Tag Archives: War

CAPSULE: KING OF HEARTS (1966)

DIRECTED BYPhilippe de Broca

FEATURING: , , Françoise Christophe, ,

PLOT: Signal Corps pigeon-keeper Charles Plumpick is mistakenly sent into the recently abandoned town of Marville to defuse German explosives, but his mission hits a road block when released members of the local insane asylum adopt him as their king.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: King of Hearts is whimsical, farcical, pacifist, fairly amusing and even sometimes tense—but not weird. Film-maker Phillippe de Broca lets his hippie-freak flag fly high, but the tone and story are altogether too bright and straight-forward for this to parade anywhere near List candidacy.

COMMENTS: It is altogether natural that a movie like this—an atypical period film (WWI) made during a disruptive decade (the 1960s) concerning a small French town taken over by the inmates of an asylum—appeared on our radar. Though filmed during the (stage) theatrical run of another asylum-themed dramaKing of Hearts is preaching more to the pacifist/anti-establishment choir than dealing, cinematically, with any madness other than the folly of war. While it is set during the first World War, it’s more of a fluffy predecessor to other counterculture anti-war films like Altman‘s M*A*S*H or ‘ Catch-22.

It is safe to presume that in contemporaneous times, Charles Plumpick (Alan Bates) would have been a draftee. The Great War was a strange beast, though, and as an Englishman there’s every reason to believe that this bookish lover of birds would have volunteered the minute he heard that Jerry was on the march. As a signals officer for the military (specialty: carrier pigeons) with a name similar to a bomb disposal expert, he is sent off to the recently evacuated—and recently booby-trapped—town of Marville. Feeling guilty, one of the townsfolk unlocks the insane asylum as he flees. After wandering out, the inmates find all kinds of diversions: dressing up fancifully, enjoying shaves and haircuts, and staging ad hoc parades. Our hero Plumpick is mistaken for their King, and spends the movie being feted, scurrying madly to find the bomb trigger, and getting seduced by a cinematically antediluvian manic pixie dream girl.

I was reminded of my love of darker cinema when I first watched King of Hearts: it is entirely missing any aura of unease, much less menace. The “insane” people are all highly functional, charming, and seemingly guilty of nothing more than harmless delusions and a capacity for wonder. The British soldiers are Scottish, the only reason for which I could deduce was so the film-maker could have a bunch of kilted yobbos running around (there’s a trio of soldiers sent after Plumpick that wouldn’t have been out of place amongst the constables in The Pirates of Penzance). The Germans are boobs in the “Hogan’s Heroes” mold. The showdown between the two sides when they descend upon the city is the only bit of violence, and its orchestrated in a manner that screams, “Hey! I think war’s stupid!”

What kind of movie would it have been if Plumpick were infiltrating a bomb-laden city peopled by actually insane citizens? Obviously the movie would have been very different; and almost certainly much less beloved. King of Hearts was received lukewarmly at its release, but developed a considerable cult following since. There are some decent laughs, some clever lines, and yes, despite my complaints, I largely enjoyed the thing. However, throughout it all I couldn’t help but wonder, “How much darker, troubling, and altogether more glorious could this have been if the inmates had been more like those found in Charenton?” Ah well.

WHAT CRITICS SAY:

“…a surrealistic jewel of a comedy which you realize, when you can catch your breath between laughs, has made the case for the sanity of the lunatics and the madness of the war-waging sane.”–Charles Champlin, The Los Angeles Times (DVD)

341. UNDERGROUND (1995)

“If you saw what I see for the future in Yugoslavia, it would scare you.”–Marshall Tito, 1971

“I think that this current conflict is the result of tectonic moves that last for a whole century. If there is anything good in this hell and horror, it is that the tectonic disturbance will result in absolute absurdity. And then a new quality will emerge from it.”–Emir Kusturica, circa 1995

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Predrag Manojlovic, Lazar Ristovski, Mirjana Jokovic, Ernst Stötzner, Slavko Stimac, Srdjan Todorovic

PLOT:Two Yugoslavian gangsters join the Communist Party to resist the invading Nazis. One tricks the other into hiding out in a large cellar, where he and a small tribe of partisans manufacture munitions he believes are going to the resistance but which are actually being sold on the black market for years after the war has ended. Decades later, the ruse falls apart, and the former friends meet on the battlefields of Kosovo.

