A Herman Wouk Double Feature: The Winds of War (1983, directed by Dan Curtis) and War and Remembrance (1988, directed by Dan Curtis)


When the great American novelist Herman Wouk passed away earlier this month at the age of 103, he left behind a rich and varied literary legacy.  From 1947, the year that his first novel was published to 2016, the year that he published his memoirs, Wouk wrote about religion, history, science, and even the movies.  However, Wouk will probably always be best remembered for the three novels that he wrote about World War II.

Based on his own Naval service during World War II, The Caine Mutiny was published in 1951 and was later adapted into both a successful stage play and an Oscar-nominated film.  It also won Wouk a Pulitzer Prize and established him as a major American writer.  Nearly 20 years later, Wouk would return to the history of the Second World War with two of his greatest literary works, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance.  (Originally, Wouk was only planning on writing one book about the entire war but when it took him nearly a thousand pages to reach Pearl Harbor, he decided to split the story in two.)  Beginning in 1939 and proceeding all the way through to the end of the war, the two books followed two families, the Henrys and the Jastrows, as they watched the world descend into war. Along the way, the book’s fictional characters rub shoulders with historical characters like Hitler, Churchill, FDR, and even Stalin.  Carefully researched and meticulously detailed, the books were both critically acclaimed and popular with readers and, despite some soapy elements, they both hold up well today.

Given their success, it’s not a surprise that both The Winds of War and War and Remembrance were adapted for television.  Today, HBO would probably give the books the Game of Thrones treatment, with 8 seasons of war, tragedy, romance, and Emmys.  However, this was the 1980s.  This was the age of of the big-budget, all-star cast network miniseries.  Wouk’s epic history of World War II was coming to prime time.

With a total running times of 15 hours, The Winds of War originally aired over seven evenings in 1983.  Produced and directed for ABC by Dan Curtis, The Winds of War had a 962-page script, a 200-day shooting schedule, 285 speaking parts, and a then-record budget of $35,000,000.  It also had Robert Mitchum, starring as Victor “Pug” Henry, an ambitious naval officer who somehow always managed to be in the right place to witness almost all of the events leading up to America’s entry into World War II.  Jan-Michael Vincent played Pug’s son, Byron, while John Houseman took on the pivotal role Aaron Jastrow, a Jewish scholar though whose eyes the home audience would witness the rise of fascism in Europe.  Terribly miscast as Natalie, Aaron’s niece and Byron’s lover, was 44 year-old Ali MacGraw.  Among those playing historical figures were Ralph Bellamy as FDR, Howard Lang as Churchill, and Gunter Meisner as Hitler.

I recently watched The Winds of War on DVD and, despite some glaring flaws that I’ll get to later, it holds up well as both a history of World War II and a tribute to those who battled Hitler’s evil.  Like Wouk’s novels, the miniseries does a good job of breaking down not only how Hitler came to power but also why the rest of the world was often in denial about what was happening.  Watching the entire miniseries in one setting can be overwhelming.  It’s a big production and it is also unmistakably a product of a time when the major networks didn’t have to worry about competition from cable.  It takes its time but, in the end, you’re glad that it did.  All of the little details can get exhausting but they’re important to understanding just how Hitler was able to catch the world off-guard.

Jan-Michael Vincent and Ali MacGraw in The Winds of War

The miniseries does suffer due to the miscasting of some key roles.  Both Jan-Michael Vincent and Ali MacGraw were far too old for their roles.  Vincent was 38 and MacGraw was 44 when they were cast as naive and idealistic lovers trying to find themselves in Europe.  It’s perhaps less of a problem for Vincent, who had yet to lose his looks to alcoholism and who looked enough like Robert Mitchum that he could pass as Mitchum’s son.  But MacGraw is simply terrible in her role, flatly delivering her lines and looking more like Vincent’s mother than his lover.  It’s particularly jarring when she mockingly calls diplomat Leslie Sloat “Old Sloat,” because Sloat was played by David Dukes, who was six years younger than MacGraw.

67 year-old Robert Mitchum was also much too old to play an ambitious junior officer, one whose main goal in life is still to ultimately become an admiral.  When he ends up having an affair with a younger British journalist played by 30ish Victoria Tennant, the difference in their ages is even more pronounced than in Wouk’s novel.  (Pug was in his 40s in The Winds of War.)  However, Mitchum overcomes his miscasting by virtue of his natural gravitas.  With his weary presence and authoritative voice, Mitchum simply is Pug.

A ratings hit and a multiple Emmy nominee, The Winds of War was followed up five years later by War and Remembrance.  Like its predecessor, War and Remembrance set records.  The script ran 1,492 pages and featured 356 speaking parts.  The production employed 44,000 extras and filming took nearly two years, from January of 1986 to September of 1987.  With a budget of $104 million, it was the most expensive television production to date.  The final miniseries had a 30-hour running time, which was divided over 12 nights.  War and Remembrance not only made history because of its cost and length but also as the first major production to be allowed to film on location at the Auschwitz concentration camp.  For many members of the generation born after the end of World War II, War and Remembrance would serve as their first introduction to the horrors of the Holocaust.

Director Dan Curtis returned and with him came Robert Mitchum, now in his 70s and still playing a junior naval officer.  David Dukes once again played the hapless diplomat, Leslie Sloat.  Ralph Bellamy also returned as FDR as did Victoria Tennant as Mitchum’s lover, Polly Bergen as Mitchum’s wife, and Peter Graves as Bergen’s lover.  However, they were the exception.  The majority of the original cast was replaced for the sequel, in most cases for the better.  With John Houseman too ill to reprise his role, John Gielgud took over the role of Aaron Jastrow while Hart Bochner replaced the famously troubled Jan-Michael Vincent.  Robert Hardy took over the role of Churchill while Hitler was recast with Steven Berkoff.  Best of all, Jane Seymour replaced Ali MacGraw in the role of Natalie and gave the best performance of her career.  Other characters were played by a mix of up-and-comers to tv veterans, with the cast eventually including everyone from Barry Bostwick and Sharon Stone to E.G. Marshall and Ian McShane.

Jane Seymour and John Gielgud

With a stronger cast and (ironically, considering the running length) a more focused storyline, War and Remembrance is superior to The Winds of War in every way.  That doesn’t mean that it’s perfect, of course.  The scenes featuring Barry Bostwick as a submarine commander feel as if they go on forever and Robert Mitchum still seems like he should be preparing for retirement instead of angling for a promotion.  But none of that matters when the miniseries focuses on Aaron and Natalie Jastrow and their struggle to survive life in the Theresienstadt Ghetto and eventually Auschwitz.  At the time that War and Remembrance was initially broadcast, the concentration camp scenes were considered to be highly controversial and many viewers complained that they were so disturbing that they should not have been aired during prime time.  (This was four years before Schindler’s List.)  Seen today, those scenes are the most important part of the film.  Not only do they show why the war had to be fought but they also demand that the world never allow such a thing to happen again.

Though it was considered by a rating disappointment when compared to its predecessor, War and Remembrance was still a multiple-Emmy nominee.  Controversially, it defeated Lonesome Dove for Best Miniseries.  Both Winds of War and War and Remembrance have been released on DVD and, like the books that inspired them, they both hold up well.  They pay tribute to not only those who fought the Nazis but also to the humanistic vision of Herman Wouk.

Herman Wouk (1915-2019)

That Voodoo That You Do: Roger Moore as James Bond 007 in LIVE AND LET DIE (United Artists 1973) — cracked rear viewer


 

Three British agents are murdered, and James Bond is sent overseas to investigate the doings of Dr. Kananga, despot of the Carribean island nation of San Monique in LIVE AND LET DIE. But wait… that’s not Sean Connery as 007, or even George Lazenby. It’s Roger Moore , making the first of his seven appearences as […]

via That Voodoo That You Do: Roger Moore as James Bond 007 in LIVE AND LET DIE (United Artists 1973) — cracked rear viewer

Val’s Movie Roundup #14: Hallmark Edition


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Love Is a Four Letter Word (2007) – This was really disappointing. I could say something like shit is also a four letter word, but disappointing is really a better word for this movie. The movie is about three couples. The first are newlyweds. The second are an older couple who are getting divorced. The third are the two divorce attorneys handling each end of the older couples divorce. What’s so disappointing is that the beginning of this movie has some of the sweetest, affectionate, and genuine moments between two lovers I have seen in a Hallmark movie. However, it then just degenerates into a pitiful attempt at a 1940’s screwball comedy while trying to keep the emotions of the beginning of the film alive on top of cutting between the three couples to tell their stories in parallel. It doesn’t work! Why couldn’t the movie have stuck with the couple we met at the beginning and just tell a nice simple love story. Is it a sin to follow the principle of KISS when making a movie? That being Keep It Simple Stupid! There’s no reason to waste your time on this movie.

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Jack’s Family Adventure (2010) – This movie is okay, but that’s the problem. It’s so okay that it’s not really worth watching. A guy played by Peter Graves dies and leaves a cabin to his son played by Jonathan Silverman. No! I’m not going to make that joke.

Jack decides to take his family to said cabin because we all know that getting away from city life brings families together. While they are adjusting, a guy called Wild Bill (Peter Strauss) shows up. They all have a good time and the family emerges closer than when they arrived. That’s it! Like I said, it’s just so okay that boredom sets in pretty quickly. Not worth seeking out, but you’ll survive if you end up seeing it.

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Dear Prudence (2008) – Was Jane Seymour always this annoying? I think I have only seen her in Live And Let Die (1973). She is like the living embodiment of the wig from Lies Between Friends. Awful! Well, Seymour plays some TV show host who basically shows you life hack type stuff. She gets sent to a special place in Wyoming. It doesn’t take long for her to stumble upon a crime. I didn’t even know this was going to be a murder mystery going into it. I mean it doesn’t have “murder” or “mystery” in the title to tell me. Sadly, that is so common with Hallmark that I was honestly surprised when she came across blood on a carpet. However, I wasn’t surprised to quickly figure out this was actually shot in Canada. Little tip for Canadian productions trying to pretend they are in the U.S.: Don’t have your Canadian actors say the word “about”.

So in between fantasies of Jason showing up to cut off Seymour’s head, a murder mystery unravels. It’s not an interesting mystery by any means, but Seymour and her trusty side kick giving out all these stupid household remedies for everything will suck any fun you might derive from it right out of it. Skip!

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Murder 101: College Can Be Murder (2007) – This is easily the best entry in the Murder 101 series. Despite “murder” being in the title of the movie, it is actually all about Dick Van Dyke trying to get his bike back after it is stolen. It’s an old bike that has a lot of sentimental value. He of course hires his friend played by his son Barry Van Dyke to help him track it down. It’s so funny! Dick keeps seeing people on campus riding his bike around and tries to chase them down. He never catches them. He goes to the gym to try and get in shape in the futile hope that it will help him catch the thief. Barry keeps going around questioning people all about this bike. Posters are put up all around campus. There’s even a scene where Dick is in class and has what I can only describe as a spidey sense that his bike is nearby. He runs out into the hall to find the thief waiting for him on his bike. A hilarious chase ensues.

I would have totally loved this movie if that was what it was actually about. In reality, the stolen bike is just a subplot. I made up some of that stuff, but he does keep chasing after the bike, goes to the gym to gain speed, and Dick does put up posters. Why couldn’t the movie be one long joke about that bike? Instead, some college professor gets killed by eating an orange. At first it’s natural causes, but after Barry does some dumpster diving to retrieve the orange (how the hell did he do that?) they discover he was poisoned. It all winds up revolving around the saying of “publish or perish”. It’s a decent entry in the Murder 101 series, but I really wanted that bike movie instead.

