FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1953) Revisited

June 5, 2021

***This is an entry into my “Revisited” series where I re-watch a classic movie and then write about it (SPOILERS included) – not with a traditional review, but rather a general discussion of the movie, those involved, and its impact or influence.

Greetings again from the darkness. “Entertaining” isn’t the usual description we think of for movies set during the Pearl Harbor attack. The Japanese-United States joint effort for TORA! TORA! TORA! (1970) probably did the best cinematic job re-creating the actual attack, and then there is whatever Michael Bay attempted to accomplish with his much-maligned PEARL HARBOR (2001). Each of those movies won an Oscar – Best Visual Effects for the former and Best Sound Editing for the latter, though neither could come close to the eight Oscars (on 13 nominations), the star power, or the entertainment value of Columbia Pictures’ 1953 classic FROM HERE TO ETERNITY.

The film won the Best Picture Oscar over ROMAN HOLIDAY, JULIUS CAESAR, SHANE, and THE ROBE, and director Fred Zinnemann won the Best Director Oscar over Billy Wilder (STALAG 17), George Stevens (SHANE), William Wyler (ROMAN HOLIDAY), and Charles Walters (LILI). Mr. Zinnemann’s career resulted in 4 Oscars (including A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS, 1966), and along the way he also picked up nominations for directing the classic HIGH NOON (1952) and JULIA (1977), plus the musical OKLAHOMA! (1955). He was married to his wife Renee for 60 years, and had the good fortune of directing the feature film debuts of Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando and Meryl Streep.

Daniel Taradash won the Oscar for adapting James Jones’ 1952 novel for the screen. Mr. Taradash, a Harvard Law School graduate, also wrote the screenplays for PICNIC (1955) and MORITURI (1965), and later served as President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from 1970-73. Novelist James Jones served in WWII and was present when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. His novel “The Thin Red Line” was later turned into a 1998 film starring Sean Penn and Nick Nolte, and directed by Terrence Malick.

The first image most think of when this film is mentioned is the iconic kiss on the beach between Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr, as the ocean waves crash around them. Most war movies don’t have a smooch as their most memorable moment, though to be fair, until the bombing, this film is mostly about the daily lives of those living on and around Hickam Field in Hawaii in the days leading up to December 7, 1941.

Let’s dive into the overwhelming star power that’s on display for two hours. Montgomery Clift stars as Robert E. Lee Prewitt, a brooding and sensitive soldier who quickly gains the reputation as being hard-headed. Prewitt is a top-notch boxer and bugler who refuses to do either, focusing instead on being the best soldier he can be. Monty had a remarkable, yet all too brief career. He scored four Oscar nominations even though he only made 18 films. His early career was spent on stage leading to an intensity that he never lost while acting, and is even apparent in his film debut with John Wayne in John Ford’s RED RIVER (1948). A horrible car crash in 1956 required facial reconstruction surgery, and it’s said that his friend Elizabeth Taylor saved his life at the scene. His long time struggles with alcohol and drugs, as well as the pressure of keeping his homosexuality hidden, took a toll on his health. In 1961, Monty turned in a brief yet staggeringly effective performance in JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG. Clift would be dead less than 5 years later at age 45.

Prewitt’s only real buddy in the film is Angelo Maggio, played by Frank Sinatra, in a role that won him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor over Eddie Albert (ROMAN HOLIDAY), Robert Strauss (STALAG 17), and two actors from SHANE, Jack Palance and Brandon De Wilde. At this point, Sinatra’s singing career was in a downturn, and it’s rumored that the “horse head” scene in THE GODFATHER was influenced by Sinatra’s mob connections getting him cast in this film. Of course, Sinatra went on to become one of the all-time great entertainers. Sinatra’s Maggio is a friendly guy who gets labeled “Tough Monkey” by the film’s most obnoxious and intimidating bully, and his dying scene is terrific and leads to his friend Prewitt’s heart-breaking rendition of “Taps”.

Monty went head-to-head in the Best Actor category with Burt Lancaster, although the Oscar went to William Holden for STALAG 17. Richard Burton (THE ROBE) and Marlon Brando (JULIUS CAESAR) were the other two nominees in the category. In a prolific career that spanned six decades, Lancaster would go on to three more nominations, winning for ELMER GANTRY (1961). Baseball fans recall Lancaster in one of his last roles as “Moonlight” Graham in FIELD OF DREAMS (1989), and he also played Wyatt Earp in GUNFIGHT AT THE OK CORRAL (1957), while famously turning down the role in BEN-HUR that ultimately went to Charlton Heston. Lancaster was at the center of one of my favorite “offbeat” movies, THE SWIMMER (1968), and having worked in a circus when he was younger, he performed many of his own stunts in TRAPEZE (1956). A 1991 stroke robbed Lancaster of his distinctive voice, and he passed away in 1994 at age 80. His son, Bill Lancaster, wrote the screenplay to BAD NEWS BEARS (1976), based on his own experiences being coached by Burt. In this film, Burt portrayed Sgt Milton Warden, a model of military efficiency, who has a soft spot for Monty’s Prewitt and all the rigors he’s being put through.

