Category Archives: Book and Film Reviews

Saturday Matinee 2017 10: Die Frontschau (German: 1941-42)

This is a collection of nine short training films, remastered on DVD by International Historic Films, your go-to guys for Nazi propaganda of all kinds.

Die Frontschau (English translation? We have faith in your intellect to figure it out) was a Wehrmacht term for films made for the education of replacement units and troops. This disc contains nine separate short films. They are:

  1. Mountain Troops Battle for a Town, classic light infantry combat.
  2. Advance, movement in front and rear areas, on foot and in motorized convoy.
  3. Russian Construction of Fighting Positions, including some interesting bunkers and some very clever tank traps designed to capture the tanks’ treads in pits where they’d have no traction, with the tank high-centered in between.
  4. Infantry on the Attack, walks through a typical small unit attack on a defended position.
  5. Construction of Positions and Shelters, this is from the German side. Amusing praise of the new wonder material: plywood.
  6. Attack by Infantry and Armor on a town, pretty much what it describes
  7. Crossing Ice Surfaces, and Watercourses with Drifting Ice, this gives you a sense of the difficulties of keeping lines of communications open on the Russian Front.
  8. Defensive Battle in Winter, light infantry action in the snows around Leningrad.
  9. Terrain Difficulties in the East, Winter and Spring, another unflinching look at “Russia’s greatest general” and its effects on the Wehrmacht. 

The disc announces that it is remastered and improved. We’ll have more on that claim below.

It does have an English language narrative (an accurately translated one), audio superimposed over the original German soundtrack. You can select either track. The DVD is Region 0 (i.e. it will play anywhere in the world).

The material is all interesting and sometimes unexpected. It brings home just how dependent the German logistics were on railways and animal-drawn transport, and how those were, in turn, dependent on human minds and muscles to maintain and repair ways, and to drive animals. For all the noise made about Blitzkrieg, the American, British, and Red Armies were all much more motorized than their German opponents.

Acting and Production

There is no acting per se; it’s just German soldiers doing their thing for the combat cameramen of the Propagandakompanien, along with some images of Soviet troops from captured Russian combat camera footage.

The original videos were well scripted, narrated, and edited with an unobtrusive but excellent sound track. As they were meant for East-bound soldiers, they’re far from a happy-face propaganda look at the war, and they evidence a considerable respect for Ivan as a well-led, bold and tenacious fighting man.

The quality of the reproduction is not that great. It is all formatted to television aspect ratio, suggesting that this is a remastered VHS product. It is definitely very far from first-generation video, and as a result it’s grainy. But it is generally well shot and well focused, and that’s something.

The DVD mastering on our sample was good (not always our experience with IHF) and the menus worked.

Accuracy and Weapons

Naturally, this real-world documentary video shows real-world weapons firing live ammunition. Some of these are really worthwhile. For example, you get a good look at German engineers dealing with ice around bridges and railway trestles. They blow it in place to prevent damage to the bridge.

Every imaginable kind of Wehrmacht weapon and vehicle seems to have a cameo in the field, like this platoon leader with an MP.40:

But this company commander is using a captured Tokarev SVT 1940 rifle:

The Soviets are well represented, with rifles….

… the popular DP light machine gun…

 

… and Soviet light tanks.

And then there are some images that just surprise you, like the scenes of Germans sailing ice boats on frozen lakes and rivers, and using reindeer as pack animals.

 

We found the engineering aspects most interesting, as the Germans and Russians built, assaulted and defended positions very differently.

The difficulties of operating in the great expanses of Russia are made very clear. You might not need to be insane to attack this place, but with Hitler and Napoleon, Western Europe is 0 for 2.

The bottom line

This is a time capsule of information meant for internal use by the then-victorious German Army in Russia. Anyone interested in how things were done on the Eastern Front in the early years, or looking for hints as to why this one got away from the Germans, would probably enjoy it.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • Amazon.com DVD page:

https://www.amazon.com/Frontschau-Front-Show-Deluxe-Restored/dp/B0027U57H2/

It’s actually a couple bucks less direct from IHF:

http://ihffilm.com/22900.html

 

  • IMDB page (they describe it erroneously as “propaganda newsreels”. It’s actually training films, and it’s pretty unstinting in its depiction of the difficulties awaiting Germans im Osten):

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2457530/

  • IMFDB page (none):
  • Rotten Tomatoes review page (none):
  • Infogalactic  page: (none)
  • History vs. Hollywood Page. (n/a).

