Posts Tagged ‘War’

MOVIE: Canopy (2013)

May 20, 2014

canopyThis Australian film, one of about 12 movies I’m going to in the next 3 weeks during the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF), wins my award for the year’s Most Silent Not-a-Silent-Movie movie.  There’s virtually no dialogue — instead, the soundtrack primarily consists of the roar of planes and pops of guns, the buzz and hum of the jungles of Singapore, and the periodic sounds of someone’s breath (or lack thereof, depending on the scene).

Set during World War II in Singapore, the movie opens with a young Australian pilot coming to after ejecting from his plane. He cuts himself loose from the tree he woke up dangling in and takes a slow, careful look at his surroundings: dense walls of green closed in on five sides of him, with a floor of thick mud below.  The sky is visible only in tiny glimpses here and there, sometimes only in a puddle and then gone again as soon as he looks up and the trees shift together (hence the title Canopy) — and in it, mostly all he sees are more planes zooming, firing, exploding, as the war continues on without him.

After a few hours stumbling around in the jungle, the pilot hears the sound of a troop of Japanese soldiers nearby and begins to run, careening full-force into another man doing the same thing (and they weren’t even texting!).  Stunned, they both leap up ready to fight, realize they’re actually allies (he’s Australian, he’s Chinese), and immediately dive back into the tall grass, just as the Japanese soldiers they’d heard in the distance come walking through the glen.

The soldiers pass, the men rise, and so begins a very quiet, very short, very intense friendship: two men, neither of whom speaks the other’s language, in the most terrifying situation of their lives, together.

This relatively short film (about 85 minutes) goes by quickly, spattered with brief moments of sadness, fear, yearning, or loss, sprinkled atop longer moments of disorientation and dream.  Neither man talks to the other — not only because they can’t communicate in the first place so what’s the point, but also because there is rarely a moment they can be sure they won’t be overheard by the Japanese soldiers who have infiltrated the jungle, are virtually invisible behind those thick walls of green, and are not known for their kindness to their enemies.

Though you might wonder how a story like this could be told when nobody says a word (a lady behind me in the theater certainly seemed annoyed by that), it’s amazing how powerful this film truly is in moments.  It’s not a perfect movie — in a few places, I’d go so far as to call it a mess, in fact.  But it’s an interesting one about the power of silence and noise, the bond of fear, and the life-long, ever-resonating nature of trauma and loss.

Recommended to fans of the war film genre.  Keep an eye out for it!

[Official web site | Trailer]


BOOK: Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand (2010)

February 10, 2014

unbrokenThis absolutely incredible, wonderful, amazing book tells the absolutely incredible, wonderful, amazing story of an absolutely incredible, wonderful, amazing man named Louis Zamperini.  And did I mention it was absolutely incredible, wonderful, and amazing?  I did?  Well, okay, then. Good. Let me tell you why.

Louis Zamperini was born to a family of Italian immigrants in New York in 1917.  When he was but a wee two years of age, his family moved to Torrence, California.  Because nobody in the Zamperini family spoke any English when they arrived in the Sunshine State, Louis, a somewhat passive, quiet kid, became a frequent target for bullies as he grew up.  After grinning and bearing it for a few years, it finally occurred to him that the best way to silence those bullies was to put his fist through their teeth — and once he realized how effective that was, Louis spent many of the ensuing years getting himself in perpetual trouble.

Finally, his older brother Pete, exasperated by his younger brother’s behavior, tried to rein Louis in by getting him involved in sports.  He talked Louis into joining him on the school’s track team, where Louis quickly discovered he had an incredible talent for running.  During his high school years, he made and broke several national and international track records, and by the time he was 19, he was on his way to the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Louis didn’t win in Berlin, but he came close enough to know he was good enough to win next time if he kept at it.  So he set his sights on 1940 and started training even harder.  As war began to break out worldwide, however, the 1940 Olympics were first moved and then canceled.  Then came Pearl Harbor, and Louis’s sights were redirected to a new target — war in the Far East.

Louis enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces in September 1941 and became a bombardier for the B-24 Liberator, one of the most deadly planes in WWII — for its crew, I mean, not just for those with the misfortune of being underneath one when it dropped a bomb.

Not only was the B-24 infamous for bursting into flame for no apparent reason (never MY favorite quality in an airplane), but its design made it nearly impossible to ditch or belly-land  safely in an emergency — the fuselage almost always busted into pieces, busting the crew into pieces along with it.  Shortly after the plane was introduced, there were several incidents in which the tails or wings just fell off in midair, also not a terrifically confidence-inspiring quality in a bomber.  Many B-24 crew members began referring to the plane as “the Flying Coffin,” and for good reason:  in the three months in which Louis and his crew trained to fly, 3,041 AAF planes met with accidents stateside, killing an average of nine men a day.

Overseas, so many B-24s went down during the war, and so often over the ocean, that the military began assigning ships runs below the air routes where the planes most commonly flew — an attempt to try to rescue more crash survivors from the sea.

Though Louis and his crew had a lengthy streak of good luck after joining the fighting, when their first plane was badly damaged in battle, they were assigned to the Green Hornet, a B-24 notorious among the other pilots for being a wreck in the sky, ready to fall apart if given so much as a sideways glance.

The Hornet quickly lived up to its reputation when Louis and his crew were sent out on a rescue mission looking for the crew of another plane that went down over the water. Mechanical issues forced the pilot, Louis’s friend Allen “Phil” Phillips, to ditch the Hornet in the sea.  As predicted, the plane broke apart, killing almost the entire crew. There were only three survivors — Louis, Phil, and a new crew mate they barely knew, Frances “Mac” McNamara. The men managed to pull themselves into a lifeboat, but they had almost no supplies whatsoever — a few candy bars, a couple of small containers of water, a bunch of fish hooks, and that was about it.

