Watch Like Doc: “Battle for Sevastopol” (Битва за Севастополь)

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/4/45/Battle_of_Sevastopol_2015.jpgI wish I could put the Ukrainian title of the film in the header – they refer to the Ukrainian-language version of the film as “Indestructible” (Незламна), and I feel that’s a better representation of the movie than the Russian (and American-translated) title.  There was no “Battle for Sevastopol” – there was a series of battles to defend that city which ultimately failed.

I’ll just put this out there right off the bat – there was a lot to enjoy about this film, but ultimately I was pretty disappointed with the final product.  First, some interesting background I picked up during the before-and-after discussions during the symposium.  This is the last joint Russian and Ukrainian enterprise, in terms of cinema, before the Russian invasion of Crimea and hostilities in eastern Ukraine.  The movie was released in cinemas in both countries, in their own languages, shortly before things fell apart sharply between the two.  The movie was very well received in both countries, although we are told that many elements in Ukraine feel it is a little too pro-Russian, whereas many in Russia feel it is far too pro-Ukrainian.  You can’t please everyone.

Image result for людмила павличенкоDoc’s one of those people you can’t please all the time.  This is a biographical depiction of the wartime years of Lyudmila (Lyuda) Pavlichenko, a Ukrainian-born Soviet sniper who, during World War 2, killed over 300 German soldiers.  The movie is actually told from the point of view of Eleanor Roosevelt, who hosted Lyuda during a 1942 effort on the part of the Soviet Union to bring the Americans, still freshly ensconced in their first year of the war, to fight side-by-side with the Soviets instead of simply continuing the Lend-Lease Program.  We see Lyuda shortly before the war, resolute and dedicated, showing the boys that she could compete with them in a shooting match at school.  Her excellent performance (47 points out of a possible 50) is noticed by the local Commissar, and she is sent off to sniper school.  When Nazi Germany attacks the Soviet Union from a number of fronts, Lyuda is fiercely determined to play her role.  She is recognized almost immediately as not only a superb sniper, but also the daughter of a true hero from the Civil War – a military veteran who seems to have no time for the young woman, as he had always wanted a son.  During the film, through flashbacks that are relayed from Mrs Roosevelt, we see Lyuda fighting in the Battle of Odessa and the failed defense of Sevastopol. There’s a lot to be amazed at regarding this young woman.

What didn’t Doc like about the movie?  Plenty, unfortunately.  The fact that a large percentage of the movie takes place in the US (Washington DC and Chicago) provides way too many opportunities for Russians and/or Ukrainians to play speaking parts of Americans, with insufficient money spent on dialogue coaches.  The heavily-accented exchanges are almost, but not completely, covered by the Russian overdubbed for the benefit of Russian audiences.  If you think Clint Eastwood and Sean Connery spoke Russian fluently in Firefox and The Hunt for Red October, then this won’t bother you as much as it did me.

Related imageSomeone at some point of the production made a decision to inject modern music into the film during a battle sequence.  Because up to that point we had been treated to music that was contemporary to that time, the sound of an electric guitar as a backdrop to sung entreaties to fight heroically was jarring and intrusive.  Picture Charlton Heston’s Moses parting the Red Sea to allow the Israelites to flee the Egyptian Army, while Kenny Loggins sings “Out into the danger zone…” in the background.  No.  No no no.

Peppered throughout the film are elements meant to symbolize Lyuda’s home and her first love; rather than adding a level of poignancy through subtlety, the symbolism was heavy-handed and predictable.  We won’t even mention the criminally unnecessary sex scene, thrown in for no obvious reason.  My shoulders ache from all the shrugging.

Finally, there is a question of over-acting.  Actually, it’s not a question at all, but an exclamation.  Sometimes less is so much more.

We’re told that the making of the film was controversial and complicated, both structurally and ideologically – whose memory of the war are we seeing?  A Russian point of view, or Ukrainian?  Again, that problem is solved through the device of using Eleanor Roosevelt as our guide.  It actually worked, though.

There’s plenty to like about this film.  It’s disjointed, but can be entertaining for someone looking for a mindless way to cinematically pass the time.  It’s just not Doc’s cup of tea.  I’ll offer it a C rating, and just say hope your experience goes better than mine.

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Doc Reviews “I Was a Cold War Penguin” by Dafydd Manton

ce.jpgA friend from my dark past, when I was working for the US Air Force alongside a number of RAF counterparts in the town once known as West Berlin, alerted me to the existence of a freshly penned book titled “I Was a Cold War Penguin.” The author was an acquaintance of my DPF (dark past friend) and we appeared to have shared a good number of similar experiences growing up (I almost wrote “maturing”) through our enlistment and training to work with languages in the armed forces of our respective lands.

