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

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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:


1917 (2019)

December 23, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s now been over 100 years since World War I ended. The Great War garners barely a mention in high school history books these days, and Hollywood has devoted much more time and energy to WWII. Filmmaker Peter Jackson did his part with last year’s stunning documentary THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD, a video and photographic look at the actual people involved in the First World War. And now, Oscar winning director Sam Mendes (AMERICAN BEAUTY) delivers another glimpse … and another technical marvel.

Mr. Mendes, working with Oscar winning Cinematographer Roger Deakins (BLADE RUNNER 2049) and Oscar winning Film Editor Lee Smith (DUNKIRK), has shot and edited the film to give the look of one continuous take in real time. Although used previously in such films as Hitchcock’s ROPE and Inarritu’s BIRDMAN, the single take approach is certainly no gimmick here. We open on two young British soldiers lounging in a prairie as they are summoned to report to the commander. Their mission is described as critical, as a British battalion is preparing to walk into a deadly trap set by the Germans. More than 1600 lives are at stake and the phone lines are down. It’s up to Lance Corporal Blake and Lance Corporal Schofield to work their way across No Man’s Land to the front line and hand-deliver an order stopping the attack. Oh, and one more detail: Blake’s older brother is in the battalion he is tasked with warning.

The real time approach serves the purpose of allowing viewers to take on the urgency of Blake and Schofield. We experience the tension and horrors of war. Barbed wire, booby traps, slushy trenches, snipers, rats, dead bodies, dogfights (the aerial type) and towns under siege all play a part here as the men rush towards their goal of saving fellow soldiers lives, including a beloved family member. Dean-Charles Chapman (“Game of Thrones”) plays Blake, and George MacKay (CAPTAIN FANTASTIC) plays Schofield. We spot the personality differences between them. Blake is super focused and determined to save his brother, while Schofield doesn’t welcome the assignment, but is a dutiful soldier and loyal friend.

It’s really the Schofield character with whom the viewer mostly relates. He’s no super soldier or Jason Bourne-type, but rather a young man trying to stay alive and fulfill his orders. With the relentless pacing of the film, we feel the fear and admire the courage. There is an especially touching scene in a bombed-out town where paths are crossed with a French woman (Claire Duburcq) caring for an orphaned infant. It’s a reminder that humanity still exists, even within the bounds of war.

There is no clock ticking in the corner of the screen, but we know time is of the essence, and quite limited. The camera seems to be always moving forward, rarely allowing for us or the characters to exhale. As you might expect, running is done frequently – sometimes towards something, sometimes from it. Roger Deakins is in prime form here with his camera, and there are too many remarkable moments to mention them all; however, the river rapids and waterfall, and the town under siege at night, are two of the most incredible sequences I’ve seen on screen.

Along the journey, some familiar faces pop up as military men: Andrew Scott, Benedict Cumberbatch, Richard Madden, Mark Strong, and Colin Firth. Although each appears only briefly, it’s a testament to their acting prowess that each is memorable. The chaos and relentless terror of war is on display, more often than not. But this isn’t a film designed to create deep thoughts or serious debates on the merits of war. Instead, it’s meant to focus on one of the countless personal stories that occur during war. War is fought by people, not faceless countries, and each person has their own story.

Non-linear story telling has been a movie-thing since even before MEMENTO, but director Mendes (and co-writer Kristy Wilson-Cairns, “Penny Dreadful”) show us the true presentation of linear … in the moment and by the moment. GALLIPOLI and PATHS OF GLORY are about the closest comparisons I can come up with, and the weight of the film is felt physically and emotionally as we are drawn in. The exceptional score from Thomas Newman (14 time Oscar nominee) serves to accentuate the chaos and relentless terror. It’s a work of art and a unique viewing experience.

watch the trailer:


A HIDDEN LIFE (2019)

December 20, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. With a title pulled from a line in George Eliot’s “Middlemarch”, enigmatic filmmaker Terrence Malick continues his deep probe into humanity and faith … recurring themes in most of his films, and especially the run that began with his excellent THE TREE OF LIFE (2012). This current film is easily his most accessible over that period as it focuses on the (mostly) true story of Austrian WWII conscientious objector Franz Jagerstatter.

The film opens with contrasting images: a black screen with sounds of nature fading to a bucolic Austrian Alps village versus dramatic historical clips of Hitler (I believe from Leni Reifenstahl’s 1935 Nazi propaganda film TRIUMPH OF THE WILL). The rural farming village we see is Sankt Radegund, the idyllic community where Franz Jagerstatter (played by August Diehl, INGLORIOUS BASTERDS) lives off the land with his wife Franziska “Fani” (played by Valerie Pachner) and their three young daughters. It’s a family bonded by love. The family and fellow villagers go about the rigors of daily life as the war spreads. In 1940, Franz is sent to Enns Military base for training, and is then returned to his village under a farming exemption.

What follows is a first half filled with dread as Franz struggles with his own beliefs in a new world order that has no room for individual thought. He refuses to swear an oath to Hitler, despite the rest of the villagers doing so. He knows what this means, as does his wife. As Franz refuses the “Heil Hitler”, he is described as being something worse than an enemy – a traitor. He holds firmly to his principles … vague to us, yet crystal clear to him. He becomes a pariah in his own village, as even the priest urges him to relent by stating he has “a duty to the fatherland.”

