Posts Tagged “War”

1966

December 19, 2010
Netflix Criterion DVD
Soviet Union
Russian / Italian / Tatar
205 Minutes
Biography / Drama / History / War
Andrey Tarkovskiy

#43 They Shoot Pictures Don’t They Top 1000 Films Of All Time

Imaginary episodes from the life of a 15th-century icon painter.

“A superb recreation of medieval life dramatizes the eternal problem of the artist, whether to take part in the life around him or merely comment on it” — **** — Halliwell’s

“Solo Filmschool” movies are those on the big list of the 1000 best films of all time, which the crew over at TSPDT keeps track of and updates from time to time. The current version is from January 2010. My plan is to work my way down the list, watching all of them on DVD (if available), regardless of how slow-moving, or out of date they might appear at first. If a highly-regarded and serious film class is not available where you live, you could do a lot worse than using this list as a jumping off point.

First things, first. Yes, it’s a butt-numbing 205 minutes. It’s in black and white, has no “normal” narrative, and is mostly in Russian. This is the only DVD in my 10-year Netflix history, that I’ve mailed back unwatched, and then put back on my queue at the top position. The first time the length just seemed too daunting. But, there must be a reason that it’s number 43 on THE LIST. It deserved another chance.

With older, less mainstream films like this one, I sometimes like to read about them before watching. What I learned was not to expect a linear style of storytelling, with plot point A leading to plot point B. I wasn’t to expect the title character, Russian painter Andrei Rublev, to be on screen very often–in fact, there are several long scenes where a character takes the attention of the camera for an extended period of time, never to be seen again. The man on the balloon in the first vignette is a perfect example. Who is he and what are the circumstances of his balloon flight? And what does this have to do with painting or faith or being a monk? We are never told.

I was instructed in these essays to be aware of the movement of the camera, the brutality of the images, and most importantly, the background of each scene. This proved to be the best advice I could get before viewing ANDREI RUBLEV.

The film may, in fact, be about the struggle to find beauty in the harsh Russian winters (and summers for that matter). Or it may be about artistic motivation–how a painter sees the world and his faith and incorporates that into the icons he paints. It could be about the pettiness and jealousy that humans–including the most holy monks–struggle with on a daily basis. I have no idea.

It’s the story of a famous real-life painter with no scenes of painting. It is divided into a half-dozen chapters, some of which have no relationship to each other. Our main character isn’t in every chapter, and even when he is, he is dressed exactly like the other monks, making his identification difficult, if not impossible. “Which guy is that, again?” For the last hour, our hero is wordless, because he is punishing himself for a sin any of us would have likewise committed.

I can’t tell you if the acting is good or not. If the actors are dressed in authentic costumes or speak as they should. But what I can tell you is Tarkovskiy has composed shots, the likes of which I’ll never forget. Everything I marveled at in Kurosawa’s RAN–the horses and flags and the burning temple–are done better in this film. And horses? Oh my goodness, the horses. Every broken horse in the USSR must have had a cameo in this film. Horses are inside churches, falling down steps (in a famous, brutal, and real scene), running into battle, rolling on the ground, frolicking in the water, and eaten as a treat. To simply marshal this number of horses and riders is grounds for celebration.

An early scene has three monks traveling the Russian countryside, through mud and rain. (I was chilly for the entire 3 plus running time–never has a landscape looked less hospitable.) They enter a tavern (or is it just a barn) to take shelter. A jester is performing some sort of anti-governmental song and dance as the drunk patrons laugh along with him. When he’s finished, long after another director would go to some sort of conversation amongst the monks, Tarkovskiy instead does a slow 360 degree spin of the inside of the room. We see every face looking at us–the monks, the peasants, the drunk guys in the corner, some children in the shadows. He does two spins, I think. Most of the film is in wide shot, but on a few occasions we see close-ups of naturalistic Russian faces.

There are what appear to be throw-away scenes of nature–a water snake, a man covered in ants, a dead bird, a cat walking amongst a pile of dead bodies.

The outdoor shots are where the film really shines. The first scene, involving the balloon, has the camera follow the “pilot” as he walks around a church, enters it, climbs some stairs, climbs out a window, and reaches for the ropes which are keeping the balloon from flying away. We have somehow gotten outside with the pilot and in the background, perfectly framed, is a rapidly approaching group of men in canoes paddling towards the church to stop his flight. Both the ropes, the balloon, the man, and the distant background are in focus.