A Short Film with a Message

Funny. It seems like we’re always one step behind in the culture wars. Here’s a short film — a bare five minutes — that was made by someone on the gun side of the cultural divide. In it, a man uses a magical talisman to travel back through time, to save a woman’s life. But it will take another magical talisman to get the job done.

Of course, even accepting the time-travel premise of the film, did anyone catch the enormous logical plot hole?

Still, it was very well done for what appears to be a student film; and the subject matter is as daring as all the crowd-followers in Tinseltown pretend to be. Here’s hoping that the filmmakers have a long and productive career ahead, despite their inclination for sacred cow sacrifice.

Holocaust Humor

The second copy of the original manuscript, thought lost for decades.

It was 1938, and Germany and Austria had just merged, to the delight of most Germans… and Austrians. Among the undelighted were Austria’s Jewish minority, not only the out-of-the-frying-pan refugees from German persecution, but also the native Austrian Jews. Like the Jews of Germany, the Austrians considered themselves patriotic citizens and were highly assimilated into the national culture and well-represented in the professions.

They all knew that staying in Nazi Germany would be bad, although nobody knew how bad. While they tried to arrange emigration — something that required large bribes paid to various Nazi people and organizations — they reacted as men under terrible stress have always done, since time immemorial.

They joked about it.

Those of us who contemplated emigration were certainly not in any mood to laugh. And yet perhaps nothing encapsulates the tragedy of our situation–and also the world’s indifference to our fate–better than this little selection of anecdotes that did the rounds among Viennese would-be émigrés at that time. Gallows humour of the Emigration.

Three Jews, who are considering emigration, meet on a street-corner. ‘I’m going to England,’ says the first. ‘I’m going to America,’ says the second. ‘And I’m going to Australia,’ declares the third. ‘Such a long way!’ cries the first, in amazement. To which the one destined for Australia simply replies: ‘A long way from where?’

We didn’t quite get that, or find it funny. But the comedian can be forgiven a certain degree of performance anxiety. Underlying these emigration jokes is the cold fact that England, America, and Australia were not at all anxious to give immigration visas to threatened Jews, particularly as the Nazi regime would ensure that they were stripped of everything they owned in the emigration process, and arrived penniless and dependent.

On to the next joke. They get better (and bitter).

Four Jews, this time. The same old question about destination. The first replies: ‘China.’ The second: ‘New Zealand.’ The third: ‘Bolivia.’ ‘Well,’ says the fourth, ‘I’m staying here.’ The others look at him for a moment in silence. Finally one says, in a tone of admiration: ‘My God: that is adventurous!’

The poor fellow, of course, had no idea.

And finally: one Jew, who has walked his feet sore in the futile effort to get hold of some kind of visa, finally goes into a travel agency. ‘I must get out,’ he tells the man at the desk, in desperation. ‘But where to, where to? Can you give me any advice?’ The man fetches a globe. ‘Here,’ he says, ‘here you have all the countries in the world. You must be able to find something here.’

The Jew turns the sphere this way and that for a long time, shaking his head the whole time. Finally,  crestfallen, he puts it to one side. ‘Well,’ says the man behind the desk, ‘what have you found?’ ‘Oh, sir,’ says the Jew very diffidently, ‘you wouldn’t possibly have another globe, would you? There’s no room for me on this one.’

In this postwar memoir, hidden away for decades and only translated and published recently, the author quickly shifts from the black humor of 1938 to the black despair of retrospect:

To this day I cannot rid myself of a feeling of bitterness, when I think of the endless forest of red tape that was put in our way by most states at that time, as we begged for visas. With a little good will, it would have been possible to save everyone.

Meanwhile Goering–the stout, jovial Goering–had announced even in those days, in Vienna: ‘For Jews who are not able to leave, there are only two possibilities: to die of hunger or to be rooted out by fire and sword.’

 

The author of that was a newspaper man — until the Anschluß, which fired him — and Viennese man of culture and letters, Moriz Scheyer. It is telling that the only pre-1945 photograph of Scheyer to come down in his family is the one fastened to his press pass to the celebrated Vienna Opera.

Unlike so many of the wearily joking Austrian Jews of 1938, Scheyer survived to live free in France, but only after the swastikas were crushed, dynamited and burnt, along with many of the great cities of Europe, by the mighty forces of many nations. He wrote his memoir Ein Überlebender (“A Survivor”) while being concealed from the Nazis in the Convent of Labarde, Dordogne, and he revised the work — once — after his liberation.

The book recounts many close calls, narrow escapes, and dreadful discoveries. But the essence and despair of it is in a sentence you have already read, and we shall repeat:

It would have been possible to save everyone.