BACKGROUND:

  • Kusturica adapted Underground from a play by Dušan Kovačević, although he only took the premise of people tricked into residing in a cellar under the pretense of a fake war from that source.
  • The movie was filmed in 1992 and 1993, while the Bosnian War was raging—and ethnic cleansing was going on.
  • Emir Kusturica’s original cut ran for 320 minutes, about the same length as the six part serialized television version released later.
  • Underground won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, but was not nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar.
  • Despite its international success, Underground was controversial nearer to home. Kusturica was accused of taking money from the Serbian Broadcasting Corporation, which would have been a violation of sanctions against the Serbian government. (The director countered that he had only accepted non-financial assistance, and won a lawsuit for libel against a playwright who accused him of taking money from the Serbs.) The film was also criticized for being too conciliatory by not blaming Serbia and Slobodan Milošević’s regime directly for the Bosnian conflict. (Kusturica himself is ethnically Bosnian).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: A burning wheelchair circling an inverted crucifix under its own power.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Flying bride; chimp in a tank; underwater brass band

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Up until the third act, Underground plays as an absurd, Balkanized satire—a far wilder ride than the average moviegoer is accustomed to, but not a film that went all the way to “weird.” That final half-hour, however, pulls out all of reality’s stops, sending the film off into a nightmarishly surreal conclusion, then soldiering on to a more conciliatory mystical ending. It’s the perfect, weird way to cap off a world cinema masterpiece.


Original trailer for Underground

COMMENTS: Emir Kusturica considers himself Yugoslavian. “In my Continue reading 341. UNDERGROUND (1995)

339. WALTZ WITH BASHIR (2008)

“I am afraid that memories suppressed could come back with a fury, which is dangerous to all human beings, not only to those who directly were participants but to people everywhere, to the world, for everyone. So, therefore, those memories that are discarded, shamed, somehow they may come back in different ways — disguised, perhaps seeking another outlet.”–Elie Wiesel

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Ari Folman

PLOT: Director Ari Folman’s old friend describes a recurring nightmare where he is accosted by 26 angry dogs, a dream that is related to his experiences in the Lebanon War of 1982. When pressed about his own recollections, Folman notices that he only has one clear memory from the war: skinny dipping in the ocean while flares fall over Beirut. He interviews other friends who served with him in an attempt to remember what happened to him in the war, but no one’s memories match his own.

Still from Waltz with Bashir (2008)

BACKGROUND:

  • The 1982 Lebanon War began when Israeli forces invaded Lebanon in an attempt to stop Palestinian terrorists who were operating across the border. The Israeli’s sided with Christian elements in Lebanon—the Phalangist party—led by the charismatic Bashir Gemayel. Gemayel was elected President of Lebanon in 1982, but was assassinated after less than a month in office. Although a member of a rival Christian political party later confessed to the assassination, members of a radical branch of the Phalangists immediately blamed Palestinians for the killing and undertook a massacre in two refugee camps, systematically killing civilians. 1)The actual number of victims is disputed; estimates range anywhere from 300 to 3000. The occupying Israeli army not only allowed the massacre to continue for two days, but shot flares at night to illuminate the streets at the Phalangists request, before ordering the paramilitary troops carrying out the massacre to disperse. An Israeli investigation found defense minister Ariel Sharon negligent for failing to protect the civilians from the Phalangists, and he was forced to resign his post over the resulting scandal. He was elected Prime Minister in 2001, however.
  • Although often mistaken for rotoscoping, the animation in Waltz with Bashir is done cutout style, aided by computers (they actually used Flash). The scenes were filmed and then recreated by animators, rather than drawing directly over the film frames as is done in rotoscoping.
  • Folman exaggerates his memory loss as a literary technique. On the film’s commentary track he explains that in reality he did not have a complete loss of memory, as depicted in the film, but he had suppressed his memories of the Sabra and Shatila incidents.
  • Waltz with Bashir was banned in Lebanon and parts of the Arab world.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: There are many choices here, from the scene of the soldier dancing in the middle of a firefight from which the movie takes its name to the devastating last forty-five seconds. But Waltz with Bashir hooked us with its first (and most) surreal image: the soldier who dreams he is rescued from his troop transport by a giant naked woman who emerges from the sea.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Rabid dog revenge; backstroking giantess; Doberman porn star

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Waltz with Bashir is a perfect example of our sliding scale for weird movies. Ari Folman has made three movies that dabble in surreal imagery; the other two (Clara Hakedosha and The Congress) are inarguably weirder. But Bashir is his morally complex masterpiece, the film for which he seems destined to be remembered. Groundbreaking in form, shocking to the senses and the conscience, it portrays war from a soldier’s ground-eye view as an absurd, half-remembered dream—but one with very real consequences, which emerge from the murk of remembrance into the harsh light of reality in the brutal finale.