There are countless outdoor scenes involving hundreds of people and horses, where you’ll scratch your head wondering how everyone ended up in the right place at the right time. An attack on a village where the action takes place on four levels, a raiding army whose horses gallop on both sides of a lake, and in a part of the film rightly heralded, an entire village helps to create a huge church bell for the town.

This bell scene involves a boy who claims that his dead father left the secrets to bell-making in his hands only. This boy has not been seen by the audience in the first 2 1/2 hours of the film, but at this point he becomes the protagonist. He has little actual skill at this craft, but he does have some sort of natural bell-making ability. He orders workers around, discovers the right molding clay by literally sliding in it, and does not show the Tsar the respect he usually gets. The digging and melting of metal and pouring of the mold and the fire and sparks is thrilling. In a scene I’ll never forget, the men begin chipping away at the clay to reveal the smooth and huge bell beneath. It takes the whole of the village to lift it out of its hole and as the Prince and other royalty ride up to see it, we all know that if that bell doesn’t ring, the boy will lose his head.

This shot is spectacular. We are up a hill, on top of the bell and in one cut, we pan from the miles away village and its protective wall, follow a line of horses as they cross a river on a bridge, see the ropes that have helped to hoist the bell, pan over to men winching the bell out of the ground, look down on the boy, and finally straight down on the bell itself. Fantastic.




Was ANDREI RUBLEV exciting from start to finish? No. Do I have any idea what it’s about? No. I took a two-hour break in the middle to gather myself and, frankly, to wake myself up a bit. Plot-wise, there’s a lot of talk about the wickedness of man, along with some examples (the raiding Mongol army, the pagans who strip naked to run though the forest, the rapists, the guy who pokes out the eyes of artists so that they can never recreate what they’ve already produced.) But the shots are just superb. There are things happening in the background of every shot. There is choreography of hundreds of extras that left me speechless.

Am I in a hurry to see it again? Not exactly. But I’m glad I did.

8.2 IMDB

ANDREI RUBLEV

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2008

July 11, 2009
San Jose CA — Cinearts Santana Row
USA
English
131 Minutes — June 26, 2009
Action / Drama / Thriller / War
Kathryn Bigelow [Near Dark; Blue Steel; Homicide: Life On The Street; K-19: The Widowmaker]

An excruciatingly intense film about a bomb squad unit in Iraq. Bomb squad movies are always a little tense, from THE ENGLISH PATIENT to any movie-of-the-week where the characters aren’t sure if they should cut the blue wire with the white stripe or the red wire with the yellow stripe. THE HURT LOCKER will have none of that. These guys are professionals, with tools and technology at their disposal. Most times they disarm the bomb, save lives, and come back to base simply a little sweaty for the experience. Other times, the only thing left of them is charred hair inside their helmet, as one character mentions.

There is a ten to fifteen minute sniper scene in this film that can’t be overpraised. The men come to the aid of some English soldiers for hire, come under attack by a group of men in a far-away building in the middle of the desert, and must team up to fight back. The tension that Bigelow brings to this, from the generous use of time, from the silences, from the angles, from the shot into the scope so that we see a soldier’s huge eye, to a shaky hand trying to drink a juicebox, to the guy who may be a sheep herder or may be another sniper, to the question of whether any of them will make it out of their little crevice alive. It is stunning and worth the admission price alone. Film students will study this scene for years to come.

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THE HURT LOCKER is the subject of Cinebanter Podcast Number 75. After you’ve seen the movie, listen to the spoiler-filled review by Tassoula and I by clicking the play button right here:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Show Description:
• 00:00 Intro
• 00:32 THE HURT LOCKER Discussion
• Break
• 27:52 To Sum It Up
• Break
• 28:30 BEAU TRAVAIL Discussion
• Break
• 36:00 The Last Five®
• Break
• 1:09:43 Listener Feedback
• 1:15:47 Credits

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9.3 Metacritic
7.7 IMDB

THE HURT LOCKER

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2006

June 27, 2009
Netflix DVD
Ireland / UK / Germany / Italy / Spain / France
English / Irish Gaelic
127 Minutes — March 16, 2007
Drama / History / War
Ken Loach [Ladybird Ladybird]

In 1920, a radical young Irish doctor cancels his plans to practice medicine in London when he witnesses British troops brutalizing Irish volunteers waging a guerrilla campaign.