Dying Is Easy, Comedy is Hard: Freeloaders (dir by Dan Rosen)


Supposedly, the great comedic character actor Edmund Gwenn once said, “Dying is easy.  Comedy is hard.”

I have to agree because I’ve seen a lot of comedies in 2013.  A few of them — like This Is The End and The World’s End — have worked.  However, the majority of them have not only been bad but they’ve been so bad that they’ve invited audiences to wonder if comedy is a dying art form.  For every genuinely clever comedy, it seems like we’ve had to sit through a dozen Movie 43s.  These are movies where genuinely funny people get together and proceed to prove that they can be just as unfunny as the obnoxious cousin that everyone avoids at the family reunion.

Case in point: Freeloaders.

Even Movie 43 made me laugh once.  That’s one laugh more than I got out of Freeloaders.  Freeloaders is quite possibly the least funny comedy that I’ve ever seen.  Freeloaders almost feels like a social experiment, a test to see what would happen if an audience, expecting to see a silly and crude comedy, instead found themselves trapped in a laugh-repellent environment for 80 minutes.

Freeloaders tells the story of a group of stereotypes who have spent the last six years living in a mansion owned by “rock star” Adam Duritz.  It turns out that one of them is a childhood friend of Duritz’s and, since Duritz has been out touring for the past decade, he’s allowed his friends to occupy his home rent-free.  However, Duritz is getting married and planning on moving to New York City and, as a result, he’s selling his mansion.  The freeloaders are told that they have a week to get out of the mansion.  Well, since everyone in this film is basically a total and complete dumbass, nobody can figure out how to rent an apartment.  So, instead, they come up with some painfully wacky schemes to raise the money to buy the mansion themselves.  Standing in their way is Adam’s real estate agent who …. well, it’s never really all that clear why she’s standing in their way.  Presumably, it’s because there wouldn’t be a film unless she was standing in their way and then we would have all missed out on the chance to watch Freeloaders.

Why doesn’t Freeloaders work?

Well, let’s start by considering the fact that Adam Duritz plays himself.  I actually had to go on Wikipedia to remind myself who Adam Duritz is and I discovered that he’ was apparently a big deal back in the 90s and that he’s responsible for that painfully annoying cover of Big Yellow Taxi that was playing everywhere back in the summer of 2003.   Unfortunately, as both an actor and as a “fictional” character, Adam Duritz is so bland that his character serves mostly as a distraction.  The use of a real celebrity (if Adam Duritz can legitimately be called a celebrity) should have provided the filmmakers with a lot of comedic opportunity but that opportunity is pretty much wasted because Freeloaders seems to be obsessed with letting us know that Adam Duritz is a really great guy.

(That might be because Adam Duritz was one of the film’s producers.)

While I doubt that Adam Duritz has ever been a funny guy, Freeloaders is filled with other actors who have proven themselves to be funny in the past.  I, for one, was excited to see the name Nat Faxon in the opening credits because, while he might not be a household name, anyone who has ever seen Nat Faxon in a movie knows just how funny he can be.  However, both Mr. Faxon and the rest of cast struggle with the fact that they’re playing a collection of one-dimensional stereotypes.  Everyone has one overly defining, predictable trait to help us keep them straight.  There’s the nice guy, the stoner, the womanizer, the nice girl, the hoodlum, and the girl who will inspire some in the audience to say, “Is that Olivia Munn?,” largely because she is Olivia Munn.  Since they’re never allowed to become individual characters, all of their attempts at humor fall painfully flat.  It doesn’t help that director Dan Rosen directs without any hint of timing or originality.

Freeloaders was produced by Broken Lizard, the comedy troupe that’s developed a large cult following as the result of films like Super Troopers and Club Dread.  However, the members of Broken Lizard did not write or direct the film and they only appear in a rather brief cameo where they parody Boogie Nights.

