Category Archives: Book and Film Reviews

Saturday Matinee 2014 07: Miracle at St. Anna (2008)

miracle_at_st_anna_dvdIt’s the 1980s, and you’re in a setting that’s just as mundane and boring in real life as it is in the film: a post office. A clerk is working the window; not particularly sociable even by the low standards of the postal service, he keeps his head down. 

A man asks to buy a single stamp in a European accent. The clerk looks up. There’s a flash of recognition, and before you can say Jack Robinson the clerk has produced a pistol — a Luger, oddly enough — and fired two rounds into the presumed postal patron, who falls dead as a mackerel.

The camera pulls back. What the hell just happened?

Welcome to the start of Miracle at St. Anna, which could have been one of the great classic war films if it maintained that level of impact throughout. We’ll tell you right now, it didn’t. There are too many characters, and too many complicated interactions; the movie has ambitions beyond the possible, and the dynamic opening’s energy level is frittered away in a horde of subplots.

It was bold of Director Spike Lee to attempt this film, and the Buffalo Soldiers (of all eras of the segregated Army, from the Civil War to the first year of the Korean War) deserve to have their stories told. But when you blend an auteur director and an MFA-type literary novelist’s story (one of the sort that are written for fellow Manhattanites only), season with anachronisms, and strain through the demands of the medium, what winds up on screen is a hard to follow sequence of too many vignettes that don’t string together.

Some parts of it are really good; you have to credit Lee and his impressive Italian and American cast for a great effort. But the story is chaos, and they lose the chance to give the main characters depth by flooding the screen with minor characters who are type, stereotypes, or caricatures.

miracle_at_st_anna24The irony of the black men fighting for a country that denied them equal rights is hammered home in a prewar flashback within the flashback, in which they are unwelcome in a southern lunch counter, while Nazi POWs — who might be Nazis, but they’re white — are. In case you had any doubts about the moral standing of Nazis, you see some examples later on.

Acting and Production

As mentioned, the actors are generally first-rate. Lee had some bigger names (including Wesley Snipes) lined up for the film… nothing but names were lost when they fell through.

Some actors are given narrow and shallow parts, parts developed like bit parts, and then get too much screen time for the narrow characterization. Other characters are deep and interesting, particularly the four key American soldiers, and we wanted to see more of their characters. They are:

miracle_at_st_anna02

Train, Bishop, Stamps, Negron (l-r).

Corporal Hector Negron is the key protagonist — and also the guy who Lugered the European in the movie’s throat-grabbing opening, an act we have no explanation for until well into the movie. He’s a Puerto Rican who has picked up Italian, making himself very useful to the men. Laz Alonso plays the part — a difficult part when you factor in the elderly-Negron scenes — very well.

Staff Sergeant Audrey Stamps — the leader of a patrol of four Americans cut off behind enemy lines in the Italian campaign. They were cut off when a white officer who leads from behind negligently called an artillery barrage on his own troops.

Sergeant Bishop Cummings, a smiling, slick operator of a fellow.

Private Sam Train, who like his name is large and strong. But he’s also very gentle and more than a bit superstitious. He seems to be somewhat hard of thinking. Omar Benson Miller disappears into this character, who’d have been unbelievable without Miller’s great performance.

The Italian and Nazi characters are sketched in with a few lines each, but one interesting thing is that every group has good and evil people within it, with the possible exception of the black soldiers; some of them are morally conflicted, but nobody’s out-and-out evil like some of the Italians, Germans, and American whites.

Accuracy and Weapons

miracle_at_st_anna15Almost every single weapon here is something that the character quite probably would have used, in real life. That’s a minor accomplishment. The weapons also manage to have the right level of weathering, too: frontline soldiers’ guns are well-used, but it’s recent use. It’s not the patina of age, which you sometimes see in scenes shot with vintage firearms.

The four men have three Thompsons — M1928s, which probably should have been less photogenic M1s by this stage of the war — and a Garand, although it seems luck of the draw that the isolated men are one rifleman, two NCOs, and a radio operator (Negron) carrying the weapons that they should carry.

Only a couple of the machine guns that are briefly on screen are wrong: one’s a Vickers and one’s a British aerial Browning, incongruously standing in for American Brownings. Someone at IMFDB also caught a detail we missed, that in a scene showing two MPs, they’re holding postwar M1 carbines, not wartime guns.

The Germans are armed with Lugers, K98ks, MP40s (maybe too many MP40s) and MG42s. Both sides have mortars, and quite surprisingly, they’re the right mortars. The Italian Partisans have a mix of German, Italian, and typical airdrop (i.e. STEN) weaponry.

miracle_at_st_anna29There’s little hooey. Most of the artillery hits look like artillery hits (grey and brown dust explosions), but it wouldn’t be a Hollywood production if there weren’t a few hero explosions made of flaming explodiumite.

The tactics, of course, are laughable; the Germans especially seem prone to blazing away, or charging like brain-dead cannon fodder, in the tradition of Hollywood enemies since time out of mind.