Not sure about its historical accuracy, but this film sure makes the British look like total dicks. ROB ROY and BRAVEHEART and BLOODY SUNDAY and to a lesser extent, GANDHI, did the same thing. But this seemed somehow more brutal. Because it’s Ireland, there are, of course, two brothers, one of whom is about to become a highly-paid doctor in England and the other is becoming something of a leader in the Irish resistance. I’ve since done a bit of reading on the subject and the film followed pretty closely the Declaration of Irish Independence and the different battles and skirmishes they had. The film is supposed to show us a reluctant man, forced into taking up arms after all that he witnesses. It’s hard to dispute his actions, but I’d like to see a film from a reluctant English occupier some day. Several powerful scenes involve torture by the British on the Irish leader in a dank jail cell. Perhaps more morally horrifying is the way that the “good guys” have to deal with their own men who may have been forced to tell secrets under fear of that same torture. If someone tells the opposing army, and it results in the death of some of your men, what do you do to the young man who let the cat out of the bag?

You’ll need the subtitles, by the way.

Winner of 2006 Palme D’or

8.2 Metacritic
7.6 IMDB
** Halliwells

The Wind That Shakes the Barley @ Amazon

THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY

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1926

May 24, 2009
Netflix DVD
USA
Silent
107 Minutes — February 5, 1927
Comedy / Romance / War / Action
Clyde Bruckman & Buster Keaton
#30 They Shoot Pictures Don’t They Top 1000 Films Of All Time

“Solo Filmschool” movies are those on the big list of the 1000 best films of all time, which the crew over at TSPDT keeps track of and updates from time to time. The current version is from January 2010. My plan is to work my way down the list, watching all of them on DVD (if available), regardless of how slow-moving, or out of date they might appear at first. If a highly-regarded and serious film class is not available where you live, you could do a lot worse than using this list as a jumping off point.

A confederate train driver gets his train and his girl back when they are stolen by Union soldiers.

What’s amazing is not just that it’s 82 years old, not just that it isn’t boring, but that it’s downright exciting to watch. Keaton never changes expressions, which makes his evermore perilous situations even more entertaining.

The plot is simple. Fort Sumter has been fired upon and the the Civil War is upon us. We are in the South and men rush to the recruitment office to enlist. Keaton loves both his locomotive and his girlfriend. She insists that he sign up for the army, but the military leaders believe that he’s more valuable as a train engineer bringing supplies to and fro. Though no one tells him this. His girl refuses to see him until he’s in uniform. He continues engineering for a full year until at a dinner stop, a Northern spy steals his train and starts speeding north, burning bridges and tearing down communication towers. It is up to Keaton to get the train back.

He first runs, then steals a huge-wheeled bicycle, then gets on one of those up and down sidecars that rides on the tracks, and finally, the gives chase in another train engine. The chase is thrilling. He constantly has to feed the engine wood, he grabs a cannon and tries to fire it towards the other train, the escaping men leave obstacles on the tracks which he must push off, the two armies are marching in the background as Keaton obliviously chops wood, and Keaton is running on top of the train and over the woodpile and into the boxcar. The action is fabulous. We always know where everyone is. The camera follows from the side at high speed. And Keaton never changes expression. Like there’s nothing he can’t do. He isn’t a reluctant hero, he is going to get his train back no matter how far north he has to chase it.

There are creative sight gags involving the water tank and the cannon which shifts and aims squarely at Keaton himself. There is a damsel in distress. There are some pretty impressive battle scenes using hundreds of extras. And then there is the scene of a full-sized real locomotive attempting to cross a river on a burning bridge before it plummets to the valley below. The layout of the sequence is impressive even by modern standards. The camera follows from quite a distance as the Union army begins marching down the steep hill to ford the river while the huge train rumbles (silently, natch) over the smoldering bridge. Horses and cannons and men with muskets all marching from left to right. The train is incredibly imposing, comes from out of the woods and chugs towards the right of frame. Just when it looks like the bridge might hold, the heavy machine crashes through and lands in a smoking heap in the river below. There was obviously no chance for a new take. I don’t know how many cameras I would have had operating to ensure that the event was captured. But the interesting thing is that the big crash stunt was part of a much larger mosaic of things happening all over the frame. There are men moving, trees swaying, the river is rushing, etc. None of the actors are watching the train because they know what’s about to happen. The whole scene seems like the train fell through by mistake, which makes it much more realistic.

There is a terrible-quality clip of the scene you can watch here.

The film had a complete story, it was exciting and the jokes were shown in the service of the story, not as a set piece as you might find in other silent comedies. And what Keaton did physically and how he shot the action sequences are a fabulous antidote to modern comic book films where the audience is never sure where characters are onscreen and who is fighting whom. Keaton didn’t have the luxury of quick cutting. Most of our modern action directors could learn a thing or two from 1926′s THE GENERAL.