There is so much that I could offer about this book, but I will try to narrow my fondness for it down to a few paragraphs. First, it is brilliantly and hilariously written. If Tom Sharpe and HP Lovecraft had a baby, that would be scientifically ponderous, but would have nothing to do with this book. But I digress.

Dafydd Manton (for the author is he) was our eponymous Cold War Penguin, serving in the RAF from the early 1970s, doing his part to keep an ear on the Soviets in their effort to rule the world. Manton artfully describes his life in the RAF during the Cold War, always with a style of humor that can leave the reader rolling the eyes, shaking the head, or laughing out (the) loud. Because our paths had crossed, just not at the same time, I found myself bumping in to friends throughout the book – Manton drops names like pygmy goats drop chocolate marbles – anywhere and everywhere, and with little warning. My poor wife would have to sit and put up with me cackling with laughter, then barking out names from my past that I had somehow forgotten. Part of my delight was reading some of the horrifyingly hilarious stories that went on a good decade before I started working with what I thought were clean-cut hard-working men and women. Well, they were, indeed, all that and (obviously) quite a bit more.

Manton is, if nothing else, an honorable gent when it comes to retelling some of these stories. He offers proper attribution when it comes to recognizing those who made contributions, providing entire anecdotes of their own as well as filling in some of the darker recesses of memory. He also withholds the names of those who, for any of a number of reasons, would not love for their families to tie them to some of the hijinks we are greeted with.

Along with a few groan-inducing shaggy dog stories here as well, all told this is a wonderfully packaged glimpse at a life not often described anywhere else. Men and women in similar careers from my side of the Atlantic will immediately find themselves at home with this book, and anyone who has lived through the Cold War – or for that matter, are simply curious as to some of the goings-on behind the scenes – will find this a great book.

The proceeds from the book go to the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund, a very worthy cause, whose charity provides financial, practical and emotional support to serving and former members of the RAF – regardless of rank – as well as their partners and dependents. The book is available through the usual online commercial services, in the standard formats – epub, mobi, lrf, pdf, html; if you’d like to take a sneak peek, you can head over to Smashwords.com and read (I believe) the first chapter. But do yourself (and the recipients of the RAF Benevolent Fund’s services) a good deed, and buy this book today. You’ll not be sorry.

As an aside, I had promised that I would write this review as soon as I had finished reading it. It took me longer than usual for a book this size, not because of the complexity of the language, but because it is written in a number of bite-sized chunks, making it very much like the lead singer for the Velvet Underground – a great loo read.

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being amazingly woohoo, and 1 being why-oh-why boohoo, Doc gives this book a solid A.

 

Doc Reviews “Twelve Years a Slave” by Solomon Northup

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Let’s jump to the chase: This is an excellent, important book. It is the memoir of Solomon Northup, the son of a freed slave, and a landowner in Hebron, New York, who spent his time as husband and father, farmer and professional violin player. In 1841, at the age of 34, was offered an opportunity as a professional traveling musician with a circus; seizing the opportunity to make what would amount to relatively easy money, he traveled to Washington DC with his new associates. Shortly after arriving in Washington, he was drugged, kidnapped, and sold into slavery. Along with a large group of other slaves marketed with him in Washington, he was shipped on a steamer to Louisiana and sold to a plantation owner.

The book is Northup’s recounting of his entire frightening journey, from his decision to take the job with the circus as a violinist, through the unsettling feeling of something not quite right upon his arrival in Washington, to his awakening from a drugged stupor to find himself in shackles, his journey to Louisiana, and the subsequent twelve years at the hands of various owners at varying levels of humanity. Northup’s descriptions of life as a slave on the plantation are mixed with the various elements of running a plantation that are fascinating, to say the least. But his accounts of the torture at the hands of unscrupulous and inhumane owners go beyond fascinating – they are written without dipping the quill into what could easily (and understandably) be an emotion-filled retelling; rather, they are clinically narrated in such a way that makes the horrors that much stronger. One can consider that a whipping of one hundred lashes can be a horrifying experience; Northup seemingly walks you through every lash, refusing to hold your hand for comfort.

At one point, Northup is able to bring us down a cozy path where he tells of a late summer party-like atmosphere of singing and dancing among the slaves, well into the early hours of the morning, and for a change the reader relaxes with that image, until Northup reminds us that the slaves are dancing and singing and making music at the demands of a drunken master, and rather than feeling the any of the joy they were expressing, they were only too well aware of the late hour, as it fell shortly after they had returned from the fields and had enough time to have their very sparse meals – and that after the music is finally allowed to finish, they will only be two or three hours before having to take to the fields again, for another 18 hours of non-stop grueling work. It is not a party, but a nightmare.