Original American trailer for Waltz with Bashir

COMMENTS: A young man walks out of the ocean and stares at us. Continue reading 339. WALTZ WITH BASHIR (2008)

References   [ + ]

1. The actual number of victims is disputed; estimates range anywhere from 300 to 3000.

INGMAR BERGMAN’S SHAME (1968)

I only vaguely recall 1968. What I do vividly remember was both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy being assassinated within the space of a few months. Even the majority of the bigots at mother’s church (not all, by any means) were horrified, and during those moments, at least, practiced an extremely rare shut-mouth spirituality. It was surreal as hell. Things only became more nightmarish in the years immediately following, with the escalation of Vietnam and Watergate.

A continent or so away, produced what most of us felt: Shame. Bergman was normally not an outright political filmmaker. The extremists certainly sniffed out the moderate artist within him. Not that they would watch his films anyway, being put off by subtitles (I don’t know how many times I’ve had to bite my lower lip after hearing camo-clad bumpkins proudly proclaim that they didn’t want to read a movie).

The focus of Bergman’s anger is war, but reeling from the criticisms he had received from utilizing the infamous footage of a Vietnamese monk’s immolation in 1966’s Persona, Bergman is more ambiguous here. He doesn’t state that his subject is Vietnam per se, which is why Shame is not as well-known as that previous film. Bergman’s ambiguity in a way neuters his own work, preventing it from becoming an equivalent to Picasso’s “Guernica,” which still provokes war-minded leaders (George W. Bush’s lackeys had a replica of  that famous painting covered up with a black curtain at the United Nations). We could see Shame one way: like , Bergman is a consummate artist lacking the courage of his ethical and social convictions (which were hinted at in Persona, although that film did not overtly subscribe to any specific ideology). In the case of both artists, their aesthetics are undermined by fear of being labeled political. In the case of Keaton, it took an artist of more elementary aesthetics (Charles Chaplin) to call out racism, sexism, and eventually Fascism. Likewise, Bergman’s Shame is rendered less impactful compared to his earlier opus and to the wave of anti-Vietnam films to come. Bergman plays it safe, indirectly shifting blame to a God in the sky instead of any persons or factions. Of course, we could also look at Shame as a desolate parable that transcends a specific time and place. It’s not an either/or assessment as much as it’s both/and.

In his later 1990 biography, “My Life in Films,” Bergman writes that he had previously been very proud of Shame, feeling that it exposed the personal violence of war, but added that he had come to be disappointed in it after realizing the his intentions were self-defeating.

Regardless of one’s view, Shame is aptly not a comfortable experience. The story centers around a musical couple, Jan () and Eva () Rosenberg. Although loving, they are tormented by Eva’s barrenness, poverty, and the civil war surrounding their dilapidated home on an unnamed island.

Despite its enigmatic qualities, Shame is still superlative Bergman and startling. Having fled larger society, the Rosenbergs have become recluses, but their imperfect and monotonous  tranquility is consumed by warfare.

The killing of a parachuter, arriving militias, arrests, incarceration, and torture are not typical Bergman themes, yet all are prevalent here. Smartly, Bergman’s focus is indeed a personal one.  When Jan witnesses his wife flirting with another man, he is aroused; probably for the first time in a long time. Later, after she has sex with an interrogator, Jan becomes jealous and exacts revenge. In the beginning of the film, it is he who is weak. However, after being engulfed in despair from the barbarism that has engulfed them, he mantles fierceness. In contrast, Eva, once the romantic, is utterly crushed.

There are no battlefield scenes typically associated with war films, and that’s refreshing. The path of Shame is highly idiosyncratic; paradoxically pragmatic in its psychology and yet, pensive.

By the time we become desultory refugees with the Roenbergs, we are as drained as they are. Although Shame avoids direct political commentary of the era, it oddly become more poignant today because the one pointed portrayal of Bergman’s that is relevant today lies in that of the shameless authoritarian and his knee-bound sycophants, along with the effect of that demagoguery on ordinary lives.

323. CATCH-22 (1970)

“You’re a very weird person, Yossarian.”–General Dreedle, Catch-22

“When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.”–Randall Jarrell, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Mike Nichols

FEATURING: Alan Arkin, Martin Balsam, Jack Gilford, , , , Bob Newhart, , Paula Prentiss, , Richard Benjamin, , Charles Grodin, , Gina Rovere, Olimpia Carlisi

PLOT: The story is told out of sequence, but begins with Capt. Yossarian, an Air Force bombardier at a Mediterranean air base, being stabbed in the back by what appears to be a fellow soldier. This leads directly into the first of a recurring sequence of flashbacks where Yossarian tends to a young wounded airman in the belly of his bomber. Further flashbacks reveal a protagonist of questionable sanity in the company of equally insane flyboys, including a quartermaster who schemes with the Group commanders to create a black market syndicate that morphs into a fascist regime.

