniper duels. Can anyone really remember a memorable line from the movie? Or a specific block of dialogue? After watching it again, I still think it is an adequate script. It doesn’t kill the film but it doesn’t elevate it either.

But the larger problem is its disregard for what happened at Stalingrad. Now, I am not saying that it has to be historically accurate down to the last brick. But the movie should respect what happened and not ignore it. The film Stalingrad (which I'll review next) isn’t based on a real German unit, but it respects what happened there.

August 7, 2013

My Five Favorite Films From...1980

Before I get into the movie, I want to quickly touch on something. I occasionally have an entry at the bottom about an insane/twisted/crazy film. That doesn’t mean I liked the movie. Only that it should be mentioned because it’s so over the top. I say this because after the last entry someone asked me if I actually liked Caligula. The answer is an emphatic “no!” But, that film is so bat-shit nuts you have to at least mention it.

Honorable Mention – Kagemusha: Kurosawa’s excellent story of an impersonator who fills in for Japanese warlord Takeda Shingen after his untimely death.

5. The Big Red One: If you see this, make sure to watch the newest release: The Big Red One - The Reconstruction. This is the film as Sam Fuller wanted it to be. Just a great war film that talks about the insanity of war and why, sometimes, you still have to fight.

4. Airplane!: You know 1980 was a great year for comedies if this is #4. Perpetually quotable, this is still the best ZAZ film ever made (with The Naked Gun a close second).

3. Caddyshack: You could run Caddyshack in a theater today and it would do great business against most current comedies. Ted Knight owns this film as the haughty/pathetic Judge Smails. How about a Fresca?

2. The Empire Strikes Back: In any other year, this would be my favorite. A better overall film that the first, its dark tone and tight script let you know beyond any shadow of a doubt that George Lucas had nothing to do with it.

1. Cruising: Just kidding…

1. The Blues Brothers: One of the funniest movies ever made and one of the greatest musicals ever made. That makes it the greatest musical comedy ever. Peroid. Another film you can quote forever. It’s also my favorite soundtrack (still in heavy rotation on my iPhone).

Films I Like But Didn't Make The List: 9 to 5, The Fog, Brubaker, Flash Gordon, Friday the 13th, The Shining, Raging Bull, Ordinary People, Stir Crazy, Superman II, Breaker Morant

Guilty Pleasure – Any Which Way You Can: I know it’s dumb. Clint Eastwood as a brawler with an orangutan for a friend. But the fight with Jack Wilson is awesome. The Black Widows still make me laugh. And I cannot deny that I enjoy this movie.

Insane, Twisted Film That Must Be Mentioned – Cannibal Holocaust: There are a handful of films that make a mockery of the exploitation genre, that are so excessively brutal and/or sexualized they almost demand their own category. This is one of those films. It’s the kind of film you see once as a teenager because of things you’ve heard about it, and maybe once more when you’re older to see if it was really that bad. But if you watch it repeatedly…you may have a problem or two.

Reoccurring Note: As always, my list is not what I consider my favorite films of a particular year, not the best. If that was the case, Raging Bull would be at the top of the list. These are the films I enjoyed the most. Your mileage may vary.

The Rise and Fall ... and Rise and Fall ... and Rise of Obisdian

There's a really good piece in Kotaku today the ups and downs of Obsidian.
You might think of Obsidian Entertainment as a mistreated genius, a talented group of game-makers responsible for unappreciated gems like Alpha Protocol and Neverwinter Nights 2. Or maybe you don't have much faith in their development skills after the buggy Fallout: New Vegas and the unfinished Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II. Either way, their story is undeniably fascinating.
It's worth the read. And for the record, Alpha Protocol is amazing and I would buy a sequel in a heartbeat, and Neverwinter Nights 2 is a solid followup to the original.

August 6, 2013

Movie Review: Waterloo (1970)

I made one mistake in my life; I should have burned Berlin. - Napoleon Bonaparte (Rod Steiger)

Director: Sergei Bondarchuk

Writers: H.A.L. Craig

Producer: Dino De Laurentiis, Richard C. Meyer, Tom Carlile

Studio: Paramount (US), Columbia (non-US)

Major Stars: Rod Steiger, Orson Wells, Christopher Plummer, Jack Hawkins

Note: In keeping with my policy about movies 25 years old or more, I feel no compunctions about revealing the ending of the film. With that in mind, there are SPOILERS below. If you haven’t seen the film yet, you may want to avoid this review.

Waterloo has a pedigree unlike any other film you’ll find on this list. It is a joint-production between Italy and the Soviet Union shot in the late 1960s at the height of the Cold War. It used over 15,000 members of the Red Army as extras for the panoramic battle sequences, shot in the Ukraine. It was funded entirely by Kinostudiya MosFilm because there was no way to get American funding for the film. And it was a complete box-office failure in the US.

But damn it, this is a good movie. I saw this first on a showcase that Paramount/MGM used to run on Saturday afternoons for their films (Ivanhoe was another film they played). I was probably nine or 10 at the time and I remember just being captivated by the scenery and the colors and the beautiful cinematography of the film.

Waterloo is the story of Napoleon’s defeat in 1814, his exile to Elba and his return to France for the “Hundred Days” that culminated in the epic Battle of Waterloo. It is an excruciatingly accurate portrayal of how the battle went. So much so that you could use this film to teach the battle in a classroom. Sergei Bondarchuk shot it as his sequel to War and Peace, which he directed in 1968.

Rod Steiger plays Napoleon very well. He has him sway between genius and arrogance very easily and believably. Napoleon is a very complicated historical figure. He was a dictator, but he also strove to create a common law and common European state. He was a military genius (understatement, I know) but late in his life he could be paralyzed by indecision or a single bad choice. Steiger portrays all that quite well.

Christopher Plummer steals the film, in my opinion, as General Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington. To the point where if I am reading about Wellington in a book, it is Plummer’s face I see in my mind. He plays Wellington as a proper English general – he has a detached distaste for his own men, he has a gentleman’s respect for the enemy’s officers and thinks nothing of ordering thousands of men to their death. But at battle’s end, he is clearly dismayed by all the death and waste when he says the famous line that "Next to a battle lost, the saddest thing is a battle won".

As to the battle scenes themselves…I don’t think you’ll ever see a better on-screen representation of a battle from the Napoleonic Wars. To try and shoot these sequences today would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Every point of the battle is shown, from Hougoumont to the farmhouse at La Haye Sainte to Napoleon’s final retreat. It is an amazing piece of work. Director Sergei Bondarchuk and cinematographer Armando Nannuzzi deserve a lot of credit for bringing it to life.

August 5, 2013

I Post Photos Too!

I like to take pictures from time to time. I am not some awesome photographer by any means, but sometimes I think what comes out is decent.

Anyway, this is the Scotch bar* from my wedding last June. I bought the bottles over a period of about six months. It was a nice mix of easy-drinking Scotch (like the Auchentoshan) to some peatier brands like the Ardmore 12 (which I loved).


* Technically it was all Scotch and one Irish Whiskey. But Redbreast 12 is a fine, fine drink and worthy of inclusion at the table. The gin? That was for the ladies. As Ron Swanson says, "Clear alcohol is for rich women on diets."

The History of the RPG: Starflight (1986)

Last Installment: Might and Magic Book One

By 1986, the computer RPG was thriving. With games like Might and Magic and Ultima, it was a genre that wasn't going anywhere. But there was something lacking in the RPG department; a different setting.

The RPGs were all fantasy-based. They were full of swords and orcs and wizards and magic. And that was all well and good. But this was also the time of Star Wars having a hold over an entire generation of young children. And of Star Trek making headway as well*. Where was the science-fiction RPG??

The answer to that came in 1986 in the form of Electronic Arts' Starflight**. And what an answer it was.

You are the captain of a starship from a planet called Arth. You start as a ore hauler, but can upgrade your ship to become a warship. You can hire crewmen from five different species to man six different posts. Based on their skill, they can give you upgrades at those posts. And based on who they are, it may be unwise to visit certain areas.

There are two levels to the game. On one you explore space, trading materials and finding suitable planets for colonization. On a larger level, you are trying to discover why stars in the galaxy are going supernova. It's a open-sandbox environment, although you do have to move onto the larger quest at some point. And the major storyline is a good one. You find out why stars are going supernova...and it may not be for the reasons you thought.

The graphics were on par for the time, and in color. The movement was pretty easy.

Travel through space is seeded with random encounters with other species. You can approach them peacefully or raise shields and go in guns blazing. That can sometimes be a major mistake, as you are not the largest ship in the galaxy by any means. And there were creative twists to combat, such as ablative armor and regenerating shields, that you see today.

When you find a planet, you can send a rover down to collect minerals for sale later. And if that sounds familiar to the first installment of a very popular sci-fi RPG trilogy ending this year...there is a reason for that.


Site of Future Awesomeness

Coming soon.

Site of Future Awesomeness

Coming soon