Northup’s eventual rescue with the help of an abolitionist from Canada (who happened to be passing through) is long in its arrival, but like the bird in the oven on Thanksgiving, the fact that the reader knows it’s coming makes it all the more delicious. The description of the efforts to bring the initial kidnappers to justice is agonizing in its racial unfairness, but not all that unexpected. Northup’s final scene of being reunited with his family is written in such a way that the heart fairly swoons.

It’s interesting to do a little reading on what Northup did for the rest of his life; I highly recommend giving the Wikipedia entry on Northup’s life a read. By now, the basic details of his story are already pretty well known (you get the entire gist of the book through the title itself), but it’s also well worth your while to grab the book and devour it as well. The good news is that it’s in the public domain, and can be downloaded, courtesy of the good folks at the Gutenberg Project, by clicking on this couple of words here. Hell, that’s almost like magic, isn’t it?

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being little more than toilet paper and 10 being the best thing since sliced bread, Doc gives this book a solid “A”. Don’t forget to grab your free digital copy today.

Doc Reviews “Running with Rhinos” by Ed Warner

ccA beautiful thing has recently happened. A man has written a book to help preserve nature, to help save animals. What could be more pure?

The man is Ed Warner.His book, “Running with Rhinos,” is set to be published on 1 March 2016.  Upon reading this delightful and engaging tome, you’ll learn that Ed is a conservationist, story-teller, smuggler, gun-runner, and philanthropist. A bit of a clown, and a hell of an author. On the road to telling us about his many years of involvement with rhino conservation, we learn a lot about the people he has grown to love, and who have embraced him into the family. Ed and his cohorts are real-life action heroes, people who honestly put their lives on the line every day to do the right thing for the gentle giants of Africa: they run real risks, from the possibility of being gored to working with an incredibly potent sedative, a single drop of which on human skin can lead to death. We learn of the trials and tribulations anyone working on this continent faces, from mind-boggling currency exchange rules (You’re an American? You have pricier regulations and tougher restrictions than the rest of the world) to feats of linguistic juggling when trying to carry on a conversation, weaving their tongues around English, French, Afrikaans, and a host of African dialects to do their work, gaining access to some of the most remote areas of the world.

Warner lays out his exploits that make us green with envy, but also happy to be reading the experiences from the comfort of a first world environment. We want to be his friend, travel with him in crowded, dusty, smelly helicopters spotting elephants from 300 meters, removing the wire snare from a baby rhino that has dug into its windpipe, recounting the day’s events with friends over roast goat and just the right amount of whiskey. But we also want no part of the discomforts and dangers often recklessly introduced by the so-called gangster governments which seem to be all the rage across the continent.

Warner is a bit of a wizard when it comes to describing the sights, sounds, and smells of the land he’s come to love. You get a feeling that you’re standing with him, watching a tired old truck make every effort to negotiate an impossible road, you get a sense of the flora, fauna, and rugged geology, and you come to appreciate the people who inhabit the land. As much as you hate to admit it, you even come to begrudgingly accept the wardens and their staffs at the various parks who admit to poaching, simply to make sure their families have food. No other book has made me want to book a flight to Africa as much as this one.

If I have anything negative to offer about the book, it is that I tended to get a little lost by trying to read it as a linear travelogue. It’s not that; Warner spells out his travels, but will be pulled away from the main path to speak about this person or that person in some depth – these sidebars are always engaging, often witty, but frequently require a trail of breadcrumbs to get us back on track of what the main story was. There’s nothing wrong with having a posse of characters who come fully loaded with so many awesome anecdotes, so while it’s a bit of a quibble on Doc’s part, I can’t fault Warner too much. It’s his book, and it’s great.

I’m hopeful this is going to be a popular book, for two reasons: Warner has stated he is donating the proceeds from it to rhino conservation efforts, including the Lowveld Rhino Trust. He offers two websites and points of contact for those who wish to send additional resources their way. I also want it to be popular because, while reading “Running with Rhinos,” I’ve grown to really admire Warner; he seems like a friend through his writing, and I’d like to invite him back into my home with a second or third book, maybe even more. Selfish, I know, but that’s Doc for you.

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being a sheer waste, and 10 being enough to bring tears of joy to your eyes, Doc gives this one a solid “A-”. This would make an outstanding gift for someone with a love of nature, travel, or conservation.