Mediocre Start to 2014 at the movies

I know that I haven’t posted in a couple of weeks but I really haven’t had anything to get excited about. Okay here’s the thing. I’ve  been really disappointed about the recent fair at the movies in this first quarter of 2014. Here are the movies that I’ve seen so far this year and my some what flippant rating system.

47 RONIN: A trite American fantasy version of a Japanese classic; based on a real life tragedy, and a part of Japans cultural history. It would have worked better as a simple fantasy with out the disrespectful attachment to the actual story of the 47 RONIN. I rate this as a moderate disappointment.

I FRANKENSTEIN: A new take on an old story and yet another graphic novel screen adaptation. I hope that this wasn’t a career killer for Aaron Eckhart, who was great in Battle: Los Angeles. Disappointment moderate. I didn’t walk out on this one but I left the theater feeling empty.

AMERICAN HUSTLE:  I rated this one better than average, to very good with solid performances by the entire cast but it wasn’t great.

MONUMENTS MEN: My kind of movie intelligent, informative and based on historical events. I rated this one excellent.

THREE DAYS TO KILL: This was an adequate Kevin Costner vehicle in the action genre, with some sentimental hokum thrown in for good measure. I rated this one fair to middling in quality.

LONE SURVIVOR: Good action yarn based on a real life Navy seal’s fight for survival. As an ex GI I found this movie hard to watch because I feel for the families of the men that didn’t survive this doomed mission. I rated this one good.

300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE: This was for me the biggest disappointment of the year so far. In spite of all of the fancy CGI it lacked heart and pacing.  It was mostly mindless slaughter except this time it was on ships instead of on dry land. I didm’t root for the good guys or the bad guys. If you leave a movie with out an opinion on whether you like it or not then it’s probably a mediocre movie.  I rated this movie Blah.

NEED FOR SPEED: Movies based on video games usually don’t work and this movie was no exception. Poor Aaron Paul what a way to start a career as a leading man. I went to see this movie because I’m a fan of Breaking Bad and Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman an awesome character. Unfortunately this movie lacked the depth of character and the intricate story line need to make it anything more than an adequate, but predictable popcorn movie.  I rate this move Okay I guess. 

NOTE: I purposely staid away from The Butler, Fruitvale Station and Twelve years a slave, because I am a thin-skinned old curmudgeon and I don’t go to movies that might raise my blood pressure, or rouse me to anger. So please take into account that my life has been hard enough and I really do get emotionally involved when watching well crafted movies about serious subjects. 



Because I hate seeing movies on the opening weekend, I went to see Pacific Rim on the monday after. Mondays can be one of two things; it can be an indicator of a movie’s popularity or an indicator of its ultimate box office demise, especially during the summer months. During the winter months Mondays are always slow movie going days, especially for the matinees because most people are at work and the kids are at school. However in the good old summertime Monday matinees can be a strong indicator of word of mouth advertising. I like Mondays because it can be like the poor mans version of a private screening, unless it is a very popular movie like the Hunger Games and then even Monday or midweek screenings are crowded. 

This particular Monday I sat in a mostly empty theater (maybe 10 people tops) and watched a movie that was like the theater mostly empty. As much as I love watching Idris Elba, his character was a cartoon cutout of the hardcore commander and the resident dead bro walking trope. The only other characters that I found even remotely interesting were Charlie Day (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and Ron Perlman (Sons of Anarchy) with a strong showing from a limited role by Max Martini (the Unit). Rinko Kikuchi who was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actress in Babel (2006), gave a stilted performance as a stereotypical Japanese maiden with Kung fu grip. I blame all of the bad acting on the direction and the script, since most of the people are pretty accomplished actors. 

As far as the cinematography was concerned I thought it was a jumbled mess. I couldn’t tell what I was looking at half the time. The interior shots were laughable and the Monster physics were not believable. Monsters and machines of such immense size would be inundated or crushed by gravity.  Some post war heavy Tanks were deemed to heavy for American roads and city streets so imagine what kind  damage these gigantic Robots and monsters would do to any urban area’s underground infrastructure. 

This has always been my problem with Mechas. At least they didn’t transform into trucks or jet aircraft, But they did manage to bring out the old sword for this one. Hey when modern missiles and plasma cannons don’t work just pull out your primitive pointy thing. One good thing that I can say about this flick is that it wasn’t as annoyingly loud as anything that Michael Bay has produced.

