Category: Military Drama


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(I should preface this review with the fact that I watched this movie Sunday morning, and I’ve worked two nearly consecutive shifts since then so I apologize if my recollections of this film are less than pristine)

A military “epic” from the late 1930s sounds like a recipe for disaster to me. It’s an opinion I’ve long held, but with the exception of foreign films and film noir, I find most of the dramatic cinematic output of the pre-1960s era to be laughable at best (clearly there are exceptions like Rebel Without a Cause or The Searchers, but generally, I stand by my assertion), and 1938’s Blockade barely qualifies as a good film. The acting is often overwrought (though by turn intriguingly sensitive). The script hinges on one too many improbable coincidences, and it has all the flawed trappings of the melodramas of its time. But, despite all that, I found myself drawn into William Dieterle’s Spanish Civil War drama.

Perhaps it’s the film’s merciful length which miniaturized the epic to a manageable 90 minutes, but Blockade rarely saddled itself with its weak points for long enough for them to be too bothersome, and when it worked, it created interesting clashes with what I associate as the typical convention of late 30s Production Code era Hollywood storytelling. Thanks in no part to the by turns hammy and then deceptively sensitive performance from Henry Fonda, Blockade wormed its way into my heart and though I doubt I’ll give much thought to this tale a month from now, while it lasted I genuinely cared about the fates of its heroes.

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On the eve of the Spanish Civil War (whose politics are not even remotely discussed. it is, in fact, difficult to tell which side of the war that our hero ultimately fights for), simple peasant farmer Marco (The Longest Day‘s Henry Fonda) encounters the beautiful and mysterious Norma (Madeleine Carroll) whose car crashes into Marco’s oxen cart. Marco gives her a lift back to the nearest town not knowing that Norma is a Russian spy working for the force in the war that Marco ultimately opposes. As the war begins, Marco and the other farmers are fleeing their land when Marco finally has enough and rallies the men to form a military defense of their homes.

Afterwards, Marco becomes a high-ranking officer in the resistance (though, yet again, it’s really unclear what he’s resisting and who he’s fighting though maybe less subtlety was needed in 1938 to get across the facts of a then semi-recent war). And, Norma, her father, and another Russian spy work to undermine the resistance by blowing up a ship bringing relief to the blockaded Spanish city of Castelmare. However, after Marco kills her father, Norma begins to realize the error of her ways, and unless she can atone for her past misdeeds, the entire city of Castelmare will starve and the war will be lost.

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This is the earliest Henry Fonda film I’ve ever seen, and I was bowled over by how much he looks like a cross between Willem Dafoe and Jack Lemmon. Watch this movie and til me I’m wrong. I was also impressed by how his performance seemed far more sensitive and less outwardly masculilne than many of his contemporary peers. Here was a man that was clearly a model for later sensitive stars like James Dean and Montgomery Clift. In the bigger dramatic moments, he generally couldn’t find the emotional subtlety that he displayed in the quieter, more emotional scenes, but when he hit the right notes, I was very impressed. I now owe it to myself to watch the rest of Fonda’s early repertoire (as I feel I’m sorely uneducated in the career of Henry Fonda).

I’ll draw this review to a close. I want to play Assassin’s Creed 3 for a bit, and maybe get around to watching the Daniel Day-Lewis movie I’ve had at home from Netflix for nearly a month now (I tried to watch it on Netflix Instant a month ago, but everyone’s Irish accents were so thick that I couldn’t understand a word and I realized I needed subtitles). So, I’ll leave you with this note. Blockade is a melodramatic, ultimately forgettable relic of 1930s cinema, and other than hardcore Henry Fonda fans, it is nowhere near required viewing. But, for a simple cat-and-mouse spy story and a tale of man’s convictions in a war, it will pass 93 minutes with enjoyment.

Final Score: B-

 

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I’ve long thought about trying my hand at writing a war movie. Other than the clear obstacle that I have absolutely no military experience whatsoever, I’ve alays been plagued by my desire to not write your typical, American military film. If I ever wrote a war movie, I wouldn’t want to write about the winning side, or, in the fashion of Saving Private Ryan, at least not one who achieved anything more than a Pyrrhic victory. War films about glorious victors are too self-congratulatory and celebratory. The notion of “We won; you lost,” permeates every scene and they generally fail to capture the hellish realities of war. And, perhaps, that’s why my two favorite World War II films come from the perspective of the soon-to-be damned.

Up until last night, I would have said 1981’s Das Boot was the best World War II movie ever made. Wolfgang Petersen’s classic examination of life on a German U-Boat at the end of World War II captures the reality of “War Is Hell” better than any film ever made, except perhaps Grave of the Fireflies. And it achieved that through avoid any glorification of war whatsoever. These men’s lives were miserable and full of death, and even when they made it back to Germany, death awaited them. It was one man’s deconstruction of a glorious myth of his own people’s past, and it remains one of the finest war films ever made. 2004’s Downfall takes an even more stark and controversial route than Das Boot by daring to humanize the final days of the Third Reich.

