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Posts Tagged ‘War’

AVATAR (2009)

In A, Action, Adventure, Epic, Motion Pictures, Romance, Sci-Fi/Fantasy on July 16, 2010 at 3:01 pm

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STUDIO – 20th Century Fox

CASTSam Worthington, Sigourney WeaverZoe Saldana, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Joel David Moore, Wes Studi

DIRECTORJames Cameron

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Following the success of Titanic, James Cameron took some time off from making movies. Oh, he produced an IMAX documentary about the doomed ocean liner, but when it came to his next dramatic film, he had an idea which he claimed would be ground-breaking. It would take place on a mysterious forest planet called Pandora, made with as-yet invented technologies in CGI and motion capture. It promised to be more expensive than Titanic, take years to complete, and it would do it all in 3-D. Finally, in December 2009, Avatar bowed. It was everything Cameron said it would be, and it eventually shattered box office records.

Sam Worthington stars as Jake Sully, a paraplegic Marine veteran recruited to replace his late twin brother Tom, a scientist, on Pandora, a lush moon orbiting a gas giant light-years from Earth. On Pandora, a major corporation has set up a mining operation for a substance called unobtanium. But the indigenous population, a ten-foot tall humanoid species called the Na’vi, are intent on protecting their home, so a paramilitary defense presence, headed by Colonel Quatrich (Stepen Lang) is required. To provide a more diplomatic solution, exobiologist Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) has developed human-Na’vi hybrid bodies called “avatars”, which are “driven” via mnemonic transfer, in order to interact with the Na’vi more easily. Despite Augustine’s protests (she wanted a PhD and not a grunt), Jake becomes part of the team.

Jake Sully and Norm Spellman (Sam Worthington, Joel David Moore) on their first expedition in their avatar bodies

Now, just in case you are among the dozen or so people left on this planet who have yet to see this movie, I will stop here. Avatar is one of those movies that, no matter what you have heard about it, needs to be seen to believed. James Cameron spent over a decade developing this movie, and it shows. Visually, this is among most striking motion pictures ever released. It was filmed in 3-D from the word “Go”, but even in 2-D, it is a visual feast for the eyes. I had seen this movie in 3-D when it was released in December 2009, and I can tell you that there are few “3-D gimmicks” in the movie. This allows for fairly easy translation into the 2-D world upon which many of us still rely in our home entertainment systems. The CGI and motion-capture effects are so photorealistic, that it’s difficult to tell the difference between a physical set and a virtual one, even when you know which one you’re looking at.

True, James Cameron makes an eye-popping movie nearly every time out of the gate. His philosophy is that visual effects should enhance the story, not drive it. Here, however, the visual effects do both, but in such a way as to not be obvious. Does this mean it’s “the perfect movie”? No. There are flaws, some obvious, some subtle. For example, for a screenwriter, James Cameron is an excellent director. While the screenplay in this movie exceeds that of Titanic by leaps and bounds, it still has a few rough spots to stumble through in the telling of this story. For example, when Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) first encounters Sully’s avatar, her first instinct is to kill him (he is, after all, the enemy), but because of a “sign” from Eywa (the Na’vi deity), she takes him to her peoples’ village, instead. Overall, it was handled all right, but I feel this could’ve been written better.

Another weak point I noticed right away in this movie is its similarities with Dances With Wolves. Both feature a military man learning the culture of the indigenous people. Both have a romantic subplot between the military man and a prominent native woman (in the case of Dances With Wolves, she was a white woman adopted by the Sioux). Both have the military questioning the central character’s loyalties. And both feature Wes Studi (He was the “angry Pawnee” in Dances With Wolves, and in Avatar, he is the Na’vi leader and Neytiri’s father). These similarities were pointed out, by the way, prior to Avatar‘s release in this “South Park” episode (Caution: NSFW).

And what about the mining operation? I’m fairly certain more than a few people let out a snicker or two when they heard that the substance in question was called “unobtanium”. Well, as it turns out, as silly the name of this stuff is, this is not the first movie which uses the term (It was also used in 2003’s The Core). And it is based on the engineering term “unobtainium“, which was first coined in the 1950s. In Avatar, it’s a metallic grey substance that fetches “20 million a kilo”, and the largest deposit of it sits underneath the Na’vi village, known as Home Tree. Again, silly name, but it fits.

There has also been a recent “3-D backlash” of sorts because of this movie. Several movies this year which were released in 3-D, including Clash of the Titans, Alice in Wonderland, and The Last Airbender, suffered from critical and popular derision, because these were originally regular (2-D) movies which were converted to 3-D in post-production. Interestingly enough, the 2-D versions of these movies fared better. These are just a few of the many cases of Hollywood trying to capitalize on a trend based on one very successful movie, and charging a higher admission for people to see it. But if too many of these “bad 3-D” movies come out, people will refuse to see all 3-D movies, even ones intended to be in 3-D, like Avatar. Are you listening, Hollywood? By changing the movie to take advantage of a trend, you are changing the director’s vision. Remember when you converted Gone With the Wind to CinemaScope in the 1960s? Yeah, that went over really well, too…

Avatar is a visual and aural feast, to be digested over and over. Even though it comes thisclose to being “Dances With Wolves in space”, it is still a ground-breaking motion picture, and one of the best science-fiction films to come along in years.

4 (out of 5)

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THE MESSENGER (2009)

In Drama, Independent, M, Motion Pictures, Romance, War on July 5, 2010 at 3:25 am

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STUDIO – Oscilloscope Pictures

CASTWoody Harrelson, Ben Foster, Samantha Morton, Steve Buscemi, Jenna Malone

DIRECTOR – Oren Moveman

MPAA Rating: R

According to legend, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman was said to have uttered the infamous axiom “War is hell”. Starting in 2002, when American troops invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, we were re-introduced to the hell that is war for the first time since Vietnam. We have seen many a motion picture about soldiers on the front lines, soldiers behind the lines, and the brave faces on the home front. There have been portrayals of both the glory, spirit, and camaraderie, and the pain, claustrophobia, and chaos that is war. But, until The Messenger came along, there hadn’t been a motion picture which focused exclusively on the men and women who perform the solemn duty of informing someone their husband, wife, son, daughter, brother, or sister had died in combat.

Ben Foster stars as SSG Will Montgomery, who had just returned to the States after recovering from battle wounds sustained in Iraq. With only a few months remaining on his enlistment, he is ordered to Fort Dix, New Jersey, to act as a Casualty Notification Officer (CNO). There, he is introduced to Capt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), who is to be his trainer and partner in performing this duty. From the word “Go”, Montgomery doesn’t like this job nor the man who came with it, but he is a soldier; he is given a job, and he sets out to do it the best he can.

Capt. Stone (Woody Harrelson) gives last-minute instructions to SSG Montgomery (Ben Foster) prior to his first CNO assignment

The Messenger is one of those movies that sinks into you slowly. And while, by co-writer/director Oren Moveman’s own admission, the tone of the movie is politically liberal, there aren’t any “in your face” moments that speak out against this (or any other) war. Rather, it is an intimate look into the lives of the military personnel assigned to perform this difficult task, and of the families impacted by them. This is a side of war that most of us never see, and that every military family wishes they never do see. It is grim. It is sad. It is gut-wrenching. It is also, unfortunately, the truth.

There are six scenes in this movie  in which families are notified of a soldier’s death, and each one plays out differently. There is the father (Steve Buscemi) who spits in SSG Montgomery’s face, the father (Angel Caban) who breaks down and cries when he looks back at his grandchild, the mother (Portia) who slaps Capt. Stone upon hearing her son was killed, and the father (Kevin Hagan) who throws up when he receives the news in a store (That last one, by the way, is against current military protocol, but it is based on an actual event in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Vietnam War). Of the other two notification scenes, one is so moving and so poignant, that describing it here would not do it justice, and the other becomes the genesis of an unlikely romance between Montgomery and the widow of a fallen comrade, Olivia Pitterson (Samantha Morton).

I had a problem with how this relationship started out, because for one thing, a soldier performing as a CNO should never get personal with the people he encounters while he performs his duty. To me, the whole thing started out as some kind of twisted obsession, but (thanks to wonderfully low-key performances by both Foster and Morton) it evolves into a tender and nurturing relationship with a possible future. Woody Harrelson gave a powerful performance as Capt. Stone. Harrelson proudly proclaims himself to be “pro-peace” (as opposed to “anti-war”), so to see him playing a military officer with such drive and intensity was not only surprising, but brilliant, as well. And though this is very much an independent movie, his performance did not go unnoticed; Woody Harrelson received many accolades for his work in this movie, including an Independent Spirit Award, and Golden Globe and Oscar nominations, all for Best Supporting Actor.

There are several special features on the DVD, the most important of which is a companion-piece documentary called “Notification”, in which both Army CNOs and family members of the fallen share their stories on how the casualty notification process works. There is a behind-the-scenes look back by the cast and crew after finishing the movie, and a Q&A hosted by Variety magazine. And, for all you aspiring screenwriters out there, the DVD also features a .pdf version of the shooting script, which provides an excellent template for how movies should be written.

