Category: Military Action & Adventure


WorldWarZ-1

(A quick aside before my actual review: I watched this film Thursday night with my dad. We didn’t get home until after midnight. I worked Friday until 2 AM, and then today I went to see Monsters University with my sister which I will also be hopefully reviewing today. The moral of this story is that my brain is at least minorly fractured. Hopefully, these two reviews make sense)

After the dark and crushing ending to 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, there is one themeĀ  that seems to have held constant across the entirety of the zombie genre of horror. The zombie curse becomes an allegory for humanity’s existential dread and our own certain knowledge that one day soon, something will wipe us out. There is a rotting, hope-sucking fatalism at the heart of all great zombie films and even in the lightest moments in the best zombie works, you always know in the back of your head that any minor victories will only lead to the most tragic fall later. So, when World War Z trades in the usual stark damnation of the zombie genre for actual, legitimate hope, it is only one of many signs that this particular zombie film lacks any teeth.

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Perhaps it’s the film’s PG-13 rating and (more likely) perhaps it’s the film’s obvious and pathetic attempts to appeal to a mainstream summer blockbuster audience, but from beginning to end, World War Z turns the zombie apocalypse into a sterile, market-tested crowd pleaser that isn’t nearly as fun (or terrifying) as it wants itself to be. World War Z has individual set pieces that are a legitimate rush (a moment in a crowded plane stands out for sheer inspiration), but with emotionally wooden characters, mostly ineffective performances, and literally no sense of stakes in the outcomes of these characters, World War Z falls prey to most of the bad parts of zombie films without any of the gore-ridden excess or social commentary that makes the best Romero pictures so fun.

Gerry Lane (The Assassination of Jesse James‘s Brad Pitt) is a former U.N. investigator who finds himself caught in the middle of a mysterious infection that is turning humanity into murderous, suicidal shells whose only purpose is to continue spreading their infection. Gerry’s family is with him when the infection breaks loose in Philadelphia (and the rest of the world) and though Gerry and his family are able to escape to a UN battleship in the Atlantic ocean, the price for Gerry’s family’s spot on that boat is Gerry returning to field duty and helping to discover the cause of the zombie outbreak before it’s too late to save humanity. And, thus, Gerry is sent on a trip around the world from Korea to Israel to Wales as he searches for answers and for a cure.

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Even more than the fact that World War Z trades in zombie ultra-violence for confusing and schizophrenic editing (in a vein similar to but not as well-exectued as The Hunger Games film), this movie is plagued by a lack of a reason to care. Having watched post-apocalyptic films for decades now, writers and directors have to provide more than the potential extermination of humanity to garner an audience’s sympathies, and World War Z fails there on every possible front. The film adopts an episodic approach to it’s storytelling (keeping in line with its summer blockbuster lineage as opposed to traditional zombie archetypes), and in the downtime between set pieces, the writers fail again and again to develop its characters enough to generate even the most marginal interest in these figures as anything more than plot devices.

Brad Pitt is serviceable in the role of Gerry. But, considering that I think Brad Pitt is one of Hollywood’s most talent and consistently intriguing A-listers (just watch Killing Them Softly and tell me I’m wrong), serviceable is not enough. Pitt gives the distinct impression the entire film that he’s only here to pick up a paycheck, and during what is supposed to be one of the film’s most emotional moments during the movie’s end, Pitt doesn’t sell the uncertainty and despair that must have been rocking through Gerry at that moment. None of the performances make much of an impression although Mireille Enos’s turn as Gerry’s wife was interesting enough that I’d like to keep an eye on this new talent.

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I hope that I haven’t given the impression that I totally hated this movie because I didn’t. When the actual action is taking place (and let there be no question, World War Z is an action movie that happens to feature zombies), it is fast-paced and exciting, and it has several moments that are just buzzing with energy and innovation. A scene where zombies make their way onto a crowded plane is the best of the bunch (and prominently featured in the trailers), but other moments like an escape from an airport and the breaching of the walls of Israel have real verve and pleasure. Sadly there isn’t enough tying these moments together.