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It is, in Germany, illegal to display most symbols of the Nazi party. Nationalist and hard-right political parties are illegal, and performing the Nazi salute is a prosecutable offense. German’s are sick, to this day, to their very soul by the horrors they committed in World War II, and what makes Downfall work so well is that, like The White Ribbon, it is both a cinematic excoriation of the darker side of German culture as well as an honest humanization of the men and women who oversaw some of the worst atrocities in human history. That the film dares offer a realistic and honest portrait of Adolf Hitler alone would have qualified it as mandatory World War II viewing, but the film is much more ambitious and far-sighted than that.

Based heavily on the testimony of Hitler’s personal secretary, Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), Downfall is a painstakingly realized portrayal of the final week of the men in the Third Reich’s bunker in Berlin as Russian forces slowly but surely capture the city. Hitler (Wings of Desire‘s Bruno Ganz) lives in a schizophrenic state of absolute refusal to accept that his dreams shall not come to pass against sudden bouts of realistic acceptance and plans for his own imminent suicide with his mistress Eva Braun (Nowhere in Africa‘s Juliane Kohler). As  Hitler’s stability dwindles, his top generals and brass, including Albert Speer, Heinrich Himler, and Josef Goebbels, are left fighting amongst themselves on whether to obey’s the Fuhrer’s orders and refuse surrender or to ignore Hitler and save their people from total destruction.

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And as life in the bunker devolves into a daily race to see who Hitler accuses of being a traitor next (if for no other reason than not being able to follow his impossible demands), life above the bunker in the streets of Berlin is even worse. Goebbels has commanded battalions of children to serve as cannon fodder to slow the advance of the Red Army. Heinrich Himmler has removed all of the SS and most top government officials from the city leaving the remaining civilians to die of starvation and sickness. And what few doctors remain in the city are stretched threadbare amongst the surviving resistance. And, without fail, the Russians continue their march into the city itself.

Bruno Ganz’s performance as Adolf Hitler is one of the most remarkable and stunningly courageous performances in the history of the silver screen. Hitler is not the type of role any German actor would naturally gravitate towards, but Ganz brings him to life in a wrenchingly honest way. In a performance that can only be described as the exact opposite of his kind and sensitive angel Damiel in Wings of Desire, Ganz’s Hitler is by turns despotic, brutal, cruel, and unyielding. Yet, minutes later, he can be caring, gentle with women and children, despairing, and frightened. If any historical figure from the 1900s lends itself to over-the-top caricature, it’s Hitler, but even in his most explosive angry moments, Bruno Ganz keeps his characterization frighteningly realistic.

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And Ganz is supported by an exceptional pool of talented German actors and actresses. Anyone who’s seen Nowhere in Africa knows how talented Juliane Kohler is, and her Eva Braun is exceptionally different from her suffering Jewish wife/mother. She’s a manic creature who wants to manufacture a joie de vivre in the bunker even when she knows she will die soon. Alexandra Maria Lara brings the secretary to life, and you sympathize with her suffering even though you know she works directly for one of the most evil men in human history. Other stellar supporting performances include Corinna Harfouch as Goebbel’s zealously loyal wife, Christian Berkel as a nazi doctor, and Ulrich Matthes as Goebbels himself.

When the movie was released in 2004, it was fairly controversial for its dogged refusal to not simply make its protagonist monstrous caricatures. Yes, we see how truly monstrous these men and women can be. Hitler asserts repeatedly that the German people don’t deserve to live after the war because they have failed him. Goebbel’s wife, Magda, poisons her children in their sleep rather than let them live in a world without National Socialism. Many of Hitler’s men scheme to depose him now that the war is clearly lost. But, at the same time, the movie touches on the small moments of humanity these comrades share before their downfall. Eva Braun gives Traudl her best fur coat. Hitler walks his dog and congratulates his best soldiers. Goebbels leads his children in German songs to entertain the soldiers and the Fuhrer.

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The film never stops finding little moments like that. Though there is plenty of conventional warfare going on above the bunker (which is displayed in graphic detail), the movie’s most effective moments are in the character-building and day-to-day life at the end of a wannabe empire. This movie’s deliberate pacing may scare away more action-oriented war movie lovers, but for those who understand that the key to a successful war film (or any film to be honest) is character driven storytelling (so we’re invested in the outcome on screen), Downfall‘s dedication to character is a breath of fresh air.

At 110o words, I’m going to draw this review to a close because I promised my sister I would watch the Billy Wilder/Humphrey Bogart/Audrey Hepburn classic Sabrina with her later. Also, I’m very, very hungry. It’s 4:30 and I haven’t eaten anything today (although to be fair, I didn’t wake up until 2:30 PM). If you’re looking for a World War II movie that breaks the mold, look no further than Downfall. After some contemplation, it replaces Das Boot as what I consider to be the best World War II film ever made, and it’s deserving of a wider audience than it’s had over the years.

Final Score: A

 

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Without wanting to sound arrogant, my knowledge of movies is pretty encyclopedic. You don’t run a movie blog for two and a half years and review at least one film from all but five years since 1930 without knowing your way around cinematic history. So, it’s rare anymore for me to come across a film that I had legitimately never heard of before placing it on my Netflix queue. It still happens (Tape a recent, positive example) but it happens much more rarely than it used to. Sometimes, these unknown films become some of my personal favorites that I’ve watched for this blog (Conversations with Other Women), but sadly, on other occasions, I quickly know why these films were lost to the annals of history.

There are movies that you know are going to be a drag from the plot description alone, and 1938’s Army Girl was one such exercise in cinematic triviality. After World War I, the United States army realized that it was time to signal the change between a traditional horse-mounted cavalry to mechanized tank warfare. But, with America’s rich tradition of cavalry as the linchpin of any successful military campaign, this change was met with much resistance. One man (and I’m unsure if he really existed, Captain Dike Conger (Preston Foster) has led a successful string of demonstrations of the power and flexibility of tanks when he is sent to one last camp to facilitate the change.

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But, Captain Conger is a well-known cad whose only rule in his female conquests is that he doesn’t date any women with any affiliation to whatever military camp he’s been sent to. It’s a rule that he never breaks… until he finds himself falling for Julie Armstrong (Madge Evans), the daughter of the camp’s Colonel. She pretends to be a plucky, hick-accented townie until the ruse is discovered by Conger after he’s already started to fall for her. But their relationship is threatened again when the march of technology threatens to put her horse-trained father out of work and with Captain Conger as his possible replacement.

That description of the plot is actually far more enticing than the one Netflix Instant uses which eschews any mention of the romance between Conger and Julie (which is really the main thrust of the film) and instead focuses solely on the tank vs. horse nature of the film. And, believe me, had this movie been solely about Conger’s attempts to convince his fellow soldiers that the future of the military depended on transitioning to tanks, Army Girl would have been practically unwatchable. Thankfully, it filled those moments out with a quaint romantic comedy that made the film bearable (though it’s short running time didn’t hurt matters either).

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I’ll keep this review very, very short because this film wasn’t terrible. It certainly wasn’t good in any sense of the word either. It was just frivolous and unnecessary. Nothing about it stood out except for maybe Madge Evans, and that had nothing to do with her acting ability (which was alright I suppose) but more to do with the fact that she bore a striking resemblance to Irene Dunne (though she lacked Dunne’s natural presence). I only watched this film because it received a Best Cinematography Oscar nod in 1938, and I suppose there were some well-shot sequences for the time. I can’t imagine any reason why anyone reading this blog should watch this film. It’s best that we let Army Girl stay forgotten.

Final Score: C

(I usually put a trailer for the film’s I review beneath my scores for this blog, but Army Girl is so obscure that no trailers for it exist on Youtube. So, that’s why it isn’t there)

 

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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+

Lincoln1

Long time readers should remember that I am currently a political science major at West Virginia University. I’m fairly knowledgeable of not just current American politics, but the darker history of America’s political past. I’m an Aaron Sorkin junkie, and even if The American President overly romanticized the modern presidency, it still captured something refreshingly accurate about the modern legislative process (and had a great love story to boot). A biopic of Abraham Lincoln that pushes past the well-known stories of his presidency and focuses on his attempts to pass the 13th Amendment directed by Steven Spielberg (War Horse) starring Daniel Day-Lewis (Gangs of New York) seems like it would be right up my alley. And while Lincoln is full of interesting historical anecdotes and shows Lincoln as an intelligent politician (not just the nearly divine figure he’s become in American history, though it does that too), the film lacks an emotional, human core to hold this history lesson together.

Although, let’s face it, other than Munich, Spielberg’s “serious” films of late have felt more like cold, clinical experiments in cinematic technique than the grand celebrations of a movie-lover with more tools than he knows what to do with. In the past, Spielberg’s movies felt so full of life and wonder. E.T. remains one of the purest cinematic portrayals of the innocence and wonder of childhood ever made, and A.I. is (to me) one of the three definitive science fiction films of the 2000s and marks the end of innocence of childhood in as tragic but beautiful way as humanly possible. Spielberg’s status as one of America’s most important directors has apparently gone to his head and so many of his most recent films (especially War Horse) are dry and devoid of the emotion and honest humanity that made his best works so brilliant. Lincoln doesn’t fall as far as War Horse, but it constantly left me asking for something more substantive.

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As stated, Lincoln is a narrowly focused biopic (a decision I actually applaud) that follows the last months of the Civil War and the efforts of President Lincoln to ensure the passage of the 13th Amendment. For those not familiar with the U.S. Constitution, the 13th Amendment banned slavery (contrary to popular belief, the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t ban slavery. It just freed the slaves in the Confederacy). With the help of his Secretary of State William Seward (David Straitharn), Lincoln must navigate the rat’s nest known as the U.S. House of Representatives. Not only must he contend with the factions within his own party (he needs unanimous support from the Republicans if it has any hope of passage), he must convince at least 20 House Democrats to vote for the bill they clearly loathe. And through the promise of patronage, intimidation, and outright bribery, Lincoln and his team get the job done (I hope to god that’s not a spoiler for you).

My primary problem with the film is that it consistently fails to humanize this mythic figure in American history. While the movie isn’t afraid to show the legally ambiguous/outright illegal tools Lincoln used (for good causes), he remains a deified figure throughout the whole film. He is rarely, if ever, shown as simply a man, albeit a man facing titanic pressure and seemingly insurmountable problems. Honestly, the only moment in the film that really explores the human problems Lincoln faced is a fight between Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd (Sally Field), over whether to allow their son Robert (Looper‘s Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to enlist in the Union army. As we see just how crazy Mary Todd has become in the wake of the death of her son Willy, you get an idea of what Lincoln had to deal with in his personal life in addition to his now storied political gamesmanship. And it doesn’t help the film’s cause that Lincoln is shot in such gorgeous light so often that it seems like the film is trying to portray him as a god-like/angelic figure.

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Thankfully, then, the film had more amazing performances than it could have possibly known what to do with. Daniel Day-Lewis won his third Best Actor Oscar for this film (although I honestly think Joaquin Phoenix did a better job in The Master) and his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln is as transformative as anything he’s done to date. Daniel Day-Lewis is my favorite actor of all-time, but there were so many times in this film where it was easy to forget that I was watching my favorite actor. His Abe is as different from Gang of New York‘s Bill the Butcher as that was from The Age of Innocence‘s Archer Newland as that was from There Will Be Blood‘s Daniel Plainview. Although this performance lacked much of the emotional dynamism that I associate with Day-Lewis’s best roles, it’s still a master class on restraint and completely losing yourself in a part.

Although, with all respect to Daniel Day-Lewis, there were three other performances in this film that I found more compelling/interesting than his. Sally Field gave arguably the best performance of her entire career as the emotionally damaged Mary Todd, and I honestly have trouble believing that Anne Hathaway was better in Les Mis than Sally Field was in this role. David Strathairn (one of Hollywood’s most under-appreciated character actors) shined as the tough and passionate William Seward who is as responsible for the passage of the 13th Amendment as Lincoln himself. But the real stand-out performance of the film was Tommy Lee Jones’ fiery turn as Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens. He’s arguably the most moral person in the whole film (and easily the most idealistic), but Jones plays him with enough humor and passion and ferocity to turn it into one of the really memorable supporting turns of 2012.

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I’ll draw this review to a close because my sister and I are hanging out today and I want to spend some time with her (and not my whole evening reviewing a movie). Lincoln is certainly worth your time, if just for the endless great performances alone. I lost track of how many times I wrote in my notes while watching this film, “Hey, it’s [insert great character actor] here,” and almost without fail, the performances were all “A”-caliber. And, if you’re a history buff, you’ll be fascinated by all of the different things Lincoln and his team had to go through to get that bill passed. Ultimately, I just wanted to know more about Lincoln, the man, than the historical accomplishments I’ve already read about so many times before.

Final Score: B+

 

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I love it when I think I’m going to seriously dislike a movie and I end up enjoying it quite a bit. That happens every now and then on this blog. The pattern seems to involve me watching a romantic drama from the 1950s or 1940s and expecting to find it to be overbearingly melodramatic (which is often the case, though films like Giant and Penny Serenade are very enjoyable films .They’re also both George Stevens films so maybe it’s related). I have a rule about the order I watch films for this blog. Movies that have been nominated for Best Picture at the most recent Academy Awards take precedence over everything else (Right now, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Argo, and Zero Dark Thirty are the only three that have been released on Netflix and the latter two are at the very top of my queue right now) and then films that won any of the major Oscar categories if it’s not a Best Picture nominee (so Best Documentary, Best Animated Feature, etc.). Then, I usually just let my list I’ve created for this blog do the work. However, if a movie is available to watch instantly on Netflix (and in my Instant queue) but is about to be removed from the Watch Instant service, I usually shoot it to the top of my list. And that’s how Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing became the last thing I watched for this blog, and it was a wonderful surprise if not actually a great film.