Burt’s Sgt Warden also happens to be having an affair with the base commander’s wife, Karen Holmes, played by Deborah Kerr. This affair leads to that iconic sandy beach kiss mentioned previously. She received one of her six Oscar nominations for this film, but lost to Audrey Hepburn in ROMAN HOLIDAY. The other nominees were Ava Gardner (MOGAMBO), Lesli Caron (LILI), and Maggie McNamara (THE MOON IS BLUE). Ms. Kerr was presented an Honorary Oscar in 1994, and is best remembered for starring in THE KING AND I (1956) opposite Yul Brenner (her singing voice was dubbed by Marni Nixon), starring opposite Cary Grant in AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER (1957), and as the nun in BLACK NARCISSUS (1947). Her picture is frequently visible on her husband’s desk at the base, and she so vexes the stoic Sgt Warden that Burt gets the film’s best line: “I’ve never been so miserable in my entire life since I met you.”

Donna Reed won the Best Supporting Actress (in her only nomination) for playing Prewitt’s love interest, Lorene/Alma, a hostess at The New Congress Club. The other nominees were Grace Kelly (MOGAMBO), Thelma Ritter (PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET, a film noir gem), Geraldine Page (HONDO), and Marjorie Rambeau (TORCH SONG). Ms. Reed had her own hit TV series, “The Donna Reed Show” that ran from 1958-66, and of course, she will live forever in cinematic infamy thanks to her performance as the beloved Mary in the Christmas classic, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946). Her final acting gig was taking over for an ailing Barbara Bel Geddes as Miss Ellie in the hit TV series “Dallas”. Sadly, after one season, Ms. Reed passed away due to pancreatic cancer at age 64. In the film, she plays perfectly off of Montgomery Clift’s sensitive Prewitt, and despite her attraction to him, she holds firm to a “proper plan” for her life.

Now any respectable movie lover would be in awe with a cast that includes Montgomery Clift, Frank Sinatra, Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, and Donna Reed. But this is no ordinary movie, and neither is the supporting cast. Philip Ober stars as Captain Dana Holmes, the base commander and husband to Kerr’s Karen, and the one putting a bit too much emphasis on getting Prewitt back in the boxing ring. You’ll recall Mr. Ober as Lester Townsend in Hitchcock’s classic NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959). He was also married to Vivian Vance (Ethel in “I Love Lucy”) for 18 years. George Reeves is in a handful of scenes as one of the soldiers. Mr. Reeves played the Man of Steel in more than 100 episodes of the 1950’s series “Adventures of Superman”. This was the film that was supposed to make him a movie star, but many of his scenes got cut. The most memorable of the supporting cast is “Fatso”, the annoying and sadistic Sergeant of the Guard, played with gusto by Ernest Borgnine (Oscar winner for MARTY, 1956). It’s the violent action of Fatso that leads Prewitt to seek revenge for his friend Maggio. Jack Warden plays Cpl Buckley, and Warden is another actor whose career spanned six decades. He was seemingly everywhere in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s and was nominated for two Oscars in movies starring Warren Beatty. Mickey Shaunessey plays Sgt Leva, and you’ll recall him as Hunk in Elvis’ third movie, JAILHOUSE ROCK (1957). Other familiar faces include Claude Akins in his film debut, Joseph Sargent (the director of THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE, 1974, and JAWS: THE REVENGE, 1987), Mary Carver (“Simon and Simon”), Willis Bouchey, Harry Belaver, Barbara Morrison, and Alvin Sargent (Oscar winning screenwriter of JULIA and ORDINARY PEOPLE). Supposedly, there is even a cameo from James Jones, the author of the novel on which this film is based, though I’ve never been able to spot him.

If you’ve seen this film, you already know it is much more than a stream of terrific and well respected actors. It’s a story of romance, self-determination, military machismo and brotherhood, friendship, and a historic and tragic attack on America … complete with the initial chaos that morning. There are some terrific scenes – like the first time Lancaster and Kerr meet at her house. There are some terrific lines – like when Prewitt says, “A man should be what he could be”. There are some subtle touches – like the wall calendar (Dec 6) next to Lancaster, or the “Pearl Harbor” street sign. Comedic effects are infused through the energy of Sinatra, and there is even a nice bit of trivia, as a large wicker chair reappears years later in “The Addams Family”.