If you like real zombie movies of the Romero variety (even the cheesier ones like Diary of the Dead), you will probably find yourself disappointed by World War Z because it lacks practically all of the hallmarks of zombie cinema. And if you’re a fan of summer blockbusters of the Rolan Emmerich variety (i.e. Independence Day), you may still find yourself thinking that World War Z is wanting in some vague aspect. At the end of the day, the film gets the job done with its action-fueled moments, but it doesn’t accomplish nearly enough for just how dead and lifeless this film feels (pun about half-intended).

Final Score: C+

 

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Perhaps it’s not the best way to approach art criticism, but it seems impossible to me to separate the content of a film from the form or structure supporting said content. The Birth of a Nation is without question one of the most important films ever made from a technical perspective, but its loathsome racist content makes it a shining example of an exceptionally talented director using his powers for evil. Leni Riefenstahl would follow the same path when she made Triumph of the Will for the Nazi government. With great talent comes great responsibility (to paraphrase Uncle Ben), and Academy Award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow is certainly a great talent. She has now made arguably the two definitive films on the war on terror, although I would never compare her moral lapses to D.W. Griffith or Leni Riefenstahl, my respect for the filmcraft on display in Zero Dark Thirty is nearly overwhelmed by the morally reprehensible political subtext of this otherwise first-rate drama.

Because let there be no doubts, Zero Dark Thirty is easily the best procedural drama since Zodiac. At just shy of three hours long, Zero Dark Thirty is engrossing, intricate, and brutally honest in its display of the hunt for the most wanted fugitive in American history. Although it lacks some of the character-driven aspects that makes Zodiac one of the best American films of the aughts, Zero Dark Thirty is dedicated to presenting a realistic portrayal of the dirty work our nation’s intelligence officers embroil themselves in in order to catch the bad guys. But the film’s unwillingness to make a statement about the dirtiest of the dirty work compromises the vision of the film, but more on the political subtext of the film later. Let me simply lead then with the fact that I found myself simultaneously loathing and loving Zero Dark Thirty on multiple occasions during the film’s run time.

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The plot of Zero Dark Thirty is both as simple as it is complex and it’s a testament to the expert tapestry that is the film’s screenplay that it never becomes too difficult to follow this constantly weaving and shifting story. The surface is what’s simple. It is about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. But, it’s when you push past that simple log line that you realize just how intricate this film is. Focusing mostly on one C.I.A Agent, Maya (The Tree of Life‘s Jessica Chastain), whose obsession with locating and killing Osama bin Laden is ultimately what brings the man down. From her introduction to an al Qaeda financier being put under “enhanced interrogation” at a CIA Black site to a web of surveillance, bribes, and international terrorism, Maya and the team surrounding her exhaust every tool of the intelligence community to capture Osama bin Laden.

And that’s all I want to say for fear of spoiling the pleasure that is the intellectual gamesmanship that is on display as Maya and the others involved in the search risk their lives and occasionally their sanity to capture bin Laden. Much like Zodiac, this film relies on an honest display of an investigation (though this one actually ends with them catching the bad guy), and so you are sent on plenty of false leads, wild goose chases, and outright disappointments as they think they have something that turns out to be nothing. And the film does not shy away from displaying some of the loathsome tactics the American intelligence community was using to get that information. However, it’s the films unwillingness to make a statement on said methods (which becomes, essentially, a silent approval) that proves to be the movie’s only true flaw.

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Because, allow mew to make no bones about this, enhanced interrogation is torture. Water boarding is torture. Beating prisoners is torture. Locking them in a box that their bodies barely fit in is torture. Sleep deprivation is torture. Stripping a prisoner naked and leading them around on a dog collar is torture. You see all of these things happen in Zero Dark Thirty, and just when you think the film is saying it’s bad (by having Maya be rightfully disgusted at it happening), the heroine of the film stamps her approval on it by being even more efficient in her “enhanced interrogation” than the CIA agent we first meet in the film’s opening sequence. The film makes the case that we would have never caught bin Laden without these methods which may be true. But it also never makes the more important case that maybe that our nation’s moral high ground is more important.