Don’t they know evil when they see it?” Franz asks the question we have all been asking since Hitler came to power. When he is called to duty in 1943, Franz and Fani know the eventual outcome. Franz is asked by many, and in various ways, “What purpose does it serve?” No one can make sense of his stand. As he is imprisoned at Tegel Prison, solicitors played by Matthias Schoenaerts and Alexander Fehling both try to convince him to pledge loyalty and save his life. Franz’s response is, “I can’t do what I know is wrong.”

With the first half being filled with dread and anxiety, the second half is all about the suffering. Franz is locked away with very little access to the nature or family he holds so dear, while Fani is a village outcast, trying desperately to raise their daughters and put food in their mouths. They are each in their own prison – isolated from the life they love. From Tegel Prison in 1943, Franz writes many letters to Fani. The letters are philosophy mixed with hope and love, and provide the source of how his story was discovered many years ago.

Anyone familiar with Malick’s films know that each is a visual work of artistry. Instead of his usual cinematographer, 3-time Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki, this film features the camera work of Jorg Widmer (who assisted Lubezki on THE TREE OF LIFE). The film lives up to our expectations, especially in capturing the vitality and spirit of nature through lush landscapes, mountains, trees, grasses, gardens, streams, rivers, and a waterfall. The family is one with nature, which stands in stark contrast to Franz inside the cold prison walls. Composer James Newton Howard brilliantly uses a lone violin, as well as a mixture of classical music. This was the final film for two extraordinary actors who recently passed away. Michael Nyqvist plays the Bishop who tells Franz that if God gave us free will, then we are responsible for what we do and what we don’t do. Bruno Ganz plays the head judge on the committee that decides Franz’s fate.

We could describe the film as either a tragic love story or an ode to faith and principles. Both fit, and yet both fall short. Terrence Malick is a confounding and brilliant and artistic filmmaker. After his breakthrough film DAYS OF HEAVEN (1978), he took a 20 year hiatus before filming THE THIN RED LINE (his other WWII film). Recently he has proven much more productive, yet he remains a meticulous craftsman – taking three years to edit this film. His visual style is quite unique, yet he has the skill to make a messenger’s bicycle bell send chills. He was able to meet Franz’s surviving daughters (now in their 80’s) prior to filming, as they still live near this village. We are quite fortunate that this exquisite filmmaker is allowing us to tag along on his search for the meaning of life and his exploration of faith … just make sure you set aside 3 hours for the lesson.

watch the trailer:


MIDWAY (2019)

November 7, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Japan’s World War II goal was to devastate the United States Navy fleet in the South Pacific, thereby securing the area as their own and crippling the U.S. military beyond hope. The December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor was the first step and the most infamous. Over the next few months, what followed were the Raid on Tokyo (April 1942), Battle of Coral Sea (May 1942) and the Battle of Midway (June 1942). Stating that these battles changed the war is not an understatement, as the Imperial Japanese Navy had previously been viewed as superior (especially after the destruction at Pearl Harbor). Director Roland Emmerich (THE PATRIOT, INDEPENDENCE DAY) has never met a war or explosion or special effect he didn’t like, so we know going in that, given the subject matter and the filmmaker, the screen will be filled with action.

Emmerich co-wrote the script with Wes Tooke (his first feature script), and as with many WWII movies, it acts as a history lesson on a war that changed the world. This one focuses on naval strategy and particularly on the individuals who defined courage and heroism … many names we recognize from history books. The contrast between Japanese military leaders and United States military leaders is on full display, and it’s no surprise that the Japanese leaders are mostly portrayed as cold and calculating, while the U.S. leaders come across as more humanistic and resourceful. Pride is evident on both sides – it’s just displayed differently.

The players are crucial to the story. Woody Harrelson plays Admiral Chester Nimitz, Dennis Quaid is Vice Admiral “Bull” Halsey (commander of aircraft carrier USS Enterprise), Patrick Wilson is Intelligence Officer Lieutenant Commander Edwin Layton, Jake Weber is Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance, Luke Evans is Lieutenant Commander Wade McClusky, Brennan Brown plays Joseph Rochefort (leader of the code breaker team), and Aaron Eckhart is Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle, the extraordinary pilot who led the Raid on Tokyo in April 1942. On the Japanese side, Tadanabu Asano plays Rear Admiral Yamaguchi (commander of the aircraft carrier Hiryu), Jun Kunimura is Admiral Nagumo (he of questionable battle decisions), and Enushi Toyokawa plays Admiral Yamamoto, the most dignified and influential of the Japanese leaders.

Much of the story is told from the perspective of naval pilot Lieutenant Dick Best (Ed Skrein, DEADPOOL). While personal stories and challenges faced by individuals makes for a relatable story for viewers, there is something about this particular actor that comes across as awkward and difficult to bond with. There is no doubting the character and courage of Dick Best as a pilot; however, Skrein’s performance is flat out annoying and distracting. The dive bombing missions are breathtaking and thrilling, but overall the liberal use of green screen for effects detracts from the realistic looks we’ve come to expect for war movies.

Mandy Moore as Anne Best, and Nick Jonas as a mechanic, are cast for relatability by viewers, but the value in the film comes from an easy-to-follow description of the contrasting strategies of the two militaries. It’s also a reminder that the “big” story of WWII is comprised of many individual stories of people … people who were brave and heroic in a time of need. So ignore the cheesy affects, unrealistic dialogue, and irritating performances, and instead take in the work and actions of those who saved the world.

watch the trailer: