Wednesday, September 23, 2015
Long story short, BLACK MASS follows the twenty-year collusion between James "Whitey" Bulger and FBI agent John Connolly, Bulger and Connolly knew each other growing up in South Boston, and when they find each other on opposite sides of the law, Connolly enlists Bulger's assistance in getting information that'd be used in taking down the Mafia in Boston, and in return Connolly would work to prevent legal obstruction or investigation into Bulger's criminal enterprises.
As can be expected, nothing good comes from any of this.
As a film, BLACK MASS does an effective job of telling the basic bones of this story. Bulger and Connolly make this "devil's deal" and both profit from it, but eventually it becomes too well-known, and it falls apart. As with any historical drama like this, a lot of things get altered, cut, or combined in order to fit a dramatic two-hour cinematic narrative. This got discussed to some degree during the Q&A, where Lehr pointed out that Connolly's supervisor, played by Kevin Bacon in the film, is an amalgam of many supervisors over that twenty-year timeframe, but since constantly changing the characters would be confusing, a decision was made. There are a number of other places where this takes place, of course, and that's of course what happens with any movie of this type, and some of the changes are going to be more contentious than others.
When experiencing the film, the atmosphere throughout is creepy, dark, and highly disturbing. I don't feel it has that same sort of typical gangster movie "rise and fall" story that you see in GOODFELLAS or CASINO, where the crooks make it big, spend spend spend, get sloppy and squabble among each other, and finally cause their own downfall. You see Bulger buy one pair of "nice" shoes and give the shoemaker a generous wad of cash, and that's about it. They all still dress the same, drive the same boring cars, live in the same rather dumpy places, and in general, do not flaunt their wealth or status with parties, drugs, or girls (there is only one "party" scene, and that is a prelude to a murder). In fact, the only character that really conforms to this classic model is Connolly, who begins to "dress fancy" in tailored suits, wears a nice gold watch, and starts acting cocky and sloppy as he becomes more and more entangled with Bulger and his criminal enterprises.
Speaking of Bulger, he comes off more as some kind of slasher movie villain, rather than your average movie gangster. He is utterly cold, diabolical, and ruthless. While he cares for his mother, his brother Billy, and his son, he is more than capable of killing anyone else without any remorse and with only the slightest provocation. He is in no way a flashy, glorified "anti-hero" in any sense, because he displays almost zero human traits and very little of any qualities which one might want to emulate or aspire towards. There is also little indication of *why* Bulger does what he does - he just does it and keeps doing it. There is no goal or endgame, no troubled origin story driving his actions. He's a shark swimming through schools of fish, devouring and moving on without any qualms.
Bulger's portrayal, as well as the lack of any humor or levity whatsoever, works to make this movie emotionally draining. No one cracks a joke, there are no Joe Pesci moments, and the bleak, grimy backdrop of Boston's rather unflattering neighborhoods during some particularly bleak and grimy-looking periods of this city's history make it all the worse. Seriously, Boston isn't exactly a glamorous city, and this is before any of the work done in the last 20 years to make it look nicer and more visually appealing. Even City Hall and the other government buildings downtown add to this, with their miserably institutional appearances. I've been in City Hall several times over the years - it is an *ugly* building - a perfect backdrop for the ugly deals made within its walls during the film.
After the movie, there were more interesting points brought up during the Q&A. For example, when the Boston Globe story was being researched by Lehr and O'Neill, the focus wasn't on Bulger - it was on the corruption within the FBI, particularly as it tied into how the Bureau handled its Confidential Informants. Bulger just happened to be the biggest and boldest example of that corruption, and Connolly the Bureau's most flagrant bad boy. The film doesn't really touch on this at all, and the investigation of the problem seems almost entirely limited to the Bulger-Connolly situation. I don't know if this was done to help limit the scope of the film to something more tightly-focused, or if the filmmakers didn't want to paint the FBI with such a broad brush. Also, the authors, Lehr in particular (he handled most of the Q&A questions, since they were being asked by Boston University students and faculty and Lehr is a BU professor), were greatly concerned/worried that this story *would* go the "Goodfellas" route, and give it an air of glamour and anti-hero-ness, which they both wanted to avoid. But Lehr said after seeing a cut of the film back in May, he was happy to say the "darkness" of the subject matter was left intact.