All of that aside, here are my other beefs with this flick. Number one is that I hate 3D. Until they can create the technology of an actual 3 dimensional screen I think that they should leave it alone. I remember the 3D fad of the early 1960’s and it was fun and fascinating and you got those little white cardboard glasses with the red and blue lenses as a neat souvenir. You didn’t have to worry about wearing some one else’s germs, or heaven forbid inherit their recycled vermin.The new method is, at the end of the movie you dump your glasses in what looks to me like a waste disposal barrel for bio-hazardous material.

Supposedly some one sprays them with some kind of anti- bacterial cleaner before redistributing them to the next group of suckers. The pair I got still had some kind of goop on the lenses and I traded them for a hopefully clean pair.

The last Real D or 3D movie that I saw was Beowulf  and I had forgotten what a terrible headache that it gave me from eye strain. I wasn’t trying to watch the movie without the glasses, what gave me the headache was watching with the glasses. Once I had removed my glasses the headache went away. Because of the discomfort I have stayed away from any and all Movies in 3D.  This time around I did not have the option of watching the non 3D version (Thanks AMC), so I had to endure this faulty fake advancement in movie technology once again. Ten minutes into the movie I began to get a serious headache and I said to myself, “I hope this isn’t the future of movies because it hurts me to watch”. I promptly removed my flimsy glasses; (they’ve gotten a whole lot cheaper since 2007), and watched the rest of the movie in my prescription sunglasses which seemed to work just fine. I noticed very little blurring and no eyestrain. I am usually without glasses of any kind watching movies so the eyestrain can not be attributed to my going without them. This head ache is purely a side effect of the faulty tech of the so called modern 3D lenses.

Seriously I can do without the 3D effects; they are nothing more than a gimmicky annoyance anyway. They do nothing to enhance the action or the performance and the special effects look even cheesier to my jaded eyes than normal. I say give me the options of seeing regular movies which are immersive enough without this garbage and get rid of this fad until it is truly perfected.  My final verdict, wait for this one to come out on cable where you have the option to channel surf when you get bored.

War games that annoy me

I have been a loyal war gamer since the first time that I played Romance of the three kingdoms on my 16 bit Sega. I once spent a four day weekend playing Crusade Europe. Most of my lost weekend was spent in bed ,only getting up to get hot dogs and chips and Mountain dew or make a nature call. I have also spent an ungodly amount of time at PTOAllied General, most of the Close Combat franchise and Just about every Total war incarnation and expansion pack up until Total war Revolution, which brings me to my present point.

When the Total War franchise passed into the hands of Online usurper Steam it became not  only increasingly difficult it was difficult for no apparent reason. The game was so unwieldy and full of glitches and frequent crashes that I would quit in disgust. It was twice as annoying as Total War Rome which I replayed many times. When playing the Total war shogun series the ease of arranging the different formations in the battle deployment phase was not only fun but it forced me to think about tactics. I must confess that the medieval Total War 2 frustrated me more than the original because they sacrificed game play for graphics which did not improve the game. It seems like every time that a developer claims improved game play they mean it’s stupider and not as much fun.

I can remember my deep disappointment when I purchased the newest version of Romance of the three Kingdoms. there was no improvement in the battle graphics as I had hoped only a weird change in the attributes of administrators and generals. In the original game there was a clear delineation of the military skills and the administrative skills. In Romance VI it became harder to determine who was a more capable military leader because their abilities were so generic. In the old game an officer’s military skills were clearly defined, in the newer game you were in the dark and some officers despite experience were just bad at there job. The same goes for administrators. if you make the wrong choice and appoint some guy that is better suited for war than agriculture then he fails.

Here is a quote from the manual Does the command compliment his dream? (you can lower an officers discontent level having him execute commands that compliment his dreams. On the other hand forcing  officers to execute commands that are contrary to his dreams causes nothing but discontent.) WTF! What does that have to do with the question, can he fight, can he command troops and what troop types is he best suited for?  Is he a good infantry office, or is he best at engineering catapults, or commanding  cavalry or archers. This is a prime example of meddling with awful results. The saying goes if it aint broke don’t fix it.  When developers self sabotage their game they lose customers; So if you are a developer and have a good formula improve the games so that players get maximum enjoyment. This game could have improved on the game’s battle graphics but didn’t. The opposite was true for Medieval Total War II the graphics were already great it didn’t really need a face lift at the expense of game play which suffered for some unknown reason. It was definitely not as good as the first one.

Then there are the hectic manic games like the Command and Conquer Series. I usually ended up just nuking the heck out of the enemy to stop those incessant swarms that materialized out of nowhere. You are always at a critical disadvantage when money and resources are concerned. This was before I discovered cheat codes. I know some people don’t like cheat codes but they are oh so cool! Take that game developers! My biggest beef though, is with games that I’ve spent money on that don’t perform like they’re supposed to. Blitzkrieg comes to mind and B17 Flying fortress and the newest installment of silent hunter, (Wolves of the pacific).  Games that need patches don’t get passes. What otherwise could have been enjoyable games with hours of replay time, became annoying, maddening and irritating. constant crashes and freezing are not fun and are inexcusable in a competitive game market. GET IT RIGHT BEFORE YOU RELEASE IT! I have played many other bad or annoying war-games that went straight to my trash bin because I couldn’t get refunds. I refuse to waste space on garbage. the games that are most disappointing however, are the ones with the most potential. B17 could have been an excellent game except for the glitches and crashes; the same could be said about Silent Hunter WOP.

Glitches and changes and wonkey game play aren’t the only thing that can make a game annoying; sometimes the economic model or combat model are counter intuitive. Some war games issue prestige points which do not represent the wealth of the countries involved but are dependent on if you have lost a battle or not. Personally I believe that this is a bad approach because it is historically incorrect in most cases. By making the player dependent on prestige points it is possible to get weaker and weaker as a result of your last engagement. It is better to have an   historical based model and leave the outcome dependent on who is the better strategist or tactician.

One game with a particularly bad combat model is The Godfather five families one of those so called free games that ends up costing you hundreds of dollars which I unwittingly did. I am still trying to figure out how fifty guys with Molotov cocktails could beat a veritable army of guys with tommy guns, rifles, shotguns and pistols. I not only wasted hours of my time building up my troops, but I spent money on speed ups and development, only to have it all snatched away from me by one raid. When I complained in the chat room  I got the usual online snark about quit complaining newbie and learn how to play the game. The combat made zero sense and it was mostly the people who had been in the game since the beta that knew the actual way to victory. I was so frustrated about the absence of online help and the bad attitude of the so called elite and the wasted money that I abandoned the game. Now that was a super annoying game.

This brings me up to my most recent foray into war games, a game called R.U.S.E. which is annoying for an entirely different reason from everything that I have already mentioned. In logical games like Crusade Europe and Allied General, you follow units from North Africa to Sicily to France, building up their experience as you go. just like the real WWII campaign. I was also hooked on Panzer general.  RUSE has the annoying habit of jumping from one theater to another,  without any particular reason. Although this is a feature in some of the more recent First Person Shooters not only switching theaters of war but point of view from one character to another. It serves no real purpose. Let me state emphatically that I do not consider FPS’s as war games, I am a purist who believes that only large unit Real time strategy games are war games, so RUSE fits my definition perfectly. My main problem with RUSE is the minor stuff, like attention to detail. Who ever designed the FMV’s didn’t bother to research ranks and other small details that add to the atmosphere of the game. l was scratching my head when one character referred to a guy with Captains bars on his shoulder as  General. In another scene a major salutes this same guy who obviously doesn’t outrank him.  There is a reason for all of those rank insignia, so there is  no doubt as to who is in charge. I can’t become immersed  in a game that I can not take seriously. They obviously researched the tanks and artillery so why didn’t they bother to put the same level of attention to detail in the FMV’s,  The only other grievance that I have with this game so far is that some levels missions are on a timer which is also quite annoying. I prefer more time to think and plan my tactics rather than just react to one crisis after another, which is very annoying.  So far  RUSE  is not at the top of my list of most annoying  war games.

One last thought; if you buy any box game that has to be run online through Steam avoid it like the plague. I had to start three different accounts Mac games, Steam, and UBI. just to play a somewhat mediocre war-game like RUSE. I don’t like jumping through hoops to play a game. I like to down it load or put in a disc and play, not waste 15 or 20 minutes putting in information and creating passwords.  If all of the games that are in the mac games site are associated with steam I won’t be doing business with them anymore. Steam is the most annoying online site that I have ever had the displeasure of dealing with. They are lax in support and clarity; or in the matter of trying to reset passwords they are a waking nightmare. My first experience with steam they kept dropping my password and blamed it on me. I know how to type a password.  I have been doing it for twenty years at work and at home. I write them down as I intend to type them, noting if they are upper case or lower case and if I shift or not, but yet I had to reset my password three times before I said the heck with it . Steam gets my vote for the most useless and most annoying game site ever created.

Apocalypse later

As a young veteran of the Vietnam war I was quite taken by the 1979 epic Vietnam war movie Apocalypse Now; but as an crotchety old 63 year old veteran, my feelings about the movie have degenerated into complete dislike. It’s not unusual for our views to change as we get older;some people for the better and some for worse. However my anti-war feelings are not the reason why I dislike this movie classic. My reasons have to do more with the movies’s detachment from the reality of the war and my prejudice against its source material.First of all let me explain what I mean by detachment from reality.

In the opening scene we see Captain Willard awakened from a nightmare by an ancient ceiling fan, which evoked in him the familiar sound of a Huey helicopter. He is obviously in an alcohol induced state of irritation driven by guilt and war weariness; a common symptom of what we now know as post traumatic stress disorder. This is something that most combat veterans can and do relate to. after this we go to a briefing where the details are given by a very young Harrison Ford who is very convincing as a young Intel officer. His demeanor as an officer was pretty spot on, at least in my experience with this type.

If you haven’t seen the movie I will try not disclose the details of Capt. Willard’s mission. After the briefing we see a refreshed and renewed Willard in starched and clean fatigues ready and raring to go. From this point on the movie degenerates into a slow spiral into the absurdity and perversity of war. Sounds pretty good so far! This scenario is typical in anti-war movies. Then The river interdiction scene happens; this is especially disturbing for its portrayal of trigger happy and unprofessional river boat sailors. No self-respecting navy small craft commander would interrupt a mission to do a routine interdiction. When delivering special forces members it’s in and out as fast as possible. That’s the first detour from the reality of military protocol.After this it only gets worse. It’s amazing that with all of its attention to detail of uniforms, rank insignia and patches, that Francis Ford Coppola chose not to give a more accurate depiction of the workings of the chain of command and military protocol.

The further up river Capt. Willard goes the more chaotic the situation becomes. I know that this is supposed to be a metaphor but in the context of the movie it doesn’t reflect the reality of the war. There is a complete absence of any command structure in the bases that he stops at on his trip up river. We witness some pretty playboy playmates threatened by a mob of horny out of control soldiers who are undoubtedly bent on raping them to death. They are rescued by a helicopter just in time to escape with their lives. This scene is an insult to all service men everywhere and in any era. There has never been this kind of incident at any USO show ever not in the history of USO shows. Our service men are raucous but well behaved and certainly not prone to rioting at this kind of event.They are mostly appreciative for the fact that they are not forgotten by the folks at home.

The mud base could have been any firebase during the monsoon season, but again we have no chain of command. It appears to be mostly abandoned with no external security, no activity just muck and mess and the stranded playmates selling their bodies for chopper fuel, so they can get the hell out of there. By this time they are are bedraggled and unappealing and more than slightly pathetic. Okay! The late Bob Hope who did a show on Guadalcanal, while there was still fighting there, would tell you that the USO and the military would never put women or anyone else in such a precarious situation. So what was the purpose of this scene other than gratuitous sex and more harping about how screwed up the military is. Since the movie was made in 1979 it was still too close to the war to recognize such men as General Norman Schwarzkopf jr. and General Colin Powell both who served as junior officers in Vietnam. Without officers the whole thing would have broken down much sooner than it actually did; and that was more political than it was lack of leadership and incompetence which is what the movie insinuates.

The bridge to nowhere, (not the infamous pork barrel project in Alaska.) Was a bridge that was rebuilt daily and blown up every night. One of the reasons that they have Navy Seals is to prevent this kind of attack. I am pretty sure that the VC or the NVA, (North Vietnamese Army) would have a hard time trying to get to a critical life line such as a bridge, time and time again. They might have initial success, but would find it increasingly difficult once the element of surprise was lost. The panicky soldiers trying to escape this forward operating base is another portrayal of the unwilling unprofessional, often cowardly American soldier. To add insult to injury the scene of the dope smoking soul brothers hunkered down in the bunker was an indictment of black soldiers as useless drug abusers. The one bright spot in the movie was the black machine gunner and the squad grenadier who was obviously a seasoned veteran, who was an expert with the M79 grenade launcher. Taking out the enemy in the black of night just by listening; that was an awesome feat of skill. Once again we find Capt. Willard unable to find out who’s in charge here. The impression one gets is that the American officers of that era were a bunch of slackers who more often than not abandoned their post and their men.

The only officer up river that can be found is the slightly psychotic “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore. Music actually was the sound track of his life. Playing the ride of the Valkyrie over the loud speakers while making a helicopter assault on a village makes a great movie scene but wasn’t par for the course during wartime. The pattern of this movie is that, the only officers doing anything are the ones that are crazy or are going crazy; which brings me to Colonel Kurtz.

Colonel Kurtz is a rogue special forces officer who is the leader of a group of rogues and primitive bushmen that apparently have committed enough atrocities to come to the attention of the U.S. government. He is in such a black hole of depression that he welcomes death at the hands of Capt. Willard. This scenario is a departure from the original novella Heart of darkness but, it is also a departure from the fact that special forces officers are relieved from duty at the first sign of any irregular behavior and not assassinated. When Willard reads a report by Kurtz in the last scene of the movie he is horrified at the words Drop the bomb. This is the solution of bar room bigmouths and phony flag wavers, who have never even served in the armed forces, not of professional military men.

So as you can see my main grievance with apocalypse now isn’t that it’s a bad movie per se, but that many people who don’t know any better, think that it is the definitive Vietnam narrative. It is full of insulting stereotypes
of servicemen and really annoying in retrospect. considering the source material it doesn’t surprise me.

The movie is loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a novella about colonialist Africa; where Conrad worked as a river boat pilot. The story is full of unapologetic racism but not a condemnation of colonialism as some people seem to think it is. It is mostly a condemnation of the African continent for being so destructive and corrupting to the white man. Heart of darkness is not just a metaphor for the dark heart of man but a literal location, the heart of the Dark continent,the Congo river. As in Apocalypse Now the farther up river the hero goes the more decay and despair become the norm. After taking charge of and repairing a badly damaged river boat he is sent up river to retrieve station manager Kurtz. Kurtz is an ivory trading company agent and reputed to be one of the best. In the novella his success is based on raiding and murdering native tribes and stealing their Ivory. Kurtz is also an agent for the International society for the suppression of savage customs, (meaning the suppression of Africans.) Kurtz footnote of exterminate all the brutes. was mirrored in Apocalypse Now.

Despite the fact that Kurtz had gone native, having an African mistress and leading an African tribe he apparently thought that genocide was the only way to settle Africa peacefully. If Conrad was actually an anti-colonialist he never expressed it through advocacy of any kind. In fact he was a complete Anglophile and admired the British empire and the colonial system. Heart of darkness is a story told without true understanding of the nature of colonialism. The instances of blind hatred and brutality are merely incidental window dressing, told in a matter of fact and unsympathetic manner. The narrative is told from the perspective of the colonial exploiter as victim of the harshness of the African environment; just as Colonel Kurtz is depicted as a victim of the brutality of the Vietnam War. There is no clear delineation between Conrad’s real feelings about colonialism and the narrative.

I have read plenty of history books with anecdotal accounts about colonials, most of them about the English and not once was the N word bandied about like in Conrad’s novella. I know that there was no such thing as political correctness in his time, but for some one who aspired to be an English gentleman, his vocabulary was very low class. The harshness of the blatant racism in the story made it almost impossible to read, but between the lines I see a story of racism told by a racist, with no compunction about the brutality of colonialism. “The horror, the horror.”

The fact that this story has been so widely read and re-imagined onscreen as Apocalypse Now proves that it has merit to some. But I fear that this just means that people still don’t understand the awfulness of colonialism, and have rationalized this story as something that it isn’t. If Conrad had been an ardent anti-colonialist I would most certainly have felt differently, but he wasn’t and I don’t.