Dunkirk (2017)

Dunkirk (2017) movie poster

director Christopher Nolan
viewed: 07/23/2017 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

Dunkirk is a pretty impressive bit of filmmaking by one of the more interesting and ambitious directors working in the Hollywood mainstream today. Eschewing his trademark headtrippy convolutions, Christopher Nolan poses the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940 through a somewhat experiential lens, following three main story sites with differing timelines and interweaving narratives and cross-cutting action throughout the film.

The aerial scenes, centered around Tom Hardy as a flying ace picking off German aircraft as they can, capture the vistas of the sea and air and the beaches, are the film’s most stunning elements. Many potent scenes play out almost wordlessly, sometimes entirely so.

I’m a bit at a loss for what more to say. I sense that Dunkirk will be regarded as Nolan’s best film. I also sense that it may go into the pantheon of great war films ever made. At least, these seem likelihoods.

The Big Parade (1925)

The Big Parade (1925) movie poster

director King Vidor
viewed: 07/16/2017

Often making lists of the best or most important films of the Silent Era, King Vidor’s The Big Parade has been on my list of “films to see” for some while. It’s a War film, made about WWI when it was still “the war to end all wars”, only 6 years after the conflicts had ended and still almost a decade before it started to become clear that another war would take its place.

Interestingly, the three men that the story follows are examples of different classes drawn into the fight. Hero and star Jim (John Gilbert) is a wealthy ne’er-do-well caught up in the patriotic call to arms. He’s joined by the more working class Bull (Tom O’Brien), a bartender, and Slim (Karl Dane), a construction worker, who head to Europe with perhaps little insight into what they have signed-up for.

The bulk of the film’s 2 1/2 hours is a leisurely comedy-romance in which the three, with their fellows, lounge around Champillon while Jim falls for pretty Melisande (Renée Adorée), a French peasant girl.

And to be honest, nothing about this opening hour and a half is of particular interest or stands out from a lot of the era’s films. But when the march to the front, “the big parade”, leads the men into battle, the film becomes vividly visual, intense, and powerful.

The march through the woods (Belleau Wood, based on a real life battle), is the film’s best sequence. Tracking shots follow and lead as the march pushes forward. Shot at by entrenched German soldiers, they move inevitably forward in the film’s best visual sequence.

The latter battle sequence, strafed and bombed in foxholes left by explosions, the trio fight and hide, staying alive as the battle rages. Toward the end of this segment, Jim winds up in another hole with a wounded German soldier and finds a level of humanity with his enemy.

Taken as a whole, it is indeed a noteworthy film, but it’s really the battles that transform the film into something much above the average. It’s visual storytelling of great intensity and vividness, with amazing cinematography and camera movement. The Big Parade is well worth seeing, but in other ways, I’d consider showing just the battle sequences to someone out of the context of the whole.

Also, tragically and interestingly, Adorée, Gilbert, and Dane died young. Adorée at 35 of TB, Gilbert at 36 from alcohol-related heart attack, and Dane at 47 by suicide.

Sergeant York (1941)

Sergeant York (1941) movie poster

director Howard Hawks
viewed: 12/30/2016

Howard Hawks was one of the original Hollywood auteurs as so dubbed by Cahiers du cinéma, and Sergeant York has been a long-standing Hawks picture that I had never seen.

As big a success as the film was in its day, one of the biggest box office hits of 1941 and nabbing star Gary Cooper a Best Actor Oscar, it’s an odd movie to take in at the present.  It’s quite the propaganda film, made before Pearl Harbor, which actually occurred during its theatrical run.  It tries to strike the begrudging nature of a US public not ready to head to Europe by making a hero out of a religious Tennessean  who sought to conscientiously object before becoming a war hero. He’s turned to join when considering saving more lives by killing Germans than otherwise.

The ultimate message of heading to war, not out of desire or duty, per se, but through a somewhat stripped down sense of right and wrong was doubtlessly hammered out by the film’s many screenwriters.

What’s even more strange, perhaps, is the very heavy-handed bible-thumping of the film. The real Alvin York (this is based on the true life of a major WWI hero) was very religious and this aspect of the story is given due attention. The first half of the film is about York going from drunken lout to hardworking Christian that includes a lightning bolt straight from heaven to lead him to “That Old Time Religion”. That said, Cooper at times sounds like a Class A hayseed (imagine in hillbilly-speak) “Well, that thar killin’, the Good Book is agin’ it”, not exactly the greatest of free-thinkers.

When you’re cognizant of it, propaganda has an somewhat unpleasant flavor, but that’s not saying that it can’t elevate to higher art. There are other elements of charm here, some of the depictions of the isolated Tennesseans and characters (like the always welcome Walter Brennan). A young Joan Leslie is quite good too. An equally young June Lockhart plays York’s sister (didn’t realize that til after).

I watched this with my kids, who both enjoyed it, though my son was weirded-out until he recognized the propaganda. Then he says, “Aaaahh!”

Paths of Glory (1957)

Paths of Glory (1957) movie poster

director Stanley Kubrick
viewed: 12/03/2016

Would I be such a naysayer if I said that I didn’t find Paths of Glory very moving?  Stanley Kubrick’s anti-war WWI film is aesthetically astounding, well-done, striking, and really echoed again in many of Kubrick’s later films, visually.  But as an emotive force, shaking its fist in the face of the mucky-mucks while innocent men are condemned to death, it just wasn’t so engaging.

I think this is a common criticism of Kubrick in general, that his film’s have an iciness and a lack of real humanity, even when defending humanity.  And it’s not that this lack in Paths of Glory by any means was a terrible thing.  It’s just I didn’t have that magic spark of empathy in particular for the characters.

I was slightly put off by how American these French soldiers were.  Voices and accents that are meant to portray social class, I suppose could transpose, but seemed awkward in a movie very much based on real events in France during WWI.

Aesthetically, it’s a masterpiece.  Those shots in the trenches, tracking the leaders as the march through the ranks.  The suicide mission attack on “the anthill”.  The framing of the massive interiors where the higher ranking generals meet and discuss fates of plebeian men as if they were tin soldiers.

This was one of my last unseen Kubricks, longstanding in my queue.  Wonderfully concise, it’s a remarkable film, if not quite an impassioned one.  The final scene of the German girl singing in the cafe, though.  That was pretty nice.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006)

The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006) movie poster

director Ken Loach
viewed: 06/21/2015

Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley is set during the 1920’s in Ireland during the Irish War for Independence and the resulting Irish Civil War, a drama played out, as oft civil war stories are, at the clash between two brothers.

At the onset of the film, Damien O’Donovan (Cillian Murphy) is a young doctor, not motivated to join his brother Teddy (Pádraic Delaney) in the Irish Republican Army in grass roots efforts to oust the brutal imperialist Black and Tans who mete out viciousness to the locals.  But after seeing too much brutality, Damien is convinced to take up arms and is not only forced to engage in the guerrilla war but in executing prisoners and even a young Irish traitor to the cause.

Against all odds, the battle wins out against the established imperial army, but concessions and treaties make for rifts and valleys between the newly freed Irish.  Teddy’s IRA gang moves into politics, taking up arms and essentially replacing the British with their own brand of brutal leadership, attempting to disarm their old companions and becoming the establishment.  This breaks down the sides against one another, eventually leading the dramatic ending in which one brother must oversee the execution of the other.

Loach’s film is a work of humanism and social realism, a naturalistic drama told with great earnestness.  It won the Palme D’Or at Cannes in 2006 and became one of the most highly-grossing Irish independent film productions of all time.  And it is a good film.

I watched it with Felix, my 13 year old son, who was impressed by it.  I found that the story does a good job of elucidating the fractious factions of Irish history and politics in telling its personal, dramatic tale.  It’s solid stuff, certainly.  I’d never seen any of Loach’s films before this, though have had this in my film queue for some time.  I had a friend who loved this film.

I would say that as good and solid as it is, it does at times play out like a more standard, almost made-for-television drama.  I don’t know if this would have felt the same on the big screen or not.  But for the beauty of the landscapes and the natural Irish countryside in which the action is filmed, it felt less cinematic at times than other films of its genre that I’ve seen.  Consider that a qualifier, though not a major criticism.  Overall, a very fine film.

Men Behind the Sun (1988)

Men Behind the Sun (1988) movie poster

director T. F. Mou
viewed: 05/09/2015

When I first started on my trek through “most disturbing” or “most disgusting” films last year, one of the movies that constantly showed up on lists was T.F. Mou’s Men Behind the Sun.  It didn’t ring bells for me.

