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Monday, August 14, 2017

FILM REVIEW OF ''D-DAY SURVIVOR" (2017)



Amateurish writing, directing, and editing undermine director Ian Vernon’s “D-Day Survivor” (** OUT OF ****), an interesting, low-budget World War II indie epic about a ‘lost patrol’ during the historic Normandy Invasion.  A staple of war movies is the saga about soldiers separated from their command with no idea where they are in the general scheme of things.  Clocking in at a sluggish 95-minutes, “D-Day Survivor” generates occasional bursts of violence, but the film loiters all the way to its explosive finale.  The first third introduces the offbeat characters, with a minor skirmish involving attempted homosexual rape.  Eventually, the last third drums up some traditional combat, with an assault on a German pillbox.  Independent filmmakers deserve more leeway because they have nowhere near the resources of their major studio counterparts.  Compensating for his tight-budget, Vernon breaks new ground in “D-Day Survivor” with the depiction of deviant sexuality in the ranks.  Meantime, cinematographer Ivan D. Rennov, who has worked with Vernon on three earlier films, exploits the lush color and idyllic rural setting to make everything appear scenic.  Despite its picture-postcard splendor, “D-Day Survivor” suffers from a hopeless lack of momentum, until an inevitable rendezvous with the French Resistance.  Predictably, the underground allows filmmakers to send a woman into combat and add a trifling romantic subplot. Vernon’s lack of creative polish undercuts his best intentions, but his thematic concerns redeem his derivative narrative.

Mind you, a title with “D-Day” in it conjures up images of Darryl F. Zanuck’s “The Longest Day” (1962), Robert Parrish’s “Up from the Beach (1965), Samuel Fuller’s “The Big Red One” (1980), and Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” (1998). Sadly, we see only the “Survivor” and nothing of “D-Day.”  You won’t see any big ships and landing craft with soldiers scrambling across barb-wired beaches while machine guns stitch the sand.  Once you get over missing the historic, June 1944, Allied beachhead landings, you can understand the different direction that Vernon pursues because he lacked the budget to recreate the landings.  Instead, he presents an obnoxious, homosexual, British soldier who holds his unwilling prey at gun point and threatens to rape him.  Nothing like “Deliverance” occurs, but the gay soldier’s aggression makes homosexuals look depraved. You won’t find material like this in most traditional World War II movies, apart from “The Imitation Game” (2014) with Benedict Cumberbatch.  Classic novelist James Jones depicted instances of this in his World War II book trilogy that contained “From Here to Eternity” and “The Thin Red Line.”  Vernon scores a first with this unsavory subject matter which would have been objectionable in traditional World War II movies.  Happily, Vernon’s use of the initiation theme, plunging innocents into combat for their first baptism of blood on the battlefield, bolsters “D-Day Survivor.”  These characters and their actions stand out in “D-Day Survivor,” especially a reflective U.S. Army private. The quartet of young men who constitute the collective protagonist here face a gauntlet that shapes their respective fates.  Some characters can be annoying, particularly a vulnerable soldier who repeats virtually every word uttered by the other characters. A hopeless cretin who comes through at the least expected moments, he provides comic relief that is rarely humorous. 

British Army Paratrooper Private Johnny Barrows (newcomer Paul Harrison) finds himself alone in a field somewhere in France.  He bailed out over France with his battalion of paratroopers, but they missed their drop zone (like so many did on D-Day), and the Germans wiped out his comrades, leaving him the sole survivor.  Barrows crosses paths briefly with an affable German soldier, and they swap candy.  Later, our hero differentiates Germans from Nazis during a conversation with an arrogant Gestapo officer, Sturmbannfuhrer Dishelm (Richard Dobson of “Brood Parasite”), that they have captured.  Anyway, as they go their separate ways, the German soldier dies from a bullet in the back.  A British soldier fired on the German after Barrows allowed him to leave. Reluctantly, Barrows joins up with two lost British soldiers, Private Murphy (television actor James Boyland), his moronic, simple-minded friend, Private Fily (Guy Wills of “Looking for Eric”), and a taciturn American paratrooper, Private George (Adam Woodward of “The Black Prince”), who is suffering from shell shock.  This quartet trudge through rural France, with Murphy behaving like a bully.  Eventually, they come upon a U.S. Army jeep, with a dead driver and a defunct American general.  Since both jeep passengers are dead, Barrows suggests that they appropriate the vehicle.  They cruise down a road with Barrows behind the wheel.  Little do they know a German sign warning them about land mines on the road has been knocked down.  They hit a land mine, but they survive the explosion.