Catch-22 (1970)

BACKGROUND:

  • Joseph Heller published the absurdist comic novel “Catch-22” in 1961, based on his own experiences as a bombardier in World War II.
  • Orson Welles had attempted and failed to acquire the rights to the novel, a fact Mike Nichols was not aware of when he cast him as General Dreedle.
  • Catch-22 was Nichols’ followup to his smash hit The Graduate. He once again worked with screenwriter Buck Henry (who also played Colonel Korn here). The screenplay took two years to produce.
  • Filming (in Rome and Mexico) took more than six months to complete. Cinematographer David Watkins would only shoot the exterior scenes between two and three o’clock in the afternoon, so that the lighting would be exactly the same. This meant the cast and crew were sitting around for long periods of time with nothing to do, which led to resentment on the set.
  • Catch-22 is credited as the first American film to show a person sitting on a toilet, and the first modern Hollywood film to feature full-frontal nudity.
  • Second Unit director John Jordan plummeted to his death when he fell out of the camera plane while daring to film a flight scene without being strapped into a harness.
  • Although the film did not bomb at the box office, it was overshadowed by ‘s similar (but lighter and more realistic) M*A*S*H*.
  • George Clooney is producing a new adaptation of the novel as a six-part miniseries scheduled to air on Hulu.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The gruesome death of Hungry Joe, who’s cut in half by an airplane propeller while standing on a platform in the beautiful blue Tyrrhenian Sea.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Urine I.V.; offscreen portrait switching; friendly fire for hire

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Catch-22 was a novel of paradoxical, circular logic and inverted moral geometries. The certifiably insane Yossarian is saner than his schizoid comrades and commanders—but only because he is the only one who realizes he is crazy. The movie doesn’t soar to the heights of the book, but it creates its own weird all-star universe of moral decay and dystopian reasoning. There aren’t twenty-one other catches. One catch serves as a catchall. Catch-22. It’s the best there is.


Original trailer for Catch-22

COMMENTS: Adapting Catch-22, a novel whose building blocks are Continue reading 323. CATCH-22 (1970)

ALFRED EAKER VS. THE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS: DUNKIRK (2017)

After sadistically subjecting me to Pitch Perfect 2 last year (I’m still reeling from that), 366 readers had some compassion this year and voted me into watching Alien: Covenant, Wonder Woman, and Dunkirk. As our administrative prophet and editor-in-chief pointed out, the last choice was rather odd, since we know that is an ambitious, high-caliber filmmaker and any film of his would hardly constitute a viewing ordeal. Largely positive critical consensus would seem to validate Greg‘s observation…. except, this selection, which one would assume to be a knock-it-out-of-the-ballpark hit, is fatally uneven: cinema as trauma, with a director at his most aggressively self-important, delivering a film that features, by turns, examples of his most adroit and slovenly aesthetics. Despite its flaws, which inevitably stem from Nolan’s consciously elevated approach, Dunkirk, while falling short of expectations, is an effective work. It’s not a war film, as publicity would indicate. Rather, it could have just as aptly been titled The Great Escape.

Still from Dunkirk (2017)This is hardly the first cinematic treatment of the WWII evacuation of British soldiers from the harbor and beaches of Dunkirk, France in 1940, but with the craft and budget that went into this production, it easily surpasses previous, languid versions. On the IMAX screen, Dunkirk is a sensory overload. Undoubtedly, that’s the best way to see it, because all that upheaval, from the lensing of Hoyte Van Hoytema (Interstellar) to Hans Zimmer’s aggrandizing score, provides necessary detail. With almost no dialogue, we are bombarded by an overbearing, apocalyptic sound design, which includes explosions of every contemporaneous weapon of mass destruction. It’s too much and—although it convinces us of the torturousness of this historical experience—it’s also not enough; curiously, it’s spiritually bankrupt.

The film centers around understandably frightened young soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), who, with fellow soldier Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), tries to make his way to a rescue ship. The intensity is almost unendurable; so much so that we are forced to sympathize with the protagonists. However, one of Nolan’s worst tendencies sabotages our chance for actual empathy: he begins overwriting, catapulting us into unnecessary vignettes, one of which involves an RAF pilot (). The result is to distance us from Tommy and Gibson. Undoubtedly, Nolan is a superior narrative writer, but he’s an impoverished dramatist. Say what we will about John Ford’s dated, overt sentimentality—he knew, particularly in this type of genre, to level the wham-bam machinery down to a minimum and keep the faces (, Robert Montgomery) upfront. Likewise, Ford could be counted on to utilize color almost orgasmically—even in emotionally harrowing sequences. Comparatively, Nolan’s monochromatic palette here further magnifies the film’s frigidity.

