Archive for the ‘War’ Category

Diamonds of the Night (Jan Nemec, 1964)

**I suppose lots of what you might call “spoilers” follow, though I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie where the concept of “spoilers” was so irrelevant.  Nothing I describe could do justice to what you actually see, so you’re probably safe.**

            The beginning is absolutely thrilling.  One continuous shot, shaky-cam style, as two dirty, haggard young men run for their lives through a field, gunshots and screaming Germans in the background.  Put 2 and 2 together, they’re Jews escaping the Concentration Camp Express.  The camera starts out in front of the boys; they gradually catch up, practically bump into the camera, and move past, the ever-shaky camera in tow, with the chaotic sounds behind them gradually fading away.  Seriously, this is just like the centerpiece one-shot action sequence in “Children of Men,” only without the special effects tricks.  This director Nemec ain’t wasting any time, thrusting us right into the pure terror and chaos of a daring escape.  We’re in for a tense on-the-run thriller.

.

.

            …No we’re not.  Good god, no we’re not.  It’s been about 5-10 minutes now (in a movie that’s only an hour long, so I’m getting antsy and nervous that this’ll be a dud), and the boys have just been trekking through the woods.  That’s it.  Man vs. wild to the extreme, eh?  Intriguing, and you really are convinced that these boys are exhausted, and hungry, and desperate…but Nemec’s starting to wear out his welcome.  This is just starting to go on too long.  For god’s sake, have the boys run into a deranged Nazi headhunter, or a kindly grandmother and her gingerbread house, or just SOMETHING besides boys walking in…was that a trolley on a busy city street?  Was that one of the boys boarding said trolley?  …and back to famished boys up against the elements in the forest.  What the fuck?  Did I just imagine that?  There was no extra sound or anything, just a second or two of the image of a completely different time and place.  Oh, now there’s more of ‘em, intermittent shots of the boy walking down back alleys, ringing doorbells, the two boys in a shitty train car, trading a piece of food for a pair of shoes.  Flashbacks.  Cute touch, trying to convey the whole desperate point-of-view thing, add some spice to an otherwise uneventful march through the woods.  OK, I think I’ve got a grasp on what to expect after that fooled-you intro: an extremely rough experiment in subjectivity, emphasized by the silent, unexplained flashback here and there, said silence meant to convey weight.  Meh.

.

.

            …Wrong again.  Yeah, this is experimental (that’s putting it lightly), yeah it’s subjective, yeah there’s silent, unexplained flashbacks…but we’re on the cusp of something special here.  Boy oh boy, look at these match cuts.  Match cut after match cut after match cut.  It’s common shapes, common walking directions, common thought processes that link the boys’ unexplained snippets of past with their blunt and terrible present.  I think back to that fleeting image of the boys in the train car, that ear-splitting crunch as one boy eats the food from the other’s jacket, and in exchange the other boy takes the shoes.  Cut back to the taller boy, wounded and limping, but feet safely ensconced in the other boy’s shoes.  The shorter boy in back of him looks at those shoes – the shoes that were once his – practically licking his lips out of instinctual jealousy and lust for those shoes.  Suddenly the flashback to the train makes more sense – not plot-wise, because we still have no idea how they got on that train in the first place, or if they even knew each other before sitting together on that train – but subjectively.  The shorter boy has a completely one-track mind right now, and it’s focused squarely on a pair of shoes.  The crunch of leaves and beams of sunlight peeking through the thick foliage that is the tangible world disappear – right now his world consists solely of that one moment in the past, and those shoes.

.

.

            They have to stop and rest more often now.  There’s still the obligatory trudge-through-the-woods shots, but their desperation is becoming more palpable now.  They look up – cut to a shot of the sun, bright as can be, and then cut to – a city street and back alley, as the shorter boy traverses the streets relatively care-free, conceivably some time in the past (?).  The same sun, the same sense of hope and dignity that shines on the grimy, pathetic faces of these two runaway prisoners shines on a cleaner, more secure boy in a better time, better place.  The past and the present have become enmeshed – time is no longer linear, or relevant for that matter.  Happy in the city or woeful in the woods, it’s still the same boy, no longer even separated by the threads of time.  And all Jan Nemec needed to shatter the bonds of time was some clever editing.  Go figure.

            But the clever match cuts don’t stop there.  Shot after shot of movement from right to left (an off-kilter direction by cinema standards).  Boys hobbling through the forest or trolley rides in the snow, it’s all the same – we’ve already established that time matters not.  Forest walk, trolley ride through the sunshine, forest walk, ride through the snow as kids sled down the hill.  And then cut to the boys in the forest again, sticking their tongues out and lapping up rainwater as if it’s the nectar of the gods.  The shot before, of kids sledding down the hill in a winter wonderland, gives this shot of dehydrated runaway prisoners drinking the rain an extra air of glee and joy.  This is a more philosophical cut than your traditional, technical match cut, because it establishes mood.  Time matters not – satisfaction and joy are eternal.  Could the drinking of the rain be…a fantasy?  It just felt so…orgasmic, so joyful for the boys when they get some much-needed water that even the present feels mystical and dream-like now.  You add to that the shorter boy’s imagined (?) assault-times-three on the kind lady who slices him bread, and we’re completely entrenched in the realm of the subjective mind now.

.

.

            The “flashbacks” are getting more frequent now, now that we’ve been introduced to the group of crotchety old men who’re hunting down the two boys (*gasp* a major plot development?  Didn’t think it was possible in a movie like this…).  A pretty young woman pushing a baby carriage attracts the eye of the shorter boy in what in this movie has become “typical silent flashbacks.”  He follows her onto the trolley (hey, that’s the same flashback from the beginning!), the camera following him as he hops from car to car (juxtaposed, of course, with the two boys shuffling their way through the woods), only to reach the end of the car and encounter…the same men who are hunting them down in the present?  What the fuck?  …Or is it even them?  I don’t know, maybe all Germans just look the same to me, but I’d like it to be them, just to have something else to complain about, or marvel at.  Man, this is getting fucked up.  The wheels are really coming off now (that’s a pun only those who watch this movie will understand).

.

.

            The action’s picking up.  Shots are fired.  Boys are panting, crawling up the hill, gunshots permeating the air every few seconds (hey, this seems familiar…).

.

.

            Have you ever noticed how disgusting the act of eating really is?  How disgusting…and how intimate?  Probably not…it is a way of life for you and me, after all.  But when you’re a starving runaway, forced to face the wall like at the end of The Blair Witch Project?  That chewing noise may just be a little louder…and music and other sounds of revelry may just be a little softer, if not entirely drowned out by the chewing – that disgusting and glorious chewing.

.

.

            This is going on too long.  Like that initial trek through the forest, this is going on too long.  You’re killing me, Nemec.  But then again, wouldn’t the constant taunt of obnoxious chomping “go on too long” for a starving youngster?  Cinematic conventions concerning pacing be damned, right?  Isn’t the point here to make cinema’s ultimate subjective experience, put us in their place like no other movie could?  I’ve never been starving to the point of death…but thanks to some extremely exaggerated (and incredible) sound design, I’m starting to get the gist.

.

.

            Flashbacks usually suck in movies, don’t they?  I mean really, do you ever dream up a full-on story, complete with expert cinematography and editing and performances, when you’re reminded of that time you had your appendix removed, or graduated high school, or couldn’t get it up on your third date?  Fuck no!  Memories come in snippets…an image here, a smell there – it’s all sense-based…fleeting memories, disconnected moments in time, soon lost like tears in rain (thank you Roy Batty 😛 ).  I mean shit, after an hour of interlacing a desperate trek through the woods with unexplained images of either the past, the imagination, or both, I’m pretty sure this little gem of a movie came as close as a movie can get to replicating the random zaniness of the human mind (and it manages to squeeze in a compelling portrait of human dignity and overcoming adversity.  Impressive).  Could this bizarre, incomprehensible (like the human mind, no?) exercise in stream-of-consciousness really be the film equivalent of Ulysses?  Dunno, but it’s 12:55 a.m., and now I’m hungry as hell.  Time for those Entenmann’s donuts sitting in the pantry.

9/10 

Advertisements

The Great Dictator (Charlie Chaplin, 1940)

Clearly “The Great Dictator” isn’t your ordinary Chaplin for a number of reasons, namely that it’s, you know, his first full talky.  Could the enduring image of Charlie Chaplin and the last vestiges of his Tramp exist in the frightening world of sound when he proved to be that quirky god among men in a world of perpetual silence for decades beforehand?  

Eh, sort of.

It was pretty inevitable to compare “The Great Dictator” to Chaplin’s earlier films, namely from a “silent vs. sound” standpoint.  And for that reason this movie felt awfully weird to me.  It felt weird because Chaplin wasn’t playing the Tramp (other than a few scant scenes where his Jewish Barber dons the iconic small suit, cane and hat).  It felt weird because, obviously, a Chaplin movie was bombarded with dialogue and sound effects for the first time.  And it felt weird because this was by far the most politically-motivated film of Chaplin’s that I’ve seen.  I easily applaud Chaplin for trying something different (not even the Tramp, perhaps the greatest enduring character in all of cinema, could last that long into the era of sound 😕 ) and something that was so obviously important to him (opening the world’s eyes to the atrocities being committed by Adolph Hitler’s regime).  But, what results is a comedy with a message that’s often wildly entertaining but even more often wildly uneven.

As different as “The Great Dictator” was from vintage Chaplin, elements of it felt incredibly familiar, and for that I couldn’t help but feel relieved.  There’s the beginning of the film on the battlefield, where Chaplin’s Jewish Barber tries and fails to operate war machines both gargantuan and ludicrous.  This was “Modern Times” all over again, and it felt right at home in a Chaplin movie.  Other sight gags abound that you’d expect a Chaplin film to pull off with ease, and “The Great Dictator” does just that.  There’s the Barber and the injured pilot flying the plane upside-down (with the camera rightside-up), or dictators Hynkel (Chaplin) and Napaloni (Jack Oakie) having their tongue-tied food fight, or the Barber and friends eating their cakes, carefully trying to avoid a possible concealed coin that will signal one’s martyrdom.  It’s Chaplin-esque slapstick humor at its almost-finest.  Almost, because something just seems off once Chaplin enteres the unknown territory known as sound.  

In his silent films of old, comedic set pieces could go on and on seemingly forever and lose none of their comedic potency because Chaplin was such a physical artist, delivering laughs and striking emotional nerves using image rather than words, and physical and facial mannerisms rather than dialogue.  It was the human emotional experience in its purest form…just one of the reasons why the ending of “City Lights” is perhaps the most tear-inducing ever.  Now, though, “The Great Dictator’s” combination of classic Chaplin-esque slapstick and traditional dialogue-driven narrative just don’t seem to mesh well.  Now filled with sound, comedic set pieces that would feel perfect in a silent film simply go on too long.  Chaplin’s opening speech, in gibberish German, as Tomania dictator Adenoid Hynkel is delightfully over-the-top, takes full advantage of Chaplin’s still-sharp physical talent as a comedian/imitator (looks and sounds like Hitler)…and goes on at least 5 minutes too long.  That famous sequence where Hynkel ballet dances with the baloon-globe in his gargantuan office is cute..but goes on at least 5 minutes too long.  I’d have to say that other scenes, like the plane ride and the Barber’s run-in with stormtroopers and a frying pan-wielding Paulette Godard, “work,” but barely.  Throughout “The Great Dictator” the use of sound is full, but strange, and never more strange than in scenes of physical comedy like these.  You just get the feeling that Chaplin was out of his league when it came to sound, and indeed sounds ranging from a plane engine to a frying pan hitting Chaplin’s and stormtroopers’ heads and Chaplin’s cautious and unassuming voice feel added on or even superfluous, as if a different track entirely from the movie itself.  They’re very fun to watch, and visually on par with anything Chaplin ever did, but with the odd sound effect here and there, things get awfully awkward.  It’s more of the same stuff that made Chaplin so successful as an entertainer, but when it’s surrounded by sound and a traditional movie narrative, it’s exposed.  It’s a strange day indeed when the best elements of Chaplin’s talent as a filmmaker feel awkward, or dare I say inappropriate in a film made by Chaplin himself 😕 .