The film constantly drives its silent approval of torture home by interplaying re-enactments of actual incidences of terrorism (the London bus bombings, the bombing of the Islamabad Marriott, the attack on a Saudi embassy) immediately after some interrogation technique fails to acquire results. The film makes the accurate point that every second a terrorist refuses to give up information, it allows the terrorists at large to do an attack. But by torturing, we simply feed the fuels for terrorist recruitment, and even the film admits that most of the valuable information came from non-torture interrogation techniques. But the very clear political message of this film is that you have to get your hands dirty to get the bad guys, and considering most of the empirical evidence suggests otherwise, that political aspect of the film is simply loathsome.

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For an actress whose name I didn’t know before 2011 (and I know most actors and actresses and their whole filmographies), Jessica Chastain has become one of Hollywood’s most consistently talented stars. Although I wasn’t sure why her performance was so Oscar-worthy at first (she was nominated but lost to Jennifer Lawrence), as Maya loses herself in the investigation to locate bin Laden, Jessica Chastain captures the obsession and desperation and alienation that take over Maya’s life. A character comments on how strung out Maya is looking halfway through the film, and before the movie’s over, Chastain’s physical and emotional transformation is enough to make the audience itself exhausted. And Zero Dark Thirty is chock full of great supporting performances including Kyle Chandler, Christopher Pratt, James Gandolfini, and Jason Clarke.

If you aren’t bothered by the film’s political message, by all means, watch Zero Dark Thirty right now. It’s an intellectual thrill ride through the modern intelligence community, and I found it to be absolutely enthralling when I wasn’t positively disgusted by it. If, like me, you have a moral conscience, you should probably still watch Zero Dark Thirty. From a technical perspective, it’s easily one of the best films of 2012, and if I didn’t find it so disgusting at times, I probably would have given it an “A.” However, Bigelow’s ultimate glorification of the truly awful and inhuman things the American government did to capture Osama bin Laden is wrong. And it’s wrong to use her considerable directorial talents for what may one day become a conservative propaganda film. So, instead, Zero Dark Thirty is a…

Final Score: B+

TheChargeOfTheLightBrigade1968-1

As someone who’s written one full-length screenplay (though I haven’t sold it yet) and that has also written about 30 pages or so of several other screenplays that I haven’t actually finished, I understand quite acutely the challenge of balancing attention-grabbing pacing with solid character development. It’s not an easy task and focusing too much on action or “plot spectacle” makes characters seem paper-thin and boring whereas a deficiency in action means the audience is going to fall asleep. You can’t ignore one for the other. And with 1968’s The Charge of the Light Brigade, the first hour of this satire of the snobbery and incompetence of the British aristocracy had me bored nearly to tears and it wasn’t until the doomed heroes went off to fight the Crimean war that the movie began to find its bearings and the right mix of character and spectacle.

The titular charge of Britain’s light cavalry brigade during the Crimean war remains one of history’s most famous tactical military errors that resulted in the annihilation of virtually the entire brigade as they charged head-long into oncoming artillery fire (and anyone who’s ever played Empire: Total War knows that’s a dumb idea). And The Charge of the Light Brigade focuses on the forming of the soon to be doomed cavalry, their training, and their eventual excursion to Turkey to face off against the Russians simply because England felt the need to go to war for appearance’s sake. And from the opening moments of the film, the arrogance of men such as Lord Cardigan (Trevor Howard) and Lord Lucan (Harry Andrews) let you know that even the noble intelligence of the few decent men such as Captain Nolan (David Hemmings) will be subsumed by impractical and ultimately fatal notions of honor and class standing.

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I must admit that perhaps part of my struggles with the early portions of the film is that I found a healthy portion of the dialogue to be completely incomprehensible. The accents are thick enough that any non-native Brits would have trouble understanding certain characters (particularly Lord Cardigan) but when the period slang is thrown in for good measure, the film becomes far more dense than you would expect. And while I could applaud the film’s decision to spend such a large chunk of the movie focusing on the lives of the members of the Light Brigade before they are called off to war, most of the time spent in Britain feels repetitive and over-blown. While I recognize that the film is meant to be a darkly comic satire of class snobbery, those themes have been handled better by others (Gosford Park) and The Charge of the Light Brigade never generated any real emotional connection early on (except for perhaps moments with Captain Nolan). There was simply a cavalcade of characters and little reason to care for any of them.