The Boogie Nights parody is actually fairly clever but it also highlights this film’s biggest problem.  Freeloaders was originally filmed in 2009 and then sat on the shelf until it finally got a very limited theatrical release earlier this year.  (Perhaps that’s why one of the film’s characters worries about getting sent to Iraq if he joins the army.)  However, the script feels like it was written back in the 90s.  Everything from the premise of slacker stoners being forced to raise money to Adam Duritz being described as a world-famous star to Broken Lizard parodying a film that came out in 1997 serves to make this film feel as if it was made about 14 years too late.

I love a good comedy but, by that same regard, there’s nothing a i hate more than a really bad comedy.  However, as a film lover, I will always be willing to take chance on comedy.  Comedy may be hard but the rewards are great.

Sometimes, you end up with something really special.

Sometimes, you just end up with Freeloaders.

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James Bond Review: Live and Let Die (dir. by Guy Hamilton)


One year and one day ago the very first James Bond film to star Sir Roger Moore, Live and Let Die, in the title role was reviewed by Lisa Marie, and now it’s time to revisit the eight official film in the series.

With the previous Bond entry, Diamonds Are Forever, we finally see Sean Connery run out of gas when it came to playing the title role of James Bond. Yet, despite the obvious boredom Connery was having in the film the producers of the series were still wanting him to come back for another Bond film. Maybe it was his experience during the production of Diamonds Are Forever or Connery finally decided it was truly time to go the series’ producers didn’t get their wish and were in a rush to find someone new to wear the mantle o Agent 007.

They finally found their new James Bond in the form of English-actor Roger Moore and production on Live and Let Die began soon after.

Roger Moore, for me, has always been the start of the less serious, but much more fun era of the James Bond franchise. His films still had the intrigue and action of the Connery-era, but the writers and producers of the series put in more one-liners and humor in the story. We begin to see the start of this in the previous Bond film (not handled as well and came off as awkward at times), but it was in Live and Let Die and in Roger Moore that this change in the series’ tone finally hit it’s stride.

The film dials back the global domination attempts by the series of villians both SPECTRE and not. This time around Bond must investigate the deaths of three MI6 agents who had been investigating one Dr. Kananga, the despot of the fictitious Caribbean island of San Monique. Kananga (played by Yaphet Kotto) also has an alter-ego in the form of Mr. Big who runs a series of soul food restaurants as a front for his drug business. Every Bond film always tries to out-elaborate the previous one with it’s villains plans. There’s no attempts by Kananga/Big to dominate the world. His plans are pretty capitalistic in a ruthless sort of way. He wants to corner the drug market in the US by flooding the illegal drug market with his own heroin which he plans to give away for free thus bankrupting the other crime lords and drug dealers.

This plan by Kananga actually looks to be very sound and it helps that he has the beautiful seer Solitaire (played by a young and beautiful Jane Seymour) to help him outwit ad stay ahead of his competitors and the law. His plan would’ve succeeded if not for the meddling of one British super-spy named James Bond.

Live and Let Die might not have been as serious about it’s story as the early Connery films, but it definitely had a much more faster pace with more action to distinguish Moore from Connery. One particular famous action sequence involves Bond escaping from Kananga’s drug farm in the Louisiana Bayou country being chased not just by Kananga’s henchmen but by the local police in the form of Sheriff J.W. Pepper who plays the role of fool and comedy relief in the film. Even the smaller action scenes in the film had more life and fun to them like Bond escaping a gator pit by timing a run across the backs of a line of gators to safety.

Where the previous bond film’s attempt at injecting humor and more action into the story were more failures than successes in this film Roger Moore Bond film they worked in due part to Moore’s playful delivery of the one-liners and bon mots the role has become known for of late. Any trepidation that audiences and producers might have had about  Moore taking on the role that had been made famous by Connery  soon went away as this film played out.

Live and Let Die still remains my favorite of all the Roger Moore Bond films and saw it as the highlight of his time playing the character. While the follow-up films were good in their own right it was this initial Moore entry in the series where the writers, Moore and veteran Bond filmmaker Guy Hamilton were able to find the perfect balance of thrilling action and humor that the rest of the Moore-era films couldn’t replicate.

Next up for James Bond…The Man with the Golden Gun.