One scene that seems phony is the St. Anna church massacre. But despite the scene’s barbarity, it’s not a writers’-room fantasy of monstrous Nazis. Novelist and screenwriter James McBride lifted it rather directly from history. It depicts the actual conduct of real, living, actual monstrous Nazis; in fact it understates it, as 560 Italian civilians, mostly women, children and old men, were murdered in Sant’Anna di Stazemma that day.

Italian partisan vets did not like their portrayal in the film (or the novel) according to this story, which mistakenly calls author/screenwriter James McBride a WWII veteran (he’s in his fifties, and not a veteran at all insofar as we know).

The bottom line

Miracle at St. Anna is an attempt to make a movie as a work of art; as a result, it falls short of a work of entertainment. And that’s how we review ‘em here.

There are better options for your entertainment hours, unfortunately. Where Miracle comes into play, is as an educational film. Many young Americans are profoundly ignorant about our nation’s history, especially its military history. Most of them are astonished to learn that black units, other than the glamorized and celebrated Tuskegee airmen, fought and fought well in World War II. It’s a particularly good film for a black father to use, to connect his sons to American military history and the creditable service of segregation-era black units.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • Amazon.com DVD page:

http://www.amazon.com/Miracle-St-Anna-Widescreen-Edition/dp/B001LLH8SO/

  • IMDB page:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1046997/

  • IMFDB page:

http://www.imfdb.org/wiki/Miracle_at_St._Anna

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page:

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

  • Wikipedia  page:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miracle_at_St_Anna

Why do we have gun books? Labors of love, mostly.

principles_of_firearmsWe’re sitting a mere few steps from the Unconventional Warfare Reference Library, and the office itself is where many of the gun books live. The shelves are an expanding display of tomes in all stages of use: regular references, to be read next, to be read some day, being read now, being reread.

There are new books coming out from time to time, often labors of love by well-informed, detail-obsessed authors. These books don’t get into mainstream bookstores; by getting interested in the design or history of firearms, friends, we all have joined a minority group.

You might think the authors are richly remunerated for their efforts. You would probably be mistaken. The key fact is bolded in the email excerpt below, as reported in the Huffington Post:

Average book sales are shockingly small, and falling fast. Combine the explosion of books published with the declining total sales and you get shrinking sales of each new title. According to BookScan — which tracks most bookstore, online, and other retail sales of books (including Amazon.com) — only 263 million books were sold in 2011 in the U.S. in all adult nonfiction categories combined (Publishers Weekly, January 2, 2012). The average U.S. nonfiction book is now selling less than 250 copies per year and less than 3,000 copies over its lifetime. And very few titles are big sellers. Only 62 of 1,000 business books released in 2009 sold more than 5,000 copies, according to an analysis by the Codex Group (New York Times, March 31, 2010).

via BJ Gallagher: The Ten Awful Truths — and the Ten Wonderful Truths — About Book Publishing.

That’s the average; meaning, quite a few of them are below that. Most likely, a very few titles sell a very many books and a larger number sell almost no books, leaving the median probably somewhere in the 200-500 book region.

If you look at a non-fiction bestseller list, you may despair. Fad diets seem to be the big thing (but for every bestselling diet book there are probably 2,000 going right to remainders). You could always sell a book by writing bullshit about conspiracy theories, or yetis, or space aliens. (Unless you call it fiction, in which case it’s arguably science fiction, and given your hopes of sales success, you’re probably someone whose retirement plan involves a great deal of confidence in Powerball).

And non-fiction is far outsold by fiction. Analysis of data shows that Amazon, the largest bookseller, sells about 180,000 non-fiction books a day, and fiction accounts for over 600,000.

Another excerpt from that list of Awful Truths at HuffPo resonates deeply here (although we’re actually concatenating two list items here).

Many book categories have become entirely saturated, with a surplus of books on every topic. It is increasingly difficult to make any book stand out. Each book is competing with more than ten million other books available for sale, while other media are claiming more and more of people’s time. …Everyone in the potential audiences for a book already knows of hundreds of interesting and useful books to read but has little time to read any. Therefore people are reading only books that their communities make important or even mandatory to read. 

We definitely buy books on recommendations from “the community” (one uniformly good source of book tips is ForgottenWeapons.com). And we have been remiss in reviewing more of the many books we buy and read here.

We also personify the problem mentioned in the second excerpt above, in that we don’t always read the books we buy right away. Reading time has to compete with writing time, range time, actual operations consulting and training time, PT time (which has suffered in the last three months, to the point where a WeaponsMan begins to resemble a cannon ball — not good), family time, and, and, and…. As the King of Siam might say, “et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.”

Someone else can’t read for you, and can’t write for you. Conversely, one almost has a duty to write. If you die without organizing and writing down your knowledge for transmission, it dies with you, irretrievable in the slowing chemistry of dying neural networks.

We suspect that the reason we are blessed with so many books about the field of firearms, and such good books these days, is that the writers are compelled to write. Driven to write. They feel that call of, “duty, heavier than a mountain,” as the Japanese sages put it. And we all benefit.