And to add to the film’s overly theatrical nature from the first half of the movie, virtually all of the performances were totally ham-fisted. Trevor Morgan turned the incompetent and tyrannical Lord Cardigan into a cartoonish figure. There was no nuance or subtlety there. Although Captain Nolan is likely meant to be the film’s sole sympathetic figure (except for perhaps Vanessa Redgrave’s Clarissa), David Hemmings too turned his part into more of a caricature than a real human being. With his thousand mile stare, Nolan seemed like a warrior poet spouting off Shakespearean nonsense rather than a sensible man forced to follow insensible orders. The only performance with any real heart was Vanessa Redgrave’s Clarissa which is a shame because her character was so shallow and peripheral to the main parts of the film.

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The film isn’t without its moments though. The animated interludes that begin the film and then occur periodically throughout are brilliant and really hit home on the idea that though the film serves as a satire of British class machinations, The Charge of the Light Brigade also shows historic parallels between the catastrophic decision to go to war against the Russians in the Crimean war and the calls during the 1960s for military action against the Soviet Union. In certain ways, this film is almost the anti-Alexander Nevvsky in that it uses a historical disaster to deflate current nationalism (rather than the other way around). And once they do finally get to Russia, the film brutalizes any notion of military honor or the glory of war by a graphic (for its time) depiction of the actual horrors of war and the price the British paid for such a foolish venture.

It is truly a shame that the film becomes a cross-section of an almost excruciatingly slow first half (though still with the great animated sequences) and then a truly brilliant and scathing denouement. One could make the argument that the last half wouldn’t carry the same weight without the first half, but there’s just no excuse for how dull and meandering the beginning of the film seemed. It took nearly twenty minutes before any character felt truly distinguished from the rest so even as it focused on character, the film showed no knack for crafting unique and engaging characters to attach yourself to. If you’re a fan of military epics, stick around for the final half but everybody else can probably find a better way to pass their evening.

Final Score: B-

 

Trying to make a war film that is neither jingoistic propaganda or patent exploitation of historical tragedy is a very fine balancing act. During Hollywood’s history, there have been far, far too many movies about military conflict that are just clear-cut propaganda supporting the conflict that don’t even begin to look at the actual details of what brought us to this war in the first place or to place you inside the mindsets of the men fighting the war. They are just made to glorify battle and to satisfy the public that our men aren’t dying for no reason. This hasn’t been as common post-Vietnam (when war films became increasingly anti-war), but before that, it’s hard to find a single war movie that wasn’t meant to glorify battle. The second problem (exploiting historical maladies to make a film for entertainment) is the more common modern issue. Unless you are opening your audience’s eyes to something many people didn’t even know existed or you’re creating a genuinely original artifact or thematic statement, why rehash ideas that have grown completely old and stale. You’re simply making money off of other’s people past suffering, and where is the art in that?

1962’s The Longest Day doesn’t actually suffer from either of those problems (though it encounters others). This three hour long epic look at the D-Day invasion (whether this is the sea landing at Normandy or the parachutists landing behind enemy lines) tries to paint the complete picture of that day through stories told through the eyes of the Americans, the French, the British, and every surprisingly sympathetic Germans. So, there’s certainly a certain air of patriotism to the film and a focus on some of the heroism of not just our soldiers but of every nation fighting in the battle, but the film never tries to beat you over the head with a jingoistic pro-America message. Similarly, although the film came out 20 years after World War II, it’s safe to say that it’s detailed and specific approach to capturing the historical reality of what was happening in a scale that no one had tried to capture before means it wasn’t exploiting that horrific day. American audiences deserved to know what happened and film is our most universal storytelling format. It hadn’t been done to death yet. However, as I said, despite avoiding those two pitfalls of military storytelling, The Longest Day fails to live up to the standards set by modern military films like Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers which covered similar ground in a much more effective manner.