I realize it’s unfair of me to criticize “The Great Dictator” by comparing it to earlier Chaplins, but hell, I can’t help it.  Could you?  In the Tramp, Chaplin created the greatest comedic film character of all-time, and in the end that was both a blessing and a curse.  You just know that any attempt to deviate from that one formula and character that he perfected over decades would run him into trouble.  “The Great Dictator’s” often been hailed as a masterpiece, though, so I’m probably dead wrong, but the way I saw it, it was just a bit off-kilter.  I guess I was just greedy and wanted to hold on to the eternal illusion of the Tramp, always on the fringes of society, always showing more life and vitality than that life he unwillingly spurned.  And in those silent films, that world the Tramp spurned was exaggerated, and wonderfully so.  Here, though, Germany’s stand-in Tomania is certainly exaggerated (especially in the ridiculously cavernous palace of Hynkel, who’s storyline I enjoyed MUCH more than the Barber’s), but somehow sound decreases that illusion a bit.  Paulette Goddard, so wonderful and inspiring as the gamin in “Modern Times,” here was shrill and irritating to me once she found a voice.  The story of the Barber and his fellow ghetto residents doing what they must to survive amidst the cruelty of the stormtroopers, as awful as it sounds, bored me.  The dialogue bored me, the delivery by the actor seemed awfully mumbly, and half the time I was just asking myself when the next patented Chaplin bit was gonna come.  But, of course you gotta consider much of those story elements to simply be placeholders for Chaplin’s antics, the main attraction, so for that I give it a pass.  Also, other than the globe dance, you really don’t see that utmost physical prowess that you’d associate with the incredibly athletic Chaplin in his heyday.  But in a movie about Nazis of all things such jolliness wouldn’t really be appropriate, would it?  And I guess Chaplin was starting to get old 😛 .  So again I give it a pass.  I suppose Chaplin just had the misfortune of finding himself within the transition from one distinct era of cinema into another, and he had to scramble to adapt.

If Chaplin making the transition to sound isn’t tragic, then, then surely the abandonment of the iconic Tramp must be, right?  Actually, didn’t bother me, it turns out.  I thought his Barber was a nice quasi-substitute…just as clumsy, just as clueless, and in the end, just as noble, especially in regards to Hannah (Goddard) and his fellow Jews.  But the real selling point for me was Chaplin’s other role, as that slimy dictator Adenoid Hynkel.  Who knew a stand-in for Hitler could be so funny and so endearing?  And more shockingly, who the hell knew that Chaplin could have such acting range and natural talent when it came to – *gasp* – vocal delivery?  One minute Hynkel is a monstrous yet diminutive tyrant spewing semi-German nonsense to the masses a la Hitler, the next he’s calm and collected and speaking English, only to delve back into that showy German when competing with Napaloni, dictator of Bacteria, whether by subtly raising his barber chair or going for an all-out food fight.  He’s a bipolar little imp of a man with a Napoleonic complex, and everything about Chaplin’s performance of Hynkel is wildly unpredictable and absolutely wonderful.  And consider the cinematography of Hynkel’s palace/lair…that deep focus camera that makes his office seem so cavernous and imposing at the same time.  It says more about the disgustingly lavish lifestyle of Hynkel (and indeed Hitler), and the contradictions that define the dictator’s life and values, than any of the melodramatic dialogue that peppers the Barber’s half of the story.  In a movie full of ironies, perhaps the biggest irony of all is that its best character and story element by far is the one by Chaplin that’s completely different from the one he relied on so heavily for decades.  Go figure.

If Chaplin wanted to make an effective transition into sound long after his filmmaking compatriots, he sure as hell didn’t make it easy for himself making his first talky a send-up of Hitler and Naziism.  He did say that if he had knowledge then of the full extent of Hitler’s atrocities, he would never have made “The Great Dictator,” and certainly that makes sense.  “The Great Dictator” hints at the rise of Naziism’s evils, as we see “JEW” painted on the storefronts in the ghetto, or talk of being sent to concentration camps, and to say that putting all that in conjunction with elements of vintage Chaplin is awkward is an understatement.  But I have to say, though, that despite any unevenness that carries over from Chaplin’s transition into color, he makes a hell of a political commentary.  Somehow his endearing presence that had warmed so many hearts before adds a certain poignancy to a very serious situation at the time, and even served as a wake-up call disguised as a slapstick comedy.

But if all that was a wake-up call, then the Barber’s final speech might as well be a fucking foghorn.  Good lord, what an awful decision that was on Chaplin’s part.  Just from a logical standpoint, would you expect a lowly barber, thrust into the situation of being mistaken for a dictator, to be able to think up a 3+ minute monologue on the importance of freedom and democracy and the evils of prejudice like he does?  Breaking out a speech you’d expect the President’s Press Secretary to write is the last thing you’d expect a Chaplin Tramp-esque character to do, and at this point any final, fragile bond “The Great Dictator” held with Chaplin’s great movies of old suddenly shatters.  What was a subtle allegory on world events becomes a painfully obvious lecture.  It comes at us from left field, and from a standpoint of both a Chaplin movie and a subtle message movie, it was woefully out of place.  It’s a shame, really, that Chaplin felt the need to bring his politics to his art so glaringly.  I mean, “City Lights” to me is a flawless film: flawless because it deals simply and directly with the human condition and the importance of being altruistic, in a way that was both funny and heartbreaking, using pure and undiluted images.  Even when Chaplin started to get political in “Modern Times” with his semi-Marxist message concerning the dehumanization of the working class, that film was wonderful in at least establishing an incredibly innocent and lovely relationship between the Tramp and the gamin.  Now, though, within the realm of full sound and words, I guess Chaplin saw an opportunity to make his worldview as clear as possible.  Should’ve stuck with what gave him success before 😦 .

When you look at “The Great Dictator” in the mirror that is Chaplin’s career, of course it’ll be one of his more uneven films.  He was, after all, the last holdout in cinema’s sound transition.  But just taken on its own, I can’t dispute that it has to be one of the better comedies of the 1940s.  Sure it’s uneven, but it’s also bold in dealing with such a touchy subject manner in such a carefree way (you almost feel guilty, completely buying into Adenoid Hynkel as a great comedic character), so for that, even its faults are fascinating.  Most importantly, though, despite its unevenness, it’s still a Chaplin film through-and-through, even if you can’t quite put your finger on why.  Turns out Chaplin, the great and utterly unique  maverick of cinema, didn’t lose his ability to entertain.  Like the Barber after his little plane crashes, he just had to wade through the muck known as sound and narrative to do it.

8/10

Lifeboat (Alfred Hitchcock, 1944)

A small dinghy certainly isn’t the type of single locale you’d expect from a Hitchcock movie, and in that regard it’s a lot like Rope, which took place solely in an apartment.  But where Lifeboat succeeds and where Rope fails, I think, is its status as character study.  Rope is clearly an exercise in style, with Hitchcock trying to have as much fun as possible in pure experimentation with the continuous takes, and to that effect, realistic characters were sacrificed in favor of, among others, an absolutely lifeless Jimmy Stewart and an obnoxiously sarcastic girlfriend that I wish was the film’s strangling victim. As a result, what we were left with was a film that was somewhat impressive in its technical experimentation, but consequently uneven stylistically and even more uneven with a story and characters that you get the feeling were disregarded for style.

Lifeboat certainly has many of the trademarks of a great Hitchcock film: the camera focusing exactly on what Hitch wants you to see (a vital clue, something known to us but not the characters, etc.), an odd yet memorable assortment of shifty characters, and especially a pitch-perfect degree of timing, so that the set-up to a suspenseful series of events takes precedent over the outcome.  Never is this more obvious than during the leg amputation scene: we never see the operation itself, but rather the survivors hovering over the lovable and drunk Gus as the weather and sea get more and more choppy.  This is Hitchcock at his suspenseful finest.    That intangible talent of Hitchcock’s for focusing on exactly what needs to be focused on at a given time abounds,  such as a concealed bottle of water against the backdrop of thirsty and exhausted faces.  What I was really concentrating on, though, wasn’t an emphasis on things or events, but on people: something I haven’t concentrated on nearly as hard in other Hitchcock films, save maybe for Vertigo and Strangers on a Train.  Of course, most if not all of our cast of characters aboard the boat are (or at least start out as) stock character types and kind of shallow and “fake” (a vice which might’ve been Hitchcock’s only flaw on a consistent basis), and a patched on-feeling happy ending certainly doesn’t help matters (an ending like that works in grand romps like North by Northwest or The Man Who Knew Too Much, but not here) in a story about the inner darkness and banal instincts of man. 

Despite that, though, I couldn’t help but concentrate my focus on how most of the characters experienced at least a degree of change as the story went along, to the point that they prove to be far from who we initially perceive them to be (kudos should go to John Steinbeck for that, I’m sure).  Tallulah Bankhead’s reporter Constance Porter, for instance, is initially perceived by us as a rich, snobby bitch based on her obsession with filling the boat with as many personal possessions (mink coat notwithstanding) as possible, only to later show her romantic, nearly poetic mindset in convincing Gus to lose the leg instead of losing hope and letting himself die, only later still showing perhaps even more true colors as a sex-starved, still materialistic vamp.  The everyman Kovac, initially the ideal on-screen macho hero, becomes a xenophobic asshole who wants to run everything himself, eventually becoming the voice of reason and even a piece of comic relief in his poker games with the wealthy Ritt.  Joe, the black cook, is initially just that: a black cook, sticking to the background with no real identity, right on track with the state of minorities on the screen in the 1940s, only to recite a prayer, taking up half the screen in a brilliant shot that I pasted here, so that he proves to be one of the most silent and forlorn yet introspective people on the boat. 

All of these characters transform in some way based on how they’re presented to us for sure, but what I was most impressed with was Hitchcock’s way of constantly changing our perception of the Nazi U-boat captain.  The people on the boat (especially Kovac) want to throw him overboard and be done with it (no doubt echoing the sentiments of everybody watching the film at the height of the war), and yet he’s initially helpless and doesn’t even understand what they’re saying.  Later the man proves vital in performing Gus’ surgery and at least somewhat gaining the trust of the others, and later still proves himself to be much more power-hungry and duplicitous than initially perceived.  In a lesser film by a lesser filmmaker, the Nazi would be the unequivocal villain that the heroes must stamp out, and even in the case of Lifeboat we’re well-aware of how evil the Nazi regime and philosophy is, and yet we’re initially presented with a helpless German man we can’t help but initially feel sympathy for, followed by admiration, humor, loathing, hatred, fear, and every emotion in-between.  This character alone speaks worlds of what Hitchcock, John Steinbeck, and screenwriter Jo Swerling are going for: that each and every person has a side that neither they nor anyone else knew existed, and we all have the capability of committing unequivocal good or unspeakable evil when pushed into an extraordinary situation.  That we can feel so many emotions, both positive and negative, towards a freakin’ Nazi (which of course brings to mind Claude Raines’ quasi-sympathetic Nazi character in Notorious) is a remarkable achievement for a studio-system, Hayes Code-era film, and despite character simplicities and unnecessary sub-plots (like the romance between the nurse and navigator that feels just as rushed as the romance in Shadow of a Doubt) that are just about inevitable in most Hitchcock films, even the best, Hitchcock very nearly makes a mountain (a near-sprawling epic of human emotions) out of an ant-hill (a shitty little lifeboat and a bunch of blue-screen special effects) that concerns a hell of a lot more than just the Allies versus the Axis, but rather ourselves versus ourselves.

8.5/10

Atonement (Joe Wright, 2007)

Just what the hell was this movie trying to be?  Epic love story?  War film?  Period drama?  All of the above?  I don’t know, and frankly I don’t think the film itself knows either.  The first half hour or so, entirely within the setting of the mansion, was wonderful in its set-up of distinct characters, situations, and relationships.  It had the feel of a stage play that could actually work.  Plenty of intrigue and interest so that this itself felt “epic.”  But then comes the years-long effects of one girl’s misunderstanding, and this is where the film takes a swan-dive, hoping to make the splash to end all splashes, and just takes a belly-flop.  What it was supposed to be was a look a three fractured lives put in extraordinary situations they simply should not be in (or 2 1/2 situations, since the movie doesn’t have a fucking clue where to situate itself), but what I saw was a movie that considered itself way more important and “epic” than it actually was.  What I saw was basically an exercise in style, to the point that the characters were portrayed in a way that i just couldn’t care about them.  Sure, there’s that continuous take on the war-ravaged beach that’s easily one of the most impressive visual feats I’ve ever seen in a film, but that was purely for its aesthetic value and nothing else.  So much…stuff going on, of course meant to show in as grand a way as possible how lives can be ruined by a single event, but damned if I could connect all the grand sights and sounds and separate storylines into a cohesive whole.  At least the ending was perfectly appropriate and put things in their proper place, but what I saw was basically the beginning of an excellent movie, the rest of an average-to-decent movie, all of which could have been tweaked into one great film experience.

8/10

Letters from Iwo Jima (Clint Eastwood, 2006)

I said yesterday I wanted to reserve judgment on Flags of Our Fathers (which I was disappointed with) until I saw this, and now that I have, Flags is still a disappointment, while this is a near-masterpiece.  OK, both films can go together to get “both sides” of the story and separate points of view, and how each culture romanticizes their heroes differently, but hell, I just thought Letters did it better.  Even that idea of getting both points of view is accomplished well enough in this movie alone, with scenes like the reading of the American soldier’s letter from his mother.  It’s a long movie, but just as drawn out is these soldiers’ gradual realization that they’re fighting human beings just like themselves, and not the stereotypes they’ve been taught.  That idea of understanding your enemy, and the age-old war movie message that war is utterly pointless, can obviously be seen with both movies seen back-to-back, but Letters gets down and dirty with it, so that this one movie can encompass that human experience on its own, much more naturally than Flags.  Mostly, it’s ‘cuz that preachy and sappy tone that screwed up much of Flags is almost nonexistant in Letters…here, it’s just images of Hell, infused with flashbacks and internal thoughts that’re more natural and real than in Flags.  We basically get glimpses of many individuals and come to identify with them, from the former Olympic equestrian to the stuck-up outcast whose compassion for a dog got him into trouble, to Ken Watanabe (who I thought channeled the great Toshiro Mifune at some points in an outstanding performance) using a gruff exterior to mask compassion, questioning, and longing for the little things, like cleaning the kitchen floor.  I thought it was all very Malick-esque.  In fact, to me, that combination of utter realism and characters’ internalizations was presented a hell of a lot more fluidly than in a movie like The Thin Red Line.  If I’m comparing this to a movie like The Thin Red Line or its uneven predecessor Flags of Our Fathers, I just have to give much more props to what’s clearly a more involving and narratively compelling experience.  Any worries I had about Clint losing his touch after Flags were gone just a day later. 😀

9/10

Flags of Our Fathers (Clint Eastwood, 2006)

The idea and philosophy behind the thing is a fascinating one…debunking the mythic aura of perhaps the most famous image in American history and revealing it for what it amounted to: a chance for the military to exploit those involved, making them more of a commodity than the war bonds they were trying to sell.  And for much of the movie, Eastwood is at his best in portraying that contradiction of how we see and define a hero, and how that conflict between being seen as a hero and the exploitative fame that comes with it affects the “heroes” themselves.  With all that, though, is just as many moments that’re just hackneyed, preachy, and sappy (clearly Paul Haggis hasn’t slown down since writing Crash 😆 ), especially with that narration and finale that just shoves a message in your face.  This is a true story whose message should be obvious to any half-intelligent person watching, so it should just be presented as-is.  I’m trying to reserve a lot of judgment until I see Letters from Iwo Jima to get the whole picture, but I just have a feeling this could’ve been presented so much more naturally and fluidly.

7.5/10

Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick, 1957)

Kirk’s Colonel Dax is just as angry and just as stubborn in his goals as Chuck Tatum in Ace in the Hole, but his performance here is so much more restrained that it speaks worlds of his acting range and his ability to emote pure anger and resiliency like a human being.  His closing statement during that absolutely farcical court martial may be one of the best I’ve ever seen delivered.  He’s obviously furious at the way his men are being scapegoated and doing everything in his power to see justice done, but he restrains himself from going over-the-top, which would be perfect for a satirical film like Ace in the Hole but would be uncalled for here.  His look of contemplation and sadness during that brilliant final scene, which has nothing to do with the plot but speaks worlds of the hypocrisy of war, shows his character in a nutshell.  Kubrick’s portrayal of the futile battle, the court martial, and the interminably suspenseful and brilliantly drawn out execution scene is meant to be dead serious and inspire pure anger.  He even teases you with the possibility that the men will be freed when Dax comes forward with the information that the general (a greedy, evil man who might be one of cinema’s most memorable villains) wanted to fire on his own men (at the fancy ball, no less…an almost comical contrast to the horrors of the trenches), but again, realism is at play here, and this isn’t going to be a happy ending.  There’s nothing storybook about war, and nothing good will come of it.  After this is done, you’ll be convinced that the idea of “dying with honor” is anything but real.

10/10

The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, 1998)

I don’t know, maybe it was Malick trying to do too much after a 25 year layoff, but I think the end result of the Thin Red Line is an overly-long, sometimes brilliant and introspective war film…that just tries to cram too many ideas in. I think Malick’s goal and philosophy, as well as the execution of it, was so lofty and so ambitious that the poetic and philosophical narration (and sometimes dialogue) often drowned out the realism and the character development. It kind of reminded me of that library scene from Wings of Desire, where you go from person to person, hearing their thoughts. It’s a novel idea, the mutiple character narrative, but I would’ve liked to be able to identify with someone, but there’s just so many characters and ideas to sift through that it’s like a barrage. Not many of the characters felt real to me, with the sometimes brilliant yet often unrealistically lofty thoughts. That idea of not identifying with characters as real people isn’t helped much by the fact that Malick’s other movies cast relative unknowns for the time, while this is basically a Who’s Who of Hollywood’s most recognizable faces. So yeah, it’s has its moments of absolute brilliance and insight, but boy if it could’ve been less distant and more personal, and simpler with that narration, it could’ve been an absolute classic. But hey, it’s without a doubt the best WWII film from 1998, of course. 😉

8.5/10

Kagemusha (Akira Kurosawa, 1980)

Whoever said that this is like Kurosawa’s test-run and rehearsal for the superior Ran was pretty much right.  Where Ran had some of the most epic battle scenes ever filmed, Kagemusha only has hints of that, showing reaction shots from the king and his men instead of actual fighting (to be fair, though, this didn’t have nearly the budget that Ran had).  While just about every scene in Ran is like a painting and a piece of art, those are intersperced thorughout Kagemusha, bookending static shots of drab walls and what-not.  And where Ran had compelling, conflicted characters (the king, all 3 sons, Lady Kaede, hell, even the jester), Kagemusha’s are more like charicatures and a bit more difficult to follow along with.  I thought Tatsuya Nakadai thief, though, went through a wonderful evolution from greedy thief to altruistic and loyal servant and double, even after being banished.  A wonderful (dual) performance, and just as wonderful and tragic an ending.  So basically, this only hints at the beauty and all-in-all perfection of Ran, but isn’t that enough to make this a damn good movie anyway?  it is in my book.

8.5/10