The next time you sit down with a book on some gun, or company, or designer, whether to learn from the words, enjoy the pictures, or just answer a question, think a moment about the author. It is very unlikely the book made him rich. For all the money it put in his pocket, his hours might have been spent more productively welcoming you to Wal-Mart. But he has a form of immortality; his ideas, perhaps stilled in real life along with his voice and his heartbeat, reach out and now live in your neurons and synapses.

This week, three old books came in. They are old enough that the authors, in the main, are not with us (one was an effort by a large group, and recent enough that some of the writers may yet be enjoying the lawn from the blade rather than root view). We know little enough of the authors, and with their works long predating the Event Horizon of the Internet of circa 1992, have found little about them online.

smallArmsinProfileOne of the books is Small Arms in Profile, Volume 1 (1973), which is a collection of single-gun histories once published as small booklets; each is 20 pages long, and some contain color plates. As you might expect, they are primarily about well-known guns, and they vary widely in their depth and scope. Can you tell the story of the Luger, of Winchester, or of FN Browning pistols? You can, but it must be a constrained version of the story. Narrower-scope stories are somewhat better served. Just-the-facts are delivered in clipped Sandhurst accents by editor AJR “Sandy” Cormack, John Weeks, FWA Hobart, and Gordon Conway, all respected British small arms experts. A second volume was planned, but apparently never published. Quite a few individual profiles beyond the dozen in Volume I were printed, but they were never collected into bound volumes. It’s a pity, as the print quality of our US edition hardback (Doubleday) is far superior to the ephemeral paper profiles.

Charles E. Balleisen was an ordnance officer and wrote a significant textbook on firearms design and substantiation, Principles of Firearms, which was published by John Wiley in 1945. There appears to have been but one edition in one printing, a rather drab War Production Board affair with paper that has not held up well to the years. The book is clear, concise, and aimed at the professional engineer who is not new to statics and mechanics but is entirely a novice to firearms. We won’t fully review these books in this article, of course, but we consider Principles a very useful book despite its age.

From what information we’ve been able to find, Mr Balleisen was probably born in 1912 in Philadelphia, and lived there and on Army bases, although he did not appear at all in the 1950 or 1960 Census records. Was he transferred overseas? Or did he die young?

We did find an interesting letter (most of letter  last page), correcting an academic paper on an orrery (a machine that emulates the movement of the solar system’s celestial bodies) from September, 1938, by a Charles E. Balleisen. Same guy?  Well, his address was “Aberdeen, Maryland.” Make of that what you will.

Pictorial History of the Sub-Machine GunThe last was FWA Hobart’s Pictorial History of the Sub-Machine Gun, the hyphen giving this away as a British production. Hobart (the initials stood for Frank William Archer) was a heavyweight of firearms expertise, in his day; he was a retired Major of the British Army and the editor of Jane’s Infantry Weapons for the now-venerable yearbook’s first two editions. But as he lived and died before the event horizon of the internet, he leaves even fewer traces online than Balleisen. He doesn’t even have an Amazon author page, despite his prolific output in the 1970s, almost all of which would be edifying to any regular reader of this blog.

Part of that output was a series of Pictorial Histories, of which we’re familiar with the Machine Gun book and this Sub-Machine Gun one. They’re rather more in-depth than the typical entry in Jane’s, and less so than in Small Arms Profiles (for which Hobart was a contributor) and much less so than Small Arms of the World (Hobart appears to have contributed by correspondence). The particular strength of Pictorial History of the Sub-Machine Gun is that it covers many unusual, prototypical, and one-off guns. While the Machine Gun book suffers by its obsolescence, the SMG book is much less so, because developments in the field since Hobart committed the work to the printers in 1978 have been so sparse. He covers the MP5, he covers the Ingram, and those were the last SMGs really widely distributed until some Russian developments in the 1990s and the new SIG. He does miss out on some special-purpose guns and interesting prototypes, but by and large the whole history of submachine guns can be told between 1918 and 1978 without too many omissions. Within 10 years the principal remaining employers of the SMG would be on track to replace them with short rifle-caliber carbines.

Hobart’s writing is always clear and concise. Sometimes he suffers from the uniquely British problem of being an expert on guns in a country that does not let anyone fire the things, but his errors are few and relatively inconsequential, especially compared to the value of information in his books that is now, otherwise, lost.

Returning, for conclusion’s sake, to the market for books in general, we’re rather encouraged by some statistics put forward at a new website called Author EarningsWhile the authors represented here are genre fiction writers, they’ve made a very interesting discovery, whilst massaging some data pulled from Amazon bestseller lists: more and more books being sold are e-books. This is bad news for authors signed to traditional publishers, because the publisher takes a bigger cut and the author a smaller for an e-book; but it’s good news for the small-press or independent author: he or she gets a larger share of a growing market, and e-books have a long tail. Balleisen and Hobart are out of print, but, as the benefits of internet disintermediation extend to gun writers, the opportunity to be paid for one’s writing is actually increasing.  And the long tail of a book on, say, the H&R T48 version of the FAL (to name one book that does not now exist) means that an author may make only $25 a month, but he may be making that $25 still thirty years from now.

Saturday Matinee 2014 06: Under Heavy Fire (2001)

Under Heavy Fire-DVD Under Heavy Fire has been released in two formats and with two titles; this review is of the shorter one. And our heart goes out to anyone who actually had to watch the long one and review it. (It was under the title Going Back.). As Under Fire it’s a staple of the 20-movies-for$10 anthology DVDs, thrown together with other B-movies and TV movies and old black-and-white two-reelers. It is a Vietnam movie, and a contender for the hotly contested title, Worst Vietnam Movie, Period.

This is despite, or perhaps because, it was directed by Sidney Furie, who made the cult Vietnam war film The Boys in Company C. That movie, too, has its absurdities, but it hangs together better than this monstrosity, and introduced R. Lee Ermey as the drill instructor (Full Metal Jacket borrowed many things from The Boys). But the lightning that struck Furie in The Boys in Company C appears to have missed him this time.  

 

Original version, even longer.

Original version, even longer.

The movie follows a half-dozen Marine vets, now middle-aged, as they return to the scenes of their crimes in Vietnam, and hash out their personal demons and their difficulty with their former CO, who was either ruthless or incompetent and got them all killed. And is one of the guys on this tour with them. That happens all the time!

Naturally there is a documentary team, a homely woman producer/reporter and a runty cameraman, so there can be movie-in-movie cuts. The actual Vietnam story is told with flashbacks which fade in from black and white, and that’s as imaginative as they get. (“But that’s not imaginative! you protest. “That’s a dreadful cliché!” Exactly).

The interspersed combat scenes are the best of a bad mixture, and they have the usual nonsense (great fireballs, Marines leading only by pulling rank, and worse) but the lame script and pedestrian directing show that whoever it was whose judgment kept this out of theaters and sent it direct to Insomniac Movie Hour on the UHF stations (remember them?) is a man of discernment, and a better custodian of the producers’ money than whoever got this turkey filmed in the first place. 

The Vietnamese are, with the exception of the South Vietnamese, universally noble and great. The Americans are cowardly and brutal. And so it goes….

Acting and Production

Casper Van Dien screams at the backs of his men as they blow his leadership off.

Casper Van Dien screams at the backs of his men as they blow his leadership off.

There are people credited as actors who appear on the screen of this production. The lead is Casper Van Dien, who exploits his entire emotional range — from brooding to scowling to screaming — although it seems to really challenge him to do this. His love interest is a documentary filmmaker played by the stone-faced and horsey Carré Otis, who matches Van Dien’s range and skill. Almost. This disastrous casting is compounded by a script and direction that frequently uses a yawnsome shot of one of these two rigid tiki statues not emoting at great length. The rest of the characters are single-tagline stereotypes.

The essential question — what really happened that led to friendly artillery fire hitting the men’s unit? — feels forced and its ultimate resolution is glaringly obvious to everyone but the dullards on screen.

The portrayal of the US and its allies as brutal and cruel and the NVA as humane and beneficient may have been the price of filming in postwar Vietnam, or it may have been the price of hiring screenwriters with their heads full of Malibu clichés. Your guess is as good as ours.

Accuracy and Weapons

UHF_M60The weapons of the Vietnam War and the mens’ equipment is generally depicted accurately. The  artillery bursts are sometimes more realistic than those in many films, with the dust and smoke shown instead of the usual Hollywood fireball, but the fireballs do show up from time to time.

The men don’t act like combat Marines, and are often set to acting the lifer civilian’s bizarre notions of how leadership works in combat units, which leaves Van Dien’s character screaming “Stand down!” (an expression 99% more likely to be uttered in a Hollywood movie than in an actual disagreement among warriors) and, our personal favorite, “Muuuuutinyyyyy! Muuuuutinyyyyy!”

If only the crew had had some pro rata share of that spirit of mutiny, they might have been able to save the world from the creation of this cinematic turkey. But, alas and alack, they followed their orders.

The bottom line

Under Heavy Fire is one of the worst Vietnam movies ever made. Maybe the worst.

It’s strictly for Vietnam-filmography completists, people who can’t get up from the exercise machine to jump forward to the next DVD on that 20-war-movie set, and masochists. It might also have some utility for film-school novices: as an instructive bad example. 

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • Amazon.com DVD page:

http://www.amazon.com/Under-Heavy-Fire-Casper-Dien/dp/B000077VQJ (one of the sellers has it for a penny, used. Our advice: save your penny).

  • IMDB page:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0243278/

  • IMFDB page:

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

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page:

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

  • Wikipedia  page:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Under_Heavy_Fire

Maybe the worst ‘War’ Movie ever

The original link “http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fw5jEp3ZwR0″ says “the video has been removed by the user.” Here’s another upload.

It’s not just really bad. It’s about the war on wanking.  We got a particular kick out of the way they armed the actors with SKSes and at least one tube-fed .22. But nothing really beats the way they use the SKS sights: Screenshot 2014-02-03 01.06.17 Erm, yeah. Well, it is a movie about wankers. So there is that. And at least it has a happy ending. If you can’t make it all the way through this short without blinding yourself with tears of laughter, we’ll put up the spoiler for you: after his buddy talks him out of amusing himself by abusing himself, his lonely life ends. Future Plaintiffs pop up like mushrooms, as if the spores were always there. Hmmm. Maybe that’s what we did wrong. Does it work in reverse?

Saturday Matinee 2014 05: The Last Stand (2013)

Last_Stand_2013After a long time away from starring in films, Arnold Schwarzenegger came back. And what we learned was this: for all his star power, he’s really dependent on all the people off camera. If the writers and directors drop the ball, Ahhhhrnold can’t carry it all by himself. Maybe that’s because he’s not as young as he used to be; maybe that’s because a life in politics, surrounded by suck-ups, has impaired his judgment; maybe it’s just that this film, which hit theaters unnoticed a year ago, was on DVD a few weeks later, and is on Netflix now, blows for reasons unrelated to its marquee star.  

Schwarzenegger plays a rural sheriff whose small county seat happens to lie athwart the escape route the most violent escaped criminal ever, a Mexican cartel boss, intends to take. He and his laid-back deputies need to find the wherewithal to beat the cartel sicarios – at least, until the cavalry (spelled FBI, and led by a smart but sometimes overwhelmed Forest Whitaker)

The movie was aimed squarely at 12-year-old boys; if you sit and watch this with a female SO, you will be doing chick-flick penance until September. 

Acting and Production

Vickers the last Stand_21Surely the bulk of the personnel budget (perhaps the bulk of the budget, period) went to signing  Schwarzenegger, but they found some solid and established character actors for down-marquee roles. Forest Whitaker is the earnest FBI agent with an escaped-con problem; Harry Dean Stanton has a blink-you-missed-it cameo as a cantankerous farmer; Luis Guzmán is a brave deputy; Brazilian Rodrigo Santoro, whom you saw but didn’t recognize (how could you?) as Xerxes in 300, shows action-hero potential of his own in a supporting part as a Marine vet. Peter Stormare, a Shakespearean actor turned first-call Hollywood bad guy, plays a key bad guy convincingly (especially once you learn Stormare is actually Swedish).

Johnny Knoxville-the last standThey also found Johnny Knoxville, and wrote a character right out of Jackass for him to play. Knoxville’s character, lines, and performance are a supernova of fail; if you get sick of the show and shut it off, it will be when Knoxville is on screen (or as soon afterward as you recover your normal range of motion). He’s that bad. Knoxville plays a comic-relief character named Lewis Dinkum, whose function is, first and foremost, to be a small-j jackass; second, to expound incorrectly on US gun laws; and third, to provide Schwarzenegger’s small-town sheriff with the firepower he needs to take on “the cartel.” The cartel’s enforcers, in classic Hollywood villain-from-central-casting style, are American mercenaries led by a Southern loudmouth (Stormare).

The script is pretty dreadful. The action is fairly nonstop, if seldom believable.

Accuracy and Weapons

There is no attempt to tell a story with any verisimilitude, or even credibility, so accuracy is not a concern of the cast & crew. The weapons writen into the script were put there to look good, not because they make any sense. A Vickers (Knoxville’s character calls it “my 1939 Nazi killer!” plays a role, as does a 1921 Thompson whose origin is unexplained on screen. The guns all have bottomless magazines (until it’s time for a hero to fistfight) and the explosions are all big and firey.

The Last Stand-BlaserThe bad guys are armed with everything from a Blaser sniper rifle (fired offhand!) to a Carl Gustaf 84mm antitank weapon, which in the film launches Jerry Lee Lewis-worthy great balls of fire. The good guys talk about how they need bertter arms than rifles and shotguns, and are the shown loading rifles and shotguns. (?) Other good guy weapons include a Smith & Wesson .500 and an antique Colt revolver rifle.

A few of the details of the borderlands are about right, including the predominantly Hispanic (but mostly Anglophone) native population & power structure, and the fact that drug cartels exist and are a problem in this area.

Nobody seems to have heard of the laws of physics. At one point, the bad guy, fleeing in a Corvette ZR1, turns back and uses his shovel-nosed sports car to ram and flip two three-ton FBI SUVs. This chips the paint of the Corvette. Kids, don’t try this at home. Later, there is a car chase in a cornfield. We are not making that up. 

The bottom line

The Last Stand is not a movie to pay money to watch, and not one to expect much of. It’s an hour and forty minutes of gunfire and explosions, so there is that at least. There are a few good lines: at one point, the cartel fugitive says, “10,000 Mexicans come across that border every day. What difference does it make if one goes back?” 

But in the end, The Last Stand asks you for more than to merely suspend disbelief. It requires you to hang it by the neck until dead, dead, dead.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

 

Don’t miss Enlisted tonight at 9! NOW!

Ladies and gents, the good news is, last week (no doubt thanks to our plug here) the touching and clever comedy Enlisted, set on a stateside Army post while most of the troops are deployed, had its best ratings week — over 3 million viewers. That sounds great, and the fact that the show’s up week overt week is good, but it isn’t enough.

This show is what a lot of you guys say you want: it’s a depiction of the military that shows soldiers as real people, and that treats military values with care and respect. The cast and crew worked their hearts out to bring 13 episodes to Fox.

So go out and watch it (or DVR it, for crying out loud, you kids) so that there are more viewers this week, too. And next week… so that the advertisers want to be on this show. And the network executives greenlight next year’s episodes, and all the talented folks who work on the show are rewarded for their efforts and their decency towards us. 

Saturday Matinee 2014 04: Bullet to the Head (2013)

bullet to the head posterIn 2012, Sylvester Stallone decided to use publicity events for the movie he was promoting to make himself relevant to the anti-gun media by denouncing guns and the people that own them, to try to leverage the publicity over crimes into publicity for his upcoming movie — this turkey.

The transparent move worked about as well as you might expect, considering that Stallone’s character in the movie is a slow to think, quick to act, violent serial killer named James Bonomo aka Jimmy Bobo. Apparently the actor, who is rumored to be very much brighter than the knuckle-dragging morons he usually plays, is, despite that, not so great at self-assessment.

 

He's against guns and violence.

He’s against guns and violence.

It probably didn’t help that the movie was named “Bullet to the Head” after a pithy line that Jimmy Bobo delivers, when pressed to explain his philosophy. Or that another pithy line of his, which the studio no-brain trust selected for promotion, was “Guns don’t kill people. Bullets do.” Or that the producers thought it was clever to have the movie poster and DVD box display faux bullet holes.

As you might imagine, Instead of getting the boost that  Stallone was gunning for (no pun intended, no, not really), the movie vanished into the deadpool of cinema oublié, never to be heard from again. 

 

"Buy my movie, or else. I need the money. The suit's a rental."

“Buy my movie, or else. I need the money. The suit’s a rental.”

Until some itinerant WeaponsMan bought the DVD (we were concerned that Bobo needed the money) and popped it into the slot for a review. We promise the review will not dwell overly on the Harmonic Irony Convergence produced by Hollywood muscleheads who think that they can (1) send a message of peace, love and gun control that (2) depends entirely on their celebrity that in turn (3) usually derives from playing immoral or amoral murderous characters and (4) simultaneously believe that their movies have great social impact, but only when they’re sending good messages. When they’re sending bad messages (like, “If you kill enough citizens, crooks and cops for money you can buy a Ferrari like Jimmy Bobo,” f’r instance), well, it’s just a movie and you don’t think anybody really is influenced by that that $#!+, do you?

“Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.” ― George Orwell, 1984.

We have, of course, long departed the land of doublethink and we’re in treblethink or maybe even quintuplethink. Whatever tuple we’re at now, it hurts to be in here, in the painfully narrow convolutions of Sylvester Stallone’s brain housing group. 

OK, so Stallone’s a drip, so what? Lots of people are, but they make good movies. What about the movie?

"This gun was new when I could fill theaters, punk. Then came the talkies"

“This gun was new when I could fill theaters, punk. Then came the talkies”

OK, let’s get to the movie. If we were to play the game of reducing the movie to a word, Bullet to the Head’s word would be “formulaic.” In recent years, critics have complained that movies are getting so similar that they’re practically stamped out of a die, and some of them have identified the die as the late Blake Snyder’s screenwriting book. Save the Cat. The title of the book comes from something that Snyder says the writer should do — very early in the movie:

I call it the “Save the Cat” scene. They don’t put it into movies anymore. And it’s basic. It’s the scene where we meet the hero and the hero does something — like saving a cat — that defines who he is and makes us, the audience, like him.

Snyder didn’t live to  see “they don’t put it into movies anymore” make a comeback. And in Stallone’s “save the cat” scene, he… saves a cat. Literally. Lord love a duck. Maybe it was an insidery reference to Snyder that just went over our heads, and everybody else’s.

Or maybe the movie was just canned, predigested scheissdreck. Occam’s Razor says….

Acting and Production

"You called for a bad guy without depth or expression? I'm here!"

“You called for a bad guy without depth or expression? I’m here!”

You’re not expecting great acting from a movie like this, so they were careful not to confuse you by putting any in. Stallone as Jimmy Bobo displays his usual range; you like him or you don’t. Everyone else has a fairly shallow supporting part. Sung Kang plays Taylor Kwon, a cop who goes effortlessly and unthinkingly from hunting Bobo to helping him hunt others; Sarah Shahi is unremarkable as Bobo’s daughter; and Christian Slater and Jason Momoa phone it in as bad guys. There’s a slightly amusing character name for a black African bad guy: Robert Nkomo Morel, which gave us Rhodesia flashbacks. Unlike Robert Mugabe or Joshua Nkomo, though, Morel gets what’s coming to him in a scene so predictable… well, see comments above about Blake Snyder and “formulaic.”

The money saved on script and continuity was put into visual and special effects. Things explode, crash, and go bang with frolicsome abandon. The explosions are all petroleum-laced Hollywood specials. The gunplay was written and directed by people who have no more knowledge of what a gun is and does than a termite has of the Third Law of Thermodynamics.

Accuracy and Weapons

"Get behind me, girl. The screenwriters won't let anything happen to us."

“Get behind me, girl. The screenwriters won’t let anything happen to us.”

There are lots of guns in the story. Jimmy Bobo favors a flashy, shiny Hi-Power or a Beretta, while his improbable cop sidekick (because cops and murderers are always teaming up, right?) in a variety of mischief, including several cop murders, uses a standard issue Glock. With these handguns they lay waste to many thugs armed with pistols, rifles and automatic weapons. Jimmy also uses, in various scenes, a suppressed Woodsman, a Winchester 1894, and the climactic battle is carried out with, we are not making this up, fire axes. (We have often said that a weapon is anything you can use for that purpose).

The combat scenes are right out of The Bugs Bunny Road Runner Hour, but shorn of that show’s signature humor (and a little lighter on the verisimilitude). The climactic duel of evil and more evil, axes at zero paces:

axe fight

Nobody watches a movie like this for the realism. It turns out that it’s not only based on a comic book, but it’s based on a French comic book. Merde alors.

The bottom line

Bullet to the Head is a summertime actioner aimed squarely at the 14-year-old demographic .

It’s brief enough to be endured if you can see it for free, and don’t put a lot of value on your time. Otherwise, not recommended.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • Amazon.com DVD page:

http://www.amazon.com/Bullet-Head-UltraViolet-Digital-Copy/dp/B00DYXCHN8/

  • IMDB page:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1308729/

  • IMFDB page:

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

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page:

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

  • Wikipedia  page:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bullet_to_the_Head

You see the darndest things in gun magazines

uts-15s_everywhereFirst, the UTS-15 shotgun, designed in the USA and made in Turkey, is on the cover of everything this month. And, it didn’t make the cover, but it did get a write-up in American Rifleman, of which more below. It’s a pretty cool gun — we like that you can screw a duckbill choke in, as it takes standard Beretta-style chokes. Left, just a couple examples of the UTS-15 (somewhat confusingly made by UTAS, so some people call it the UTAS-15) being inescapable this month.

We want that guy’s publicist. Of course, if he was really on the ball, he’d have sent a press packet to WeaponsMan.com.

Second, the American Rifleman has two really cool articles embedded in it. It almost didn’t get read, because instead of the UTS-15 or any other gun, they put a politician on the cover (ptui!). But those two articles are worth flipping it open for One is just a one-pager (in the “I have this old gun…” feature) on the Smith .38-44 Heavy Duty, a gun from the classic era of revolvers that was a .38 special barrel and cylinder on a .44 frame, leading to one of the most solid and overbuilt revolvers in the history of gunpowder. The idea was to make a hell-for-strong revolver that could take .38 rounds loaded to impressive velocities, and of course the .357 Magnum planted the seeds of obsolescence for this lesser-known Smith hand cannon. Like the expression “Heavy Duty” itself, the .38-44 is a bit of a period piece.

The second of the two cool articles asks, and answers, the intriguing question: are Ballester-Molina pistols made of the armor plate of DKM Graf Spee? (Spoiler: almost certainly no, but they can’t rule out some other kind of steel salvaged from the scuttled German pocket battleship). The Ballester-Molina was a .45 ACP very close cousin of the 1911. Quite a number of them were supplied, as deniable, non-British weapons, for British agents dropped into occupied Europe and British-supported resistance movements.

Third, what’s gotten into Small Arms Review? This issue of SAR is as AR-centric as SHOT was, and that’s too much (of course, there is the cover story on the UTS-15. Which has an AR grip). But they have big features on, essentially, four fairly ordinary ARs, each with a one-line gimmick that doesn’t impress us much (one’s a PDW, one’s in .300 BLK, one’s in 7.62, and one’s a piston AR in 7.62. How special). There’s good content, on silenced STENs for one example, and on the PIAT for another, if you can stay awake through the AR overdose. And this complaint is coming from a site where we love ARs, especially early ones. (The last Small Arms Defense Journal had a piece on Netherlands AR-10s that might have been a better fit for SAR. But they probably can’t go too heavy on also-ran ARs in SADJ, given the professional audience, so all those articles get dumped in SAR). Anyway, while it’s interesting that Ruger is finally on board with a .308 piston AR, it’s not really a military weapon, from a company that’s never made a military weapon, and there’s absolutely nothing special about the gun that rates a feature article, is there?

Enlisted’s on tonight, we’ll be watching.

Screenshot 2014-01-24 09.28.44Thanks to the generosity of show creator Kevin Bieger (and his assistant Colin Whitman), we’ve seen tonight’s episode in a preliminary review version. We missed tipping you to last week’s episode, Randy Get Your Gun, and apologize to the show folks, but the ones who missed out were you guys — the episode  was both fun, and sweet. We don’t want to throw spoilers out there — in this day and age, people can catch up with that last episode. But it turned on the youngest brother Randy and his difficulties qualifying with his M4 and one end of the skill scale, while the competition, and therefore tension, between platoon sergeants Hill and Perez was dialed up a notch — with both coming across as good and conscientious. 

The qualification wasn’t especially realistic (unlike, say, the barracks rooms sets and scenes, which seem to have had a touch of advice from someone who dwelt there, or maybe it’s just college-dorm transference). The range looks like the old LAPD range, not a military range. But it was a plot device, for crying out loud, in a situation comedy, not a documentary. And one scene will resonate with anyone who’s been on a range in the last dozen years or so. In a search for a tie-breaker between SSG Hill and SSG Cabral’s identical range scores, this took place:

Screenshot 2014-01-24 09.30.35PETE HILL (he and Perez arranged behind two crouching soldiers): OK. Leapfrog a private, barrel roll, and pop up and shoot. How’s that sound?

PEREZ nods, seriously but –

RANGE SAFETY NCO (waving red range paddle): Like a HUGE safety violation… As Range Safety Officer, I need you to vacate the premises!

While some of the activities and situations portrayed are over the top, the depiction of Army life is, in its own way, respectful. This may be part of why the critical response has been so good (from the pro critics, not just from us). The show is gentle, sweet, and patriotic without being the least bit political. We saw one review that called it the best comedy this season.

Everyone who has an important, recurring role in Enlisted does indeed represent an enlisted troop or NCO — this is an Army without officers in the daily mix. When an officer does appear, he’s a fresh-from-the-Academy n00b 2nd Lieutenant, who will immediately run into the buzzsaw that is the unit’s sergeant major. If you were in the Army (or Navy, Marines…) you have lived this situation.

Screenshot 2014-01-24 10.06.30Five casting decisions are probably key to the artistic success of the series, and will be key to its commercial success (touch wood). The three Hill brothers are the core of the show, of course: Geoff Stults, Chris Lowell and Parker Young as Pete, Derrick and Randy Hill. All are broadly experienced TV actors. They are, respectively, the eldest/father-figure (the characters’ father was a soldier, and is dead), the smart-aleck middle brother (“I’m so glad you’re back. I’m tired of being the big brother,” he’ll tell Pete tonight), and Randy as the earnest, decent and innocent kid brother. Parker Young really brings Randy to life. The other two brilliant casting decisions are Angelique Cabral as Jill Perez, and Keith David as the rear detachment sergeant major. Cabral delivers as an anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better woman NCO of the non-obnoxious variety, and David plays a rock-solid command sergeant major, with the gravitas that makes him the voice of many of Ken Burns’s documentaries. If there is a character experiencing a guilty pleasure, it will probably be Cabral’s lively-but-contained Jill Perez. And if profundity or wisdom is called for, if these young folks need to be guided back to the correct path, David’s CSM Cody delivers it — which gets him out from behind his hated desk. Characters with depth – what a concept!

This is really good TV, funny where it’s trying to be, and, frankly, touching where it’s trying to do that — at least once or twice an episode. It’s an update of those sixties sitcoms, and has the same innocent feel, despite more up-to-date language (sometimes a little saltier than would have made a 60s broadcast). 

In tonight’s episode, oldest brother and platoon sergeant Pete strikes out on his own and moves into a trailer park to dial back his levels of unit, and family, togetherness.

We haven’t communicated with the producers about this, but the ratings seem to us to be weak, with only a couple million people tuning in. Kid and I will be two of them, tonight. Why not join us? Enlisted airs on the Fox TV broadcast network at 9 PM.

Curse you, Chris Hernandez!

Curse You Red Baron! SnoopyAs we reported, Chris has a new novel out, at least in the ebook formats. Damn his eyes. So if you’re wondering where this morning’s post was, which this post is hastily being subbed in for (hours late; we’ll backdate it to 0600, when a post should have run), it’s all the fault of the Texican cop and citizen-soldier turned novelist.

Worse, we wasted valuable book-reading time texting with him last night so that’s all his fault too.  

We have said before that Chris’s Proof of Our Resolve is the best novel out of the Afghan War, period, full stop (and yes, we are mindful of the great The Kite Runner, a marvellous book but an Afghan view after all). This new book — which we’re not done with yet — (did we say, “damn his eyes?” why yes, we did) — further develops Jerry Nunez’s character and puts him in a terrible predicament, reminding us of the sort of jams the Coen Brothers put their movie characters in. Given a tough decision, Jerry and his platoon leader Rodger collaborate on a decision that may or may not be the best of a menu of crappy options, but leads inexorably to more problems, stress, and more decisions with no clear, good, or obvious choices.

No, this isn’t the review yet. It’s just a note that we are finishing the book, and our work, the blog, the family, the house repairs and all the other things can go hang. If the dog doesn’t get fed, we know who to blame.

Curse you, Chris Hernandez!