To the film’s credit, it has one of the most impressive and star-studded casts in the history of cinema. To wit, Henry Fonda, John Wayne, Sean Connery, Robert Mitchum, Robert Wagner, Richard Burton, Sal Mineo, Rod Steiger, and I’m sure there were other big names that I missed when I watched the ending credits. This would be like if a movie had George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Will Smith, Daniel Day-Lewis, Tom Cruise, and Clint Eastwood all in one place today. It would never happen. No movie could afford that kind of budget for actors, but back then, epics in the vein of Cecil B. Demille were a little more common and thus this fantastic pairing was allowed to occur. It’s a shame that none of their characters have any memorable traits and that I literally don’t know the name of a single person in this film besides historical figures like Omar Bradley and Eisenhower. Everyone else is so one-dimensional and forgettable that I never took the time to remember who was who, why they were killing the specific Nazis they were fighting, or one single characteristic of their role other than things I associate with all of their parts (John Wayne is a bad-ass, Henry Fonda is dashing, etc).

As a history lesson, the movie is a success. As a movie with real artistic value, it’s pretty distinct failure. History buffs will assuredly delight in all of the locations that are named, all of the historical and (I’m assuming) accurately re-enacted battles. Real generals and lieutenants and other soldiers from the battle are named and ranked and we see how they lived or died (or both). There are lots of interesting tidbits about what was happening on the German side of the equation that led to us being able to pull this massive gambit off (mainly we caught them with their pants down and they made several strategic mistakes). Unless you’ve already went out and learned as much as you can about Project Overlord (I think that was the code name for the Normandy Invasion and what came after), you are guaranteed to learn something new about World War II from The Longest Day. However, if I want to watch a documentary about WW II, I’ll find something that Ken Burns made (I think his WWII documentary was called The War). I want to watch a film and create emotional connections with the action unfolding on screen, and in that regard, The Longest Day was colder than my NYC apartment without the heat on (which is to say what’s happening right now. I’m freezing my ass off).

Maybe I’ve been spoiled by the gritty and graphic realism of Saving Private Ryan, but The Longest Day was just a little too soft. I understand that by the film code of the day, they couldn’t make it as violent and real as Saving Private Ryan, but if I judge the film by modern standards, you can’t make a serious war film that is rated G (which this movie is). I felt as if I was watching some History channel re-enactment and I never once connected with the action on screen other than bemoaning the sad sacrifices that this world had to go through to take down fascism. Maybe I should judge the film as a product of it’s times (where it would probably have seemed much more groundbreaking), but it is almost laughably simple by today’s standards. There were exactly two moments in the film of real emotional impact (one was a man hanging helplessly from his parachute caught on a building as he watched all of his friends be massacred and the other was the second to last scene of the movie where two men simply talk about the apocalyptic violence of the day) and that was it. So, for all history and military buffs, you may enjoy this more than I did, but for everyone who wants a little life in their films, you can steer clear.

Final Score: C+

Occasionally, my pacifist political beliefs are challenged. In America’s entire history, there have been a grand total of four wars we were involved in that I felt were justified military conflicts. The American Revolution, the Civil War (in so far as it ended slavery and no matter what revisionist historians tell you, it would not have ended naturally any time soon), World War II, and Afghanistan (at first. not so much 10 years later). In pretty much every other conflict, we should have just minded our own business and stayed out of affairs that weren’t our own. There are, in my opinion, two justifications for military action. Either we’ve been attacked and are defending ourselves to the point that we ensure the offending nation won’t target us again while simultaneously not embroiling ourselves too deeply in the nation’s domestic affairs or we are stopping a genocide or ethnic cleansing (with the assistance of the U.N. none of that unilateral Iraq bullshit). So, actually our involvement in Serbia/Kosovo is okay in my book as well. The film Black Hawk Down is the true story of a U.S. military involvement that I support theoretically but to say that the execution of this plan was a clusterfuck would be an understatement, and Ridley Scott’s vision of the hell that was Mogadishu makes for gritty and compelling cinema even if there is virtually no meat on this film’s bones.