The action scenes, never Nolan’s forte, are hopelessly muddled, and in spending so much time on them, his structure becomes frayed. As in his Batman trilogy, sweat is needed. Nolan then, and Nolan now, is just too literal to perspire.

Dunkirk is inherently about the immediacy of survival, and too many intimate idiosyncrasies would detract from that goal, but aloofness can be carried to an undesired extreme. Ultimately, this is like an aesthetically impressive video game; ferocious, but emotionally blunted.

CAPSULE: APOCALYPSE NOW REDUX (1979/2001)

Must See(original 1979 cut)

Recommended(Redux cut)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Martin Sheen, , Robert Duvall, , Fredric Forrest, Albert Hall, Sam Bottoms, Larry Fishburne, Harrison Ford, Bill Graham, , (Redux only), Aurore Clement (Redux only)

PLOT: Loosely based on the Joseph Conrad novella “Hearts of Darkness,” the film centers on Willard (Sheen), who is sent up the rivers of Cambodia to terminate the mad Colonel Kurtz (Brando) and destroy his cult-like compound.

Still from Apocalypse Now (1979)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Apocalypse truly is the Vietnam war on acid. At times it’s surreal, hallucinatory and mind-blowing, but that’s not always the same as weird. However, if this were a list of the 366 greatest films ever made, it would definitely make it. Heck, Apocalypse would probably make a list if this of the 66 greatest films ever made—although the longer 2001 Redux version is definitely inferior to the original 1979 film.

COMMENTS: Francis Ford Coppola’s original 153-minute version of Apocalypse Now opened in 1979 after a chaotic production and almost two years in the editing room. All that time, money and effort paid off, because, despite a draggy third act, Apocalypse Now is one of the maddest, greatest war movies ever made. Willard’s trip down the river (or the rabbit hole) is punctuated by one mind-boggling set-piece after another, including a helicopter assault on a Vietnamese village scored by Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”, a USO show featuring Playboy bunnies that slowly devolves into a chaotic free-for-all, and an opening sequence where a drunken Willard trashes his hotel room while Jim Morrison’s eerie “The End” pours out in surround sound. It’s the Vietnam War filtered through madness, LSD, and loads of unforgettable music.

The Redux version of the immortal film adds 49 minutes of frankly unnecessary footage, resulting in a wildly overlong 202 minute film. The “new” sequences mostly consist of two never-before seen set-pieces. In the first, Willard encounters a French family living on a plantation. They’re in Cambodia, but it’s as if they were still back in France circa 1950. Willard even finds romance with one of the women, Roxanne (Clement). This sequence, while interesting in an academic sort of way, is less than compelling. In the second new subplot, Chef (Forrest) and the other men on Willard’s boat spend the night with several of the Playboy bunnies last seen during the memorably disastrous “Suzy Q” sequence. These added scenes do little but show us that Willard and his crew found female companionship on their trip up the river, and it’s easy to see why Coppola cut the footage in the first place. It’s just not that involving.

Luckily, the rest of Apocalypse is still there: every other brilliant sequence that has earned the film a reputation as a flawed masterpiece. Yes, once Brando turns up, the movie sort of slides downhill, but the last 30 minutes improve upon repeated viewings. Furthermore, the 2010 Blu-Ray restores the film to its original widescreen dimensions. All the previous DVD versions had cropped the picture to fit high-definition television screens (according to cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s wishes), but no more. This Blu-Ray also includes the jaw-dropping 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness, which examines the film’s nearly disastrous 1976-7 production, which was beset by typhoons, a heart attack, and a budget that swelled to a then-staggering $31.5 million. Directed by Eleanor Coppola (wife of Francis), the doc is itself must-see viewing.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Alternately a brilliant and bizarre film…An exhilarating action-adventure exercise for two-thirds of its 139 minutes, ‘Apocalypse’ abruptly shifts to surrealistic symbolism for its denouement… Experience is almost a psychedelic one–unfortunately, it’s someone else’s psyche, and without a copy of crib notes for the Conrad novel, today’s mass audience may be hard put to understand just what is going on, or intended… Dennis Hopper is effectively ‘weird’ as Brando’s official photographer.”–Dale Pollock, Variety ( 139-min. ‘work in progress’ version shown at the 1979 Cannes festival)