Clip of the cannon stunt

“It is an epic of silent comedy, one of the most expensive films of its time, including an accurate historical re-creation of a Civil War episode, hundreds of extras, dangerous stunt sequences, and an actual locomotive falling from a burning bridge into a gorge far below. Keaton defies logic with one ingenious silent comic sequence after another, and it is important to note that he never used a double and did all of his own stunts, even very dangerous ones, witha calm acrobatic grace.” — Roger Ebert The Great Movies

“One of Buster Keaton’s most celebrated comedies. It’s a classic and many people swear by it, although it isn’t funny in the freely inventive way of his Steamboat Bill, Jr. Its humor is too drawn out for laughter. And yet is has a beauty: it has the shape of comedy.” — Pauline Kael

“It is real and the train’s maneuvers credible and dangerous. It is well known that Keaton performed personally in scenes that involved considerable risk. It is not only a comedy but a genuinely heroic film. I would swap all of Modern Times for that glorious moment when Buster’s meditation fails to notice the growing motion of the engine’s drive shaft on which he is sitting.

“Slow-starting, then hilarious action comedy, often voted one of the best films ever made. It was an expensive production, with its spectacular train crash becoming the most costly single shot in silent films. At the time of its original release, it was a critical and popular failure. It took thirty years before it was recognized as a classic of comedy. Its sequence of sight gags, each topping the one before, is an incredible joy to behold.” — #128 Halliwell’s Top 1000

“Keaton’s best, and arguably the greatest screen comedy ever made. Against a meticulously evoked Civil War background, Buster risks life, limb and love as he pursues his beloved railway engine, hijacked by Northern spies up to no good for the Southern cause. The result is everything one could wish for: witty, dramatic, visually stunning, full of subtle, delightful human insights, and constantly hilarious.” — Time Out Film Guide 2004

“Keaton’s masterpiece and arguably the most formally perfect and funniest of silent comedies. Full of eloquent man-vs-machinery images and outrageous sight gags.” — Videohound’s Golden Movie Retriever 2001

“One of Keaton’s best silent features, setting comedy against true Civil War story of stolen train, Union spies. Not as fanciful as other Keaton films, but beautifully done.” — Leonard Maltin’s 2007 Movie Guide

#30 They Shoot Pictures Top 1000
8.3 IMDB #127 All Time
**** Halliwell’s
**** Videohound
**** Maltin

 

The General @ Amazon

THE GENERAL

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2008

March 7, 2009
Cinequest 19
France / Belgium / Liberia
French / Child-Soldier-Patois
97 Minutes
Drama / War
Jean-Stephane Sauvaire

Notes:
Simply doesn’t let up from the moment the black screen tells us the title. On a frenetic pace not seen since CITY OF GOD. Boy soldiers, dressed in all sorts of costumes (wedding dress, superman, boombox around neck, top hat) roam around Liberia killing and raping and cheering about it. The true story is probably even more harrowing, but this will do for now. Women are raped, limbs are cut off, and the boy soldiers yell all the time. And that’s the once flaw I found. It was a one-note film. It is shaky cam and loud and on coke and young girls are sexual partners, all of which is well and good filmmaking-wise. But I’d like a few different paces, some down time to reflect on what I’ve seen and to get my heartbeat back where it belongs. I’d like a character to speak in a normal tone of voice. Maybe for five minutes, and then we can start the carnage and bloodshed again. And I don’t want the girl rape victim to change into a willing participant half way through the encounter.
None of what I’ve just written is as good as Jarrod Whaley’s take on his favorite film of Cinequest 19.
There are images in this film I’ll never forget, but I wouldn’t say I enjoyed them.

6.8 IMDB

JOHNNY MAD DOG

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THE TOUR
2008

March 6, 2009
Cinequest 19
Serbia / Bosnia and Herzegovina
Serbo-Croatian
108 Minutes
Action / Adventure / Comedy / War
Goran Markovic

Notes:
The Bosnian War. A formerly glorious acting troupe, in need of a change of scenery (and some pocket money) embarks on a tour of the divided country. The manager insists that they’ll be thought of as heroes from Belgrade coming to help the troupes with morale. They arrive in a huge Bosnian Hummer-type vehicle after dodging mortar fire. An indifferent general has, of course, changed the itinerary. They will play once in town and they again at the front lines. Mis-steps ensue. Some humorous. Some funny in a more “we’re all in this together, why are we shooting each other” way. It turns out that no one cares that these actors have appeared on a TV series. Music is terrible. Bad news is telegraphed by single low note on a piano.

7.9 IMDB

THE TOUR

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2008

January 22, 2009
DVD
USA / Germany
English / German
124 Minutes — January 9, 2009
Drama / Romance / Thriller / War
Stephen Daldry [Billy Elliot; The Hours]

How Far Would You Go To Protect A Secret?

It’s been more than a week since I’ve seen it and I can’t seem to figure out how to go at this film. It is not good. In fact, it’s a bit preposterous. Winslet is a fabulous actress, but in THE READER she must choose between dour, embarrassed, angry, or predatory. There is no in-between.

It’s just after World War II in Germany. A young boy of 15, stricken with fever, is helped by Winslet’s character. After his recovery a few weeks later, he goes to her house to thank her, and before you can say “you’re 18, right?” they’re in the sack. What he sees in her is obvious. She’s nearing 40, is hot, and he’s 15 and would probably avail himself of just about any opportunity. What she sees in him is a bit less obvious. He’s a nubile 15 to be sure, but why couldn’t someone like her find someone within a decade of her age, at least? I suppose he’s naive enough to not ask too many questions, to not question his incredible luck. What a story he’ll have to tell that summer at camp!

Strangely, she begins to demand that he read to her before each encounter. Which is a small price to pay for him, I’m sure. A more successful homework system has yet to be devised. He catches the eye of other, more age-appropriate schoolmates, but what chance do they have against a fully grown, willing woman who doesn’t ask questions? They fight, they break up. He heads off to law school. And the film begins to self-destruct. Because during a field trip to the courthouse, who does he see on trial for Nazi atrocities? That’s right, the woman who took his V-power, in the flesh. And here’s the kicker: she’s accused of writing an intricate plan for others to follow which leads to the deaths of 500 Jewish prisoners. That she shows no guilt for what she did is bad enough. But when she’d rather admit to something she didn’t do than admit to not being able to read or write, the film goes off the rails.

That’s right. In post-war Germany, killing Jews in the name of Hitler isn’t quite as bad as admitting that you don’t know how to read.

Ralph Fiennes shows up as the grown up boy who then begins his very own Audible.com franchise, sending tapes to Winslet as she spends the rest of her days in jail.

Ridiculous, but Winslet is pretty hot and rarely has a film made reading the classics seem quite as sexy as THE READER does.

5.8 Metacritic
7.0 Critical Consensus
8.0 IMDB

The Reader (Book) @ Amazon

THE READER

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2008

September 23, 2008
San Jose CA — Camera 12
USA / Italy
English / German / Italian
160 Minutes — September 26, 2008
Action / Crime / Drama / Thriller / War
Spike Lee [Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads; She’s Gotta Have It; School Daze; Do The Right Thing; Mo’ Better Blues; Jungle Fever; Malcolm X; Crooklyn; Girl 6; Get On The Bus; 4 Little Girls; He Got Game; Inside Man; When The Levees Broke: A Requiem In Four Acts]

World War II Has Its Heroes And Its Miracles

This mess of a film was good for the first ten of its excruciatingly long 160-minute running time. Then it went downhill fast. And rather than redeem itself with the second half of its modern-day bookend, it just grew more preposterous, more preachy, more loud, and worst of all, more disjointed. It’s like ten films in one, none of which is related to any of the other nine. Comedy? History lesson? Romance? Film about honor? Is it about a long-held grudge? American Imperialism? 1940s lunch counter politics? I have no idea. But none of these different ideas are close to being clearly depicted on the screen. To say this film is disappointing is far too weak an analysis of its failures.

I need to preface a couple of things. You’ll see by the list of films of Lee’s that I’ve seen that I am a loyal and rabid fan of his. Malcolm X was an almost completely successful sweeping epic that captured 40 years of American history. Do The Right Thing expertly captured New York City race relations in 1989. His documentaries, 4 Little Girls and When The Levees Broke are proof that he can master the non-fiction realm as well. I didn’t mind School Daze or She’s Gotta Have It. Inside Man showed that he could do big budget as well as small. Crooklyn didn’t work for me so much. But Jungle Fever and it’s portrayal of both taboo love and Sam Jackson and Halle Berry as crackheads was pretty spectacular.

So I come from a position of wanting Lee to succeed, even when he plays outside his comfort zone in this case by trying to construct a film in three languages, with modern and 1940s elements, and bombastic war movie special effects. You want to give him props for trying. But then it gets worse and worse.

A gray-haired black man is watching a John Wayne WWII film on his television and says to no one in particular, “We fought for this country, too.” That’s how the film starts and it is typical Spike Lee. It’s almost like you have to go into this film never having read, heard, or seen any depictions of the African American experience in the 20th century. Of course black men fought in World War II (and every other war afterward), but would a man watching a late-night movie alone actually talk back to the screen? When he listens to old Benny Goodman records, does he say “We made music too”. Yes, I understand that portrayals of the brave black fighting men of the war are few and far between, but he starts the film by treating the audience as idiots.

The man works in a post office (which is confusing because during the war scenes there’s a guy named “Stamps”) and he goes through his assigned window tasks with little happiness or human interaction. A customer with an accent asks to mail something, the worker pulls out a German pistol, shoots the man point blank in front of horrified witnesses and then calmly closes his window and awaits arrest.

Enter John Turturro as a cop and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a cub reporter. They will have a conversation scene shot as only Lee can, with fast-moving circling camera angles. A search of the man’s apartment turns up the head of a statue and we know it’s important because the cynical academic expert is rendered speechless when the head is unwrapped in front of him. We are hammered on the head over and over while watching this film. We get it: it’s a priceless artifact that was in a shopping bag in this guy’s closet. We will never see Turturro again and Levitt won’t return for more than two hours. A newspaper story ends up in Rome on the desk of John Leguizamo, who here plays some sort of Nazi-art collector who has a girlfriend who can’t get enough loving from him and before he can read the story he is jumped on by his hottie who causes the newspaper to fly out the window onto the table of a man enjoying a coffee at a street cafe. If that isn’t ridiculous enough, just wait 45 seconds because that’s how long it takes this man to stand up, read the article, and then–I’m not joking here–be so shocked by it that he pours his cup of coffee out in extra-slow-motion followed by the cup and then the saucer smashing on the cobblestone. Please re-read that scene. Man attacked by girlfriend throws paper out of window it lands on the one guy in all of Italy who knows the story of the statue, he stands up, spills his coffee, breaks the cup, and runs out of frame. What in the world is going on here?

We then flashback to the “Buffalo Soldiers” platoon as they bumble their way across a field. To say that they aren’t a tip-top fighting corps is an understatement. We see the same statue in a bag attached to an overweight, and seemingly borderline-retarded soldier named “Train”. But he’s the least of their problems. There are sobbing soldiers, loud soldiers, absent-minded soldiers–this is the gang that can’t shoot straight. They are being sent to cross a river in a suicide mission drawn up by their racist superior. (There are only a handful of white Americans in the film and just about all of them are virulent racists).

Fans of the late, great WIRE on HBO will want to know that not only is Omar Back! but Omar Scared! and then Omar Dead!

This scene has all of the problems of the film in one place. 1) the music is appallingly loud. Not just a bit loud, but loud enough to not be able to hear what the characters are saying; It swells up for no reason as if the composer had no idea what scene he was writing for. This happens more than I’d like in all Spike Lee films, but in this case it took me right out of what was happening. It’s loud, then soft, with no corresponding reason depicted on the screen. 2) The man in charge of them is played by Detective Shane on The Shield, so we know he’ll be an incredible racist who will endanger his men, not believe they could succeed, and then court-marshal them on a trumped up charge. 3) Limbs are blown off and mortars explode in bloody slow-motion as if Lee is saying “look what I can do with a big budget and military advisers.” 4) But most artificially, is the fact that a loudspeaker truck is moved into position and we cut to a radio studio where an attractive, blonde German woman begins her propaganda war. Instead of Tokyo Rose, we get Axis Sally. I have no doubt that this was part of Germany’s strategy to have troops second-guess themselves. But it’s not that she’s speaking, it’s what she’s saying. She begins to give the soldiers (and viewers) a lesson in the African-American assimilation experience. She brings up lunch counters and job opportunities. She says that America will never treat black people equally, she encourages them to put down their weapons and change teams over to Germany. As if no one knew of the Final Solution or Hitler’s views on non-white people. She then switches to speaking more sexually–if you put down your weapons, German women will worship you because deep down they all want to sleep with a strong, black man. Not to mention, we have fried chicken and biscuits just like momma used to make. The words she says are absolutely ridiculous.

Some of the men succeed in crossing the river, radio back to base where the superior assumes that they’re mistaken or are lying, and orders an artillery strike on their very position, killing several of his own men. The ones that make it do so by sheer luck.

At an abandoned farm house they come into contact with an Italian boy who is injured and who may have special mystical powers. The big soldier says that the boy is the first white person he’s ever touched. The Italian boy calls him “Chocolate Giant” in Italian. They end up communicating with taps on each other’s shoulders. The Chocolate Giant, Train, is played in what appears to be an homage to Lenny from Of Mice And Men. The boy won’t let anyone else carry him, Train doesn’t let any harm come to him, and whoever stays close by the child somehow stays out of harm’s way.

The small group bumbles their way to an Italian village where they’re told they’re surrounded by the German army by the one person in the village fluent in English (she claims to have been a nanny) who also happens to be the one model-quality female for miles. Both leaders have their eyes on her, one is tacky and forward, the other is polite and respectful. Guess which one she sleeps with first.

Most will die, there will be honor and betrayal. The movie is all over the place. It’s the kind of film where one soldier says to the other “It’s a SNAFU–situation normal all fucked up.” So he says the acronym and then explains the acronym thereby setting aside the point of an acronym. Lee wants to give us a lesson at every turn, not a story. The woman will take off her shirt at the clothesline, pause as she sees the polite soldier is watching, taunt him with a “haven’t you seen a naked woman before?”, and then change her mind and bang the more aggressive soldier. But that’s not all. The guy comes out of the house pulling up his pants, the woman comes out wearing his helmet, smoking a cigarette, and holding his rifle. Then the two men have a fight over her honor. Yikes.

But wait, there’s more. An entire church full of people is led to a courtyard and told they have one minute to turn over an Italian freedom fighter, even though he’s not there. The priest begs the men to kill him and let the others go. He begins to lead his congregation in prayer. When it looks like the Germans are about to open fire, they hold a pistol up to the priests head. But before they kill him, he has time for a quick prayer about forgiveness which ends exactly when the slow motion bullet goes through his brain. Every character has time for a death-bed declaration or another story about racism or the futility of war.

Everything is obvious. The good guys, the bad guys, the good women, the bad women. Who’s a good soldier, who’s a racist, who’s a caring German, who’s a turncoat Italian.

There is at least one striking and perfect scene in the 160-minute running time. There is a flashback to a time before the soldiers are shipped out from America which takes place in the south. The men want ice cream and stop at a lunch counter where German prisoners are being fed lunch on their way to prison. The cracker owner threatens them with a gun and tells them to go around back if they want any food. The soldiers point out that the Germans are served inside and they’re the enemy. The racist says to his son “That’s how they need to be treated” or something. The soldiers drive away pissed. This incident is one of many that I’ve read about up through the Cuban Missile Crisis in the 60s where soldiers who are literally on their way to die for their country can’t even get a meal in the south. This is one instance of historical instruction that I’m glad Lee handled. Even though the owner is just this side of a characature, the scene rings true. As does a wordless scene when the jeep pulls a U-turn, heads back into the town, and the soldiers come charging in–rifles aimed–and demand their ice cream. The man can’t serve them quickly enough. We cut back to Italy and the four surviving men and the child are staring at the camera for a long, long time with a look of disgust on their faces as if they’re collectively remembering the ice cream incident at exactly the same time.

The shot is framed as if it were a snapshot of the common black soldier experience in WWII Europe. That experience, rather than just being shown to us by Lee, is then unfortunately hammered down on us when a character has to explain how torn up he is about fighting for a country in which he can’t even vote, while experiencing Europe where he feels more welcome than he does in his own country. The scene ends with the men moving out of frame one at a time. It’s pretty striking.

We know we’ll see the man who spilled the coffee, we know we have to be book-ended back to NYC in the 1980s to see what happens to our hero. But what we don’t expect, and what has no real purpose that I can tell, is a meeting on a Bahama beach. “Where Am I?” the character asks, seeming to forget that he just got off a plane whose ticket probably had the destination on it. “Someone wants to meet you.”

I want to commend Lee for trying such a sweeping story, with flashbacks, history, and three languages. But it fails on just about every level. A complete disappointment.

For a much better take on soldiers fighting and dying for a country that doesn’t think of them as equals, please see DAYS OF GLORY.

3.7 Metacritic
5.0 IMDB
*** Ebert
** Phillips
**^ Berardinelli
C- Gleiberman
C- Murray

Miracle at St. Anna @ Amazon

MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA

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2000

September 21, 2008
Netflix DVD
Italy / USA
Italian / Sicilian / English / Latin
92 Minutes (USA Version) — December 25, 2000
Comedy / Drama / Romance / War
Giuseppe Tornatore [Cinema Paradiso]
Monica Bellucci [Bram Stoker's Dracula; Irreversible; The Matrix Reloaded]

An Intimate Portrait And An Epic Story Of The Courage We Discover, The Innocence We Surrender, And The Memories We Cherish…Forever.

In Sicily in the early 1940s, a beautiful woman, who loses her husband in the war, is the object of an adolescent’s day dreams.

From the man who brought us perhaps the most nostalgic film of all time, CINEMA PARADISO, a movie I love with all of my naive heart. Take a look at the tagline above. He tries to have lightening strike twice. “The memories we cherish forever”?

This lightweight story is about a small Italian fishing village as Mussolini rises to power just before World War II. A young teenager named Renato is our surrogate for this film. We will grow up with him and experience life in Italy with him. The film opens with him receiving a new bicycle which seems to be the entry fee into a group of older boys who hang out together. He follows them one day as they race to a seawall, sit on it, and wait. His questions are all answered as Malena walks out of her house, past the panting boys, towards the market. As she passes, we actually get to see Renato’s shorts get tighter.

The entire story revolves around a woman whose husband is fighting for the Italian army. This woman is so beautiful that the rest of the village goes completely bonkers. Rumors spread, men declare their love, women spit on her, boys climb trees to peer into her house, German occupiers pay to sleep with her–all while she pines for her beloved.

In order to pull off a story like this, the woman needs to be almost supernaturally beautiful. Beautiful enough to become the obsession not just of an adolescent boy (which is comparably easy), but the obsession of an entire region of Italy, as well as male and female viewers, alike. There are maybe five women on the planet who could inspire such a response. Monica Bellucci is absolutely one of them.

From the moment we see her sashaying by the group of boys, we are goners. She is a work of art. From that point on, there is not a single thing that happens in this unevenly toned film that seems out of place. A beautiful woman can make people do unbelievable things. I would say that Bellucci would probably lead any number of global villages to cease to function as societies were she to show up in one of her cleavage-baring dresses.

Beyond that, there isn’t much here. The character of the boy is a pretty realistic portrayal of someone who is protecting the thing he loves without telling the object of his affection. He spies on her, he dreams about her, he masturbates to her, she shows up in his daydreams as a teacher, or butcher, and he writes unsent letter to her declaring his love and that he’ll always be around to protect her. It’s probably a uniquely male thing to do, to create a fantasy world where you have a relationship with someone you’ve never spoken to, where you defend someone who doesn’t know your name, where you know that if she would just talk with you once, she’d be as convinced about your compatibility as you are. This is hard to portray on film, so it falls back on flashes of breasts and on the incredible face of Ms. Bellucci.

Because I am a straight male, I needed to do further research on Ms. Bellucci and was shocked and horrified to find that the version of MALENA that I saw on DVD, while rated R (deservedly), had more than ten minutes cut from it, including several more scenes of seduction and nudity. The horror!

I am now firmly on the Bellucci bandwagon. To fans of hers I say, skip IRREVERSIBLE as you may never recover from what you see in it. I am also incredibly happy that she is roaring into her 40s as beautiful as ever.

The film, in a nutshell is about a woman so beautiful that a village goes bonkers. Don’t look for anything deeper than that.

* Halliwells — “Teenage fantasies of sexual success conflict with the realities of political failure and personal humiliation in this engaging fable that shows the influence of Fellini.”
5.4 Metacritic
7.4 IMDB
** Ebert
*** Berardinelli
B- Gleiberman

Malena @ Amazon

MALENA

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1953

July 24, 2008
TCM
USA
English
118 Minutes — August 5, 1953
Drama / Romance / War
Fred Zinnemann [Oklahoma!]
#878 They Shoot Pictures Don’t They Top 1000 Films Of All Time

Burt Lancaster [The Swimmer; Atlantic City; Local Hero; Field Of Dreams]

Montgomery Clift [A Place In The Sun]

Deborah Kerr [An Affair To Remember]

Donna Reed [It's A Wonderful Life; The Benny Goodman Story]

Frank Sinatra [Guys And Dolls; The Manchurian Candidate]

Life in a Honolulu barracks at the time of Pearl Harbor.

OW: Picture, Director Fred Zinnemann, Screenplay, Supporting Actor Frank Sinatra, Supporting Actress Donna Reed, Cinematography, Editor
ON: Actor Burt Lancaster, Actor Montgomery Clift, Actress Deborah Kerr

*** Halliwell’s
7.9 IMDB

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Written by Michael W. Cummins