In the 90s, the U.S. (with U.N. assistance) commenced an operation to take down a Somalian warlord whose tyrannical control of his nation had led to the deaths of over 300,000 Somalian citizens from civil war as well as starvation (because the warlord viciously hoarded the food supplied by the U.N.). After weeks of little results (and increasing frustrations with U.S. military presence in Africa at home when the public saw no tangible benefit for our presence), the U.S. military (specifically the Rangers and Delta Force) go on a daring mission right into the heart of Mogadishu, the heavily guarded base of operations for the warlords and his seemingly endless forces. It’s supposed to be a routine mission that will take little more than 30 minutes, but when a stray RPG from Somalian forces causes one man to nearly fall to his death from a helicopter, it’s immediately obvious that things won’t be that simple. The U.S. military comes under constant fire, and when not one but two black hawk helicopters get shot down, the mission to rescue these stranded warriors leads to nearly a day of fighting in the streets of Mogadishu with not enough ammo, water, or men.

Ridley Scott’s direction is as visceral and gut-wrenching as its ever been. I may have felt absolutely no connection to any character in this film (save Josh Hartnett’s role), but Ridley Scott’s eye for harrowing and graphically realistic depiction of war is only surpassed by Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan. Those productions are infinitely superior to Black Hawk Down, but I’ll get to that in a second. The cinematography is immensely impressive. This is probably one of the least impressive films substantively that I’m willing to say this for, but Ridley Scott definitely deserved his Best Director nomination at the Oscars. This movie is 2 and a half hours long and I didn’t know the names of nearly anyone on the screen. I just recognized their actors. But, Ridley Scott’s realistic and heart-breaking of the massive debacle that was the Mogadishu mission kept me on the edge of my seat the entire time. It’s really a shame that the writing was so shallow and the characterizations so non-existent that I couldn’t add any emotional layer to my connection to what was happening on screen.

I think I should read the non-fiction book that the film is based on. It’s written by Mark Bowden, who also wrote Killing Pablo which I enjoyed despite its flaws. This film was all bang and no insight. People may accuse me of reading too deeply into this, but I got some slightly racist undertones from it as well. We only saw the genocidal Africans in this. We got no insight (or even display) of the Africans that these soldiers were there to protect. There was some not so subtle political propaganda in the movie. At the end of the day, as an action film, it succeeded. I don’t enjoy action films but this one kept me riveted the entire time. However, as an engaging and intellectually stimulating look at one of the most remarkable military debacles since Prickett’s Charge at the battle of Gettysburg, it was less than impressive.

Final Score: B-

Back in high school, I watched a lot of films that are considered classics and hallmarks of cinema that I distinctly remember not enjoying. Citizen Kane is the most obvious offender as it’s often considered to be the greatest film of all time while I found it quite conventional, although I blame a lot of that now on the vast majority of the films I’ve enjoyed since then copying most of its style. There were other big names to add to that list such as Raging Bull, Gone With the Wind, and The English Patient, amongst several others. I watched these films when I was younger though and my tastes in movies has noticeably matured since then. So, I was sort of excited when Lawrence of Arabia came in the mail from Netflix since it was another high-profile film that makes many “greatest of all time” lists that I simply did not enjoy. Sadly, my verdict remains practically the same, although perhaps it’s for different reasons now. As it is, Lawrence of Arabia remains a gorgeously shot film that overstays its welcome and fails to deliver on any substance to its historical adventure.

Lawrence of the Arabia is the true story of T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole), a British military officer who is sent to observe the Arab revolt against the Turkish Empire in the early 1900’s. Lawrence is a very strange man however, and it’s the prime reason he was sent on this mission. He quotes ancient philosophers, has an unseemly tolerance for pain, and (this is strange for the time) has a genuine interest in Arab culture. Upon his arrival, he quickly impresses Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness), the leader of a nomadic tribe of Arabs who is leading the rebellion of the Turks. At a seemingly unconquerable imapsse against the Turks, Lawrence devises a scheme that allows the Arabs to gain the first of many victories to come against the Turks while attempting to unify the various Arab tribes into one unstoppable army. What you gain is a portrait of troubled genius set against the backdrop of historical epic.