Eventually, our heroes ambush three Germans in a staff car and capture a Gestapo officer.  Since he is carrying a satchel of papers, they decide to bring him back alive.  Later, they encounter the French Resistance, and Margaret (Sophie Skelton of “Another Mother’s Son”) helps Barrows and his men launch an attack on a German outpost with a Tiger tank parked nearby.  Tactlessly, the Tiger tank is never utilized.  Presumably, not only Vernon but also our heroes are searching for bigger game.  They find it after they confront a German pillbox that has kept American troops pinned down.  The problem with Vernon’s pillbox is that it isn’t as sturdy as the pillbox that is devastated in an infinitely better World War II movie, Don Siegel’s “The Hell with Heroes” (1962), where exhausted G.I.s sought to stay alive under worse circumstances.  The destructive toll that the pillbox exacts in “The Hell with Heroes’ is extreme.  Comparatively, the “D-Day Survivor” pillbox is a picnic.  Hampered by his shoe-string budget, Vernon focuses on how these young, inexperienced soldiers cooperate to accomplish their objectives.  Only after they succeed as a team are they prepared to destroy the pillbox.  Nevertheless, “D-Day Survivor” qualifies as a routine World War movie.

FILM REVIEW OF ''THE DARK TOWER" (2017)

I’ve read some of Stephen King’s novels, and--with a few exceptions--I’ve seen most of the movies inspired by his novels.  Although he has never been one of my favorite authors, I’ve enjoyed reading some of his work.  Predictably, the novels surpass the movies. Nevertheless, I loved the two “Carrie” adaptations.  The 2013 remake with ChloĆ« Grace Moretz topped the 1976 original with Sissy Spacek and John Travolta.  “The Shining” was a memorable novel, but the absence of CGI when it was produced in 1980 prompted director Stanley Kubrick to take liberties with the story.  Jack Nicholson saved the movie.  “The Green Mile” (1999) with Tom Hanks didn’t impress me, while “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994) ranked as the best King adaptation.  “Dolores Claiborne” (1995), “The Running Man” (1987), “The Dead Zone” (1983), “Stand by Me” (1986), “Apt Pupil” (1998), and “Christine” (1983) all qualified as above-average.  The ending ruined “The Mist” (2007).  Stuff like “Silver Bullet” (1985), the two “Creepshow” movies, “Maximum Overdrive” (1986), “Thinner” (1996), and “The Lawnmower Man” (1992) and its sequel were potboilers.

After watching what “Island of Lost Souls” director Nikolaj Arcel and “Fifth Wave” co-screenwriters Akiva Goldsman and Jeff Pinker, and Anders Thomas Jensen of “The Duchess,” did to King’s “The Dark Tower,” you have to wonder what were they thinking when they tampered with his bestseller.  Danish, art-house helmer Nikolaj looks clearly out of his element, and Goldsman, Pinker, and Jensen should have confined themselves strictly to the material in King’s novel.  Hopelessly incomprehensible, thoroughly enigmatic, and predictably formulaic, this dire adaptation of King’s magnum opus “The Dark Tower” (* OUT OF ****) displays little fidelity to the novel.  Pitting “Luther” star Idris Elba as the heroic Gunslinger, Roland Deschain, against Oscar-winner Matthew McConaughey as the evil Sorcerer, a.k.a. Walter Padick, ‘the Man in Black,’ the film struggles to generate any excitement and suspense.  Despite his ambivalence about the film, Stephen King has said, “‘This is not exactly my novel but this is very much the spirit and the tone and I’m very happy.’ Mind you, the performances are all beyond reproach. Stephen King enthusiasts may appreciate this version more than anybody who have neither perused King nor the eight novels comprising “The Dark Tower” series.  Curiously, I read the first novel in the franchise about The Gunslinger, and “The Dark Tower” contains only a microscopic amount of the book. “The Dark Tower” filmmakers have omitted more than half of the novel as well as eliminated some of its more sensational scenes.   Reportedly, they have inserted material from later books in the series, but they have neglected to account for many details that must have been left on the editing room floor. 

Jake Chambers (newcomer Tom Taylor) is a vividly imaginative, 14-year old lad, with a psychic gift that enables him to ‘shine.’  Basically, Jake can read minds and conduct mental conversations with others who share his ability.  The allusion to Stephen King’s earlier epic “The Shining” is unmistakable.  Jake’s sympathetic mother Laurie (Katheryn Winnick of “Cloud 9”) and his abrasive stepfather Lon (Nicholas Pauling of “Doomsday”) are anxious about their troubled son. Jake misses his biological father, an NYC firefighter who died in a conflagration, and he resents his stepdad.  He gets into a fight with another student at his New York City school over his apocalyptic drawings.  Laurie and Lon convince him to spend a weekend in psychiatric facility. Jake suspects that the people who have come to take him are sinister, shape-shifting aliens, and he flees.  Walter, a.k.a. ‘the Man in Black’ (Matthew McConaughey of “Interstellar”) surprises Jake’s parents after the youth eludes his envoys.  Walter orders Lon to “stop breathing,” and Lon keels over stone cold dead on the floor.  Walter enters Jake’s room. He projects himself into the past and scrutinizes those ominous drawings that plaster one wall of Jake’s room.   Pictures of a dark tower, a gunslinger, and a sorcerer recur in Jake’s sketches.  Afterward, ‘the Man in Black’ incinerates Laurie on the spot without a qualm.  Meantime, Jake finds a house in the city that contains a portal between the Earth and the post-apocalyptic world called Mid-World.  Mid-World resembles a parched, desolate wasteland inhabited by woebegone people. Jake befriends the last living Gunslinger, Roland Deschain (Idris Elba of “Pacific Rim”), and explains that Walter has been abducting children, torturing them, and using their minds to demolish the Dark Tower.  The Dark Tower is a soaring spire, sort of a primeval Empire State Building, that looms at the center of the universe and preserves the balance between Good and Evil.  Walter,’ the Man in Black,’ longs to destroy the Dark Tower.  Moreover, he believes Jake is the best candidate to topple the iconic structure.  Roland has been pursuing ‘the Man in Black’ to exact vengeance because Walter killed his father, Steven Deschain (Dennis Haysbert of “Waiting to Exhale”), who taught Roland how to handle those six-shot revolvers. Miraculously, Walter has survived many attempts on his life by Roland.  Essentially, Roland blasts away at him, but Walter snatches the bullets harmlessly out of the air before any can strike him.

Clocking in at 95 spartan minutes, “The Dark Tower” is boilerplate Stephen King.  Unfortunately, the filmmakers reveal little about Mid-World, the portals connecting it with Earth, and most of all the background of the mysterious Dark Tower.  The filmmakers in “The Dark Tower” seem to parcel out only bread crumbs of information, while they have glossed over the ground rules dictating behavior so as not to interfere with Roland’s single-minded, vengeance-driven pursuit of ‘the Man in Black.’  Inexplicably, Roland can reload his Remington revolvers with incredible speed, and he doesn’t have to shuck the cartridges physically from the loops in his gun belt to achieve this feat!  We never learn what makes the minds of children so toxic to the tower. Ultimately, “The Dark Tower” qualifies as a formulaic sci-fi-fantasy-Western-horror epic that should have retained more elements of King’s original story.