From a technical aspect, the film is also quite an accomplishment. Renowned cinematographer Burnet Guffey won the Oscar, and he also won for BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967), plus he had three other nominations. He was the DP on Nicholas Ray’s superb film noir A LONELY PLACE (1950), a personal favorite of Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame (and me). Film Editor William A Lyon won an Oscar for this film and PICNIC (1955), and edited more than 100 films during a 35 year career. John P Livadary won one of his 3 Oscars (plus numerous technical achievement awards) for Best Sound, and this was one of 5 Oscar nominations in a 7 year span for composer George Duning.

Late in the film, Country Music Hall of Fame singer-songwriter-guitarist Merle Travis appears and sings his song, “Re-enlistment Blues”. Travis also wrote “Sixteen Tons”, which became a number one hit for Tennessee Ernie Ford in 1955. In 1979, a 3-part TV mini-series “From Here to Eternity” was directed by Buzz Kulik (BRIAN’S SONG, 1971) and featured a cast with Natalie Wood, William Devane, Kim Basinger, Peter Boyle, and even an appearance by Andy Griffith. If nothing else, the mini-series proved just how strong James Jones’ characters and story were.

Over the years some have complained about having the attack on Pearl Harbor as the backdrop for a movie, rather than the centerpiece. However, it’s the human aspect that makes the attack so meaningful and powerful. Even though we as viewers feel the impending doom throughout the film, by the time the attack occurs, we know these folks and it becomes an attack on our country and our friends … which is exactly what it was. Director Zinnemann and the talented cast made certain that we were involved, not just along for the ride. The film is a true classic and it holds up well almost 70 years later.

WATCH THE TRAILER


SIX MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT (2021)

March 25, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. I never cease to be amazed at the number of stories connected to WWII that translate so well to cinema. This one comes from director Andy Goddard (known mostly for his TV work) and his co-writers Eddie Izzard and Celyn Jones, and takes place in 1939 England, just prior to Germany invading Poland to start the war. The story was inspired by true events.

Augusta-Victoria College for Girls was located in Bexhill-On-Sea, and served as a finishing school for the daughters of the German elite from 1932 through 1939. We open as the school’s English teacher, Mr. Wheatley (Nigel Lindsay), frantically flees when he realizes his undercover mission has been discovered. An artistically filmed sequence on the boardwalk ends with Wheatley missing and his bowler floating off on the horizon. We don’t know yet what he uncovered, but Thomas Miller (co-writer Eddie Izzard) is quickly hired as the new teacher by Headmistress Miss Rocholl (Oscar winner Dame Judi Dench).

Teacher Ilse Keller (Carla Juri) puts the girls through their robotic lessons and ensures they listen to Nazi propaganda on the radio. Of course, as in most spy thrillers, no one is as they seem – or at least most aren’t. Most of the girls seem indistinguishable from each other, save for dark-haired and bespectacled Gretel (Tijan Marei), who is a true outcast. The girls are referred to as the “Hitler League of German Girls” and are being educated and groomed for the planned new socialist nation.

It doesn’t take Miller long to uncover a plan, and almost immediately, he’s wrongly accused of murder – sending him on the run. It’s no spoiler to reveal that Miller is part of British Intelligence, and in the role, Izzard delivers a more restrained performance than what we are accustomed to (see OCEAN’S TWELVE and OCEAN’S THIRTEEN … and it’s very effective. James D’Arcy as Captain Drey enters about halfway through, as does his partner Corporal Willis (played by co-writer Celyn Jones). This gives us a bit of cat and mouse between Drey and Miller, and they are joined in the fun by Charlie the bus driver, played by the always interesting Jim Broadbent.

The plan to evacuate the girls before the war seems a bit overly complicated, but then my experience planning such war time strategy is admittedly non-existent. Still, the lead characters and the setting make this intriguing enough, and cinematographer Chris Seager certainly has some fun with camera angles. For those hooked on all things related to WWII, it’s likely a story you haven’t heard much about.

From IFC Films, SIX MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT opens March 26, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER


DARA OF JASENOVAC (2021, Serbia)

February 4, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. Knowing that kids are resilient doesn’t lessen the impact of their mistreatment or abuse. Director Predrag Antonijevic and writer Natasa Drakulic (who also stars) focus their film on the fascist Croatian Ustase government during WWII. Croatia housed the only extermination camp run by non-Germans in Europe during the war. The purpose was to preserve the purity of Croatian blood by murdering Serbs, Jews, and Roma. There was even a camp at the Jasenovac complex specifically for kids.

The film opens with armed soldiers marching Serb citizens across the countryside to the awaiting trains. The men are separated from the women and children, and the film mostly follows 10 year old Dara (Biljana Cekic). She is traveling with her mother, older brother, and younger brother Bode, who is not yet two years old. Dara is quiet and strong, and exceedingly observant for her age.

We see bodies being dumped in the river, and then at Gradina Concentration Camp, we watch in horror as the military forces the prisoners into a morbid game of musical chairs. The sole purpose of this is simply to add a level of excitement for the executioners. Even the visiting Nazis seem appalled by this. The film periodically bounces to the camp where Dara’s father is digging mass graves and dumping bodies … at gunpoint, of course. He’s desperate in his attempts to find out if his family is still alive – almost oblivious to how close he is to death himself.

This is young Biljana Cekic’s first screen credit, and she’s remarkable in her ability to convey so much thought and emotion, while maintaining the stone-face necessary to avoid drawing unwanted attention. Her Dara sacrifices much as she kicks into protective mode after tragedy strikes. We’ve seen other Holocaust movies where the day-to-day will to survive is this strong, but the stories are rarely told through the eyes of a 10 year old girl. The Croatian fascists are portrayed as eager sadists, and the healthy boys are brain-washed into “little Serbs”, while the sick children are allowed to die … with Nuns as accomplices.

The frantic actions of the Red Cross are shown as one of the ways we see that even in the worst possible conditions, good-hearted people find a way to help. For Dara, everyone in her life gets taken from her, and we watch relentless misery, dread, pain, and suffering unfold on screen. It’s a reminder of the evils of fascism and the dangers involved with looking down on others due to race or religion. For non-Serbs, this is mostly and unknown and untold story of atrocities and cruelty – upwards of 100,000 were killed. Now that we know of this “Balkan’s Auschwitz”, and we think of modern day Balkan conflicts, we can’t help but wonder what purpose it served. It’s a tough watch, and yet another reminder of the importance of remembering history.

In select theaters February 5, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER


DA 5 BLOODS (2020)

January 8, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. Co-writers Danny Bilson (father of actress Rachel) and Paul De Meo, collaborators on the underrated THE ROCKETEER (1991), originally wrote this story about white veterans returning to Vietnam. That project was never able to move to production. When (Oscar winners for BLACKKKLANSMAN, 2018) Spike Lee and his co-writer Kevin Willmott got involved, the characters shifted and it became a story about African-American veterans, and the film now carries a distinct message about racism and the effects of war on those who feel unappreciated.

Director Lee opens the movie with a montage of such historic events and influential people as the lunar landing, Angela Davis, LBJ, Kent State, Jackson State, Richard Nixon, Bobby Seale, and Donald Trump, along with statements from Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King, both vocal in their opposition to the Vietnam War. Mr. Lee knows exactly what he’s doing, as this prologue sets such a serious tone upfront that we are maneuvered, or at least urged, into accepting his film as truth-based.

Four war veterans who served together are seen reuniting in the lobby of a hotel in modern day Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon). As the men warmly greet each other, we quickly grasp the individual personalities. Paul (Delroy Lindo) is the hot-headed, grudge-holding, MAGA hat wearing fellow who bares his emotions on his sleeve (if he were wearing sleeves). Otis (Clarke Peters) is the former medic, and calm mediator, while Eddie (Norm Lewis) is the successful capitalist, and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock, Jr) is the free-wheeling, party guy. Why are there only 4 ‘bloods’? Well, officially the men are there to exhume the remains of their fallen and revered squad leader, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), and return him to his family in the United States.

The official mission got the men back to Vietnam, but it’s their ulterior motive that turns this into something akin to a heist movie. The men plan to recover the millions of dollars of gold bars they buried in the jungle all those years ago. Though he has not been invited, Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors) shows up, intent on accompanying dear old dad and his war buddies on their big score. Cashing in on the gold requires the men to trust Tien (Y. Lan), a former local prostitute who had a relationship with Otis during the war, and Desroche (Jean Reno), a shady black market French money man. Director Lee attempts to sustain some suspense regarding the Desroche character, but as the only white man involved, that mystery falls a bit flat.

Additional supporting work is provided by Melanie Thierry, Paul Walter Hauser, and Jasper Paakkonen as a trio that inadvertently gets caught up in the bloods’ scheme. A nice touch is Veronica Ngo as Hanoi Hannah, with her lines pulled from actual broadcasts during the war – including the unsettling send off, “Have a good day, gentlemen.” There is little doubt this is meant to be Delroy Lindo’s film. His raging rants and explosive PTSD express the frustrations felt by many Vietnam War veterans, but particularly the African Americans, whom we are told made up 32% of soldiers on the battlefields. Lindo has a scene near the end of the film where he looks directly into the camera and goes off for a few minutes. It’s the kind of scene that garners award recognition. Special notice also goes to Chadwick Boseman, whose final two films were this one and the excellent MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM. In Lee’s film, we absolutely accept Boseman as the spiritual and military leader of these men.

Spike Lee seemed to enjoy paying tribute and tipping his Knicks’ cap to many influences throughout the film. Especially notable are the similarities to scenes from Francis Ford Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) and John Huston’s THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE (1948), including the iconic “stinkin’ badges” line. Lee also pokes some fun at Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo, and the whole genre of a white man as savior. Donald Trump certainly doesn’t escape unscathed, as he’s referred to as “President Fake Bone Spurs”. On a lighter note, the 5 Bloods plus Paul’s son share their first names of those from the original Motown group, The Temptations, as well as their famed producer (Norman Whitfield). Lee also includes heartfelt tributes to African American war heroes Crispus Attucks and Milton Olive, and then includes some tremendous songs from the late, great Marvin Gaye.

The cinematography from Newton Thomas Sigel is exceptional, and Lee opts to change aspect ratios for the flashback scenes. Yet another interesting choice is that even during those flashbacks, the Bloods look their current age, even though it was 50 years prior. The idea being, in their memories, they see themselves as they are today. One glitch is that, periodically, composer Terence Blanchard’s score overpowers the moment. Not always, but enough to distract. Spike Lee really mixes things up, as at various times, this is a story of friendship, loyalty, history, greed, and camaraderie … and the emotional price paid for war. At 154 minutes, the run time is a bit long, but it’s one of Mr. Lee’s more ambitious films, and perhaps one of his best.

Available now on Netflix

WATCH THE TRAILER


A CALL TO SPY (2020)

October 1, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s 1941 and the Nazis are dominating France. Winston Churchill creates a secret British Intelligence Organization calls Special Operations Executive (SOE). It’s basically a group of spies in France with the purpose of undermining the Nazis. The group is run by Maurice Buckmaster (played by Linus Roache) and after very limited success, the decision is made to recruit women – the thought being they will be less likely to arouse suspicion and can more freely move about. This is really the story of three women, all outcasts in some form. American agent Virginia Hall (Sarah Megan Thomas) is one of the first female spies to go to France. British Muslim Noor Inayat Khan (Radhika Apte) is a highly skilled Air Force wireless operator (communications), and Vera Atkins (Stana Katic, “Castle”) is a Jewish Romanian immigrant charged with recruiting women to the program. For those who enjoy trivia, Ms. Atkins also served as Ian Fleming’s inspiration for Miss Moneypenny in the James Bond franchise.

Greetings again from the darkness. Virginia Hall should be famous. Oh sure, history buffs know her name, but usually she’s a blip in book or article about WWII. Director Lydia Dean Pilcher was Oscar nominated as Producer for the excellent CUTIE AND THE BOXER (2013), and here she serves up the first film featuring Virginia Hall and her contributions. Sarah Megan Thomas (EQUITY, 2016) wrote the screenplay and stars as Ms. Hall.

Virginia Hall remarkably overcame her wooden leg … an appendage she named “Cuthbert” … and was rejected in her quest to become a US Diplomat. Noor faced down the stigma of being a dedicated pacifist – a difficult hurdle in the middle of a war. Vera Atkins was never able to be fully trusted by her co-workers due to her Jewish background. While we are exposed to the plights of each of these women, there is actually very little interaction between the three, which creates an unusual story structure. The bulk of the time goes to Virginia Hall, and that’s understandable given her history, participation, and accomplishments. We witness how she excels in enlisting and inspiring citizens and volunteers to join the resistance, and creates multiple networks that impacted some many of the Allied troops.

An excruciating water torture scene occurs pre-opening credits, and then over the opening credits, director Pilcher slyly works in each of the key players. The concern over women during this era as Buckmaster is concerned the recruits “won’t last a week”. It would have been interesting if we were privy to a bit more of the training “in sabotage and subversion”, but it’s likely some of that training still occurs today; although the point is made clear that this was trial and error, with an emphasis on error.

The female spies were nicknamed the “Baker Street Irregulars”, and they definitely accomplished their mission of changing the course of the war. Klaus Barbie (the Butcher of Lyon) is shown trying, and failing, to hunt down Virginia Hall, whose life was always in danger once she became known to the Nazis. And it’s that danger that is the movie’s Achilles. The sense of danger should be suffocating and relentless, and instead only pops up periodically here. The stories of these courageous folks must be told, but with that comes the ever-present danger they experienced. This is just a bit too much to overlook.

watch the trailer

 
 

THE PAINTED BIRD (2020)

July 16, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Polish-American writer Jerzy Kosinski’s 1965 novel “The Painted Bird” has one of the strangest and most controversial histories of any book. Initially celebrated as an extraordinary piece on the Holocaust era, the novel was banned in Poland, and author Kosinski was accused of falsifying claims of it being an autobiographical work. Later he was accused of plagiarism for this book and his 1970 book “Being There” (adapted into a 1979 movie starring Peter Sellers). This story of a young Jewish boy, abandoned by his parents and traveling the Eastern Europe countryside during WWII, is now accepted as a blend of fiction and his friend (director) Roman Polanski’s experiences. Czech filmmaker Vaclav Marhoul has turned the book into a stunning viewing experience.