Surrounded by sharks, including a few big ones that periodically tried to leap into the boat for a better chomping angle (OMG, EEP!), starving, dehydrated, and quickly covered in painful, festering salt-induced sores, the situation could not have been more dire.  Yet somehow, Louis, Phil, and Mac managed to hold on.  Quick thinking and quicker hands allowed them to catch some fish and birds to eat, as well as rain water to drink every now and then.  They even managed — miraculously — to avoid getting shot when a Japanese fighter plane strafed them TWICE from above.  Knowing that keeping their brains sharp was critical to their survival, Phil and Louis spent endless hours telling each other stories, quizzing each other on trivia, singing, and keeping each other’s spirits up.

The record for survival on a lifeboat at sea before Louis’s plane went down was something like 35 days.  The Green Hornet’s survivors made it 47.  (I repeat: FORTY. SEVEN. DAYS!)

Believe it or not, things only got worse from there.  Because while they were, thank god, eventually rescued, their rescuers were a  group of Japanese soldiers, who quickly shuttled the already-dying men off to a series of brutal POW camps in the region.

For four more years (I repeat: FOUR. MORE. YEARS.) the men were starved, beaten almost constantly (especially Louis, who was a favorite target of one particularly brutal guard), refused medical care for diseases like dysentery and malaria, and forced to work themselves nearly to death.  Not only that, but once the Japanese found out Louis was a famous American Olympian, life for him became even more hellish.  Knowing they could use Louis’s fame to their advantage, the Japanese didn’t report his identity to the Red Cross as they were supposed to, and instead let his family believe he was dead for years. Eventually, they tried to torture him into becoming a propaganda tool for the Japanese military.  When he refused, he was starved and beaten even more.

AND, PEOPLE?  THAT IS JUST THE BEGINNING OF THE HELL THAT MAN ENDURED.  I’ll stop there, though, and let you discover the rest of Zamp’s story on your own.

In all my many years of reading true stories about wars, veterans, heroes, and survival against all odds, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a story more amazing than this one.  Louis Zamperini is. . . I mean. . . seriously, words fail me.  All I can come up with is “amazing.”  I keep saying “amazing.”  Because he is AMAZING.  (Note, by the way, that I said “he is” right there. You may find that tense reassuring as you read — I know I did.)

That said, it’s not just the story of Zamp’s (amazing!) life that makes this book as impossibly hard to put down as it is.  A huge part of the credit for that also has to go to author Laura Hillenbrand.  I was familiar with Hillenbrand’s name — she wrote that extremely popular book about Seabiscuit a few years back — but I hadn’t read any of her work before.  And WOW, no wonder Seabiscuit and Unbroken are both still bestsellers  (Unbroken, in fact, has sold so many copies so steadily for so long that the publisher STILL hasn’t released it in paperback — why bother when the $30 hardcover keeps selling like hotcakes three-and-a-half years after being published?).

Hillenbrand is a phenomenally talented writer — it’s no stretch to say she’s one of the best non-fiction writers I have ever encountered, in fact.  Her stunning descriptions of both place and people transport you right into their worlds, and her clear affection for her subjects creates an authentic emotional connection from the very first page (I can’t remember the last time a book made me work quite so hard to keep from crying all the time, by the way — and those were fought-back tears of both the sorrowful and joyous variety, depending on the chapter).

Additionally, there were times I came across a sentence in this book that was so finely crafted I had to stop and read it again (and sometimes: again and again).  What a rare gift, writing like that. What utter, pure, complete pleasure that is.  I cherished every single word of this wonderful book. and I can’t wait to read more by Hillenbrand as soon as possible (starting with Seabiscuit and ending with everything else she ever writes as long as we both shall live, amen).  The lady is a goddamn genius.

Amazing man, amazing writer, amazing story, amazing book (soon to be what I hope is an amazing movie, by the way).  If you read one book this year, MAKE IT THIS BOOK.  I promise you, you will not be sorry.  Louis Zamperini will change your life; he certainly changed mine.  I turned the last page of Unbroken 3 weeks ago and I haven’t gone a day without thinking about it since.  When was the last time you read a book like that?  Such a gift, that man, his story, this book.  I am beyond grateful.

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BOOK: We Band of Angels: The Untold Story of the American Women Trapped on Bataan by Elizabeth Norman (2013)

January 30, 2014

webandMost people — at least, I hope this is the case — have at least heard of the infamous Bataan Death March of World War II.  The build-up to that travesty began not long after Pearl Harbor, when the Japanese began trying to take the Philippines — a key piece of property in the Far East.  Over the next year or so, they bombed and invaded the region, finally ending up on the Bataan peninsula, where Douglas MacArthur’s troops were waiting for them.

Originally, MacArthur’s plan was to hold Bataan and the small island close to it, Corregidor, until the US Navy could bring in reinforcements and supplies (food, ammo, medicine).  Once those reinforcements arrived, he planned to attack north, defeat the Japanese, and push onward to victory.  USA! USA! USA!

Over the year before the battle began, though, as the US Navy struggled to get back on its feet post-Pearl Harbor, the Japanese began setting up thick blockades around Bataan, preventing any Allied ships from reaching the troops.  For months, the soldiers on Bataan lived on half-rations, without faltering in their fight against Japanese attacks.  When it became clear no reinforcements were going to make it in, the US ordered MacArthur to evacuate himself to Australia, leaving his men behind.

“I shall return!” he declared famously.  Infamously, it took him three more years.

Meanwhile, the US ordered the men left on Bataan to continue to fight, even as they began literally starving to death.  As medical supplies ran out, their bodies broke down further as malaria, dysentery, and other tropical diseases raged through their systems.  They were told not to surrender.  And for four months, they didn’t.  When they finally lacked the strength to hold up their guns, however, the commanding officer of the ranks deserted by MacArthur gave up — it was the largest surrender in American history.