I’m going to try to keep this review short since I’d like to watch Rebel Without a Cause tonight (it’s one of my all-time favorite films that I haven’t seen in years). Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing is the film adaptation of the autobiographical novel, A Many-Splendoured Thing. In 1949, Eurasian widowed doctor Han Suyin (Jennifer Jones) is dealing with the flood of refugees and injured immigrants entering British Hong Kong in the wake of the Communist uprising in China. While in residency there, she falls in love with married (but separated) charmer Mark Elliott (William Holden), an American journalist on assignment in Hong Kong. Despite Han’s best attempts, she falls fast for the dashing Mark, but the deep-rooted anti-miscegenation traditions of her Chinese heritage threaten to keep the pair apart and they are pressured to keep their love a secret.

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I was kind of overwhelmed by what I thought was the intense sexual chemistry between William Holden and Jennifer Jones in this film, although it turned out that in real life, the pair could hardly stand one another. These two could accomplish more with a lustful glance and a heaving bosom than many modern films could with graphic, explicit sexuality. You have to give old-style romances credit for something .They understand that there is as much pay-off in the wait and the subtle implication as there is in straight Fatal Attraction-style eroticism. I’m not knocking well-done eroticism, but I’m not sure if I can name many moments in cinema that were more sexually charged than the scene on the beach where Han and Mark light each other’s cigarettes by pressing them together (which was symbolic of the consummation of their sexual relationship).

And the film (which won the Best Cinematography – Color Oscar in 1955) is gorgeous to look at in the way that few modern films care about achieving. Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing is an achievement of cohesive and gorgeous mise-en-scene. From the costume work (which the film also won an Oscar for) to the on-location shooting (which was rare for the time) to just the general visual feel of the film, Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing has the grandeur and spectacle that you don’t get enough of any more from people whose names aren’t Steven Spielberg or Woody Allen. Do I wish that they had cast an actual Eurasian as Han instead of just putting Jennifer Jones in (maybe you call it this?) yellow-face? Sure, but for the most part, the film struck a tone of legitimacy except for the scenes set in actual China where Han’s family for some reason spoke English with perfect American accents.

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Unlike other topical race films from the era (Imitation of Life i.e.), this movie rarely felt preachy and it just had a sincerity in its themes of forbidden love (which was ultimately what the film was about more than just being a morality play about the stupidity of anti-miscegenation laws). That’s not to say that the film didn’t slip up on occasion. The beginning sequence, set at a lavish party, felt dull and especially expository. When the film focuses on the sizzling romance between Han and Mark it soars, but virtually any other parts of the film failed to hold my attention. And even parts of Han and Mark’s relationship seemed odd to me, especially how quickly Mark used words like “destiny” to describe his feelings toward Han. If you like classic romances, I highly recommend Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing. It’s not perfect, but it’s a deeply enjoyable classic gem.

Final Score: B

Side note. I couldn’t find an actual trailer for this film. This is just stills from the film set to the movie’s now iconic title track.

Catch-22-1

Over this blog’s nearly two year history (our official two-year anniversary arrives this Thursday which really wigs me out), I’ve reviewed a lot of movies based off of books that I’ve never read. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Choke (although I wound up reading Chuck Palahniuk’s superior book later), The Help, About Schmidt. I could go on for a while. But there are few novels as essential to the American canon of literature that I haven’t actually read as Joseph Heller’s classic anti-war novel Catch-22. Director Mike Nichols (The Graduate) had the unenviable task of adapting one of the most celebrated novels of the 1960s. And while it was easy to spot without having read the book that screenwriter Buck Henry had to condense many larger, more complicated storylines in ways that didn’t work so well on the big screen, Catch-22 finally found its footing by film’s end and became an anti-war farce to rival the film version of M*A*S*H.

Captain Yossarian (The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming‘s Alan Arkin) is a U.S. Air Force bombardier on the Italian front during World War II. Having watched a comrade die in his arms as Yossarian survived a crash landing, Yossarian wants to be grounded and to not have to fly any more combat missions. And to do that, he has to convince his superior officers that he’s crazy. But there’s a catch. Catch-22 (and the origin of that ubiquitous phrase into the American lexicon). In order to want to fly those suicidal missions into enemy territory, you’d have to be crazy. But, if you ask to be grounded on the basis on insanity, you’re sane for not wanting to fly those dangerous missions. So, you either fly the missions cause you’re crazy or you ask to not fly them but have to fly them because you’re sane.

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Catch-22 becomes a consistently non-linear look at the events leading up to and following the stabbing of Captain Yossarian by an unknown assailant that opens the film. The movie is as much a snapshot of the lives of the large crew of pilots and officers that make up Yossarian’s division as it is a scathing satire of the senselessness and futility of war. We see the enterprising and ambitious Lt. Milo Minderbinder (Jon Voigt) as he trades away half of the base’s goods to make everyone rich (although he gets many killed in the process). You meet Capt. Nately (Art Garfunkel) who’s in love with an Italian prostitute. There’s the seemingly stable Capt. Aarfy Aardvark (Charles Grodin) who reveals a darker side. And a multitude of other big, or soon to be big name actors, including Anthony Perkins, Orson Welles (Othello), Martin Sheen, and a super young Bob Balaban (Gosford Park).

My feelings toward the acting in the film are a little complicated, particularly in regards to the lead performance from Alan Arkin. He’s a little over-the-top and not always in that good Jack Nicholson way. There are plenty of moments where Yossarian is confronted with the insanity of his condition that Alan Arkin channels the sense of hopelessness and futile indignation that any man would have in that situation. But, there are also plenty of times (especially early in the film) where he just seems to be hamming it up. There’s a moment where Orson Welles’ General Dreedle brings his wife to a meeting where all of the men collectively lose their shit over how attractive she is, and Arkin’s moaning and panting is just cartoonish. But, for the most part, he sticks to a believable mode of acting and one can only wish that he had stayed there the whole film.

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And if you couldn’t tell from that list of supporting actors earlier, the film has some seriously heavy hitters in its ranks. Sadly, the Orson Welles in this film is late-career balloon Orson Welles so he was certainly past his prime as a performer (or artist period). Thankfully, though, the rest of the cast was eager and in peak condition. One of the real, pleasant surprises was the performance from the baby-faced and naturally talented Art Garfunkel. He should have done more acting. This is also easily the earliest roles that I can remember seeing either Bob Balaban or Martin Sheen and they both brought something energetic and truthful to the table. But, of course, the real scene-stealers from the supporting cast was the greedy but not malicious Jon Voigt as Milo and the sensitive and conflicted Anthony Perkins as the camp chaplain.

Catch-22 is without question one of the darkest comedies that you’ll ever watch. The humor here is even more pitch-black than Fight Club (though Fight Club is a better movie). Here is a film that makes a mockery of the military bureaucracy, the competency of high-ranking officers, and the need for war in the first place. In one scene, Yossarian’s squadron is about to bomb a town devoid of any actual strategic value to the U.S. and he decides at the last minute to drop their bombs over the ocean rather than kill civilians for no reason. And for his insubordination, he gets a medal so that the military doesn’t have to look bad. And even though he accepts it bare-ass naked, the high officers don’t punish him because they honestly don’t know what to do in the face of a man who is truly beginning to lose his mind.

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Catch-22 has its share of flaws, most notably an opening 20 minutes that confused the hell out of me (although perhaps it will all make more sense during a later viewing now that I know what was really happening), but when the film really begins to assert itself as a darkly comic satire of the horrors and stupidity of war, it shines like few other films. And the extended sequence that serves as the film’s turning point where Yossarian confronts the culmination of all of the greed and incompetence that has occurred thus far is one of the most brilliant bits of political satire I’ve ever seen. And while the film can’t maintain that high a level of insight for its entire duration, it is a fantastic reminder of all of the great counter-culture literature and cinema that were coming out of the 1960s and early 1970s. War is hell but Catch-22 reminds you that it can be both horrific and hilarious.

Final Score: A-

 

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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-

 

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Maybe it’s just me, but there are certain films that I avoid ever watching. They may be considered classics but because they often don’t fit into any of the preconceived cinematic fields that I know I enjoy or they come from genres I usually know I hate (i.e. chick flicks), I just overlook them even though I consider myself to be a true student of the theater. 1982’s An Officer and a Gentleman is an Academy Award winning film and one of the more beloved romances of the 1980s, but because of its reputation as a massive chick flick, I never convinced myself to take the time to watch it. It certainly has a Cinderella romance at the heart of the film, but An Officer and a Gentleman couldn’t be any less of a chick flick. Although the film isn’t without its share of flaws (primarily in the acting department), this was a wonderful surprise and a sort of campy, cheesy pleasure.

Richard Gere (Primal Fear) stars as Zach Mayo, a cocky loner that decides to join Officer Training School with the navy so he can fly jets. Raised by his alcoholic, whore-chasing sailor father after his mother’s suicide, Mayo has no friends, no sense of community, and no attachments to anyone other than himself. But that type of attitude doesn’t work in the military, and sadistic drill sergeant Emil Foley (an Oscar winning Louis Gossett Jr.) makes it his personal mission to either force Mayo to learn to be part of a team or to break him and make him quit in the process. Along with his only friend in the program, Okie innocent Sid Worley (David Keith), Zach begins dating some local girls known as “Puget Debs” who make it their mission to snare a fly boy as a husband. But when Zach begins to fall for the beautiful Paula (Terms of Endearment‘s Debra Winger), he begins to find something to care for in the world.

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For a film that has such a reputation as being  a chick flick, An Officer and a Gentleman is surprisingly dark and cynical. Although there is a predictably triumphant romance by film’s end, it’s really a movie about men and women who don’t know who they are, that don’t know what they want, and have had poverty, fate, and family dictate their lot in life and not their own free will. It’s about the bonds of friendship and romance and the tragic consequences of having those bonds shattered. And even the romantic subplot speaks to a sense of desperation in the lives of characters like Paula or her friend Lynette in that the only way they think they’ll ever escape their humdrum lives is through a globe-trotting pilot. And considering how this film predates Full Metal Jacket, it’s portrayal of the life of a cadet would prove to be highly influential (but more on Louis Gossett shortly).

The script simply allowed the characters to breathe and grow at a believable pace. Although the film ran a little long, that had more to do with pacing problems and subplots that didn’t seem to go anywhere (until their tragic ends anyways) than it did with any deficiencies in character development. Although the two principal leads were not up to the task of delivering their lines, Zach Mayo and Paula both felt like well-realized and three dimensional characters that traced a rewarding arc over the course of the film. Even if much of what was to come felt predictable from the early minutes of the movie, the trials and tribulations of the heroes seemed so realistic and pulled off with enough honesty that you didn’t care that you could call virtually ever scene of the film twenty minutes in.

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Sadly, Richard Gere and Debra Winger nearly derail the whole production. For the most part, Gere nails the cocky, good-looking rakish mercurial charm that has let Mayo get by his whole life but when it comes time to summon any dramatic emotion whatsoever, he completely falls apart. One of the most famous lines of the film is him telling Sgt. Foley that “I got nowhere else to go” and I almost laughed out loud at Gere’s absurdly over-the-top delivery. The scene became funny. But, at least that’s better than Debra Winger who has proven herself in my eye to be a completely flat, one-dimensional actress with the emotional range of Keanu Reeves. How she garnered an Academy Award nomination for this film is simply beyond me. Along with the film’s hysterically victorious ending sequence, Gere and Winger could rightly be called the film’s primary shortcomings.

Thank god for its supporting cast then. Louis Gossett earned every inch of his Academy Award as the foul-mouthed, vitriolic, bad-ass drill sergeant. Until I realized that this film came first, I thought he had ripped off R. Lee Ermey’s character from Full Metal Jacket, but, in fact, R. Lee Ermey actually helped to train Louis Gossett Jr. on how real drill sergeants behaved (since R. Lee Ermey is a drill sergeant in real life). He was a pure, destructive force on the screen but with enough subtlety and nuance to let you know that he actually cared about the cadets under his care. And David Keith was no slouch either as Sid Worley whose own personal shortcomings provide the tragedy of the film’s final acts that lead to Mayo’s eventual triumph and self-realization.

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I’m not saying this was a great movie, and it had moments that were downright awful, but this was an  undeniably fun movie. It was feel-good in the right sense of the word and only with the film’s god-awful closing scene did it ever feel cloying and overly sweet. Sure Richard Gere and Debra Winger fell flat on their faces, but David Keith and Louis Gossett Jr. were there to make up for it and then some. As far as insightful looks into the life of a military cadet go, you could do a hell of a lot worse than the engrossing character study that forms the beating heart of An Officer and a Gentleman. It doesn’t always have the brains to pull off all of its ambitions, but few films have as much heart.

Final Score: B

(Quick side note. Sorry for the long hiatuses between reviews. I had three exams last week and I worked every day of the week but Monday and Wednesday. I’m pretty sure my last review went up Tuesday. You get the picture. I have a lot more free time this week. So expect me to do some catching up. I also have a review to put up for Uncharted 3 so that should be fun. Also, lo and behold, my hot streak of really good films finally came to an end on the film I actually thought I’d enjoy the most out of the movies I was sent.)

How do we cover historical travesties committed by a group of people in the modern day without making a film that comes off as racist? Or is the simple truth that presenting historical facts about something that really happened can be construed as racist a sign of our over-sensitive times? You can’t make a movie about the Holocaust where Germany isn’t going to come off in a bad light, but Schindler’s List was never accused of being anti-the German people. Hotel Rwanda was a brutal look at the Rwandan genocide, but it too hasn’t been accused of being racist against the African people. The “Rape of Nanking” is one of history’s most infamous war crimes, but its presentation in The Flowers of War is so gung-ho in its presentation that one would expect this from a 1950s propaganda film right after the war, not a modern examination of one of the most horrific city sieges of all time.

First things first though, some historical context for those unfamiliar with their Sino-Japanese relations circa World War II. Although the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime in Europe get most of the attention, Stalinist Russia and Imperial Japan committed their own fair share of horrors. Stalin was responsible for the deaths of roughly 10 million of his own people, and when the Japanese invaded China, they employed a scorched Earth strategy that would have disgusted William Tecumseh Sherman. Their actions in the Nanking Massacre were especially atrocious as the Japanese army murdered over 300,000 civilians after the Chinese army had already fled and engaged in barbaric acts of rape and pillaging. To this day, the actions of the Japanese military in Nanking (and the rest of China) are a point of extreme tension between the two most powerful Asiatic nations.

The Flowers of War doesn’t falter because it portrays what actually happened in Nanking during that dark page in world history. It falters because of its almost messianic portrayal of the Chinese people struggling to survive against the Japanese who are worse than demonic in this film with absolutely nothing in the way of redeeming qualities. If you can imagine every single war film cliche in terms of cinematography (not necessarily plot which is where the film finds its successes), you have an idea of how The Flowers of War is shot. Gratuitous use of slo-motion? Check. Admittedly gorgeous but often inappropriate lighting? Check. An omnipresent swelling score that would make John Williams proud? Check. Infantrymen capable of remarkable/impossible feats of markmanship? Check. When the film is focused on the battle for the city, it’s hard to find an original storytelling bone in the movie’s body, and the movie is guilty of the most unforgivable war film faux pas of all. It attempts to beautify the horrific.

Thankfully though, that’s not the main story of the film. John Miller (Christian Bale) is an American mortician living in China in 1937 as the Japanese invade the city of Nanking. A drunkard and a selfish louse, Miller takes a job during the invasion itself to bury the Father of a local Catholic cathedral. However, by the time he arrives, the Father has been destroyed by a mortar shell, and Miller is left to look after a group of 12 year old girls that are students at the convent. When a group of local prostitutes show up looking for refuge, John’s initial response is to just look out for himself, but after seeing the Japanese army’s barbarism (which includes attempted rapes of the 12 year old girls), Miller pretends to be the priest of the parish and takes actions to get the little girls and prostitutes to safety away from Nanking.

Usually Christian Bale is one of the better actors of his generation (one need only go back as early as Empire of the Sun to see his talents as a child and then move up to The Fighter or American Psycho for his adult talents), but I wasn’t impressed with his performance in this role. At times you saw hints of the manic charm and explosive energy that is always resting right below the surface of Bale’s otherwise calm demeanor, but a lot of the time I felt as if he was just dialing his performance in. It didn’t help that the dialogue he was reading often felt stiff and unnatural. Chinese actress Ni Ni was more charming as the madam of the group of prostitutes, but even her performance required her to ratchet up the melodrama in a film that was already overflowing with cliche emotion.

Credit must be given for the film’s ability to generate a visceral emotional reaction when it called for it though. Like any film about genocide or mass murder, The Flowers of War is incredibly difficult to watch. I’m not sure how much credit can be given to the film or the filmmakers there though. The subject matter itself is is innately horrifying to anyone who has anything remotely resembling a conscience. There were many moments in the film where I was awestruck with the horror these young girls were facing and reminded yet again of the terrible atrocities that have been committed just in the last 100 years alone. The film does not shy away from graphic depictions of the deaths and murder of soldiers or civilians, and for the faint of heart, it may be too much to take in.

Usually, I’m all about films that embrace cinematographic beauty. A quick scan of the rare films to receive an “A+” on here will show that most of them are visual wonders as much as storytelling wonders. However, there’s a time and place for that kind of poetic flourish, and a war film isn’t it. Although the film takes great pains to set up a dichotomy between the quiet beauty of the small moments with the brutal horror of the wartime realities, it has an unfortunate tendency to blur those lines in ways that I would find highly offensive if I were Chinese and from Nanking. Although maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about since this was one of the biggest films to come out of China last year.

My dad really enjoyed this film, and his recommendation was the reason that I watched it (although I just discovered it was actually on my list [in the 1000’s range order wise] because it was nominated for a Golden Globe). So, perhaps I’m just yet again too cynical and jaded to enjoy this melodramatic of a film. We had similarly differing opinions about the quality of War Horse (which I found to be an overbearing bore but he loved. We both sobbed when watched it though). So, perhaps here’s the best summation of the film. If you’re a jaded, cynical type like myelf, go ahead and give The Flowers of War a pass. But if you’re still capable of genuine and raw emotion, you may find more here to love than I.

Final Score: C+