Category Archives: Book and Film Reviews

Saturday Matinee 2017 14: Breach (2007)

Weapons content of this film is minimal, but it’s a mostly true recounting of the last months of one of the most significant espionage cases in American histoOry. Robert Hanssen was an FBI Special Agent who, while working counterintelligence against the Soviet target, spied for the Soviets. For 22 years, before being caught (he’s now one of the guests of honor in Florence, Colorado’s Supermax, where he lives out his days in solitary confinement).

Hanssen’s motivations were a complex stew of greed and ego; his feelings were hurt that other agents were promoted ahead of him, and he got a sick thrill out of leading an inquiry into the possibility of a mole — an inquiry that would never find the mole, because it was him. 

Breach hit the screens without much impact at all.  Which is a pity, as it’s a tense, psychological drama with deep and, sometimes, puzzling characters. There’s a good bit of tension there, as the FBI closes in on its rogue agent, while at any time the rogue may learn the jig is up. He has two ways he can beat the FBI: by dropping out of espionage before they have enough admissible evidence to convict him, a concept he naturally understands perfectly, or by running a ratline he has asked his handlers to prepare for him.

Acting and Production

The actors here go the extra mile to sell their characters. One small example is the way that Chris Cooper as Hanssen is so intense that, walking down the corridor with a junior officer, Hanssen tends to walk him into the wall, quite unconsciously. In the excellent add-ons on the DVD (of which more below), Cooper’s immersion in this deep, strange, and mysterious character is discussed at some length, but on the screen it’s just a rocking performance, the best in the film, maybe a career best by the underrated actor.

Laura Linney is especially good in a key supporting role as an FBI supervisor so dedicated that she has sacrificed any hope of personal happiness in pursuit of her vital mission. But the way this is exposed is brilliant: when an agent working for her is having problems with his wife, she snaps: “I’d offer you some advice, but it wouldn’t be worth much. I don’t even have a cat.” She delivers the line with just the right blend of anger (she has a good reason to be angry at the agent, who has just screwed up) and bitterness, and the director and writer use it as a transitional moment. This is one example of the way the writer and director often choose to show the audience rather then tell them; to deliver important facts and enriching details in a sparse, telegraphic manner.

An even smaller FBI agent role goes to Dennis Haysbert (now the Allstate Insurance pitchman with the deep voice).

There are no surprises from Haysbert’s character, but the actor brings his trademark gravitas to the part and was a great addition to the film.

Unfortunately, two parts of the production of Breach are far below average. The first is the cinematography, which is extremely dark in 21st Century fashion. Every single one of the screenshots here had to be lightened, or you might not even see the actors or the objects. Some of them had to be lightened a second time (the shot of Linney, above) and some couldn’r really be saved with our image enhancement skills (Haysbert).

The second failure is a surprising one, because it’s one that in most films tends to be so good it’s invisible: make-up. Chris Cooper’s make-up as Hanssen is positively dreadful, and makes one wonder if the producer hired a bibulous mortician by accident. Ryan Phillippe as Eric O’Neill also suffers from obtrusive face paint.

In addition to these, there is one gratuitous, political jab that makes a jarring and incongruous entrance in unrelated dialogue, perhaps thrown in as a Hollywood virtue signal by the writers.

One thing the producers deserve thanks for is the excellent array of special features on the DVD. These include a number of scenes that were cut, primarily, we think, for pacing. By and large the scene cuts were appropriate but having them on the DVD was enriching.

The menu is visible to the left, and we watched each and every one of them and enjoyed them. The Dateline NBC news story, The Mole, is first class, as is Anatomy of a Character, describing how Chris Cooper brought a frankly repulsive, contradictory, and fatally flawed character to life.

Accuracy and Weapons

As you might expect for a true spy story, there is no gunplay, but that’s not the same thing as saying there are no guns. Hanssen has a seeming love-hate relationship with guns and with the FBI’s gun culture. Being able to hit a target is a skill that he’s contemptuous of, even as he warns a young agent that the FBI is a shooting culture and you will be judged by your shooting skill. Indeed, even senior executives are prone to impromptu shooting matches in the Hoover Building’s basement ranges, competing for small wagers or bragging rights.

A plot point turns on this.

Later, the scene is reprised, darkly, with Hanssen and another character.

Of course, Hanssen’s treachery has fatal consequences for Soviet traitors whose identity he learned, and sold back to the USSR. They are walked down a corridor to a meeting… with destiny.

And Hanssen was very prepared for things to go non-linear in his life. As a glimpse in his trunk indicates (AK, 2 G36s, MP5K, AR-15 (A1 style) w/203, and CAR-15 (under the AR):

As it happened, he did not reach for the guns when Bureau agents moved in with overwhelming force, catching him red-handed at a dead drop. Apart from the arsenal in his trunk, he was unarmed.

The accuracy of the tradecraft Hanssen uses to pass intelligence information, and that the Bureau uses to surveil him and build their case against him, is quite good, even though it is generally a background to the human story.

The bottom line

Breach is a powerful character study of a character who remains a disturbing enigma, almost 20 years after his exposure. It was a tough movie to make, especially to make while staying true to the source material — the History v Hollywood link below shows the departures made for the sake of drama, which were many but, mostly, small. But it also does something few movies so, shows the price that many people in the intel and CI world pay for their service.

At one point, Eric O’Neill asks his supervisor, played by Laura Linney, “Is it worth it? Being an agent?” and Linney makes a long, introspective, pause before answering, “Ask me when it’s over.”

There’s nothing in the film that says he asked her, or if so, what she said. But it’s a matter of record that the real Eric O’Neill ceased his pursuit of his dream of a Special Agent job, and resigned from the FBI… in his own way, he was a casualty of Hanssen’s treachery, also.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • Amazon.com DVD page (version we reviewed):

https://www.amazon.com/Breach-Widescreen-Chris-Cooper/dp/B000OYAT3U/

Alternative, streaming version (seems overpriced):

https://www.amazon.com/Breach-Chris-Cooper/dp/B000RVP7YQ/

Alternative, 4-spy-movies-for-$5 (w/o the DVD extras, and maybe with worse compression):

https://www.amazon.com/Movie-Marathon-Conspiracy-Collection-Circuit/dp/B01CQOVHCW/

  • IMDB page:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0401997/

  • IMFDB page:

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

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page:

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

  • Infogalactic  page:

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

  • History v. Hollywood page:

(It’s not on HvH but the same thing at a partner site):

http://www.chasingthefrog.com/reelfaces/breach.php

Parker Otto Ackley Hated his Christian Name

That’s why he went by P.O. all his life. Anybody claiming to be his friend and talking about, “Parker and I…” immediately made an ass of himself to Ackley’s real friends, who were many, and influential in the small world of American firearms.

This is just one of the fascinating details we’ve learned from P.O. Ackley: America’s Gunsmith by Fred Zeglin.

In a time when college graduates and even high school graduates were rare, Ackley was a magna cum laude graduate of Syracuse University (in New York, his native state). His degree was in Agriculture, and he was a member of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.

Why did he become a gunsmith? “During the Depression, there was nothing else to do anyway.” His college studies had made him a remarkably good potato farmer, but his potatoes found no buyers.

In 1936, he bought the Roseburg, Oregon shop of Ross King, who had in turn bought the business from the widow of his former employer in Los Angeles, Ludwig Wundhammer, arguably the first great American sporterizer of military rifles. King moved back to LA and kept gunsmithing for some years.

Ackley bought the shop sight unseen, sold the family farm, and drove to Roseburg to meet King — whose work he respected greatly — and see his new shop. He paid King $1,000 down and $1,000 over time, on a handshake. But he didn’t know barrel making, so he accepted the offer of a friend to teach him. Leaving the family in Roseburg, he spent most of 1936-37 in Cincinnati learning the trade from Fritz, last name unknown, an employee of the friend, Ben Hawkins.

Ackley built much of his own tooling. He could afford only one gun-drill, so his early barrels were all bored .22 and reamed to final size with reamers he made himself. His own rifling machine was one of the earliest button-rifling mechanisms — he claimed to have co-invented the process, although he never filed a patent on it — and an entire chapter of the book is Ackley’s own detailed technical description of this tool. Ackley wrote it for a book that was never published, and the rifling-tool chapter may be the only surviving fragment.

In that chapter, as in many other places in the book, Ackley’s wit shines through.

“P.O. said that Elmer Keith was the biggest bullshit artist in the United States, but if he said he hit something with a .44 Magnum at 1000 yards, you better believe it, ’cause he could shoot.”

“The best way to get an answer to the problem is to ask someone who has never made a barrel. They can always tell you.”

Ackley’s foundation of the school of gunsmithing at the Trinidad State Junior College in Colorado was a surprising story. Ackley left the Ogden, Utah arsenal during the war — some say, after a falling out with co-worker Elmer Keith, the story of which Zeglin was not able to establish, and unconfirmed stories about which Zeglin was unwilling to publish. He ultimately wound up in Trinidad, and, after the war, was buried in a mountain of correspondence from GIs seeking gunsmithing training under their GI Bill benefits. The college, meanwhile, was getting similar letters — thousands of them.

The gunsmithing school was a success from the start, and early students remember an unusual instructional technique: Ackley would disassemble a gun and reassemble it where students could not see it, talking them through the process. Then, in the lab, they’d have to do it themselves, forcing them to learn by doing, not monkey-see-monkey-do.

Lee Womack, one of his former students, wrote:

In spite of his 16-hour days, he was always available…. He gave freely of any information he might have. He used to say that anybody in the gun business who thought he had a trade secret was just kidding himself.

This year will be the 70th anniversary of the program, a living memorial to an interesting American craftsman.

We’ll close with a few more Ackley quotes. On bullpup actions:

My opinion of the Bull-pup idea in general would not be very complimentary, and like the man once said, “If you can’t say anything good about it, then don’t say anything at all.” Therefore, I am silent as HELL on this subject.

On relative and absolute strengths of rifle actions, something which he experimented on extensively:

[A]ny action can be blown up if you try hard enough.

On the strength of the Italian Carcano, proven in his blow-up tests:

In spite of the fact that the locking lugs looked as though you could knock them off with a tack hammer, we were unable to damage any one of the four bolts appreciably. When the actions finally let go the receiver ring flew off, but this didn’t come until we had reached loads whitch had previously blown up P-17 Enfields. I wish to point out. however, that none of this should be used to conclude that the rifle could ever be made into a desirable hunting arm because that is a fairly good definition of the word impossibility.

As you might imagine, we’re loving the book.

Walking in PO Ackley’s Footsteps

In a post we wrote a couple of years ago but that never appeared on this blog (because it was never finished), we wrote about legendary 20th Century riflesmith and cartridge wildcatter Parker Otto Ackley, known to all as P.O. Ackley.

PO Ackley made an entire career of making what he called “improved” cartridges. Each of the Ackley improved cartridges was based on some mainstream cartridge but with an increased powder capacity and a sharper shoulder, which implies less taper in the body of the cartridge itself.

We described Ackley similarly in another post that did get published, in 2012. That of course understates Ackley’s career, because apart from all his cartridge wizardry, Ackley was a gunsmith, barrel maker, and a writer with a prodigious capacity for work.

in a new book by Fred Zeglin, this career is explored and evaluated, and Zeglin actually emulates some of Ackley’s famous experiments, including these on Bolt Thrust that are excerpted at GunDigest.com.

Since the post-WWII years, if not before, there has been an ongoing argument concerning whether breech thrust (bolt thrust) is reduced by the improved case design. P.O. Ackley has certainly influenced the argument. The definition of an improved case is pretty simple. The case body is blown out to minimum body taper, which is described by Ackley as 0.0075 per inch taper. Shoulder angles between 28 and 45 degrees are normally considered to be improved, although it could be argued that any shoulder sharper than the original parent case is improved. Finally, an improved design allows the firing of a factory cartridge in order to fireform the brass for the new design.

…a method of recording breech trust was necessary in order to go beyond the somewhat subjective experiments that P.O. Ackley wrote about in Handbook for Shooters and Reloaders Vol. I. There Ackley used a Model 94 Winchester because, as he stated, “We often hear that the Winchester Model 1894 action was designed for low pressures and is an action which could be described as ‘weak.’” The purpose of his experiment with the ‘94 was to prove that the improved case design minimized bolt thrust; that the brass will support and contain some pressure; that oily chambers increase bolt thrust; and finally, the notion that actions are designed for specific pressure ranges is a fallacy.

Zeglin conducted a high-tech version of Ackley’s tests, using a test fixture he developed, “a .30 caliber barrel with a universal breech plug to allow for adjustable headspace, and to accommodate the strain gauge utilized by the Pressure Trace.” He developed loads beyond the SAAMI pressure limit for the .30-30 Improved, and discovered that even with excess headspace, the Improved case stayed in place, extruding the primer instead of shearing its head off. Conclusions:

[W]as Ackley right about his findings?
Yes, but he may have missed a point or two.

Since .30-30 brass is thick and pressures are low relative to brass strength and case capacity, with most appropriate powders pressure is not a big problem. To be fair, we did find some powders that will develop pressure far beyond SAAMI levels for the .30-30 AI case. Because the brass is so thick, it actually cannot stretch and cause head separations due to excess headspace. In that respect the .30-30 is not a good choice for Ackley to prove that improved designs handle pressure better.

However, Ackley used the .30-30 because the ‘94 Winchester action had been labeled weak. In this respect, Ackley did prove that the ‘94 can handle anything the .30-30 or .30-30 AI can dish out, without any question.

Bear in mind that the action of the Winchester ’94 was labeled weak by Winchester, who wanted to upsell customers to stronger rifles, like the ’95, which could handle the big-game and service cartridges of the early 20th Century with no problems.

There’s quite bit more to it, so Read The Whole Thing™. In other things in the book there is something that made us order it: Ackley’s own, previously unpublished, description of his own home-made cut rifling machine. (See the Table of Contents left).

Like any highly specialized book, it’s expensive, and has potential to go out of print at some time in the future. That’s just life in specialty book markets.

How expensive? The list price for hardcover or eBook is $60, although at this writing Gun Digest is sweetening the deal with $10 off the hardcover edition, and free shipping. (Pity they don’t offer a deal on both. We prefer hardcover books, but you can take a Kindle or iPad into the shop without worrying about getting cutting fluid on an irreplaceable heirloom). For what it’s worth, we just ordered the hardcover.

While this book rates the full price (to us at least), Gun Digest publishing does find itself overstocked from time to time, and if you’re into gun books and willing to let price be your guide, they have Under $30 and Under $15 pages, too. Free shipping if you can run the tab to $50 — we bet you can. (Dunno what the shipping is to those of you dwelling in foreign lands).

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.