First time actor Petr Kotlar is extraordinary as the unnamed (until the end) Jewish boy on a journey that might be entitled Dante’s Circle of Abuse or Homer’s Odyssey of Misery. This is a young boy in need of kindness from strangers, but unable to find much. The film opens with the boy running through the woods carrying what appears to be his pet ferret. He’s being chased by a group of sadistic Anti-Semite bullies. It’s a chase that doesn’t end well. We learn the boy is living with his “Auntie” Marta (Nina Sunevic) on her rundown farm, and we intuit that his parents thought he would be safer here than with them. When the woman dies suddenly and unexpectedly, the boy accidentally burns the house down, kicking off his walk across the countryside. Almost inexplicably, this is the most upbeat segment of the film.

Director Marhoul divides the film into 9 chapters, each named after the person the boy meets and lives with temporarily. I’ll recap the following eight chapters with a focus on not giving away too much … just know that this film is unrelenting in its brutality and bleakness. After Marta’s death, the boy stumbles into a village where he is considered cursed and labeled a vampire. The witch doctor Olga (Ala Sakalova) enslaves him until he escapes down river, where he is rescued by a mill worker. The head miller (Udo Kier) is a frightening man who takes exception with his worker (not the boy) gazing lustfully at his wife. Kier’s eyes manage to burn right through the black and white film, and soon he turns exceedingly violent towards his wife and the worker, leaving us with an unforgettable visual.

The boy then finds himself at the home of Lekhi (Lech Dyblik) who captures wild birds and regularly hooks up with Ludmila (Jitka Cvancorova), a wild woman who lives in the forest. The boy witnesses two horrific deaths, but not before the sequence which gives the film its title and ensures we understand what happens to outcasts – those who are different. At about the one hour mark, the boy finds an injured horse and walks it into the local village. It’s at this point where we hear him speak (kind of) for the first time. A violent Russian invasion of the village results in the Cossacks offering the bound and gagged Jewish boy to the German soldiers as a “gift”. Stellan Skarsgard is the veteran soldier who draws the assignment of taking the boy into the woods to shoot him.

When the soldier sends him on his way, a sickly Catholic Priest (Harvey Keitel) takes the boy under his wing and trains him to be an altar boy. All is fine until a parishioner (Julian Sands) with despicable intentions agrees to take the boy in and provide for him. This segment has what may be the most cringe-inducing death scene in the film, after which we find the boy trudging through snow and falling through ice, and crawling towards a cabin where Labrina (Julia Valentova) and a sickly old man live. The boy faces more abuse as he’s incapable of pleasing Labrina, which leads to situations he’s much too young to understand. Traumatized, the boy’s personality takes a turn.

In his next village, an attack by Germans puts the boy in contact with Russian sniper Mitka (Barry Pepper), who leaves him with the real life advice of, “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” Having only recently lost his innocence, the advice hits home for the boy. He ends up in an orphanage where a surprise occurs that causes the boy to lash out in anger … at least until he observes something that makes him understand the world has been cruel to others, not just him.

Normally, I wouldn’t recap or outline the segments of a movie in this manner, but it’s crucial to understand what you are about to watch. It’s a nearly 3 hour epic of human cruelty and survival instinct. Young Petr Kotlar spends much of the movie taking and witnessing abuse while his face is near emotionless (save for a couple of extremes). Joy is elusive, if not non-existent. The film shows us not all Holocaust horrors occurred in death camps. The atrocities of war and the cruelty of humans result in a film that is beyond bleak at times, but also makes a clear point about how differently people treat those not “like” us, regardless who the “us” is. This point is as evident today as it was during WWII.

Director Marhoul excels in showing, rather than telling … there is almost no ‘telling’ throughout the film. Cinematographer Vladimir Smutney makes expert use of the 35mm black & white film to provide images that are stark and brutal like the world the boy sees. The Production Design from Jan Vlasak puts us right in the muck, while the Sound from Jakub Cech is crucial to every scene.

The film is a joint project of Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Ukraine, as Poland refused to participate. It had quite the festival run last year, including some high profile walk-outs during the Venice Film Festival. It’s one of the rare movies that every cinephile is thankful to have seen, yet as human beings, we would likely never want to watch again. Murder, abuse, suicide, torture, bestiality, rape, violence, cruelty, slaughter, pedophilia, incest, war atrocities … these aren’t topics we typically seek out, and they thankfully aren’t topics that all show up in a single movie very often! There are a few moments of compassion if you watch closely, but mostly it’s a reminder of the cruelty of humans when the structure of society collapses, and hope is hard to come by. As Edwin Starr sang in his number one hit in 1970, “War, good God. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing.”

Available on VOD from IFC Films on July 17, 2020

watch the trailer:


THE OUTPOST (2020)

July 2, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Rod Lurie’s latest is not only based on a remarkable true story, it uses the real American soldier’s names (and some real soldiers) and depicts the valiant efforts of those who were part of the Battle of Kamdesh in Afghanistan on October 3, 2009. Mr. Lurie (THE CONTENDER, 2000) is a West Point graduate and Army veteran, and the film is based on the book by CNN correspondent Jake Tapper, with a screenplay from Eric Johnson and Paul Tamasy.

We first meet the new arrivals on their helicopter transport under the cover of darkness. They have been assigned to this combat outpost known as “Camp Custer.” The nickname comes from the assumption that everyone there is going to die. Why is that? Well for some reason, this military outpost is positioned so as to be surrounded by the foothills of a mountain range – creating a natural shooting gallery of which the soldiers are sitting ducks. It’s one of the most vulnerable military outposts ever created, and with it comes so many Taliban attacks that the soldiers can’t even take seriously their local scout’s constant warnings, “The Taliban are coming!”

There are 53 soldiers assigned to the camp, and the aura of impending doom hovers non-stop. To compensate, joking around and playing sports are utilized to pass the time between attacks. The men even debate whether calling home is a good thing or not. One of the bunk beds has “It doesn’t get better” carved into the frame – that’s a taste of the kind of inspiration floating around. “Thank you for your service” is pure parody amongst these soldiers, and it’s easy to understand, given the tension they must feel – we are nervous merely watching from the safety of an armchair.

The performances are solid and you’ll recognize a few. Orlando Bloom is Lieutenant Keating, Scott Eastwood is Sergeant Cline Romesha, and Caleb Landry Jones is a standout as Carter, the ex-Marine outcast who is more complex than initial impressions lead us to believe. On an unusual note, the list of “relateds” is quite impressive: Eastwood is of course the son of Clint, Milo Gibson is the son of Mel, James Jagger is the son of Mick, Will Attenborough is the grandson of Sir Richard Attenborough, and Scott Alda Coffey is the grandson of Alan Alda.

Director Lurie divides the film into chapters associated with officers, but the segment that most every viewer will find riveting is the near-40 minute attack on the outpost by hundreds of Taliban gunmen. It’s relentless battle action at a level rarely seen in movies, and we feel like we are in the middle of it. This onslaught feels like hopelessness, followed by desperation, followed by survival mode. Never does it feel like an outright victory, but more a relief for those who survive. Cinematographer Lorenzo Senatore makes this a visceral experience – one we won’t forget.

Very little politics come into play here. Instead this is about the men in the line of fire – their courage – and their desperate attempts to live and hold the outpost. All of which is followed by a haunting breakdown that stuns. This battle resulted in 8 dead and 27 injured American soldiers, followed by many medals, including two Medal of Honors. The closing credits honor those killed in action, and we see photos of the actual soldiers next to the actor who played them.

On Demand and Digital Platforms July 3, 2020

watch the trailer:


TORPEDO: U-235 (2020)

May 18, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. “Desperate times, desperate measures” is a phrase that dates back to ancient Greek physician Hippocrates (he of the Hippocratic Oath), and has been applied in many and varied situations since … war strategy being one of the most common. We hear the phrase a couple of times in the War Room during an early scene in the feature film directorial debut of writer-director Sven Huybrechts submarine movie. The term “submarine movie” is used with the utmost respect, as I’m a huge fan of the sub-genre.

Opening with a well-orchestrated attack on Nazi soldiers, we are soon in the midst of a group of resistance fighters – a rag tag bunch committed to wiping out as many Nazis as possible. In the War Room scene, this group is referred to as “The Bad Eggs”, and everyone from all sides seems to want them stopped. However, there is a problem – this group is made up of the only ones crazy enough to accept the current ‘suicide’ mission: delivering a Uranium filled submarine from the Belgian Congo to the United States, where the cargo will be used for the Manhattan Project.

The cast is excellent, led by the ongoing conflict between two outstanding and renowned leads: Belgian actor Koen De Bouw as Nazi-hater Stan, and German actor Thure Riefenstein as captured U-Boat Captain Franz Jager. Co-writers Huybrechts and Johan Horemans effectively use the dangers and claustrophobia of the submarine, and are truly expert in their pitting Stan against Jager. Stan’s beautiful (and sharpshooter) daughter Nadine (Ella-June Henrard) is also on the mission, but it’s Stan’s tragic backstory (which we see in tension-filled flashbacks) that have filled him with a lust for revenge and over-protectiveness.

Training for submarine crews typically lasts a year, and this group of misfits has only three weeks to prepare. Some of the early soundtrack reminds of the iconic Elmer Bernstein theme to THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, which comes across a bit misplaced, but that’s a minor quibble for a film that gets most everything else right – except for a too-good-to-be-true sequence near the end. Along the way, we see vivid images of the brutality and cruelty of Nazis, which helps us understand why all of these folks are so committed to the mission.