The Japanese took the surviving troops prisoner — both Americans and Filipino — and began to march them to POW camps north of Bataan.  The Japanese soldiers believed surrender to be the ultimate act of disgrace, and they treated their prisoners accordingly.  The starving, sick, already-dying men were beaten, beheaded, stabbed, shot, and otherwise tortured the entire march.  By the time they arrived at their destination, some 2,500-10,000 Filipino soldiers and anywhere between 100-650 Americans had died along the trail.

That’s more or less what I already knew when I picked this book up.  What I DIDN’T know was that there was another group of Allied soldiers on Bataan and Corregidor — a group of 78 Army and Navy nurses.

In the fall of 1941, the Philippines was an exotic, exciting place to be.  Nurses from all over enlisted in the military and requested to be sent there, where they’d heard most of their “duties” would involve dancing with handsome GIs and partying.  Most of them had next-to-no training in medicine, which worked out just fine because nobody in the Philippines seemed to be in any danger of actually getting hurt.

Until all hell broke loose.

Caught in the battle, the nurses rapidly set up field hospitals in the jungles of Bataan, sometimes right in the middle of the fighting, and eventually moved to Corregidor, where they set up cots and surgeries down inside a set of underground, concrete tunnels.  As the bombs fell and the bullets flew, these mostly-young, very naive women began witnessing horrors they could never have imagined.  The Angels of Bataan, as they came to be known, were the first US military women to serve in a hot zone, as well as the first US military women to be all, “Oh, the HELL with this nonsense!” and trade their impractical-white-dress uniforms in for the same khaki overalls the men were wearing.

After months of bloody battle, the women too were herded into interment camps when Bataan and Corregidor fell.  There they lived out the rest of the war — about three more years.  That’s three years of terror, disease, starvation, and torture.  Most of them continued to serve as nurses in the camps, establishing infirmaries and trying to maintain a regular schedule — as much for their own sanity as for the injured troops.

In the last year of their internment, rations were cut dramatically for the women as well as the men, down to fewer than 700 calories a day by the time they were finally liberated in 1945.  Most of the nurses had lost upwards of 30% of their body weight, and were wracked with disease to boot.

When the survivors finally got home, they were immediately whisked away as poster-girls for victory — look at our amazing gals, who survived POW camps and still look great in lipstick!  Exhausted and ill, they were carted around for weeks putting a pretty face on war for their government until the novelty wore off.  And then they were discarded, with the Army and Navy refusing to honor their (female) leaders with the medals they so clearly deserved after such unbelievably courageous service.

It wasn’t until 2001 (!!) that Maj. Maude Davison, credited by many for keeping the women alive by making them continue to serve as nurses throughout their imprisonment (thus maintaining their spirits, thusly maintaining their lives), was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Medal; other leaders of the corps still haven’t received formal recognition.

This incredibly well-written and compelling book uses letters, diaries, and interviews with the survivors to tell the other story of Bataan — the women’s story.  And it is, in a word, amazing.  If you’re at all interested in military history, WWII, or just in incredible stories of survival and perseverance, this is a don’t-miss.

In fact, it’s just a don’t-miss, period. You should know about this. USA women!  USA women!  USA women!

Thank you, Angels of Bataan, for your service and your inspiration.

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MOVIE: Sarah’s Key (2010)

January 6, 2014

70153543This thoughtful, heartbreaking film tells the story of two different people in two different times, their lives linked together by an apartment in Paris, France.

The first is a little girl named Sarah, a Jew living in France in 1942.  The second is a an American expat, Julia, married to a Frenchman, Frédéric, who has just inherited an apartment in Paris that belonged to his grandparents.

Julia is a journalist, and as the film opens, she’s been assigned by her magazine to do a feature on the infamous 1942 “Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup” of the Jews in France.  As she digs into the story, she finds her interest piqued further when she learns Frédéric’s grandparents had moved into that Paris apartment just a few weeks after the Roundup took place.

Struck by the coincidence, Julia begins to research the apartment, soon discovering that a Jewish family had lived there just before Frédéric’s family moved in — Sarah’s family.

Sarah’s story opens on the day of the Vel’ d’Hiv, when she is awakened by the sound of the French gendarmes pounding on her front door.  As her mother moves to open up, 10 year-old Sarah ushers her little brother, about 4 years old, into the closet, hands him a little container of water, and tells him not to move until she comes back for him.  She locks the closet, slips the key into her pocket, and dashes into the hallway before the policemen are any the wiser.  Sarah and her mother are whisked outside, where her father catches up to them, and the three are quickly taken to the Velodrome d’Hiver, a large cycling stadium where all the Jews are being held until they can be moved out en masse to internment camps.

When Sarah and her parents realize what’s happening — that they and about 13,000 other Jews (30% of them children) are about to be taken away forever, they panic.  But there’s nothing they can do; there’s no way to escape, no way to get the key to the closet to someone who can help.  A few days of astonishing hell later (no bathrooms, no food, no water, stifling temperatures — think the Superdome in New Orleans, Julia tells her colleagues, times a thousand), the family is moved to the French-run Beaune-la-Rolande internment camp.  The adults are soon separated from the children and sent to Auschwitz, where most of them are eventually killed.  The children stay behind a short while longer, before also being shipped off to their deaths.

But not Sarah.  Determined to get back to her brother before it’s too late, she and her new friend Rachel manage to charm one of the French guards into letting them slip under the wire.  When Rachel becomes extremely ill on their way back to the city, Sarah seeks help from a farmer and his wife, who offer to take them both in and protect them.  Despite being utterly exhausted, Sarah refuses to stay — she must get back to Paris, to her brother, and if they won’t take her there, she’ll go alone.

And so, they take her. And when they finally arrive, Sarah races up the stairs, pounds on the door, and is greeted by a little boy of about 12 years — Frédéric’s grandfather, it turns out.  She pushes past him, runs to the closet, unlocks it — and, well, you can imagine.

From there, the two stories weave together further as Julia becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to Sarah.  She never showed up on any of the lists of Jews killed in WWII — but where is she?  What she eventually discovers about the rest of Sarah’s life is a powerful testament to the devastating long-term effects trauma and loss have on those who are left behind to live.

Despite the obviously depressing storyline of this film, it still somehow manages to end on a more-or-less optimistic note — a bittersweet ending to a very bitter tale.  Even when life doesn’t go on, life still goes on, after all — a family can heal. The truth can help.

The Vel’ d’Hiv round-up is something I had never heard much about until seeing this movie.  After looking into it more, I can understand why France would want to bury as deep as they could their shameful complicity with the Nazis, and their wholesale sending-to-slaughter of so many of their own (the Vel’ d’Hiv is just one of several similar events in France during the early days of the war, by the way).  Initially, I assumed this was a decision that had to have been based squarely in fear — France was already occupied by Germany 1942 and its people must have been terrified of where that occupation was leading, and too afraid not to cooperate.  But the more I read, the more it became clear that, at least at the state level, the French (Vichy) government didn’t mind too much the idea of packing off their Jews — from the elderly right down to the infant.  As long as I live, I will never understand things like this — and thank god for that.

This film was based on a novel of the same name by Tatiana de Rosnay, and as soon as I’ve recovered from seeing the movie, I’ll definitely be seeking out the book.  Highly recommended, though be prepared for a heavy experience — rare is the WWII movie that doesn’t provide one, I suppose.  It’s worth it.

[Netflix it | Amazon Buy/Rent]

Genre: Drama, Mystery, War
Cast: Kristin Scott Thomas, Mélusine Mayance, Niels Arestrup, Frédéric Pierrot,  Aidan Quinn

MOVIE: Into the White (2012)

December 4, 2013

intothewhiteSet during WWII, or, more specifically, in the middle of the snowy nowhere in Norway during WWII, this little gem of a film tells the true story of two British and three German soldiers forced by extremely cold circumstances to work together to survive.

It starts with an air battle in the blinding snow.  Both sides end up going down — the British plane shoots the German one and then crashes itself.  Freezing, the two groups of crew miraculously manage to stumble across the same little cabin in the aforementioned middle of the snowy Norwegian nowhere — kismet!  Unable to do anything until winter abates and they can hike out, the five men have to learn to live together — something that comes much easier for the two eldest officers, who are about as war-weary as they come, than for the two young bucks who pretty much want to blow each other up REAL BAD (the roles of prisoners v. guards switch a few times, depending on who happened to grab the gun while the others were sleeping).

As time passes and tedium sets in, the men slowly get to know each other — something facilitated greatly, as is often the case, by the exciting discovery of a bunch of liquor stored under the floor boards.  Ultimately, grudging respect turns into full-on friendship, and they begin to make plans for getting out together and going home.

Annnnnd then the Norwegians ski in and ruin everything.  Ach, typical. (Oh wait, I’m part Norwegian. . . never mind, we’re awesome.)

Based on a true story (you can read about it here), this movie was incredibly engaging and entertaining.  It was also a pleasant surprise to see both Rupert Grint (Ron from the Harry Potter films) and Florian Lukas, whom I first saw in the mountain climbing film North Face and find just utterly and ridiculously handsome.  Grint did a surprisingly good job being cocky, which I would not have figured him for.

Good acting, great story, cute guys — what’s not to like?  Recommended!

[Stream on Netflix | Buy or rent from Amazon]

Genre: Drama, War, Foreign (in German, Norwegian, and English with subtitles)
Cast: Florian Lukas, David Kross, Stig Henrik Hoff, Lachlan Nieboer, Rupert Grint

This Week in Steve McQueen: The Sand Pebbles (1966)

February 17, 2010

This film, the latest installment in the Steve McQueen festival I’ve been attending, is about a rebellious Navy Machinist Mate, Jake Holman (McQueen), who loves engines a whole heck of a lot and authority a whole heck of a. . . yeeeeah, not so much.

Bounced from job to job, mostly on flagships, he finally gets his dream gig when he’s assigned at last to a gunboat, the San Pablo (nicknamed the “Sand Pebble”), where he’s to be the main guy in charge of the engine.  At first excited, his optimism takes a decided dip downward when it quickly becomes clear that life on gunboats is pretty different from life on flagships.  For one thing, the Sand Pebble has a strange labor system in place, apparently initiated in an attempt to appease the locals but taken to the extreme by a bunch of lazy ship officers.  The officers mostly just hang out looking spiffy, leaving the sailors with way too much free time — free time they mostly use for fighting and hanging out in bars.  Meanwhile, all the actual work on the ship gets done by the “coolies,” local untrained Chinese laborers.

Horrified by the state of the ship’s engine, Holman gets in trouble right away when he starts complaining about this system, which puts unskilled Chinese coolies in charge of things both important and dangerous.  When the head coolie is then killed in an engine accident, instead of taking it as a sign he was onto something, Holman is blamed and reprimanded by the captain (Richard Crenna), who orders him to train another coolie to take his place. While Holman first resists this idea (note: that’s putting it nicely), he soon becomes pretty fond of his trainee, Po-Han, who proves himself to be a quick, sharp study.

Meanwhile, Holman and another sailor, Frenchie (played by an extremely NOT French Richard Attenborough — don’t ask me) become close friends.  While the San Pablo is stuck in port for the winter, the two men become embroiled in a drama on shore involving a young Chinese woman, Maily, sold into prostitution when she couldn’t pay her debts.  It’s not long before the incredibly sweet Frenchie, along with the adorable brown pet caterpillar he carries around on his upper lip (dang, that was some bad mustache, Mr. A.), falls madly in love with her.  Despite the obvious dangers in doing so, Frenchie and Maily end up getting married and pregnant, two things that could get either one of them killed by Chinese soldiers.

One night, Frenchie decides he can’t spend another night without his love so he sneaks off the San Pablo to swim to shore.  When he doesn’t return, Holman goes after him, walking straight into a nightmare.  After all is said and done, Holman finds himself accused of the murder of a local as an increasingly propagandist and hostile crowd forms a blockade around the ship, calling for his head.  Fearing for their own safety, the rest of the Sand Pebbles angrily try to convince Holman to give himself up and, when he refuses, they attempt a mutiny.  Though the captain is quickly able to quash it, both his pride and his already-kinda-wonky psychology are damaged in the process, and when the ship is finally able to break through the blockade into open water, he begins making a series of cuckoo mistakes, eventually going so far as to defy official orders.  Instead of returning to the coast as directed, he becomes fixated on going up the river to rescue a group of Americans (missionaries and teachers) he is convinced are stranded and in mortal danger.

One of these Americans is a young woman named Shirley Eckert, played by a stunningly gorgeous Candice Bergen (I’d never seen her so young before, by the way — hot damn, good lookin!’).  Shirley and Holman had had a little romantic tension thing going since they first met, and their relationship had taken a few steps forward during part of the San Pablo’s stint in port.  So, though he clearly recognizes the folly of the captain’s plan, Holman nevertheless agrees to be part of the “away team” (or whatever it’s called when you’re not on Star Trek) and heads to shore to attempt the rescue.  We get one more spectacular shoot ‘em up scene, this one no kidding edge-of-your-seat, and then finally, three hours of plots, subplots, and sub-subplots later, the film ends with just about everybody dead.

Oh wait, spoiler alert, I guess!  OOPS.  (Oh, like you read down this far, please.  This is the longest damn movie review of all time.)

I’d seen this film only once before, and it was way back (way, WAY back) when I was a kid – I’d guess I was about twelve years old or so.  At the time, I remember being fairly amazed by it, I think in part because it tells so many different stories and in part because so many of those stories are about doomed love, a subject that tends to resonate well with 12 year-old girls (plus, that one scene with Po-Han gave me nightmares – if you’ve seen the film, you know the one I mean).

As an adult, though, I felt like this movie was kind of disjointed.  It was easily forty-five minutes too long, and was spread out all over the place, trying to cover too many stories and not doing a good enough job of making those stories feel smoothly interwoven.

My major issue with the movie, though, was McQueen.  Dammit, McQueen!  Once again, Steve does what I am starting to gather is his trademark move, a facial expression coupled with a tone of voice that I’m now going to officially dub “The Doofus.”  As I’ve said with the last several of his films I’ve written about here, I just don’t get this combo.  It worked in The Great Escape – with that character – but it has not worked a single time since.  And still he continues to do it!  Serious McQueen Fans:  was The Doofus really his trademark?  If so, can you explain the appeal?   It’s not adorable.  It’s not sexy.  It’s for sure not at all cool.  And it doesn’t work with most of his characters.  Jake Holman was no doofus; he was a macho ass-kicker.  So, what’s going on with this?  Bullitt is coming up next in the series, another one of McQueen’s films that gave me nightmares as a kid (I don’t remember anything at all about the story, but I still vividly remember the opening shoot-out scene).  Please tell me he’s not going to pull The Doofus in Bullitt?  That he finally figured out after this one that The Doofus was a dud?

Of course, clearly that won’t have been the case, because, surprise surprise, McQueen was nominated for Best Actor after The Sand Pebbles, confirming officially that he was onto something and I don’t know what I’m talking about (as if that needed confirmation. . .).  My only hope is that the sheer physical demands and emotional/personal problems he encountered during the making of this film killed off every last remnant of Doofus left in him.  Maybe this film toughened him up – he did say once that he considered the excruciating agony of bringing The Sand Pebbles to the screen to be his penance for everything he’d ever done wrong in his life (you can read about the problems encountered on the film’s Wikipedia page).

One can only hope.

In the meantime, this is definitely an entertaining film, grand in scale and ambition, and it’s well worth a rental.  Fans of Richard Attenborough, in particular, are going to want to pick this one up — I’ve never seen that man so thoroughly kissable.  Frenchie, oh, you sweet, sweet, good man.  I love you.


[Netflix it | Buy it]

Genre:  Action, War
Cast:  Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Richard Crenna, Candice Bergen, Mako, Emmanuelle Arsan

This Week in Steve McQueen: The Great Escape (1963)

January 12, 2010

For my birthday last month, my husband got me two passes to a ten-week/ten-movie Steve McQueen film festival that started last week in Seattle.  “YAHOO!” was my response upon opening the envelope, followed by what can be best described as a “jig.”  Though I’d appreciate it if you didn’t repeat that.

Last Thursday was the start of the series, and while I was sitting in the theater waiting anxiously for the film to roll, I came up with the plan to bring you guys in on the action by reviewing each movie each week in a regular feature I’m going to call “This Week in Steve McQueen.”

If you’ve seen the film yourself, I’d love to have a conversation about it in comments.  Who’s your favorite character?  What’s your favorite scene?  If not, maybe reading what the rest of us have to say will inspire you to take action.  And, incidentally, if you live here in my town, and you like Steve McQueen, make sure you let me know because my husband isn’t going to be able to join me for every film in the series, so I will need a date periodically.  That date can be you!  You!  You right there!  You!  And me!  And Steve McQueen!  Let the magic begin!

Kicking off the series last Thursday was one of my all-time favorite films, Steve McQueen or no, The Great Escape.  This is a movie I’ve seen dozens of times, and it’s one I watch regularly on the small screen at home.   Getting to see it on the big screen, then, was an enormous thrill for me — I could barely sit still all day waiting for 7:30pm to come.  And guess what?  No big surprise:  it was just as awesome as I hoped it would be.  (Though it does, I will confess, seem considerably longer when you’re in a crowded theater that’s about 10 degrees too warm and lacking seriously in leg room — if you end up joining me for The Sand Pebbles, another super-long McQueen film, wear lots of layers).

I’m assuming this is a movie most people have seen, so I won’t go into detail about the story here.  In short, it’s the true story of a group of British and American POWs during WWII, brought together in a German prison camp that’s been specially designed to make it impossible for them to escape.   The brilliant plan, you see, was to get all the POWs who kept escaping together in a single location and lock ’em down permanently.  But, of course, those of us with nieces and nephews know exactly what happens if you put all the troublemakers together in a single room.  Because what happens is trouble.  And trouble is exactly what is wrought upon the Germans, in no short order.

I remember seeing this movie as a little kid and being struck by the violence (nice people get shot — oh, sweet Archie — which is always the worst type of violence in a film, especially when you’re a child), but I never realized it was as hilarious as it is until I was in my 20’s and I rediscovered it.   Nor did I realize how handsome James Garner was until I was in my 20’s and rediscovered HIM, for that matter.  This movie is loaded with some of the most famous actors of the early 60’s:  Garner, McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence (pre-Halloween), James Coburn, and David McCallum (best known these days as “Duckie” on NCIS, by the way).   And put simply, the film is an absolute blast to watch.  It’s exciting, funny, clever, well-acted, well-shot, and wonderfully scored by Elmer Bernstein (I dare you to get that theme out of your head — it’s still stuck in mine five days later).  You can’t really go wrong here.

SO, if you’ve never seen this one, take the night off, rent a copy, and curl up on the couch with The Forger, The Cooler King, The Scrounger, Big X, and The SBO.  It’ll be a night to remember, trust me on that one.  (p.s. The Scrounger’s mine.  Handenzees off!)

And now for a little piece of Steve McQueen trivia:  You know that scene where Hilts strings the wire across the road to stop the soldier on the motorcycle?  He’s ALSO playing the soldier on the motorcycle.  He got to do a lot of riding in the movie, and, in fact, his “escape” by motorbike was his suggestion to director John Sturges.  The original plan had involved having Hilts get on a train.  McQueen?  On a TRAIN?  That’ll be the day. . .

Up next, Baby the Rain Must Fall.  Review next week!

Genre:  Drama, War
Cast:  James Garner, Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, EVERYBODY ELSE ON THE PLANET IN 1963!

MOVIE: Passchendaele (2008)

November 25, 2009

As with Harry Connick Jr. from yesterday’s review of New in Town, it probably goes without saying that I’m an absolutely ridiculous fan of Paul Gross.   Due South to start with, of course, and then Slings & Arrows to do me in completely.  And even though I couldn’t get into Eastwick this season on TV, it wasn’t because of him.  I love this man.  I love him.  I love him.  I love him.  If he asked me to get down on my knees and kiss his feet, I would do it and love it and only feel the tiniest bit like a schmuck later.

And that’s why, when I heard he’d made a WWI movie that had been released in Canada to fairly respectable reviews, I couldn’t wait to see it.  I tried to wait, I failed.  They kept not releasing it here in the U.S. and I kept wanting them to and they kept not, so I finally caved and made an end-run around the problem.  I will make it up to the problem just as soon as the problem lets me, though, I swear.

Now let me tell you how absolutely gut-wrenching it’s going to be for me to write the rest of this review.  Because, oh GOD, my gut is wrenched that I have to do this.  Monkey wrenched, in fact.  Socket wrenched.  Because this film, which was written, directed, and stars Paul Gross, is pretty unbearably awful.   And you know what the problem is?  The problem is, it’s just exactly as self-indulgent as a film written, directed, and starring the same guy sounds like it would be.  Goddamn it.  Ow, my guts, I hate you.

Let me ‘splain.

As the story opens, Gross’s character (Michael Dunne), is in Europe fighting in a battle in which he finds himself face-to-face with a German soldier who couldn’t possibly be older than about 17.  Despite the fact the kid had surrendered, Dunne makes the decision to kill him, and before he even has a chance to process that, he’s blown up by a grenade.

He wakes up back in Canada in a hospital where he’s being tended to by a pretty nurse named Sarah Mann (the wonderful Caroline Dhavernas, who some of you might recognize from the series Wonderfalls).  Of course, he falls in love with her, and she with him.  After he’s recovered, he takes a job in town as a recruiter, ostensibly because he’s a hero, but everybody knows it’s actually because of a diagnosis of shell-shock — something they all translate internally as “cowardice.”

Long story short, Sarah’s younger brother, who has terrible asthma, decides he wants to enlist and go fight, and he gets someone to forge his paperwork for him so he can head off to war.  Madly in love with his sister, Michael feels he has no choice but to follow her brother back into battle so he can protect him.  And, of course, madly in love with Michael and terrified for her brother, Sarah feels she has no choice but to join the two of them as a nurse on the battlefront.  So, the next thing we know, we’re all of us back in Europe with stuff exploding over our heads and a whole heck of a lot of misery and awfulness.

Now, quick — the things this movie does well:

I liked that so much of the movie was set in Canada instead of in battle, focusing more on some of the emotional complexities the war had both on returning soldiers and the men who were not allowed to fight in the first place.  I knew the movie was going to have to move back to the actual war at some point (because the title refers to the Battle of Passchendaele in Belgium in 1917, which you can read more about here), but I enjoyed the way this movie gives us a little time to get some insight on the many emotional elements of war for men, as well as, to a lesser degree, the politics of recruitment.

I also really liked the actual battle scenes themselves — in Passchendaele, Michael and his platoon find themselves forced to dig into trenches, as was typical during WWI.  Only, it had been pouring down rain for months and their trenches end up being more like swampy swimming pools than holes.  Shots of these men and boys literally waist-deep in mud brought home the horror of trench warfare in a way no other movie I’ve seen about that really has.  My god.  No wonder so many WWI soldiers died of diseases instead of bullets.  I can’t even imagine what that must have been like.  I get cranky when it rains here in Seattle and I’ve forgotten my umbrella.  At least I can still keep my socks (and matches) dry.

But now, and I hate this part, I really do, but here’s what this movie does really, really badly:  ALMOST EVERYTHING ELSE.

Put simply, the number one flaw of this movie is that it just tries WAY too hard.  Gross obviously feels extremely passionate and proud about Canada’s involvement in WWI, and he’s also obviously seen just about every brilliant war movie ever made.  He knows that brilliant, powerful war stories involve things like imagery, motivational speeches, love that may or may not be totally doomed, and the shock of the violence the Everyman is forced to take part in just to survive.

But in trying to incorporate every one of those elements into his own film, he just couldn’t pull it off.  He didn’t seem to understand what makes each of those elements truly powerful — the emotions behind them, the meaning behind them.  His imagery, for example, focused heavily on the concept of martyrdom (Jesus on the cross, especially) and birds, especially birds of prey.  But there wasn’t any actual MEANING to those images.  The martyrs were not martyrs.  And the  birds — the birds made no real sense at all.  It was like he thought “imagery” simply means repetition of a visual.  But the visuals have to be representative of something; they can’t just hang out and be all, hey, it’s me again, hi.  Know what I mean?

And the speeches, oh man.  They were just painfully vacuous, I’m sorry, Paul.  Delivered with such poignant tone, and yet without any actual power whatsoever.    I’m not even going to talk about the total lack of chemistry between Gross and Dhavernas, either.  It just crushed me.  It seriously did.  It was that painful to watch.  If only he’d cast me instead.  Seriously.  That would’ve been some third-year P-Chem, let me tell you.

In any case, are just SO many things about this movie that do not work.  It struck me as disastrously amateurish and was ultimately completely without impact.  There were some good ideas in there, but Gross needed to pass his script along to a pro when he was done with it and get some better thinkers involved.  As it stands, it seemed like the kind of script I would’ve written in high school, when I tried to make all my writing sound “deep,” without any real comprehension of what “deep” truly was.

Lordy.  This is what I get for pirating a video.  And now I have to buy it when it comes out just to assuage my guilt.  Damn.  I am so not thankful for that.  (But hey, to all my American readers:  Happy Thanksgiving!)

[Netflix me | Buy me]

Genre:  War, Drama
Cast:  Paul Gross, Caroline Dhavernas, Adam Harrington, Joe Dinicol, Michael Greyeyes

MOVIE: Inglourious Basterds (2009)

September 9, 2009

ingbasterdsOne of the things I love about Quentin Tarantino movies is that there’s absolutely no mistaking them for anything else.  If I hadn’t known Inglourious Basterds was a QT film going in, I would’ve called it immediately the moment the film opened with a classic WWII scene paired with an oddball combination of Debussy’s Claire de Lune and the whistles and clangs of spaghetti Western music.  Throw into that mix an homage to just about every film ever made coupled with a story that is both completely unique and brilliantly literary, and what you have is quintessential Tarantino.

This movie opens with two separate stories that, in typical QT style, collide together in the final act like hydrogen nuclei in a fusion bomb.  The first story is about a young Jewish woman, Shoshanna, whose entire family is killed right in front by infamous the infamous “Jew Hunter,”  Nazi Col. Hans Landa (played brilliantly by Christoph Waltz).  For reasons that didn’t make a lot of sense — I’m guessing it’s as simple, and as complicated, as the fact he’s a  sick, crazy bastard — Landa lets Shoshanna escape.  We catch up to her a few years later, where she’s living in Paris under an assumed name, running a movie theater.  A young Nazi soldier, a war hero and the star of the latest Goebbels smash hit, Stolz der Nation (A Nation’s Pride), tries to befriend her.  But when he manages to get the big movie premiere switched to her theater, Shoshanna makes plans for more than just a simple screening.  Revenge, she decides, is a dish best served piping-frakkin’ hot.

The second story in the film is about the Inglourious Basterds themselves.  The Basterds are a group of undercover American soldiers, mostly Jews, who are dropped into France with the sole purpose of “killin’ Nat-zis.”    Think “The Dirty Dozen,” except completely sociopathic.  Led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt, rocking a thoroughly embedded Southern accent), each of the Basterds has been assigned the task of taking 100 Nazi scalps apiece.  After taking out dozens and dozens of German soldiers, and not with mercy (to put it mildly), the group has become infamous amongst the German Army.  Everyone fears the Basterds, and the stories of them, and specifically of their cruelest member, “The Bear Jew” (the wild-eyebrowed Eli Roth), quickly begin to rival folklore about the bogeyman.

The stories converge at the end, when each set of characters initiates a separate, complicated plan to destroy the movie theater and, in so doing, kill Hitler and end the war.  Whether or not either plan succeeds is something I’ll leave for you to discover.

Instead, allow me to say a few things about a some of the actors in this film.  First things first, if Christoph Waltz doesn’t win every Best Actor award from the Oscars to the Razzies, he was completely robbed.  His character, Nazi Col. Hans Landa, is, hands-down, the most thoroughly disturbing Tarantino villain since Mr. Blonde in Reservoir Dogs, and for the exact same reasons.  The most bad-ass of any character in a  Tarantino film is always the one the exudes the most calm, and Landa is about as calm as they get.  Had he, at any point, put on the radio and started dancing around a chair singing oldies songs, or begun quoting from Ezekiel 25:17, it would’ve merely been the icing on the holy-mary-mother-of-god terror cake.