First, with the positives. Peter O’Toole made his debut role in this film, and he’s simply a natural. Lawrence is an incredibly complicated character (that the script doesn’t spend enough time exploring) with countless quirks and strange mannerisms. If the script failed to make Lawrence a complete character, O’Toole succeeded admirably. His transformation from an idealistic crusader to a shell-shocked veteran is natural and believable. He injects just the right amount of gravitas to the more emotional scenes of Lawrence’s life such as when he must kill his servant lest he be taken captive by the Turks and be tortured. Also, Omar Sharif (who was coincidentally enough in the last film I watched) was also great as one of the more important Arab characters in the film. When he is first introduced, he is seen as “barbarous and cruel”, yet he quickly learn that he is one of the more morally grounded characters in the film. The same great things can be said for Anthony Quinn and Alec Guinness although not at the same level as O’Toole and Sharif.

From a technical perspective, the film is simply a marvel. The wide shots of the desert vistas never get old, and neither does the spectacular attention to period detail. If you’re a history nut, you can easily find yourself getting lost in the costumes and architecture of the film. At the same time, when the film attempts to put together an action set-piece moment, they are pulled off quite well. When the Arab troops ride on the city of Aqaba with Lawrence at their head or rob a train, you get a sense that a lot of time and effort was placed into choreographing these moments. At the same time, Lean’s camera knows just how to capture the loneliness and desolation of the desert, and while there were probably too many never-ending treks into the desert, they encapsulated the isolation to a tee.

Now for the problems. Leaving aside the fact that its four hour length led the film to be more bloated than an aging Marlon Brando with countless scenes screaming for massive editing, the film was coldly historical. Rather than attempting to gain any insight into the events occurring on screen, the film simply let them speak for themselves. T.E. Lawrence is such a fascinating person, but the film only paid pat respect to his psychology, and it wasn’t really until the very end of the film that it ever examined just why he was doing anything. Compared to the more artistic The Last Emperor, Lawrence of Arabia is very stale, but beautiful, history lesson that could have accomplished much of its goals had the film simply been a documentary with dramatic re-enactments. Throughout the entire film, I only ever found myself being emotionally attached to Omar Sharif’s Ali. When your titular character is such a marvel and you leave him so frustratingly ill-defined, that is simply a flaw in writing.

Does the film have value? Absolutely. David Lean doesn’t make bad pictures. This one is simply cripplingly flawed in a way that keeps it from achieving true greatness. David Lean is one of those directors that never truly learned the meaning of “enough”, and it shows here more than any of his other films that I’ve seen. I would have enjoyed the film much more had the length been pared down to something more manageable and had T.E. Lawrence been greater developed as a character. As it, Lawrence of Arabia stands as a film that had the potential to be a masterpiece but instead fell quite short of its lofty goals. Here’s to hoping that I’m not forced to watch any more four hour films in the near future.

Final Score: B

When it comes to the quality of films that I review for this blog, the quality can be streakier than a poorly washed window. I might watch 4 or 5 movies in a row that I give at least an A- and the same thing could happen with movies that I give no higher than a B to. By this blog’s very nature, I am mostly watching award-winning and nominated films so the quality curve is obviously slightly tilted. Right now, I’m on one of those high quality streaks as this film makes three out of the last four movies I’ve reviewed films that have received the normally elusive score of “A” from me, and honestly, this film was easily the best of the bunch, and only it’s completely exhausting length kept it from the even more elusive “A+”. I just finished Wolfgang Petersen’s classic war picture, Das Boot, and clocking in at three and a half hours, it is officially the longest film I’ve reviewed for this blog but also one of the most thrilling and engaging.

Das Boot is a 1981 German filmĀ  that was originally a six hour long miniseries for German television that was edited down to a two and a half hour film and eventually re-released in the 90’s at its current length of 3 1/2 hours. It chronicles the trials and tribulations of the crew of a German U-Boat at the end of World War II as they suffer one near death experience after another. Deeply claustrophobic in presentation, the film examines the psychology and character of the very large crew that services the ship as they turn from a fresh-faced crew of young boys (some crew members excepted) to a battle-hardened and grizzled group of survivors. At the center of the film is the boat’s unnamed Captain played by the marvelous Jurgen Prochnow (Beerfest), who starts the film as a man haunted by the realities of submarine warfare and is broken down even further by film’s ending. Without wanting to ruin anything, the film has one of the most shocking and heart-breaking endings of any film I’ve ever watched.

One of the most fantastic things that the film accomplishes is that despite (for whatever odd reason it doesn’t do it) not naming the vast majority of the cast besides their rank on the ship, you get a very large number of compelling and complete psychological portraits of the crew of this ship. Lieutenant Werner starts out as an eager and bright-eyed journalist who is meant to feed the German propaganda machine by capturing one of the “heroic” U-Boats in action but he ends up a disillusioned and broken mess by the end of the film. One of the other named crew members, Johann, is a veteran of countless patrols but during one harrowing encounter he cracks under the nerve-wracking pressure of the Allied attack. You have the sheer will and determination of the Chief Engineer who saves the ship from certain doom. There is the young man who writes a letter every day to his French girlfriend despite knowing that he’s probably never going to see her again. You even have the the one member of the crew who is loyal to the Nazi regime instead of just loyal to Germany who comes to see the reality of his situation.

From a technical perspective, this film is practically flawless. As I’ve read elsewhere on the internet, they created a virtually perfect recreation of one of the German U-Boats that was actually used, and the extreme attention to detail and realism is apparent in virtually every scene. At no point in the film, did I feel like any thing was put in to look cool or stylistic. It served a legitimate historical purpose. Also, I have never watched a film that made me feel as claustrophobic as this film does. The ship itself was tiny and very crowded. There was hardly any room to sleep or walk, let alone maneuver and be comfortable. That feeling persisted through out the entire film. The sense of claustrophobia was practically smothering and I was in a more comfortable sized bed-room. When I finish this review, I may walk around my house a little bit just to get a sense of freedom. Also, the camera-work did a great job of really placing you in the action and tension of the film’s many moments when life and death hanged in a precarious and inherently chaotic balance.


The entire cast gave stellar performances, but special mention must be given to Jurgen Prochnow as the Captain. His transformation throughout the film is really something to behold. While he starts the film off hardened and a little beaten, he still has some life in him and the ability to smile and appreciate things. By the time the film ends, he is simply alive and surviving. Prochnow achieves this illustrious turn through a frightening sense of weariness. While I’m sure Petersen applied a lot of make-up to achieve the haunted look on Prochnow’s face, no make-up can achieve the power of his thousand-mile stare and hauntingly piercing blue eyes. When it comes to truly losing one’s self in a role, this is quite a powerful performance. While I would need more time to think about where it stands against the best male performances I’ve seen for this blog, I can definitely say that for the current 50 movie set I’m working on for this blog, Prochnow is sitting comfortably on top.

I mentioned this particular concept in one of my reviews for Band of Brothers, but it’s very difficult for a war film to be anti-war, because by its very nature, showing acts of heroism and bravery will inherently glorify said actions and therefore war itself. Francois Truffaut was the man to really analyze that concept. I can easily say that Das Boot is one of a handful of films that I can name that really is anti-war and in no way, shape, or form glorifies war itself. The over-riding theme of this film besides the battle for survival is that war is Hell. And in Das Boot, Hell might be an understatement. This film consists of suffering, suffering, and a little more suffering, and then it gives you Hell itself for its terrifying and bewildering final act. Much like The Deer Hunter, there is no glory or heroism in this film. There is simply survival.

I’m Jewish, and it’s going to have to take a great movie to make me cheer for Nazis. The sheer fact that Das Boot accomplishes this feat would by itself nearly make this a great film. The fact that it is easily the most compelling and authentic chronicles of the hellish realities of war since The Deer Hunter confirms this greatness. I realize that this review is one of the longest that I’ve ever written, but what else can I do for a movie that is of such epic length and ambition. I wish I could give this film an “A+” as it so clearly deserves this, and I bet I would give the mini-series an “A+”; however, 3 and a half hours is just a long time to sit through any film, especially one where there is a lot of down time. If you’re a fan of war movies that challenge your brain and emotions more than your adrenal gland, this is simply one of the best war films that I’ve ever seen, and you need to watch it.

Final Score: A