Working with a low budget, the film still manages to deliver the danger and tense situations we expect from a submarine during WWII. There is even a sub vs sub battle for some underwater action. The lineup of other worthy submarine movies over the years include: Jules Verne’s 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1954), THE ENEMY BELOW (1957) with Robert Mitchum, RUN SILENT, RUN DEEP (1958) with Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster, ICE STATION ZEBRA (1968)  based on the Alistair MacLean novel, the nerve-rattling DAS BOOT (1981) from Werner Herzog, THE ABYSS (1989) from James Cameron, THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER (1990) from Tom Clancy’s novel starring Sean Connery, CRIMSON TIDE (1995) pitting Denzel Washington against Gene Hackman, U-571 (2000) with the great Thomas Kretschmann, and BLACK SEA (2014) with Jude Law. And let’s not forget the 1968 classic featuring The Beatles animated, YELLOW SUBMARIINE.

This latest begins in 1941 and the final scene takes place on August 6, 1945. Huybrechts’s film could be described as a cross between INGLORIOUS BASTERDS and DAS BOOT, and it includes plenty of material for conversation on race, religion, nationality, and duty.

Available VOD beginning May 19, 2020

watch the trailer:


SPITFIRE 944 (doc short, 2006)

April 14, 2020

Greetings again from the darkness. I watch a lot of short films, yet post very few of those reviews on this site. For this special film, I am not offering up any type of review other than to encourage you to take 14 minutes and watch this documentary short.

Filmmaker William Lorton’s Great Uncle was Jim Savage, who was an Air Force field surgeon during WWII. When he died, Lorton discovered some untouched footage his Great Uncle had shot at an airbase.  One sequence in particular caught his eye: a wheels up landing in a grassy field by a Spitfire, followed by some airmen huddled up afterwards. After some research, Lorton tracked down the pilot, (retired) Lt Col John Blyth, who agreed to meet with Lorton and his crew.

The film clips are fascinating, but it’s 83 year old Blyth recalling his missions that is truly captivating. Blyth flew reconnaissance missions in a British Spitfire retrofitted with extra fuel tanks and cameras. What was missing? Guns. Blyth actually flew over Germany with no guns or escort!  Lorton films Blyth as he views the clip for the first time. It’s quite something to behold.

You can watch the documentary short here (thanks to Sundance, and a friend of a friend for sharing):


RESISTANCE (2020)

March 26, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Learning of the courageous people who found their own way to battle the Nazis during World War II never gets old. Sometimes brain power and courage are more important than gun power. Such is the case in this latest from writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz, who brings a fascinating story from within the French Resistance to the big screen. This is a group that rescued 10,000 orphaned kids, and this is a story of one special man from within that group.

Jesse Eisenberg (and an iffy French accent) plays Marcel, the son of a multi-generational Jewish butcher in Strasbourg France. Out of familial duty, Marcel works at the butcher shop with his father, but his passion is in performing arts. One evening his dad (Karl Markovics) ‘catches’ him performing a silent Charlie Chaplin act on stage at a local cabaret. A parental lecture follows. Marcel’s penchant for entertaining does come in handy when he helps his brother Alain (Felix Moati) and cousin Georges (Geza Rohrig, SON OF SAUL) rescue 123 orphans.

The opening sequence in the film finds young Elsbeth (Bella Ramsey, Lorna Luft in JUDY) witnessing her Jewish parents being murdered in the street outside their Munich home by Nazis in 1938. We next see her in the group of 123 orphans noted above. As a kind of framing device, we flash forward to 1945 in Nuremberg, as General George S Patton (Ed Harris) is addressing the troops and telling the story of a remarkable man. That man is Marcel, and the film then takes us through his journey and we “see” the story that General Patton is “telling.”

When Marcel and his brother agree to join the French Jewish Resistance (also known as Organization Juive de Combat, OJC), they face more danger, and maintain their focus on rescuing orphans. Helping in the cause is Emma (Clemence Poesy, IN BRUGES), and a mutual respect and attraction forms between she and Marcel. The brutality of the war is shown through the actions of Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighofer). As the head of the Gestapo in France (and known as The Butcher of Lyon), Barbie works out of the Hotel Terminus, and his sadistic tendencies find their way into the Resistance.

Once the war escalates to a certain point, the Resistance must decide whether it’s best to continue hiding the kids, or risk the perilous journey across the Alps in hopes of freedom. In reality, it’s not much of a decision, as staying put likely means torture, if not death. There are some touching moments between Marcel and the kids, and some acts of pure bravery from all involved.

At times, the film teeters into LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL territory, but never for long. The moments of pure terror are well presented, yet never overly graphic. We feel the stress of the Resistance as they struggle to get the kids to safety, and feel their pain in tragic losses. As the film ends, General Patton finishes his story by introducing his story’s Marcel. The spotlight then lands on Marcel Marceau in full make-up and costume. Marceau, of course, went on to become famous and beloved around the world as the most famous mime. Filmmaker Jakubowicz has delivered yet another fascinating story of heroism and courage … another story that deserves to be remembered.

watch the trailer: