Movie Review – Come and See

Come and See (1985, dir. Elem Klimov)

come-and-see-child

As we get older, we’re told our views on life will change. That is a somewhat accurate assessment I’ve found. However, as I was told by older people I would become more conservative in my thinking as I aged, I discovered the opposite to be true, at least in the sense they implied. One thing I have become very conservative about is the act of war, conservative in the sense I abhor it. I find people who have a war hawkishness about them to be very liberal about the deployment of soldiers and the dropping of bombs. I am thankful that I have never had to personally experience war and have great sympathy for those who have taken lives and had lives taken from them. I cannot fathom the trauma a person carries with them in the wake of that experience. Come and See is possibly the best war film ever made in my opinion because it is directly about that trauma.

Continue reading “Movie Review – Come and See”

Advertisements

Director in Focus: Werner Herzog – Signs of Life

Signs of Life (1968)

Before we jump into this first film, some background on Werner Herzog. Werner Stipetic was born in Munich in 1942 in a house that was destroyed by Allied bombing a couple years later. The family migrated to the Alps, where the father left the family, causing 12 year old Werner to take his grandmother’s last name, Herzog. Herzog showed a rebellious streak early on, when asked to sing in front of his class and refused. Till he was 18, as an act of defiance, he never sang, listened to music, or learned to play a single instrument. At the age of 14, Herzog encountered a simple encyclopedia entry on film making that infused the desire in him to create. He stole a 35mm camera from the Munich Film School in act he defends as a necessity for him to continue living. Herzog has been married three times, something you would expect based on his volatile personality. One more interesting note about the director, during a 2006 interview with BBC critic Mark Kermode, Herzog was shot by an unknown person with an air rifle. He seemed to brush it off and attempted to continue with the interview, despite Kermode freaking out over the incident.

Signs of Life is a war film without war, instead the soldiers are driven to madness through sheer boredom. Set on Crete during World War II, the film finds Strosek and two fellow German officers put in charge of a munitions depot nestled in ancient ruins. The main character here is the most blank canvas, while his compatriots, Becker and Maynard have more fully fleshed personalities. Strosek has ended up engaged to local Greek girl, Nora in a relationship that seems founded in their mutual lack of anything interesting to do. The film is narrated in a stoic, travelogue style that tempers the picture up until its last twenty minutes when Strosek becomes completely unhinged.

Signs of Life is cited as an inspiration for Kubrick’s The Shining, however I saw a lot of similarities with Polanksi’s Knife in the Water. Both films are of the same era and place their characters in a lifeless, desolate landscape where they are psychologically pushed to extremes. As we’ll see with the majority of Herzog’s work, he is incredibly interested in the psyche of men who have a break with reality and the role nature plays in that. Strosek is positioned against his desert setting as minuscule, he is insignificant, hence his position defending a post that is no danger of being attacked. Signs of Life is about humanity’s innate need to believe they are useful. When we feel that our society has no use for us it will inevitable cause a break from the social expectations and mores.

Up next: Even Dwarfs Started Small

Director in Focus: Brian De Palma – Redacted



Redacted (2007)

So we have caught up with Brian De Palma’s body of work. Redacted goes back to a lot of the same territory as 1989’s Casualties of War. We have American troops in a foreign land and the sexual violation of a native girl is the crux of the conflict. There’s one soldier who above all the rest is still virtuous. This was one was written by De Palma as well and really shows off his weakness as a writer. However, there are some interesting technical elements to the picture, and it really easy very experimental for De Palma, both in its making and the distribution.

Told through soldiers’ personal video diaries, CCTVs, news footage, and user submitted online videos, this is based on a true story where a squad of American soldiers were responsible for the rape of 15 year old girl and the subsequent murder and burning of both she and her family. The film did not do well upon its release, and in no way is this a great movie. However, many of the criticisms were jingoistic blather about De Palma wanted to imply that all soldiers are evil monsters. The fact that one of the squad members goes to the authorities with what happens must have gone over their heads. Its part of this thoughtless creed of “support the troops” which many interpret as do not question or think critically about the actions of the military. I don’t believe every soldier over there is some sort of sociopath, but I believe the culture that surrounds the military breeds that in people who leaned that way in the first place. That said, De Palma doesn’t present either the villains or the hero of the film in an interesting way at all.

The two vile soldiers who perpetrate the rape and murder are drawn cartoonishly broad. There are even scenes where they cackle like the hyenas in The Lion King. The hero is also without flaws and there’s nothing remotely interesting about him. The type of evil that is most interesting is the kind that comes out of mundane and ordinary people. When you have two characters who appear to be walking cliches they don’t come off as truly intimidating at all. A good filmmaker would make us like these guys, show us sympathy for them, and then reveal their darker nature. It makes us question ourselves. Even Sean Penn in Casualties of War, of which De Palma is really ripping himself off on, was a character I understood. Even though his action were abhorrent I could see what he saw in the world. What I did like was De Palma trying to do more with his camera. His typical POV shots were incorporated as part of the soldier’s diaries and there’s some interesting work done with website video.

Looking back on the films of Brian De Palma I have to defend him as a cinematographer. He may not always be a great all-around storyteller but he is one of the best cameramen I’ve ever seen. The level of tension he can generate in a film is amazing, and its all done through some of the tightest editing around. The moment in the prom scene of Carrie, as Amy Irving is figuring out what the bullies are about to do is such a perfect example of that. So much information is told without words, simply looks and cuts. The museum scene in Body Double should be shown to every wannabe filmmaker of how to tell a voluminous story in a only a few minutes and without a single piece of dialogue. Even watching the worst films of De Palma’s, I always knew he would amaze me with the camera. Sadly, his career has been marred by too many failures in a row. According to IMDB, De Palma appears to be working on a remake of his great rock opera Phantom of the Paradise (seen before I started this marathon), a prequel to The Untouchables sub-titled Capone Rising, and The Boston Stranglers, based on a true crime book about the theory that multiple men were placed under the umbrella of one serial killer. My hope is that De Palma can still find a way to produce good films again, I know he has it in him and I think there’s a strong possibility that he can rally a comeback in the same way that Francis Ford Coppola has been doing.

Director in Focus: Brian De Palma – Casualties of War



Casualties of War (1989)
Starring Michael J. Fox, Sean Penn, John C. Reilly, John Leguizamo, Don Harvey, Thuy Thu Le

Coppola made Apocalypse Now. Stone made Platoon. And De Palma made Casualties of War. At the end of the 1980s De Palma was secure in his place as a Hollywood film director. When he had been closing out the 1970s he was still immersed in Hitchcoclk style thrillers. A decade later he’s made a gangster epic (Scarface), a 1930s historical crime film (The Untouchables), and a Vietnam War flick. Despite the change in venue and content, there are the same cinematographic trademarks (deep focus and POV tracking shot). But how does this film shape up next to the other great Vietnam War flicks?

PFC Ericksson (Fox) is out on patrol with his unit when they are ambushed. He’s standing over a Viet Cong tunnel and falls half way in. As a Cong soldier inches closer, knife in teeth, Ericksson is saved in the nick of time by Meserve (Penn). Later, they both witness their commanding officer getting gunned down and Meserve takes over. He becomes obsessed with revenge and leads his group of five men to a village where they kidnap a  young girl with the intent to rape and savage her. Ericksson is frozen as he must decide whether to protect this innocent or honor the bonds of his military brotherhood.

Casualties is by no means a perfect film, but it is a surprisingly mature film for De Palma, where he seems to be balancing his camera flourishes with a thoughtful look at the nature of war. There are still some cringe inducing line deliveries and Penn’s Maserve is played a little too broad for my taste. I did like Meserve’s speech about hating the Army. Often in pop culture, the soldier who brutalizes for pleasure is made out to be a dedicated troop. It feels more realistic that such a sociopath would despise the lack of self-decision that comes with the military. Once Meserve is out of the eye of his superiors he adopts his own sense of law. Ericksson provides a balance as a soldier who appreciates the idea of duty and rank. When Ericksson goes to report what he has seen he goes through the proper channels of authority. Meserve tries to get revenge under the radar.

De Palma ends things in a way I didn’t expect. Moments before the credits rolled, I felt the film hinting at a possible dramatically violent finale, but then it ends in an ambiguous way. The message of the film is hammered way to bluntly, though. De Palma does an excellent job of telling this story in a clear, comprehensible way and he uses some interesting technical skills. At the end I felt a certain dissatisfaction with  product. It’s not as high an artistic achievement as Apocalypse Now and its doesn’t have the emotional weight of Platoon. It is a well made piece of cinema with some very enjoyable acting, but definitely doesn’t score as high as some of De Palma’s other films for me.

Next: The first big disaster, Bonfire of the Vanities.

Import Fridays – MicMacs



MicMacs/MicMacs a tire largiot (2009, dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet)
Starring Danny Boon, Andre Dussollier, Nicolas Marie, Yolande Moreau, Julie Ferrier, Omar Sy, Dominique Pinon, Michel Cremades, Marie-Julie Baup, Jean Pierre Marielle

Very few directors working today have as strong a sense of visuals than Jean-Pierre Jeunet. He is as influenced as much by the French New Wave as he by Golden Age Hollywood, and this mash up creates aesthetically clever cinema. But does Jeunet tell interesting stories with well-developed, fleshed out characters? That is a good question.

The story of MicMacs concerns Bazil (Boon) who, as a child, lost his father to a landmine in Afghanistan. Things continue to go downhill for poor Bazil: Mum ends up in a mental hospital, he’s shipped off to an abusive boarding school, escapes, and ends up as a video store clerk as an adult. One night, a shoot out occurs in the front of the store and Bazil takes a bullet in the cranium. After being released from the hospital, Bazil finds his home and job gone but is befriended by Slammer, a homeless man who is part of a collective of eccentrics living in a strange garbage burrow. Bazil also learns the weapons manufacturers responsible for the landmine and bullet respectively. Bazil and his new family embark on a crusade to turn the two men of war against each other through series of elaborate pranks. The film basically takes the revenge pranks pulled on the grocer in Amelie and expands their scope to include human cannonballs and wiretapping.

The film has definite problems. The first is the awkwardness of pairing such a dark subject (war, death, limbs lost to bombs) with Warner Brothers Looney Toons style comedy. It’s definitely a mix that could work, but here it comes off as if Jeunet doesn’t take the concept seriously enough. Another issue I had was with the characters identified as African-French, they all have menial labor jobs or, in the case of Remington the Writer, are objects of comedic relief whose skills are a joke. Jeunet had taken some flack for the “pretty-fying” of France in Amelie and it seems like he’s trying harder this time around, but not much better.

That said, the film is very enjoyable in the same way that the circus or carnival is fun. There’s not much substance but it is fun to look at and will definitely make you laugh. Jeunet has a very clever mind and can devise some schemes that are brilliant. This is not Jeunet’s best, it can be derivative of his previous work at times, but he does take chances and brings some new elements to his art direction. A definite must see if you have the chance this spring/summer.

MicMacs will open in limited release in the US starting May 28th

Newbie Wednesday – Brothers



Brothers (2009, dir. Jim Sheridan)
Starring Tobey Maguire, Natalie Portman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Sam Shepherd, Mare Winningham, Bailee Madison

“Support the troops”. Its a slogan we hear time and time again. Yet, no matter how many yellow ribbons we put up or bumper stickers we slap on our cars, there is a severe situation involving soldiers coming home with Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. While Brothers addresses this, it fails to create compelling characters and ultimately comes off as preachy, rather than significant.

Capt. Sam Cahill (Maguire) is preparing to ship off to Iraq, and the day before his little brother Tommy (Gyllenhaal) is being released from prison. Cahill leaves Grace (Portman), his wife and two daughters behind and ends up being declared KIA. While, Grace deals with the loss with the help of Tommy, Sam is actually alive and well, being held by Sunni extremists along with a private in his unit. Sam is put under severe torture and starvation and made to commit horrible acts. Tommy finds himself drawn closer to Grace but the two fight their urges to give in. Eventually, Sam is coming home and there will be a falling out.

The film is slow, but that is not a bad thing. The plot involving Sam is very interesting and were the moments of the film I paid attention to the most. The Grace/Tommy story is where the film drags. There is really no chemistry between the two so the hints that they might end up together feels incredibly forced. The relationship is so muted to the point of feeling like a way to kill time till Sam returns home. The most compelling interactions are between Tommy and his father (Sam Shepherd). It seems their father dealt with PTSD upon returning from Vietnam and drowned it alcohol, eventually taking it out on the kids. Tommy ends up being the black sheep of the family, and Sam enlists in the Marines because of his idolization of his father.

The picture ends on a very melodramatic note, though its last 20 minutes are its best. The top performance comes from 11 year old Bailee Madison, who plays Isabella, Sam and Grace’s daughter. She very natural and composed for her age, and is a key part of the conflict in the film. Overall, a decent picture but this director has made much much better films.

Seventies Saturdays – Johnny Got His Gun


Johnny Got His Gun (1971, dir. Dalton Trumbo)

Starring Timothy Bottoms, Jason Robards, Donald Sutherland
Here we have a film directed by the author of the novel on which is based. This author, Dalton Trumbo was investigated by the FBI as a result of the novel’s publication, and later blacklisted during the McCarthy Communist witch hunt. While blacklisted, he was given his widest recognition as the screenwriter of Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus. And it was during the twilight of the Vietnam War he decided to adapt his controversial novel. While on the surface, the film is condemnation of war by how it treats the men on the frontlines, Trumbo is expanding his theme to comment on the fragility of life and man’s right to die with dignity.
Joe Bonham (Bottoms) is introduced as a body under a sheet. He’s not dead, but was shredded by shrapnel from a mortar shell fired on the last day of World War I. The doctors maintain an unrealistically upbeat outlook and have Joe put in a utility room so as not to upset the other wounded men. We learn who Joe is through the meanderings of his consciousness now in this eternally paralyzed state. The horror of Joe’s condition is unfolded to us gradually: first they take his arms, then his legs, ultimately he learns his face has been scooped out. All that exists is a screaming mind in a paralyzed frame.
As Joe tries to make sense of this in his mind, he returns to moments with his late father (Robards) and consults with a Jesus of his own invention (Sutherland). His memories begin as real events in his past and morph into surreal fantasies about his loss. One of the most touching moments of the film comes early on. On Joe’s last night before shipping out, he and his teenaged girlfriend decide to have sex for the first time. This scene is played with such beauty and tenderness. Every nervous movement is captured perfectly, and the scene aches with a bittersweet sense of how these characters are experiencing such great joy, a joy that inevitably will die.
The genius of the film is that it never takes political sides. In essence, it truly supports the troops, because it is all about them. Joe is a child who was sent off by old men who use their children to fight wars. He did his duty and suffered great wounds. And now, with no future besides being a lump of meat locked in a closet, he is denied a basic right to have his life ended. Joe eventually figures out a means of communicating with those around him, only to find his new voice stifled and the realization that the people around Joe, because of their own fears of death, want to simply forget that he ever existed.