The film is a narrative approach to the frightening, horrific true-life human experiments performed by the Japanese Unit 731 in the waning days of World War II.  Inspired by the Nazis and the things that they were doing, Lt. Gen. Shiro Ishii led outrageous and most terrible human tests on things like frostbite, starvation, human vivisection, all sorts of sick and twisted stuff.  The reality is in many ways far more stunning and shocking than the contents of this film.

The film, which I believe was made with educational intentions, goes from potentially serious to absolutely hilariously grotesque in its exploitation-style special effects and overall sensibilities.  From a perspective of horrors and shock and grotesqueries, it’s far more comically gruesome than impactful like Come and See (1985), a Russian film about horrors of World War II that often makes many of the same lists of gruesome films.

I say that not to devalue it, but more to differentiate.  Come and See is tremendously powerful and upsetting.  Men Behind the Sun is not quite a laugh-riot, but far more so.  The realities that it attempts to depict are as horrific as you can imagine.  But the film is far enough detached from reality in its production, so it’s really almost fun.

Fury (2014)

Fury (2014) movie poster

director David Ayer
viewed: 03/11/2015

Fury is the first film from David Ayer that isn’t set in today’s greater Los Angeles and focused upon the cops and criminals therein.  It’s a WWII picture, starring Brad Pitt, last seeing “killing Nazis” in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009).  Here Pitt is “killing Nazis” yet again, though this time not with some elite group of revenge-seeking killers but with a Sherman tank and a crew pushing deep into Germany in the final months of the battle.

For all the movies made about WWII, it does seem to opt for a somewhat unique perspective, set in the confines of the war machine and in the brutal final months of a massive war, deep within the fighting, not knowing that the end is actually so near.  The Germans they encounter fight and kill with a passion and vitriol that could be desperate but is lethal and raging.  Men march and roll toward their deaths and the deaths of many others under the weight of survival and righteousness.

Ayer’s heroes are indeed heroes, fighting the good fight by killing Nazis.  Brad Pitt’s character Wardaddy sums up the perspective on this war: “I started this war killing Germans in Africa. Then France. Then Belgium. Now I’m killing Germans in Germany. It will end, soon. But before it does, a lot more people gotta die.”

The Germans are the bad guys.  Nazi Germans and SS, in particular.  Americans are the undisputed good guys.  Killing a suspected SS soldier, a prisoner of war, in cold blood?  That’s what you do.  That is the lesson to be learned by newcomer Norman (Logan Lerman) who comes to replace the tank team’s recently killed compadre.  It may seem brutal, but it’s right.

And Nazis die in big numbers here.  It’s oddly unambiguous.

Ayer’s other films about cops and criminals tend to focus on the hazy lines between right and wrong and righteousness.  I’ve never spent a lot of time poring over it, but I always took it to suggest that good and bad are not purely codified in either side of the law, nor even within the individual.  This seems to be a running theme in his films.  People do good and bad, no matter what side they seem to be on.

I guess, unless they are Nazis.

It was, perhaps, the last war in which right and wrong seemed so utterly clear and doubtless.  Still, I guess I was surprised how doubtless and certain the morality of Fury seemed.

Interestingly, it’s been a pretty successful commercial film.  It’s brutal and gory but also rather beautifully shot.  Its characters are not perhaps utter cliches but for all their intensity and acting aren’t anything new.  Is it the film’s lack of ambiguity that has made it so successful?  I don’t know.

Das Boot (1981)

Das Boot (1981) movie poster

director Wolfgang Petersen
viewed: 01/11/2014

Das Boot, the 1981 German War film about the lives of men on a U-boat in the Atlantic during 1941 made a massive splash in its day.  I remember Siskel and Ebert talking about it and for the life of me, I’d say that it was the biggest foreign film in the United States for a long time.

I asked the kids if they wanted to watch “a three and a half hour German war film about a submarine” and was met with unsurprising disinterest.  But I’d never seen the movie and have long had it on my list of movies to see.

It’s a riveting and compelling action drama.  Wolfgang Petersen and cinematographer Jost Vacano wrest the most from their close-quarters sets, shooting the interior of the submarine and its tense, intense crew through their hunts, attacks, and even long stretches of downtime.  It’s excellent, artful and masterful.  The cast is great too, especially Jürgen Prochnow as the captain of the ship.

I don’t have lots to say, honestly.  But it’s a great movie.  I really liked it.

Come and See (1985)

Come and See (1985) movie poster

director Elem Klimov
viewed: 12/25/2014

“War is hell,” that oft-quoted understatement is attributed originally to William Tecumseh Sherman and is no doubt applicable in many contexts.  I imagine that many a War genre film has portrayed its topic as such and has probably evoked such a response in its viewers.

Elem Klimov’s 1985 film, Come and See, doesn’t depict a battlefield but rather an occupied country by an invading force.  It’s 1943 in Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic and the peasants of the country are rising up in partisan troops to fight off the invading Nazis.

Klimov’s film is a visceral sensoria, a harrowing nightmare whose surrealism is evoked through utter naturalism paired with the subjective psychological effect of bearing witness to terror and atrocity.  The witness of the hellishness of this war is teenage Flyora (an absolutely amazing Aleksei Kravchenko), from cheery pluck and naiveté to shell-shocked horror and trauma.  The film opens on him playing with a younger boy, until he finds a rifle and declares himself fit to go and fight the war.  He is quickly taken in by the partisan troops, but also left behind by them.

Abandoned in the woods he finds a beautiful teenage girl named Glasha, played by Olga Mironova, who has similarly been left behind by the troops.  They share a brief, playful interaction before the bombs start strafing the woods, shattering trees and cascading down in destruction.  It’s an amazing sequence, the first of several.

From there, Flyora’s journey goes from bad to worse: he finds his home abandoned (he doesn’t see what Glasha does, the bodies piled up behind it), a struggle through a mire to an isolated island, a hunt for food that winds up killing all his companions and the cow that they steal from a Nazi conspirator farmer, and ultimately the destruction of a village in which all of the people are corralled into a church which is then set on fire, killing all inside.

Toward the film’s end, photo-journalistic images invade the screen of death camps and marching soldiers and Adolph Hitler himself.  And a title card reads “628 villages in Byelorussia were burnt to the ground with all their inhabitants,” signifying that the horror depicted was not conjured up in fiction nor by any way an isolated occurrence.

The film was made in part to remember to atrocities inflicted upon Belarus (Byelorussia), perhaps not one of the more well-known horrors enacted by the Nazis in their reign of terror in WWII.  It was also, in part, made to recall the victory of the Russians over the Germans in 1945, the 40th anniversary of that event.

It’s an amazing film.  Unbelievable.  Aleksei Kravchenko was a non-professional actor when employed here and bears all the most amazing traits and genuine naturalism that come from the best uses of non-professional actors.  His performance is completely amazing and harrowing and heartbreaking.  This film is much more than his face but this film is also entirely embodied on his face, the stark-staring horror and tragedy and psychological trauma.

Incredible.

Stalag 17 (1953)

Stalag 17 (1953) movie poster

director Billy Wilder
viewed: 01/31/2014

This year I decided that I was going to make a real effort to see so me of those films that everybody has seen that I have never seen.   You know, the ones that when you say you haven’t seen that movie that people can’t believe it?  Well, oddly enough, Stalag 17 was one of those movies for me.  I decided to give it a go with the kids.

It’s, of course, a Billy Wilder picture, which is pretty much endorsement enough in itself.  Starring William Holden and a wonderful cast of character actors, it’s a WWII movie set in a Prisoner of War camp.  Based on a play, the film was script was expanded upon by Wilder and Edwin Blum.  And it’s a clever mixture of comedy and drama that would make it hard to place it specifically in either of those genre camps.

Holden’s character is an unlikable guy who looks out for himself, making money one way or another and living better than most in the camp.  When the prisoners catch on that there must be a mole in the barracks, he’s the obvious suspect, and that storyline is the main plot through the otherwise episodic narrative.

The Germans are semi-buffoons, with the camp leader played by Otto Preminger.  I guess that the TV show Hogan’s Heroes wasn’t necessarily based on this film, but it certainly plays like a template for that.  They even have their own Sergeant Schultz.

The kids enjoyed the film, but were not so crazily into it.  They liked the part when all of the men in the barracks put on Hitler mustaches to tease and taunt Sgt. Schultz.

What else can I say?  It’s a classic for good reason.