The Messenger is a powerful and moving motion picture that not only shows you just how difficult it is to be a CNO, but it is also smart enough to know when to let its hair down and enjoy the moment. Subtle and nuanced performances by Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, and Samantha Morton make this movie required viewing. And on this weekend, in which this nation observes its anniversary, it serves as an invaluable reminder for all of us to honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for us.

4 (out of 5)

MISTER ROBERTS (1955)

In Classic, Comedy, Drama, M, Motion Pictures, War on June 4, 2010 at 12:44 pm

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STUDIO – Warner Bros.

CASTHenry Fonda, Jack Lemmon, William Powell, James Cagney, Betsy Palmer, Ward Bond

DIRECTORSJohn Ford, Mervyn LeRoy

NOT RATED (MPAA Equivalent: PG)

In 1948, Henry Fonda left Hollywood for Broadway to star in a play about Navy lieutenant on a cargo ship who wanted nothing more than get in some combat duty in the final days of World War II. Six years, four Tony Awards, and over 1,100 performances later, Fonda returned to Hollywood to bring this acclaimed play to the big screen, in 1955’s Mister Roberts.

In Mister Roberts, Lt. (JG) Doug Roberts (Fonda) is executive officer and cargo officer on the USS Reluctant. It is April 1945, and he can sense that the war will be ending soon. For over two years, he had been stuck on “The Bucket”, serving under his tyrannical commanding officer, Capt. Morton (James Cagney). His roommate is a lazy, yet resourceful Lothario, Ensign Frank Pulver (Best Supporting Actor Jack Lemmon), and his confidant is the ship’s doctor, known simply as “Doc” (William Powell, in his last film appearance). He’s a favorite among the crew, who regard Roberts as one of the guys, and they’re willing to back him up over the skipper any day. The centerpiece – and bane of existence – of the Reluctant is a palm tree, a “symbol of our cargo record” awarded by Admiral Finchley to the crew, and the only thing on the ship to which the captain gives any affection.

Doc (William Powell) and Lt. Roberts (Henry Fonda) make a bottle of "Red Label" for Ensign Pulver

Legendary director John Ford worked his magic to bring as much authenticity to this production by filming exteriors on board an actual World War II-era cargo ship in Hawaii and Midway Island (Being a Navy veteran himself didn’t hurt). But, as the story goes, shortly after returning to Hollywood for the interiors, Ford was forced to step down for health reasons, and Mervyn LeRoy took the reins to finish out the movie. Some sources say there was fighting on the set (An IMDb blurb even states that Ford once sucker-punched Henry Fonda), while others say the health issues were real (emergency gall bladder surgery). Still, the end result is one of the greatest World War II movies ever made, and in this one, no guns are fired, there aren’t any battles, and no one is seriously injured. John Ford had a tendency to stick with the same people in his movies. He frequently worked with John Wayne, and there is a connection to The Duke in this movie. Bookser, the young, innocent, wide-eyed sailor who nearly missed the boat after shore leave, was played John Wayne’s son, Patrick.

My father was in the Navy in the late-1950s, so he had a soft spot for this movie. During my formative years, this was one of those movies that, if it was on TV, I would run out to the garage and tell him. He would then immediately drop what he was doing, clean up (if necessary), crack open a beer and spend the rest of that Sunday afternoon on the couch. And I would sit there with him and watch the TV, amazed at how even humdrum life on a cargo ship could be interesting!

A few years later, I discovered that my mother had a book with scripts from great American plays, and “Mister Roberts” was among them. I read it over and over. I reenacted scenes and monologues from it in my Drama class (looking back, maybe not such a great idea to concentrate on one play, huh?). I compared the dialogue between the play and the movie (Some changes had to be made because of The Code). I absorbed as much as I could from it.

It was also during this time, I became a fan of the Hollywood Everyman, beginning with Jack Lemmon and Henry Fonda. These weren’t dashing, sexy stars, like Gable, Flynn, or Connery. These were regular guys who looked and acted like regular guys. They came from regular places (Fonda was from Grand Island, Nebraska, Lemmon from outside Boston). And their roles were by and large unglamorous (Both played the pivotal Juror #8 in their respective productions of 12 Angry Men). I was able to easily relate to their characters almost every time, and even today they still resonate within me.

The DVD has a couple of cool features, including clips from Ed Sullivan’s “Toast of the Town”, featuring Fonda, Lemmon and Cagney recreating scenes from the movie on live television. There is also a commentary track from Jack Lemmon, in which he recounts some stories about working with Ford, Fonda, Powell, and Cagney, and how much he’d learned on the set from these men (One caveat about the commentary: Lemmon himself says that if you get tired of his stories, just go ahead and turn it off!). There is also a clip from a video from Jane Fonda, in which she recalls her father’s Kennedy Center Honors induction.

Mister Roberts is funny, dramatic, moving, and classic. Those of you who know Jack Lemmon from movies like Grumpy Old Men, The China Syndrome, or Glengarry Glen Ross should see the raw talent that broke loose in this movie. Cagney, an expert at chewing scenery, leaves plenty of teeth marks here. Powell, who came out of retirement to play Doc, is ever the bearer of wit and sagacity (“What’ll it be, alcohol and orange juice, or orange juice and alcohol?”). And Henry Fonda, for whom Doug Roberts was created, is forever immortalized as the poor lieutenant desperate to get off “The Bucket”.

“Good night, Mr. Roberts.”

THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946)

In B, Best Picture Winners, Classic, Drama, Motion Pictures, Romance, War on April 26, 2010 at 1:25 pm

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STUDIO — Samuel Goldwyn Co.

CAST — Dana Andrews, Fredric March, Myrna Loy, Virginia Mayo, Teresa Wright, Harold Russell, Hoagy Carmichael, Cathy O’Donnell

DIRECTOR — William Wyler

NOT RATED (MPAA Equivalent: PG)

Over the last few years, there have been occasional news stories about combat veterans returning from Iraq or Afghanistan who encounter difficulties when making the transition back in “The World” (a term sometimes used by service members deployed overseas when they talk about the U.S.). We hear about spikes in divorce rates, domestic violence, and (sadly) even suicide among combat veterans. This isn’t a new problem, as illustrated in the Best Picture of 1946, The Best Years of Our Lives.

With World War II still fresh on everyone’s mind, The Best Years of Our Lives paints a picture of the hardships of three veterans returning from combat. First, there is Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), a decorated captain in the Army Air Corps who wants only two things: a good job and quality time with his wife (whom he married before he shipped out). Next is Al Stephenson (Best Actor Fredric March), a banker with a loving family (Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, Michael Hall) who became an infantry sergeant in the Pacific Theatre. Finally, there’s Homer Parrish (Best Supporting Actor Harold Russell), an athlete who joined the Navy right out of high school, but lost both of his hands in a fire on his aircraft carrier. These veterans from the (fictional) town of Boone City meet up early on in the Air Transport Command terminal and share the flight home in the nose of a now-decommissioned B-17. One by one, each man reunites with his family, but the real stories begin after the last tears of joy have been shed.

Homer, Al, and Fred (Harold Russell, Fredric March, Dana Andrews) on their way home from the airport

Fred encounters trouble finding work, while at the same time he discovers that his wife Marie (Virginia Mayo) is more interested in money and socializing than she is with building a new life together. Meanwhile, Al is welcomed back with open arms by his family, and he is guaranteed a promotion at the bank he had left years before, yet he is uncomfortable and starts drinking heavily. But the most moving story is that of Homer’s difficulties, both internal and external, because of his disability. On the surface, he’s all smiles and eager to demonstrate what he can do with his prosthetic hooks, but on the inside is a man reeling from the pain of being perceived as some sort of freak.

Produced by Samuel Goldwyn and directed by William Wyler, this is a movie about veterans made by veterans. Wyler (who had served as a film documentarian during the war) made sure the entire film crew consisted of returning veterans, thus lending a perception of authenticity. The lighting, the sound mixing, the costuming, even the editing were all done by veterans, and their combined effort shows in the movie’s overall “feel”. This is especially evident in a key scene toward the end of the movie, in which Fred wanders through the town’s “boneyard” and crawls inside the dusty hulk of what used to be a B-17. Words cannot describe the flood of emotions in this scene, and taken out of context, it is nearly pointless to do so; it is something you will need to see for yourself by watching this movie from the beginning.

Here is a not-so-commonly known fact about this movie: Harold Russell, who had lost his hands in a training accident, is the only actor in the history of the Motion Picture Academy to receive two Academy Awards for the same role in the same movie. As mentioned earlier, he was the Best Supporting Actor of 1946, but he also received an Honorary Oscar “[f]or bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance in The Best Years of Our Lives”. Russell, who passed away in 2002, went on to become a voice and face for disabled veterans since World War II by helping to create AMVETS, an organization he had led on three different occasions.

After the euphoria of the fall of Nazi Germany and the surrender of Japan, America (and the entire world) needed to heal from this gaping wound with scars buried deep within its soul. The Best Years of Our Lives showed us a society on the mend and, in the right hands, the hope of a better tomorrow. It is emotional and sometimes painful to watch, even 64 years later, and its themes have a new-found relevance to today’s combat veterans. If you or someone you know has served in the Armed Forces (which should be just about all of us), then I strongly recommend this movie. And guys, it’s okay to cry with this one…

ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (1930)

In A, Action, Best Picture Winners, Classic, Motion Pictures, War on April 14, 2010 at 12:33 pm

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STUDIO — Universal       

CAST — Louis Wolheim, Lew Ayres, John Wray, Arnold Lucy, Ben Alexander, Slim Summerville    

DIRECTOR —  Lewis Milestone     

NOT RATED
(MPAA Equivalent: PG-13) 

Once in a while, a motion picture comes along that is ahead of its time and so artistically and socially relevant, that it stands the test of time, even 80 years after it release. All Quiet on the Western Front is such a movie.

Winner of Best Picture and Best Director (Lewis Milestone) of 1930, All Quiet on the Western Front follows a young student in Germany named Paul Bäumer (Lew Ayres), and the events which take place as he and his friends enlist to fight in The Great War (known today as World War I). The movie begins with a professor (Arnold Lucy) stirring up the collective patriotic spirit of his students, while an enthusiastic parade of soldiers marches off to war outside. Swept up in the pomp and circumstance, Bäumer and his friends enthusiastically enlist to fight for the Fatherland.

Paul Bäumer (Lew Ayres) prepares for battle

Right away, the young men realize that being a soldier is anything but glamorous, when their drill instructor turns out to be Himmelstoß (John Wray — no relation to King Kong’s Fay Wray), the friendly mail carrier from back home, except now he’s a hard-nosed sergeant hell-bent on making his charges forget everything they thought they had known about him. Once training is completed, our heroes deploy to the front lines, where they are introduced to the grizzled veterans Stanislas “Kat” Katczinsky (Louis Wolheim) and Sergeant Tjaden (Slim Summerville). They show the rookies the ropes, and prepare them for the war they have come to fight.

As this movie was made before the Hays Code went into effect, it is violent, gritty, graphic, claustrophobic, and quite realistic for its time. In one particularly graphic shot, a shell explodes in front of a soldier at a barbed-wire fence; when the dust settles, all we see are that soldier’s dismembered hands hanging on the wire. We are introduced to the maddening effects of war when rats overrun a makeshift bunker that caves in from the shelling. Watching these footsoldiers lose their cool bit by bit from the constant shelling, the dirt, the lack of food and sleep, and the rats was very effective.

Over the next few years, we see Bäumer change from an idealistic young man to a hardened veteran in his own right. When he comes home on leave, everyone expects him to be the way he used to be, but they don’t understand him anymore, not even his own family. And as for the professor who made that stirring speech so long ago, Bäumer confronts him, too. He becomes a changed man, and in the end, all he wants is peace.

All Quiet on the Western Front is a truly unforgettable movie with an undeniably long reach. A disclaimer at the start of the movie claims that it isn’t statement for or against war, but merely an observation of what it’s really like. And with that unflinching eye, Lewis Milestone drew out battle scenes so realistic, they can be easily confused with actual World War I stock footage. The DVD features a re-release trailer, as well as an introduction from film historian and Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne. In it, he sets up the movie by giving details of the making and the impact of this movie. For example, because of the impact of this film, Lew Ayres became a conscientious objector when the US joined World War II in 1941. While many people branded him a coward, he still enlisted — and served with distinction — as an army medic.

All Quiet on the Western Front is a timeless classic, and the first truly great Best Picture winner. While it shows its age in spots, it holds up magnificently by showing us the dark, grisly, horrible world of combat with frightening realism and mesmerizing performances. 

PATTON (1970)

In Action, Best Picture Winners, Biography, Classic, Drama, History, Motion Pictures, P, War on March 22, 2010 at 1:47 pm

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STUDIO — 20th Century Fox 

CAST — George C. Scott, Karl Malden, Michael Strong, Karl Michael Volger, Richard Münch, Siegfried Rauch, Michael Bates, Edward Binns, Paul Stevens, James Edwards 

DIRECTOR —  Franklin J. Schaffner 

MPAA Rating: PG 

I received a request from a friend of mine shortly after I set up this blog. It read “I would like you to freshly watch what you consider your favorite film and give me a review of it.” Well, since Patton is my favorite movie, and since I already have a copy in my personal collection, I elected to rent the two-disc Special Edition and give it a fresh look. 

The two-disc DVD includes a five-minute introduction by co-writer Francis Ford Coppola (yes, that Francis Ford Coppola), as well as a commentary track by him in the movie itself. Having just viewed the movie again, I came away from it with an observation that I hadn’t noticed before, which is that General Patton (at least, as portrayed in this movie) and I seem to share a dubious trait: Neither of us seems to know when to shut up! To me, a hallmark of a great motion picture is one you can watch again and again, and still notice things you had not seen before. And to me, Patton is such a movie. 

Gen. George Patton (George C. Scott) and Gen. Omar Bradley (Karl Malden) discuss Operation: Cobra

This movie opens with one of the greatest monologues ever put to film, as General George S. Patton, Jr. (Academy Award winner George C. Scott) addresses the audience as though they were his troops, in front of a giant American flag. This sets the stage for a motion picture which paints Patton as leader and renegade, romantic and tactician, contemporary and anachronism, pious and profane. To me, this is far and away the best performance I have yet to see out of any actor in any movie. George C. Scott nailed this one, and whomever it was who had recommended him for the part deserves recognition. In my opinion, of course… 

Why Patton? Even when I first saw this movie at the age of 11, I was immediately attracted to the complexity of the character, and of the man himself. Here was a man who, in one of the movie’s most (in)famous scenes, nearly weeps as he silently pins a Purple Heart on the pillow of a severely wounded soldier one minute, then angrily smacks around another with “battle fatigue” the next. The dichotomy of General Patton is reflected throughout the movie, but it is strongest here. Very quickly, Patton became one of my favorite subjects in my spare time, and, by extension, I soon began to absorb as much as I could about World War II as well. 

The cinematography may appear a little dated by today’s standards, but it symbolizes Patton’s solitude, first as a commander, then as an outcast. Earlier, I had alluded to the fact that both Patton and I had a history of our respective mouths being our own worst enemy. I won’t divulge any details here, but I can assure you that when you say the wrong thing, either by accident or by omission, it will backfire on you. In this movie, Patton’s encounters with the press appeared to cause him more trouble and more controversy than all the casualty lists generated under his command. But that apparently did not phase the Germans (at least in the movie), who believed him to be a brilliant commander; they followed Patton’s every move, even while he was little more than a glorified tour guide in the Mediterranean (a decision by Gen. Eisenhower which did prove a successful diversionary tactic in the months prior to the invasion of Normandy, in June 1944). 

As for the supporting cast, Karl Malden is convincing as Omar Bradley, Patton’s friend and colleague who had advanced to become his superior. Michael Bates is a dead ringer for British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, widely regarded as Great Britain’s greatest commander during the war, and portrayed here as Patton’s rival. And though I’m sure this was unintentional, I became a little leery of Patton’s aide and bona fide spin doctor, Lt. Col. Charles Codman (Paul Stevens), who seemed to know exactly what to say and how to say it to his fearless leader. Still, the story is solid, the battle sequences are memorable (and well-done for 1970), and nearly all the performances are spot-on. 

Oh, there are better movies out there, but Patton remains at the top of my list of the most influential movies of my life, and (to me) the standard by which biopics should be measured. I should note that Mr. Coppola drew from several different source materials in order to provide the most authentic and balanced portrayal of both Patton the general and Patton the man. And the score by composer Jerry Goldsmith, with its haunting trumpets that echo into the distance, puts the icing on the cake for this nearly perfect movie. 

IN THE LOOP (2009)

In Comedy, I, Motion Pictures, War on March 3, 2010 at 12:05 pm

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STUDIO — BBC Films    

CAST — Peter Capaldi, Tom Hollander, Gina McGee, James Ganolfini, Mimi Kennedy, Anna Chlumsky, Chris Addison      

DIRECTOR —  Armando Iannucci      

NOT RATED (MPAA Equivalent: R)      

A mid-level British politician named Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) unwittingly states invasion of the Middle East is “unforeseeable” on an interview program, and it’s up to the staff at 10 Downing Street to clean it up in order to preserve Britain’s alliance with the Unites States, no matter the cost. And with that note, we are suddenly thrown In the Loop.      

(Hmm… That intro sounded very Roger Ebert of me. I hope he doesn’t mind.)      

In the Loop is a political farce of the most creative kind. This movie follows the British Prime Minister’s Director of Communications, Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) as he manipulates, bargains and swears his way from London to Washington and back, and then to the United Nations, in order to make sure that his boss, the Prime Minister, is on the same page as the President of the United States.      

This movie moves at breakneck speeds. The plot is so heavily interwoven and complex, it actually makes sense. One moment, Foster’s assistant (Chris Addison) unintentionally spills the beans of a secret meeting in Washington to a friend at CNN. Before you know it, half of London is on a witch hunt, looking for the source of leaked documents written by a Washington staffer (Anna Chlumsky).      

Let me take a moment to talk about Anna Chlumsky. I am very happy to see she is still acting. For those who wonder where they may have seen her before, or perhaps where they’d heard the name, she is a former child star, most notably of the two My Girl movies in the early 1990s. Well, Anna is all grown up now, and in this movie, she has the mouth to prove it!      

Gen. Miller (James Gandolfini) and Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) discuss a leaked document at the UN

In fact, the insults fly fast and furious throughout the movie. Every principal cast member (even David Rasche’s clean-mouthed Linton Barwick) throws barbs, insults, and profanities faster than a Jonathan Broxton fastball, one right after the other. And this movie is laced with so many “F-bombs”, it might give Goodfellas a run for its money!      

But the humor in this movie comes from not just the insults. Many situational bits play into the genius of this comedy, as well. There is one particularly funny scene, in which Lt. Gen. George Miller (James Gandolfini) and Diplomacy Undersecretary Karen Clark (Mimi Kennedy) discuss possible troop deployment figures in a girl’s bedroom. It is juxtapositions like this that give commentary to the ridiculousness of the political arena on both sides of the Pond, and director Armando Iannucci captures them with a skilled eye that was evidently influenced by the late Robert Altman.      

While watching In the Loop, I began to draw similarities with the Kubrick classic Dr. Strangelove. Afterward, when I delved into the Special Features on the DVD, I heard the announcer in the TV spot mention the “instant comparisons” between the two (as quoted by the New York Times). And to tell the truth, I did find myself thinking this movie somewhat reminded me of the Kubrick classic while I was watching it (and before viewing the Special Features). Whether this movie will go down as one of the greatest political farces of all time remains to be seen, but In the Loop has a superb cast, deft direction, a well-played (and Oscar-nominated) script, and some very skillful editing. One word of caution: As a British film, the comedy can be quite dry. This film is not for the uninitiated, but it is obscenely fun to watch.

3-1/2 out of 5

THE HURT LOCKER (2009)

In Action, Best Picture Winners, H, Independent, Motion Pictures, War on February 17, 2010 at 1:36 am

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STUDIO – Summit Entertainment 

CAST – Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes 

DIRECTOR – Katheryn Bigelow 

MPAA RATING – R 

Welcome to Iraq, the most violent and chaotic place on earth. Director and co-writer Kathryn Bigelow takes us inside the lines and shows us what war looks like today in the guerilla environment of the Middle East. In The Hurt Locker, a team from an Explosives Ordinance Disposal (EOD) unit is on their final days in-country before heading back to the States. When the team leader dies in the line of duty, his replacement, SSG William James (Jeremy Renner) reports to the company to take his place. At first, SGT J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and SPC Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) think James is a loose cannon, but with hundreds of successful missions under his belt, he must be doing something right. 

SGT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie, left) and SPC Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) help SSG James (Jeremy Renner) suit up

Ever since Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, war has been largely portrayed as ugly, gritty, dirty business. The Hurt Locker takes this ball and runs with it by visually telling us that war is literally a ticking time bomb, ready to explode at any moment, and no one is ever safe. In fact, Kathryn Bigelow borrows from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho playbook more than once, in that at least two prominent actors in this movie are killed off, and one of the three stars gets wounded (I won’t say who or when, of course). 

This movie is one of those that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. Working in EOD is very intense, very stressful, and very dangerous, and to do it, you gotta have a little crazy in you. In one scene, SSG James finds so much explosives packed into the back of a car, he walks back to his team, takes off his explosives suit, and says “If I’m going to die, I’m going to die comfortable”. And I am willing to bet that nearly every EOD and police bomb squad technician agrees with that mentality (though they know they shouldn’t). 

Shot on location in Jordan, The Hurt Locker has built-in authenticity, in terms of locale and environment. In the DVD’s behind-the-scenes documentary, Jeremy Renner says that the sweat on the screen is real sweat. And in a hostile place where nights are no cooler than 90°F (32°C), there is no need for fake sweat! 

One more thing worth mentioning: Anthony Mackie’s performance as SGT Sanborn was also very exceptional. On many levels, I found myself relating to Sanborn, from how “by the book” he is, to how he somehow remains level-headed throughout most of the movie, to his desire to just get the job done. I hope I get to see more of Mr. Mackie in the future. 

Now to Kathryn Bigelow. Historically, war has been the pervue of men, and movies about war have been primarily written, directed, and produced by men. And most of the time, it was men who starred in nearly every movie about war since the beginnings of the motion picture industry. This makes The Hurt Locker a game-changer. Kathryn Bigelow did a superb job helming this movie, thus receiving a well-earned Oscar™ nomination (among the nine nominations for this movie overall, including Best Actor for Jeremy Renner) for 2009. 

Gripping, insightful, painful, reckless, and chaotic. This is an excellent movie, one that demonstrates the madness of combat in Iraq in the early years of the 21st Century. 

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009)

In Action, I, Motion Pictures, War on February 15, 2010 at 3:03 am

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 STUDIO — Universal

CAST — Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Mélanie Laurent, Eli Roth, Diane Kruger

DIRECTOR —  Quentin Tarantino

MPAA Rating: R

O Quentin, where art thou?

When I think of Quentin Tarantino, I think of Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, and the Kill Bill saga. These are movies I could sink my teeth into (and I have). But Inglourious Basterds is a very different movie, with a very different feel to it. In fact, the only things Tarantino-esque about it are the “chapter” slates, a few select “call-back” edits, and that Samuel L. Jackson and Harvey Keitel lent their (uncredited) voices to the film. This movie features dialogue in not one, but four different languages (French, German, English, and Italian). Of all the World War II movies ever made, only a relative few don’t fall under the conventional “everybody speaks English” wisdom. While I found this delightful, I must confess I had a little difficulty keeping up with the subtitles.   

Col. Landa (Christoph Waltz) chats with Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), while "Enzo Corlomi" (Brad Pitt) looks on

Cinematically, this is a stunning movie. Tarantino’s directing style makes for a visual masterpiece nearly every time out of the gate, in both filming and editing technique. But as I said before, this doesn’t really “feel” like a typical Tarantino movie. Yes, there is plenty of blood spatter, but it doesn’t feel as over-the-top as, say, Michael Madsen gleefully disfiguring a cop while dancing to “Stuck In the Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel.

Most of the cast did well in this movie. Kudos to Christoph Waltz as Nazi Colonel Hans Landa. In the opinion of this writer, Waltz single-handedly saved this movie from being a complete mess. In an interview, Quentin Tarantino said that without Waltz, this movie would not have been made. Frankly, I completely agree with this statement. As Landa, Waltz is both predator and slippery eel, dashing and cruel, friendly and suspicious. It is a masterful performance, with well-deserved accolades, including an Academy Award™ nomination. 

But what about the “Basterds” themselves? In the movie, they were a band of eight Jewish soldiers on a singular mission: kill the Nazis. Led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), they spent a significant portion of the movie succeeding in just that. But as it turns out, the movie is not centered around them; it is primarily about a young Jewish woman who had escaped death three years earlier, only to plot revenge by killing hundreds of Nazis, including Adolph Hitler himself (!), at her movie theatre. The “Basterds” just happened to catch wind of the event and planned their own Nazi-killing party there, too.  

As is typical of any Quentin Tarantino movie, you have to suspend your disbelief. But come on! Bridge On the River Kwai (1957) was more accurate than this movie! By the time the climax started, as visually striking as it was, I ended up throwing my hands up and calling BS. I’m sorry, Quentin, but I think you went too far with this one.  

EDITED 2/25 TO ADD THE FOLLOWING:  

It is rare when I revisit a review to add to it, but I have taken some time to digest this movie a little further. As a result, I am amending my review of Inglourious Basterds.  One of the things I have overlooked is the fact that Quentin Tarantino is unlike almost any other director out there. There are so few directors working today with the passion and drive to make movies the way he does. On top of that, he carries a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of cinematic history within that oddly-shaped head of his. Both of these qualities come to the forefront in every movie he makes, and Inglourious Basterds is no exception. For example, most of the movie posters (“Nation’s Pride” and the Bridget von Hammersmark films excepted) are from real movies made in the 1920s and 1930s, and that they provide a subtext to this movie which illustrates the oppression felt by the French and the Jews under Nazi Germany, and the desire to break free from it. Also, in “Nation’s Pride”, the film-within-a-film, a John Wayne-like actor playing an American colonel gives an impassioned speech about preserving the tower where the Nazi sniper (and star of the film) is holed up. That actor is Bo Svenson, who starred in a 1978 movie entitled The Inglorious Bastards (no relation), directed by Enzo Castellari (who also has a cameo, as a Nazi dignitary at the cinema).  

It is little “Easter eggs” like this which makes watching a Tarantino movie fun to watch. It’s amazing, the things you learn from watching the Special Features disc. While I still maintain it is not one of his best films, Inglourious Basterds is still a fun-to-watch romp done only the way Quentin can do it.  

3-1/2 out of 5