Overall, I think this movie does a good job of portraying organized crime in the ugly, violent, horrible light it deserves. This isn't a stereotypical crime movie filled with flashy suits, fancy cars, piles of drugs, and lots of loose women. And, almost without exception, the violence isn't "action", but just sudden moments of brutality that make you glance away, feeling unclean for having witnessed the act. Frankly, I don't think it was a "bad" movie, but I am in no rush at all to see it again, if ever.
Sunday, August 23, 2015
|Note: Not actually based on true events...|
Okay, this sounds kinda dumb, but for a lazy Sunday morning, I'm intrigued. So I gave it a view, and like most movies put out by The Asylum, it was pretty corny. The only actor of any note at all is Faran Tahir, who plays the airliner's captain, and is the same actor who played the captain in the first few minutes of 2009's STAR TREK reboot. Aside from him, it is the usual cast of C-grade direct-to-video/streaming talent, some of whom do a decent job with what they have to work with, while others are just cringe-worthy. The SFX were actually pretty good, which says something about a "shoestring budget" movie studio being able to put German fighter planes into dogfights, or depict an entire city being bombed to rubble.
Plot-wise...well...things get rough. A 757 en route from Dulles to Heathrow flies through an "anomaly" and winds up in June 17th, 1940. They overfly a city being bombed, and a couple of history professors (WW2 buffs, of course) identify some German bombers, and that the city is on the coast, but we also see an Me262 do a fly-by of the airliner. The history nerds surmise that the city is St. Nazaire (thus the date), but are boggled that the German jet fighters are operational in 1940, about four years before they'd take to the air in force. And, after contacting a British radio operator, they find out that the Dunkirk evacuation was a complete disaster, resulting in the loss of half a million people (in reality, it was the exact opposite). In addition, they learn that the British don't even have working radar systems - they're still in development (again, not true to actual history).
After some confused head-scratching, the nerds postulate that they've fallen into an alternate timeline, where the Germans are much more technologically advanced at this point in the war, having operational jet fighters while the British don't even have radar. The Germans attack the airliner several times in the hopes of shooting it down, but the pilot manages to avoid death (the 757 somehow survives dozens of 30mm cannon shell hits, but hey...Hollywood, am I right?). The British are worried that, if the airliner *does* have radar (the way in which all this gets concluded is very odd), they must shoot the plane down to prevent the Germans from possessing it and getting even more of an advantage. Eventually, the airliner crew cut the radar free from the nose of the plane, drop it down to the British, who then use it (!!!) to direct Spitfires out to defend the airliner just before the plane flies through another anomaly and back into our normal timeline.
I'd like to point out that, as ridiculous as this plot is, a half-decent film could have been salvaged from this wreckage. The 1980 film THE FINAL COUNTDOWN postulates what might happen if a 1980s era aircraft carrier wound up in the Pacific just before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. With the premise of FLIGHT WORLD WAR II, a story of how a modern airliner (with its far superior air radar), as well as two nerds who know everything about the war, could turn history around in an alternate past where the Germans are clearly dominating even more than they were in our own 1940.
EDIT: Apparently modern airliners don't carry any kind of radar, relying on their transponders and Air Traffic Control systems to guide them around potential hazards. So, basically, this movie is pointless when it comes to the whole radar angle.
But instead, things are just bungled. My biggest complaint is that the plane flies across the Atlantic and winds up over the French coast. Fine - no big deal. They even claim at one point to have (I think), just under half of a full fuel load. I just looked it up, and Dulles to Heathrow is a little under 3,700 miles, while the 757 has a range of around 4,500 miles. So, this jet winds up over St. Nazaire with about 800 miles of fuel left - certainly a lot less than "just under half a tank". However, any pilot will know that if you're somewhere near the coast of France, just pointing your plane north and flying for (in this case) about half an hour will put you over England, at a 757's cruising speed of a bit over 500 miles an hour.
Instead, somehow, this plane spends the entire movie flying *east*. At one point they even figure out they're near (IIRC) Reims, which is to the north-east of St. Nazaire by several hundred miles, and at another point they're near Metz, *four hundred* miles from St. Nazaire. Hey, guys! You're going the wrong way! And, what makes things weirder, by the time they are near Metz and drop the radar system, it is picked up by British forces after a brief firefight against some Germans, and within a couple of minutes, it is in the hands of the radio operator they've been talking to the entire time. So, apparently, despite Dunkirk being a total slaughter, this radio operator is *hundreds of miles* behind what are now the enemy lines? How does this even make any sense? Even if the radio operator was behind enemy lines and the salvation of the war effort was to get radar into the hands of the British, the operator should have just said "Fly north for half an hour and get to Blighty, you bloody fools!". The British are even trying to shoot the airliner down "to keep the radar from the Germans". You know how you could also do that? Tell them to fly to England. Shooting down a great big, obviously not the usual 1940s prop plane, over enemy territory is probably the worst thing they could do!
At one point, one of the passengers tries to take over the plane, insisting that, with the help of the history nerds and their books, they could find and kill Hitler and re-write history. An Army sergeant flying aboard the plane talks sense into him and the rest of the passengers, pointing out that pulling something like that off is highly unlikely, and the most likely scenario is them letting both the airplane, the history nerds, and all their history books fall into the hands of the Nazis, making everything worse. This was probably the moment of the film that made the most sense.
To conclude, this movie was more disappointing as a story than it was as a technical production. I'll always give The Asylum a pass on production values and acting - all that requires a lot of money and time, which they don't really have - but a good script and a plot that makes sense just requires a competent storyteller and a modicum of research. This movie *could* have been made on the same budget, with the same cast and production values, and made a lot more sense.
Monday, August 10, 2015
Like the first book in the series (and most of the books, as I've now read the first four of the six as of this review), there is no real overarching plot to each book. Rather, the novels are a series of vignettes tightly tied together, providing a good representation of whatever is occurring in that theater of operation at the time. In this case, Boden and his crew are involved in Operation Barbarossa, during the operation's heyday from summer to fall of 1941, before the brutal winter sets in and the German advance is stopped.
For the most part, Boden and his panzer crew encounter relatively little resistance from the Russians, and their biggest problems are the over-stretched supply lines, coupled with a new platoon commander who proves to be a constant nuisance to Boden and the rest of the platoon. This new commander isn't a veteran of the '39 or '40 campaigns, and so lacks the necessary combat experience to lead a platoon, especially as the panzers wander further and further afield. This becomes especially problematic when one of Boden's crew is injured, and they have to seek medical aid from a local Russian doctor. Food also becomes an issue, as they've ranged so far ahead that the "goulash cannon" (field food service units) are nowhere to be found and they must forage locally for their rations.
Throughout the book, there are many hints as to how the entire Russian campaign is a bad, bad idea. Early on, Boden's crew discovers an intact panzer...but the five-man crew is dead, each man decapitated, their bodies left in their proper positions inside the tank, their heads put on display outside the hamlet where they parked, probably to also forage or rest for the night. This gruesome display puts Boden's men on edge, because it hints at the savagery the Russians are capable of, and how tenacious a foe they can be if given a chance. Later on in the book, Boden joins in defending a position against a Russian counter-attack, one that is bolstered by the deadly Russian T-34 medium tank. The T-34 outclasses the Panzer III of the time in almost every respect - main gun, armor, and mobility - and they're the boogeymen of the Russian battlefield. The climax of the book is a tank duel between Boden and the rest of his platoon against several T-34s in an abandoned factory, and it is a tense, exciting scene where clever tactics and luck face off against far superior Russian tank design.
This book is definitely an excellent sequel to BLITZKRIEG, and gives the reader what they really wanted from a series called "Panzer Platoon" - battles between tanks which are roughly equivalent to each other. The action is well-written and shows how careful and analytical a panzer commander needs to be in order to survive on the battlefield, and as mentioned, this book does a great job at hinting towards the horrors of the "Ostfront" (which we see in full force in the next volume, BLOOD & ICE).
Monday, August 3, 2015
|Sorry, Tiger tank - wrong year!|
The first book in the series, BLITZKRIEG, follows Micki Boden, an Unteroffizier commanding a Panzer II light tank. What exactly Boden's rank is gets kind of muddled - sometimes he is referred to as a corporal, but the rank could be higher than that. Boden is in charge of two men, his driver and his loader / radio operator, and we know at least Boden and his driver were in the Polish campaign of 1939. The loader/operator is a Nazi fanatic, always going on with party slogans and ideology, and it is made clear that Boden considers himself a soldier first, but he rolls his eyes and actively makes fun of his loader/operator for the young man's fanaticism. I feel like this is a requirement of every German protagonist in WW2 fiction - he's just doing his duty for his country, not one of Hitler's goose-stepping puppets! At the very least, it lets you sympathize with him more, since you're not just chomping at the bit, waiting for Boden to get vaporized by a howitzer shell.
The story itself is essentially a series of vignettes, as Boden and his crew make the race to the French coast. The French and British forces are collapsing faster than the Germans can advance, and Boden's tank platoon finds itself often just passing by wrecked or abandoned Allied equipment, often destroyed by airstrikes. His first action in the book is to support a company of assault pioneers as they take a French bunker. This assignment separates Boden's tank from the rest of his platoon and the regiment, and most of the book is spent trying to catch up with their unit, which allows for some smaller-scale battles, pitting Boden and whatever band of Germans they come across against some token French or British forces.
The action in this book is pretty well-written, and the author largely knows his technical details, although there are a couple of glitches here or there. A common editing mistake in this book is that the author sometimes mis-types "cm" and "mm" for weapons, so he'll reference a "20cm" anti-aircraft gun which is no doubt the German 20mm AA autocannon, and this sort of thing happens a few more times throughout the book. In my experience, Germans tend to refer to their weapons by centimeter caliber, while the British refer to them by millimeters, so I think the author just never quite figured out which he wanted to use and there was the resulting mixup. There are a couple of other minor details that he gets wrong - for example, the KwK 30 autocannon in his Panzer II can fire both armor-piercing and high explosive ammunition, but the author states in the book on a couple of occasions that it can only fire AP. Whatever - it doesn't really matter, and there's a lot of other good information to make up for a couple of small mistakes.
There are several tank duels between Boden's Panzer II - a very light tank, more equivalent to an armored car than what we'd consider a real frontline tank - and both French and English tanks. Each scene is very tense, and the author does a good job of showing Boden's tactical prowess, maneuvering and picking just the right ground to fight from and the right moment to attack to make best use of his limited firepower. Those not so aware of German panzer history might not know it, but in the first few years of WW2, the majority of Germany's panzer inventory were light tanks, inferior in armor and firepower to the enemies they faced off against. It was their superior tactics, communication, and supporting elements that gave the panzers their victories. This is very well illustrated throughout the course of the novel.
Overall, I really enjoyed BLITZKRIEG. I was concerned going into the book that it was going to be a lot worse than it was, and although there are some cheesy interludes here and there (2 1/2 books into the series now, I see that the author likes having his characters encounter women during their downtime, with the usual "mature content" results), overall these books feel very gritty and unglamorous. A lot of men die very brutal, pointless deaths, and the survivors must carry on and do their duty no matter what.
These books were not particularly cheap to come by (I think I paid $10 for this book, not including shipping), but if you like WW2 fiction written at the height of the British War-Lit era of the 60s through early 80s, I think you'll enjoy the PANZER PLATOON series.
Thursday, July 23, 2015
However, Gordon Landsborough's THE GLASSHOUSE GANG is quite different from the expected plot-line. The story instead revolves around a band of British military prisoners, who've been busted for a variety of crimes - some minor, some completely reprehensible - and are serving time in the notorious (but as best as I can tell, completely fictional) Sharafim Prison in Egypt. The prison is run by officers and staff sergeants who are, at best, criminally lax in maintaining humane conditions at the prison, and are, at worst, vicious sadists who take great pleasure in beating and torturing their charges to within an inch of their lives - and occasionally beyond.
The first scene of the book is just such an example of two "staffs" brutally tormenting John Offer, the main character. Offer was formerly a Territorial Army quartermaster's sergeant, whose black-market dealings caused him to go on the run. He joins the Regular Army under an assumed name and becomes a lieutenant, but gets recognized by someone from his TA days, and Offer eventually gets busted because of it, demoted to private and sent to the "Glasshouse", slang for prison. Being a former officer (even a false one), Offer is constantly beaten and tormented by the staff sergeants who work there, and when he is finally released, Offer decides that something needs to be done to settle the score against the non-coms and officers who run the prison system.
One interesting aspect of Offer's background is that he was originally a stage actor, and once released from prison, Offer puts this background into good use. He gets a local tailor to make him a Captain's uniform, "requisitions" a lorry for his own use, and begins to find and recruit men from the Glasshouse he can trust as they are eventually let out after their sentences are over. Using the power of his assumed role and a cadre of men around him to reinforce the legitimacy of his ruse, Offer and his "Glasshouse Gang" spend the first third of the book slowly building up their numbers, acquiring resources, and taking revenge on a few of the "Screws" (prison guards) who were especially vicious to them.
The second third of the book involves Offer and his G.G.C.U. (Glasshouse Gang Commando Unit) executing a prison break, where they free a couple dozen prisoners from Sharafim, and then set up their temporary camp on the edge of the city, where they feast on stolen food and get drunk off of stolen liquor. Eventually these good times end, and the G.G.C.U. flees the law, taking off into the deep desert and eventually arriving at the Siwa Oasis...just as the Germans are attacking and driving the LRDG (the Long Range Desert Group, a unit of deep desert recon men in the British army) out of Siwa. Offer's gang holes up in a grove on the edge of the Oasis for a few weeks, until they discover some of their men (who they thought dead) as well as some LRDG men, in an outdoor prison encampment in Siwa. The last third of the book involves Offer and his men planning and executing the rescue of these prisoners.
All in all, this was actually a very entertaining read. John Offer reminds me a lot of Colonel John "Hannibal" Smith from the A-Team - a leader who thinks unconventionally and fights dirty when he's forced to fight at all. There's not a lot of action in the book in the traditional military sense, but what there is, is written well and maintains a brisk, exciting pace. The rest of the characters are amusing and flesh out the story nicely, especially the conflict between Offer and McTone, one of the more dastardly prisoners who joins the G.G.C.U. during the Sharafim jailbreak.
I can understand why the series only went four books - it's not really the sort of story that lends itself to a long run without becoming repetitive - but I quite enjoyed the first novel, and as I have acquired the other four books, plan on reading them and reviewing the titles here. If you want British WW2 adventure fare that's a little different, do your best to find and read THE GLASSHOUSE GANG.
Saturday, July 18, 2015
In short, Lieutenant (er, Leftenant?) Crooke, VC, is given the task of tracking down a Brandenburger agent who is loose in Cairo, tasked with freeing a German-sympathizing Egyptian general and getting him into Axis-controlled Libya, where his presence on the side of the Axis forces will cause a schism in the Egyptian army and throw the British war effort into chaos.
Crooke is picked for this mission because he is intimately familiar with the North African desert. Crooke was a LRDG (Long Range Desert Group) Lieutenant-Colonel until the disaster of Operation Flipper, where his LRDG men, tasked with guiding in the Commandos sent to kill Rommel, are caught and killed. Crooke was the only man in his unit to make it back to friendly lines, wounded in the left eye and nearly dead. Crooke punched out a superior officer when he was denied assignment back to the front, and busted back down to Second Lieutenant, where he languished until Mallory, a Naval Intelligence officer, picks him for this mission. Mallory believes that the Brandenburger agent is going to smuggle the Egyptian general out through the deep desert, and so Crooke is the natural choice for the mission.
This is where, of course, things get a little silly. The author makes it clear that Crooke and the "glasshouse men" (read: soldiers in a military prison) he picks for the mission are the only manpower available to Mallory because all the other active-duty men are needed at the front. Of course, this is a mission of vital importance to the war effort as well. So really, while the need for a squad or two of highly trained and motivated men to assist Crooke on a mission which could alter the course of the war is clear, Crooke is forced to find, essentially, the worst of the worst. The men he picks are proficient, to be sure, but they're rogues and criminals, thieves and cowards. In no form of reality would such an important mission be assigned to this goon squad - rather, they'd just pull a squad from the front, since ten men here or there would make little difference in the overall health of the front.
Regardless, this series was clearly written with the idea of piggy-backing on the success of The Dirty Dozen. The series was named "The Destroyers" in the UK, where it originated, but when published in the US, it was renamed "The Dirty Devils", and all references to the Destroyers in the text itself were altered for the American edition. And, of course, having a half-dozen scoundrels running amok in the deep desert is more interesting than a squad of bland, chipper fellows who're just doing their part for king and country.
Overall, this was definitely an interesting read. The plot is a bit over-complicated, as the Brandenburger turns out to be a former German desert explorer now past his prime, who has a personal connection to the Egyptian general, and there's some oddball plot hooks that could probably have been left to the side in order to move the story along. However, there's a good deal of action throughout the book, and the desert adventure scenes - including a very memorable sandstorm - are very engaging.
If you get a chance to pick up OPERATION AFRIKA for a few bucks from a used bookseller, and you enjoy pulpy British WW2 adventure fiction, this is a good series for you, especially since there's six books in the series, so it has some legs to it. The books may be a little hard to find, but with some digging, you should be able to land a copy.
Friday, June 26, 2015
Charles Whiting is probably one of, if not *the* most prolific writer of WW2 fiction out there, having penned a number of series over the years under several different pen names (such as "Leo Kessler"). This series, the Destroyers, centers on a British army lieutenant, Richard Crooke, VC, who won that medal in the failed attempt to kill Rommel during Operation Flipper. Crooke was a colonel then, but gets busted back to second lieutenant for punching a general in the face when Crooke's request to return to North Africa is denied (all of this is laid out in the beginning of Operation Afrika, by the way). The series, as best as can be determined, was originally titled "The Dirty Devils", a play off of "The Dirty Dozen" (written a decade before this series was penned) of course, but someone must have realized that wasn't actually a good thing, and renamed them the Destroyers, as the later books post-Afrika refer to them as such, although the "devils" term is still used a couple of times in KILL IKE.
EDIT: After some more digging, it appears that "The Destroyers" is the UK name for this series, and when it was brought over to the US, it was renamed "The Dirty Devils", no doubt to play off of the name recognition of The Dirty Dozen.
Crooke leads a four-man team of scumbags, all of whom have been given prison sentences at one point or another, and they're basically let out of jail to go run amok against the German army on various "dirty" missions, sent on their way by one Mallory, a commander in British Naval Intelligence. The Destroyers are comprised of one Cockney Brit, one half-English, half-Egyptian thief, one Yank, and one defected German. I do like the idea that the unit is multi-national, although it does play into a lot of caricatures (a not-too-terrible problem with such pulpy fare).
In OPERATION KILL IKE, the Destroyers are sent to the front lines in the Ardennes Forest, famous for the Battle of the Bulge. They are to meet a German scientist who has a bottle of "heavy water" that Allied scientists need to analyze in order to determine how close the Germans are to building an atomic bomb. However, when they get to their rendezvous, the scientist is dead, although the bottle is intact, and the German offensive kicks off just as they're trying to make their way back to friendly lines. As they try to fall back, they encounter an American soldier named Weed, a very innocuous-seeming fellow, but it turns out that Weed is actually a German Abwehr agent, who's been sent behind the lines to - of all things - find and assassinate General Eisenhower. The Destroyers then enter into a cat-and-mouse game across France as they try to catch Weed before he completes his mission, which would throw the Allies into such a state of disarray that the Germans (might) have a chance of throwing back the Western front long enough to turn their full attention towards the Russians.
Overall, this was a pretty interesting read. There was a lot less combat than I expected, mostly because of the investigative nature of the mission, but there were a few short fights here and there, and a goodly amount of tension. Whiting as a writer doesn't focus that heavily on the "gun porn" aspects of the action, keeping things breezy and using typical slang like "tommy guns" and "schmeissers", which is again perfectly fine for writing like this. The book is also a very quick read, and easily finishable in either one long evening or over the course of a lazy weekend.
You can find these used paperbacks online (I found all of mine through various used booksellers on Amazon), and although they might be a bit on the pricey side, if this sort of pulp WW2 fare is your cup of tea, you're probably willing to pay for these vintage paperbacks. I still paid less than ten bucks apiece per book - still not cheap, but half of the cost was typically wrapped up in shipping, anyway.
Next up - OPERATION AFRIKA.