And then there’s Brad Pitt, the leader of the Basterds, who continues to surprise me every time I see him of late and, with this film, has finally  established himself in my brain as a goddamn genius as well as a pretty face.   I keep thinking Legends of the Fall, and he keeps sweeping the leg, so to speak.  When we walked out of the movie theater after seeing this film, it occurred to me I couldn’t think of a popular actor in Hollywood right now who was more versatile and talented than Brad Pitt.  And in thinking about it some more since, I’ve still got nuthin’.  Man, I hate it when geniuses are also ridiculously gorgeous.  It’s like a boot to the shins.

Melanie Laurant, who played Shoshanna, was a new one for me, and I also found her a complete revelation.   I thought her acting was brilliant, and loved even more the way Tarantino shot her, with close-ups on her eyes, her lips, her legs making her look like a 70’s psychological thriller siren, when the reality went so incredibly much deeper.  More, more, more play on genre, which is Tarantino’s specialty and one of the primary reasons I think his films get better with repeated viewings than worse.

As for Eli Roth, whose work as a horror director I have long admired, his acting was a bit over-eager and clumsy from where I was sitting, though others I’ve talked to about this movie didn’t notice anything awry.  That might be because I knew who he was, and so I was paying more attention to him than they were.  But in any case,  it hardly mattered, and besides, I’ll forgive him for all of it if his next project is turning his fake Tarantino Grindhouse trailer (Thanksgiving) into an actual film.

And now, to do something Tarantino himself likes to do in his films, I want to end this review by coming full circle back to the way I started it, and that’s with some talk about the Tarantino style.  This movie does a lot of things Tarantino frequently does — it interrupts the story with asides, it pauses the film to slap on a bold character title to let us know who’s who, it throws music together from almost every genre without care for anachronism, it plays with camerawork —  in fact, it plays with just about everything.  Its characters are ridiculously larger-than-life, its women ridiculously more beautiful than life, and its violence so graphic it frequently crosses the border into camp (note to the squeamish, you may want to avert thine eyes during any and all scalping scenes).  I love all those things in Tarantino films.  I love that Tarantino films are completely unmistakable.

THAT SAID, while it always seems to work out brilliantly, including here, I will say I think there’s a point at which Tarantino is going to cross the line from brilliance to overdone predictability, and while I know a gazillion people (or, possibly, EVERYONE) is going to disagree with me on this, I think he’s reached that point.  If his next movie features the same bag of tricks, regardless of the quality of the story, I’m going to sigh with a little impatience even while I lap it all up hungrily.  Go ahead, argue with me.  I’ll listen.  But I’m still right.   Just you wait, ‘enry ‘iggins.  Just you wait.

And the rest of you, go see this movie, because it’s completely insane and absolutely brilliant.  FIN.

[Prequeue me at Netflix | View trailer]

Genre:  Defies classification, really, but let’s go with War.  WAR.
Cast:  Brad Pitt, Melanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz, Diane Kruger, Til Schweiger, Eli Roth, Michael Fassbender, Mike Myers (no, really!)

MOVIE: Tropic Thunder (2008)

January 14, 2009

tropicthunderI actually saw this movie about two weeks ago, but I’ve been struggling with what I should say about it in a public forum.  Because here’s the problem with this movie:  it is soooooo very wrong.  SO VERY WRONG.  In sooooo many ways.  SO MANY WAYS.

And yet, oh my holy heckfire, was I ever dyin’ all the way through it, laughin’ so hard.  I actually started to get kind of hoarse by the end of the movie because I had been letting loose with so many throaty guffaws the entire way through.   Now that’s laughing, people!  Laughed so hard I done nearly broke my vocal cords!

In case you haven’t heard, this movie is about a group of actors hired to make a Vietnam war flick.  Out in the jungle somewhere (Laos?  Vietnam?  I can’t remember if/where they said they were), the actors are doing an absolutely abysmal job of it.  Only five days into production, they’re already “a month behind schedule” (heh), and everybody is getting frustrated, from the key grip to the studio head, a balding guy with major anger management issues played (in what has to be one of the most brilliant PR moves of all time) by Mr. Tom Cruise.

Yes, you read that right.  And damned if he wasn’t just awesome in this too.

The inspiration for the movie-within-the-movie is a memoir written by a Vietnam vet named Four Leaf (Nolte) who has accompanied the film team on location.  Annoyed with the pussyfooting around, Four Leaf convinces the director that if he wants his actors to get the job done right, he ought to fly them into the middle of nowhere in the jungle and leave them there for a few days, so they can see first-hand what surviving in that place is like.  The director agrees.  And things go rapidly downhill from there.

So very, very downhill.

The cast consists of Jack Black as a bleached-blond junkie primarily known for a series of comedies about flatulence, Ben Stiller as a rapidly-washing-up action movie hero, Robert Downey Jr. as a white actor playing an African American character (totally something I think ONLY RDJ could’ve pulled off successfully, god bless ‘im), Brandon T. Jackson as an actual African American playing an African American (his banter with RDJ is ridiculously funny), and Jay Baruchel as the rookie who also happens to be the only one of the group who showed up for the “boot camp” training before filming started.  In other words, the only one in the group who can read a map.

What happens after the gang is dropped into the trees is just weird and silly and ridiculous and hilarious.  But I still hesitate to express just how much I liked this movie just because it’s also sooooo irreverent in regards to soooooo many things that it almost makes me feel like I must be a horrible person for laughing so hard at it.  I am comforted if I think of it solely as a spoof of war movies.  But I’m pretty sure I’m still going to hell for recommending this movie.  Meh, life — it is such.

Recommended!  And make sure to watch the “previews” at the beginning of the movie — the sad thing is I would TOTALLY rent Scorcher VI.

[Netflix me | Buy me]

Genre: Comedy, War
Cast:  Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr., Nick Nolte, Tom Cruise, Brandon T. Jackson, Jay Baruchel, Matthew McConaughey