Had someone stood up to Hitler, over the Anschluß (unlikely), or over the Rhineland or Czechoslovakia, “everyone” who might have been saved might have been a very high number indeed, not a “mere” six millions. Certainly, had the West truly understood that the Austrian Jews were fated for the disposal that would be formalized four years later at Wannsee, they’d have done something, but the primitive barbarity of the Holocaust was sui generis in modern times.

As you see in the interactions today of great powers with small tyrants, there is always a reason not to act. And if you see the outcome of attempted interventions, there’s always a question as to whether it would have been better, as a net-net humanitarian matter, to let the situation be.

Scheyer’s book’s single manuscript came into the hands of his (ultimately British) stepson, Konrad Singer, who thought it too bitter to publish, and destroyed it. Only years later did Konrad’s son, Moriz Scheyer’s grandson, P.N. Singer, in a project to record family history, find a second copy, nearly forgotten in the attic of a relative. Singer translated and published Ein Überlebender in English, under the title Asylum. It is a remarkable story of survival — Scheyer, his wife Grete, and their longtime family nanny Sláva all survived together, thanks to the Sisters of the Convent among others — but it’s also a look at a remarkable time in history from a unique viewpoint, told by one of history’s unwilling participants.

Moritz Scheyer did not survive for many years after the war (P.N. Singer has been very helpful with an explanatory list of characters and an epilog in the book), but he died a free man in a free country, and that is something. The world is fortunate that he, and his remarkable and unique manuscript, survived.

This is a link to the Kindle edition of AsylumFrom that page you can find other editions, and it’s available cheap as a used book.

Saturday Matinee 2017 05: Sniper: Special Ops (2016)

For some reason, this film was overlooked by the Oscars and Golden Globes. The reason is a mystery. Is it because the nominal star is Steven Seagal, even though he’s in a secondary role? Is it because it was done on a keg-of-beer budget and dumped direct to DVD?

Or might it simply be the quality of the show? We leave the decision to the reader, but we commend the movie to Seagal completists, assuming there is such a thing.

 

Our intention was to review another bad (but not this bad) sniper movie, the Belarusian WWII-story production Sniper: Weapon of Retaliation. But the DVD went tango uniform and we didn’t make it to the end, so we reluctantly unwrapped Sniper: Special Ops and slipped it in to our DVD player.

Oh, the humanity!

Acting and Production

Steven Seagal is not at his best in this show; he’s old now, and out of shape (we can relate), and he never takes his sunglasses off… was he hung over on the couple of days that they shot all his scenes?

Although he’s in the film at the beginning and end, he’s not really the leading actor. That’s a guy named Tim Abell, of whom we can’t recall hearing a word, but who isn’t really bad. Abell plays Victor Mosby, a Special Forces or SOF NCO whose team has the mission of clearing an abandoned village. His performance (both acting and physical) is definitely the strongest in the film. Seagal’s character, Chandler, and a young guy are the sniper team providing overwatch for Mosby’s doorkickers.

Tim Abell in character

Chandler does not do any of Seagal’s signature fighting moves; rather than kicking ass, he seems to be maxed out and out of breath climbing — or descending — stairs, which is about as physical as he gets in this show. The DVD box, read at a glance, credits Seagal and Van Damme but if you read it, it’s actually Van Dam — Rob Van Dam, who has a tertiary role.

 

Dale Dye makes an appearance in his usual role, the ever-older World’ Oldest Lieutenant Colonel. (He’s got to be in his mid-seventies by now, and it’s great to see him working; here’s hoping the check cleared).

 

The movie has the overall gestalt of a 1950 B-movie Western, exacerbated by using the usual Western movie ranch with a little quasi-Afghan set dressing, with hooded “Afghan” extras in the role of sacrificial hadji mooks, complete with the interpreter as Kit Carson scout, the “plucky journalist” (Charlene Amoia, who does the best she can with leaden lines) as the obligatory woman-on-the-frontier, the supply wagon stranded in Indian territory, and the mysterious Indian princess who’s key to the whole thing.

Accuracy and Weapons

A half-assed job was done on the sets, uniforms and equipment. Here’s a close-up showing that Tim Abell’s rifle — the only one that appears to fire on automatic — is a converted Colt Sporter SP1. (Receiver profile is the give away). Abell’s weapons-handling is skilled and natural; he’s an Army NCO veteran, and both a scroll (2nd Battalion, before Regiment existed) and tab Ranger.

Note the truck in the background is a 1960s vintage M35. Yeah, they got that wrong.

Someone did train the actors on firearms, because they do seem comfortable with them. (Dye again, probably).

It seems that some of the firearms were airsoft or dummies, and the muzzle blasts were CGI’d in. It wasn’t terrible, unlike the explosions (yep, fireballs).

Note the actor on the right (Rob Van Dam, we think), who just heard his mom bought the DVD).

Neither the CQB nor the sniping is remotely realistic. And the “Taliban” or ISIL enemies? They seem to be the same guys from martial arts movies, whose brain housing groups are so deficient that they attack one at a time.

Despite being elite supreme ninja super pipe hitters, neither the good guys or bad guys can hit much of anything, so most firefight are a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, hitting nothing. The exception is the reporter chick, who picks up an M9 and proceeds to waste bad guys at 50 yards range, while the good and bad guys are blazing away ineffectually at each other with M4s and AKs respectively.

Also, the reporterette says at one time to Abell’s, remember, she is supposed to be addressing a special ops guy whose life includes lots and lots of trigger time on the range, “I’m qualified as an expert. Are you?” That shuts him up. (We’re guessing Ranger Abell was thinking of the paycheck, and biting his tongue).

The tactics sometimes approach laughable, but from the other side. For instance, a guy is sent to run across an open area to the next available cover, one of the ancient Vietnam vet deuce-and-a-halfs. “Start running, then we’ll cover you.” And he starts, and then they do. We won’t tell you the spoiler of what happens next, but you can probably guess.

At one climactic point, there’s a plot twist that’s so implausible we laughed aloud. Even the dog.

 

The bottom line

At 2 DVDs for $5, we figured, how can we lose with Sniper: Special Ops? Well, we watched it and there went an hour and a half or so of our finite and dwindling lifespan. That’s how.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • Amazon.com DVD page:

https://www.amazon.com/Sniper-Special-Ops-DVD-Digital/dp/B01CDT60CC/

It’s also available as a digital rental/sale product:

https://www.amazon.com/Sniper-Special-Ops-Steven-Seagal/dp/B01EZFJ6QO/

  • IMDB page:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5344794/

  • IMFDB page:

http://www.imfdb.org/wiki/Sniper:_Special_Ops

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page (85%):

https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/sniper_special_ops/

  • Infogalactic  page: (none)
  • History vs. Hollywood Page. (n/a).

Saturday Matinee 2017 04: John Wick

john-wick-posterIf you’re looking for a realistic movie, keep looking. If you’re looking for an entertaining rollick, have a look at this. It’s on the movie channels at present.

Keanu Reeves is the title character, John Wick, and he’s the guy with whom you simply do not want to get crosswise. He has retired from a career in murder and mayhem and lives quietly and introspectively by himself with his adorable dog, his Boss 429 (the first choice of cars for low-profile, off-the-grid operators, naturally!) and the memories of his deceased wife, Helen (played in flashback by Bridget Moynihan).

The beagle puppy wasn’t just any irresistable pooch, but a posthumously-delivered gift from his sainted wife.

This contemplative isolation is interrupted when the spoiled, worthless kid of a Russian organized crime figure (it’s Hollywood, the bad guy has to be someone without an Association for Advancement or Anti-Defamation League or Council Of…) takes a shine to his classic Mustang. In the end, Wick ends up with a beating, and Little Ivan ends up with his car.

And oh, yeah, they murder his dog. Just in case you had any doubts about who the bad guys were. The rest of the movie is gold-plated, ultra-violent revenge fantasy.

Acting and Production

Keanu Reeves makes Wick about as believable as anyone can make such a unidimensional cutout. His athletic ability is taxed more than his ability to emote in close up as he throws, shoots, stabs, slings, skewers, slices and dices armies of doomed criminal mooks, often applying several types of brutality to the same target at once.

 

Most of the other actors exist either to support him or to be killed in grisly, spectacular, choreographic fashion. Willem Dafoe plays the sort of creepy character that occurs when directors specify that the writers write a part for Willem Dafoe!

Reeves has come a long way and has taken some interesting action roles. At least here, he’s not trying to act Japanese, as he did in 47 Ronin, a movie about a Japanese historical event that had highly consequential cultural impact. (47 Ronin is another movie that we thought we had reviewed in this space, but hadn’t). He pulls together the dichotomy of the title character’s and his opponents’ refined, beautiful surroundings and their tendency to violent action.

The directors were first-time-out major-pic guys who had worked as 2nd Unit directors and, perhaps most importantly in this stunt and effects extravaganza, in the stunt world. They delivered a hell of a movie against a $20 million budget.

Because of the puppy’s grisly end in the movie, the dog actor had to show up at the Oscars for proof of life. Here it is:

You’d have your tail between your legs around that crowd, too. Where do Hollywood types turn when they run out of jailbait?

The film has that currently popular dark cinematography — it’s not something you watch happily on a small screen wth the lights on; put it on the largest screen you’ve got, in a darkened room.

As you might have guessed from the picture above, Wick learns the lesson of trying to be low profile with a classic Mustang Boss 429, and spends the rest of the movie with a similarly classic Chevelle SS.

Watch this one with your best dog curled up by you and a beer in your hand, or a gun in your hand to laser-cartridge the bad guys (combining the gun and the beer in the hand can lead to bad consequences, like spilled beer for example. Not recommended — pick one or t’other).

Accuracy and Weapons

Do not look for accuracy here; it’s no less fantasy than the Harry Potter series, at least inasmuch as firearms, knives, and hand-to-hand personal combat are depicted. Choreography, not combat. But it’s fun.

 

Reeves worked very hard to master the martial arts moves and tactical shooting skills he displays in this cult hit. There are videos around of him prepping for this role, and for the sequel, about to hit the big screen, he sought out a bunch of live fire instruction and developed into a skilled practical/combat two-gun shooter.

The bottom line

John Wick was never positioned as Oscar bait, but it put asses in theater seats, and so it got the ultimate seal of approval from The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences: a sequel. We doubt the sequel can bear up under the expectations fans of the first bring to it, because the first was a really entertaining film. Don’t take it seriously, just enjoy the movie. It begins with a man who has retired from a career in murder and mayhem and lives quietly and introspectively by himself with his dog, his car, and his memories. What could go wrong?

And what can you do to get ready for the sequel? Watch the first John Wick!

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • Amazon.com DVD page:

https://www.amazon.com/John-Wick-Digital-Keanu-Reeves/dp/B00OV3VG96/

It’s also available as a digital rental/sale product:

https://www.amazon.com/John-Wick-Keanu-Reeves/dp/B00T484DKC/

  • IMDB page:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2911666/

  • IMFDB page:

http://www.imfdb.org/wiki/John_Wick

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page (85%):

https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/john_wick

  • Infogalactic  page:

https://infogalactic.com/info/John_Wick

  • History vs. Hollywood Page. (n/a).

Thump with TRUMP (No, this is NOT political)

Not the least bit political… this is an entirely different TRUMP. The guy getting sworn in Friday is Trump. TRUMP, all caps, means Training Re-Usable Mortar Projectile, and here you see a demonstration of unboxing a live M2 60mm Mortar, setting it up, and setting up TRUMP rounds and firing them.

The propellant and the on-target pyro charge are 20 gauge shotgun shells loaded with black powder. Strict limits on powder weights must be observed, lest your TRUMP rounds cross the threshold where they’d become unregistered Destructive Devices, a felony violation of the National Firearms Act. This limits the range of the mortar and the spectacle of the rounds’ detonation, but it can’t be helped. The mortar itself is a registered Destructive Device, and in the USA that is handled under the NFA like a machine gun or silencer would be, requiring ATF registration prior to possession, and a $200 transfer or manufacturing tax.

“Yeah, but,” we can hear you thinking out loud, “Where are you going to get a mortar?”

They’re around, but if your local gun store is fresh out, try the guys who made the video, Ordnance.Com. They have a website and a YouTube channel, but they also have M2 mortars just like this one and TRUMP rounds for sale on Gun Broker.

They also have 81mm TRUMP rounds, and older-style 60mm inert, reusable rounds. You can use the 60mm rounds in any 60mm mortar, and the 81mm rounds in any 81 or 82mm mortar.

TRUMP. Make Artillery Great Again.

What Shall We Review in 2017?

Hmmm… It’s time to think about the coming year’s movie reviews. Yep, we plan to keep doing them.

Well, we’re going to watch movies anyway, and going to write anyway, so why not write about the movies we watch?

We’ve broken down the list into three parts, 2016 movies we still haven’t seen, 2016 movies we’ve seen but haven’t reviewed, and expected movies for 2017 that may be of interest to us and to the readers.

Some of you are better connected to the entertainment industry, and might have better visibility on other films, including great foreign films, that we might have missed, so we’re depending on you to vetor  us to those targets.

Still not seen from 2016

  • Patriots Day
  • Silence
  • Hacksaw Ridge
  • Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
  • Miss Sloane

What are we missing, from that list? Most of these we haven’t seen because, frankly, we don’t expect much of them.

Seen and review not published yet

  • Star Wars: Rogue One
  • The Last King (just saw it, so possibly this weekend)
  • John Wick (yeah, it’s older, but we did watch it in ’16, finally)

Coming in 2017

(early ones are definite releases, the further down the list the less certain at this point)

  • Railroad Tigers – 6 Jan, Chinese (Jackie Chan)
  • John Wick Chapter 2 — 10 Feb  His dog lives this time.
  • The Great Wall — 17 February
  • Kong: Skull Island 10 Mar 2017 set in 70s, lots of Hueys.
  • World War Z 2 – -9 July
  • War for the Planet of the Apes — opening 14 July — war between humans and enhanced primates.
  • Ghost Army — date not set — on WWII deception, Bradley Cooper stars and co-produces.
  • Dunkirk — opening 21 July, it looks like a war pic in the tradition of Battle of Britain or The Longest Day.
  • The Dark Tower – 28 July Elba and McConaghey
  • It — 8 September. 1991 King horror series gets the Girlbusters treatment
  • Blade Runner 2049 — 6th October — it has big shoes to fill
  • Kingsman: The Golden Circle — 6 October —
  • Thor: Ragnarok — 3 November — Borderline likely to see this. The Blogbrother loves him some comic book movies, but they basically leave Your Humble Blogger cold.
  • Star Wars Episode VIII — 15 December — well, that gives is a drop-dead deadline to get the Rogue One review done, doesn’t it?
  • Pegasus Bridge — no date — We have long said this WWII D-Day operation deserves a feature film.
  • Ghost Army — no date — on WWII deception, Bradley Cooper stars and co-produces. Success, or a botch like The Monument Men? 
  • The Ottoman Lieutenant  — no details available.
  • Darkest Hour — no date, no details except Gary Oldman is Winston Churchill
  • Redeployment — no date — word is that this is a 2005-style “troops as monsters/victims” screed, just in time for the return of a Republican administration.
  • The Fate of the Furious — Fast and the Furious with even more crime and impossible driving, which will cause even more criminals to splat in stolen cars.

Fortunately, there’s a century of old classics to fall back on.

Please use the comments to suggest any good review targets.

Saturday Matinee 2017 01: Ambush (Finnish, 2002)

Don’t take the DVD cover seriously — there’s a love-and-despair subplot but it’s not a chick flick.

Some of you may have seen this, but it’s pretty far off the beaten track. If you can live with subtitles (or if you understand Finnish, but what are the odds of that?) you may find this one worth pursuing. It’s a Finnish movie based on a novel by the same guy that wrote Talvisota (The Winter War), previously reviewed in this space. Its Finnish name translates to something like The Road to Rukajarvi, a Finnish town that was seized by the Soviets at the end of the Winter War and, in true Soviet style, ethnically cleansed.

The action takes place in the Continuation War, in which the Finns attacked the USSR, with the Soviet empire on the ropes due to the German attack. In the end, the Finns, who were seeking to redress the wrongs of the Winter War settlement, wound up defeated, in part because of the defeat of their German ally, but also because the Red Army of 1942-44 was not the same bag of incompetence that it was in 1940.

These grand-scale doings are told at the lowest level, as we follow the men of a bicycle-mounted reconnaissance platoon as they search the vast wilderness for the enemy axes of attack, and report back to their command. It is a low-budget war, at least on the Finns’ side, a Ruritanian-scale defense against a powerful empire. At this level, individuals, and how they work together, are vitally important. At this level a victory can be more fully shared; a defeat, or a casualty, are more fully taken to heart. You find yourself engaged with these young Finns and their risky mission.

Acting and Production

Unless you are Finnish, you are unlikely to know the actors in this drama. That doesn’t harm audience appreciation of the actors; it may, even, help, because the actors are as new to us foreigners as their characters are. Peter Franzén is especially strong as young lieutenant Eero Perkola, aged by the burden of command.

The Finnish scenery is at once breathtaking and very wild; it is one of the few places in Western Europe that retains significant wilderness. A great deal of cost and effort went into location photography, and it really pays off in the finished movie.

Finnish scenery. two kinds.

The action scenes move along smartly and build tension well. The “inaction scenes” and various flash-forwards and -backs tend to move very, very slowly. This is a long movie that does not need to be so long. Sometimes, the director seems too in love with the beauty of his images and dwells on them, to the detriment of pacing.

Accuracy and Weapons

As far as we could tell, the weapons were exactly what Finns and Soviets would be carrying in the Continuation War: Mosin rifles on both sides, although different in trim; Suomi and PPsh submachine guns; some Russians have Tokarev semi-autos. Supporting weapons like the Finnish Lahti M/26 light machine gun and Russian DP and Maxim MGs abound. Finns use some liberated Russian weapons; Franzén’s character Perkola uses a PPSh.

The weapons are, generally, used appropriately. They don’t produce flaming fireballs and Russian artillery doesn’t fire fireball shells. The vehicles seem period correct, and one has the impression that the crew worked very hard on detail accuracy. The most amazing thing is that this level of accuracy was achieved on the movie’s budget, reportedly $13 million.

The gasoline fire in this scene is simple to explain — this is the eponymous ambush and a truck has been set alight.

The telling of the historical events of the war seem to be accurate, but bear in mind that this film focuses on the platoon — every higher echelon is supposed to be out of focus.

The bottom line

Ambush is a Finnish movie so you have to expect it to comport with the moody, even glum, national character. Moreover, it’s a tale of a decisive war told from the viewpoint of the guys who started the war, and lost. (Yes, they had a grievance, but they did start the war). It lacks the tank attacks and some of the other action of The Winter War, but it is an enjoyable and informative film about a part of Europe that’s off the beaten tourist track, and a phase of World War II that’s off the Anglosphere historical track, as well.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • Amazon.com DVD page. Note that it is an on-demand DVD and we’ve found these somewhat wobbly, quality-wise:

https://www.amazon.com/AMBUSH/dp/B001BXTQB4/

There is also a higher quality import CD for a lot more money. This is the one we watched!:

https://www.amazon.com/Ambush-Peter-Franz-n/dp/B00005Y717/

  • IMDB page:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0162625/

  • IMFDB page:

http://www.imfdb.org/wiki/Ambush_%28Rukaj%C3%A4rven_tie%29

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page (no rating):

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/ambush/

  • Infogalactic  page:

https://infogalactic.com/info/Ambush_(1999_film)

  • History vs. Hollywood Page. (none).

Notes

none

Free Novel by Nick Cole

Nick Cole is an actor and writer, who lost his publisher over the excellent novel CTRL, ALT, Revolt! last year. (We reviewed it here in one of our capsule-review roundups).

At the time (21 October, it says here –>), we also bought another Nick Cole novel, The Red King. It’s a strange apocalyptic tale that merges the we-got-nuked category of apocalypse with the omigawd-zombies category. While we suppose that’s not entirely original (weren’t Godzilla and The Great Behemoth products of nuclear bombs raising scary creatures?), Nick’s play on the book is original.

We forget what we paid for it, probably $2.99, but it was well spent, and now we want to share with you the fact that Nick has made it free for some time (I dunno how long, it’s Nick’s call) on Amazon.com. Nick explains it:

I just wanted to start out 2017 with a Free Book for anyone who wants to get lost in an adventure and take a break from all this end of the world doom and gloom.  It’s a book about the end of the World!!!!  Except fun!  Think Lost meets The Walking Dead.

Of course, Nick has a couple of sequels out now, in what he’s calling the Wyrd series, and surely he hopes people like Your Humble Blogger who read and enjoyed The Red King, buy his other books and enjoy them, too.

And he wants you to get hooked on this kind of apocapopcorn crack, too. So go for it!

We do say that we found his characters… interesting. The protagonist, Holiday, is not especially likable, but you wind up rooting for him anyway. (Joe Finder has done this, too, given readers an unpleasant protagonist who still wins your sympathy and support, even if you are glad all your friends and family members are better people).

Most people who read The Red King will probably like the action scenes best, but Nick has a good ear for dialogue. Maybe that comes from his acting chops, maybe not. Here’s an example, in which Holiday is given some harsh if oblique criticism by Frank, a Vietnam vet:

“Fun guys are for Saturday night,” began Frank anew. “But you see, all this end of the world jazz… this ain’t Saturday night anymore. This is survival now. End of the world type stuff. Back in ‘Nam we didn’t have room for fun. That was for the college kids burning their draft cards and smoking marijuana. Calling us baby-killers so they could make their professors proud of ‘em. In ‘Nam it was serious. Every day for thirteen months and sixteen days. I knew guys that got it early and guys that got it at the end. Taking it seriously made a difference. At least sometimes.”

A bat flapped overhead in the dark, its leathery wings beating at the stillness and heat of the night.

“Other times,” continued Frank after drawing on his cigar. “Someone else got it because another guy didn’t do his part. Usually because he was too busy goofing off. All because he just wanted to have some fun. And that’s where we are now, kid.”

Cole, Nick (2015-12-23). The Red King (Kindle Locations 3135-3142). Nick Cole. Kindle Edition.

Nick provides this shortened link:

http://amzn.to/1YAPVKA

Which enlongenates to:

https://www.amazon.com/Red-King-Wyrd-Book-ebook/dp/B019S9WEHA/ref=sr_1_5?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1450988560&sr=1-5&keywords=the+red+king

Amazon has it listed under Science Fiction, but there’s no droids or phasers here, just a post-nuclear, zombie-filled LA. Kind of like Rodney King Riots that never end.

We hope you enjoy The Red King as much as we did.

Saturday Matinee 2016 052: Fargo (1996)

Fargo is exciting, imaginative, original, and compelling; it makes everybody’s best-of lists, and despite that, the famously imitative Hollywood establishment hasn’t knocked it off. It’s sui generis; it defies imitation, because all of its unique features lock together so well.

It’s the production/directing/writing skills of the Coen brothers (Joel and Ethan), plus the acting talent of an ensemble cast, plus the absolutely unique but eerily authentic setting in wintry Minnesota that glue the audience’s eyeballs open for the entire runtime of the movie.

It also defies genre. It’s dark and thrilling, in places, for a comedy; it’s too funny, in others, for a drama. It’s not a police procedural, even though an unlikely but able cop effectively pursues a bizarre criminal conspiracy; it’s not a caper flick, even though an unlikely, impulsive and incompetent gang of criminals pursue a big score from end to end.

Guns don’t play that big a role in the production, despite the movie containing more murders of well-off white people than a typical year in Minnesota. Sure, there’s shootings, fatal and not, but there’s also an epic non-fatal beatdown, an ax murder, a chair murder (offscreen), and a firewood assault.

You also see Minnesota’s arguably greatest celebrity, the late Prince, in a bit role where he doesn’t show his face, and gets shot (he’s credited, as “Victim in Field,” by the unpronounceable symbol he once affected as a name).

Acting and Production

The acting is a strength of the production, or is it the script? Where does one leave off and the other begin? Frances McDormand won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance as Brainerd, MN, Police Chief Marge Gunderson, and seldom has a statuette been more deserved. McDormand could do 100 classic films, and this still will be the one for which she’ll be remembered. William H. Macy’s dangerous weasel of a car salesman, Jerry Lundergaard, is also a perfectly cast role. The two gangsters, Steve Buscemi as an impulsive, boastful sleazeball and Peter Stormare as a brooding, sociopathic menace, are the sort of criminals whose real-world existence the papers daily attest. You never think, “he’s acting a good criminal,” you think, “egad, what a criminal.” The second line supporting cast, mostly little-known but hard-working actors, make their roles come alive.

The production moves rapidly, and makes the cold, flat, barren landscape of the upper midwest into a character of its own, one that makes the viewer see the plausibility in car dealers’ get-rich-quick schemes and in the sordid interactions of professional, if small-time, criminals. The screenplay also won an Oscar, and like McDormand’s, it was well-deserved.

Accuracy and Weapons

For a movie with lots of cops on screen for lots of time, and depicting lots and lots of murders, guns are not as big a player in the movie as you might expect. The guns are plausible for the era and location. The cops still carry revolvers, Chief Gunderson, naturally, a Chief’s Special.

The bad guys seem to use one or more SIG 22xs, usually at “I seldom miss at this range” range.

There’s no rifles, shotguns, tanks, Bearcats, or gigantic fireball explosions, but that’s par for the course for the 1980s and 90s.

One inaccuracy of the on-screen gunplay is, well, excessive accuracy: every shot fired hits, even though they’re all fired by the worlds two least skilled classes of marksmen: criminals and cops.

Guns aren’t the only weapons used here. There are also many other personal and improvised weapons used in the various on-screen crimes and atonements therefor, including the legendary woodchipper.

There is an ax murder, that is not shown in graphic detail, but that takes place only after a ton of foreshadowing. Chekov’s Gun has nothing on Paul Bunyan’s Axe, and that’s all we’re going to say about that.

The bottom line

Fargo is a delightfully entertaining movie, with deep characters that deserve audience boos and hisses, and that earn that reaction by their actions on screen, not by moviemakers actuating tired old tropes. The Coens are famous for their refusal to ever make the same movie twice, and perhaps that is part of why they never make a movie that is dull or clichéd, but instead make entertainment that is not only worth watching, but almost impossible to stop watching. Fargo was 20 years old last year, and it’s time for it to find a new audience.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • Amazon.com DVD page:
  • IMDB page:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0116282/

  • IMFDB page:

http://www.imfdb.org/wiki/Fargo_(1996)

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page (96%):

https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/fargo/

  • Infogalactic  page:

https://infogalactic.com/info/Fargo_(film)