Tag Archives: War

CAPSULE: THE RED AND THE WHITE (1967)

Csillagosok, Katonák

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DIRECTED BY: Miklós Jancsó

FEATURING: Krystyna Mikolajewska, József Madaras

PLOT: During the Russian Civil War (1918-1920), the Reds and the Whites battle over a monastery on the banks of the Volga that keeps switching hands.

Still from The Red and the White (1967)

COMMENTS: The Red and the White begins with a regiment of horsemen, sabres and rifles raised, charging in slow-motion directly at the camera as a martial trumpet fanfare plays. This stirring sight creates an expectation of an epic about proud Hungarian volunteers coming to the aid of their Soviet brothers against the meddling, foreign-sponsored counter-revolutionary Whites. And that was, indeed, the propagandistic picture producers envisioned for this Soviet-Hungarian co-production, commissioned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution. But Miklós Jancsó instead delivered a virulent anti-war/anti-authority classic, with only the slightest ironic hints of patriotic sentiment. (Some accounts say the completed film was screened in Russia only in a severely edited form, while others report it was banned outright).

It’s hard to tell who is who in The Red and the White. The Whites’ officers have more elaborate uniforms festooned with medals and insignia, but that’s about it for distinguishing the two sides. Perhaps contemporary audiences were able to identify the rivals more easily, but there’s every reason to think that the lack of clarity is entirely intentional, and contemporary confusion only heightens the effect. The movie is told as a series of vignettes, which play out to an individual climax but then follow a new character into the next story (five years before The Phantom of Liberty). Sometimes, characters will return in later episodes, giving the movie a mild sense of narrative continuity, but the general effect is to immerse the viewer into the fog of war. Time often seems to expand within a single scene, and fortunes reverse in an instant: a Red officer goes to investigate why his sentry isn’t responding and is suddenly ambushed, and when the camera circles back the Whites now control the territory. The narrative style and lack of characterization is disorienting, but forces us to identify more with groups than individuals. Soldiers on both sides spend more time bullying civilians and prisoners of war than they do fighting each other. (At one point, POWs are set loose to play a round of “The Most Dangerous Game“). Jancsó particularly loves scenes where the ascendant side forces their captives to strip as a way of asserting dominance. (Although we see nothing, rape is suggested as an inevitable offscreen event.) Due to the lack of an identifiable protagonist, our sympathies are drawn to the innocent pawns in these power games as a group: local farmers, a band of nurses who tend the injured of either side, and the poor conscripts and Hungarian volunteers, who are constantly being captured and liberated in an endless reshuffling of pieces. The Reds play the same cards as the Whites, and Jancsó’s vision conveys an implicit message of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” that could not have been pleasing to Soviet authorities.

The scenarios are repetitive in their cruelty, but purposefully so.  Jancsó invests each anecdote with its own level of suspense (captives are arbitrarily toyed with and freed or toyed with and executed, so you can never be sure who will live and who will die). Occasionally the adventures travel into the absurd, as when one group of interrogees are led into a white birch forest to perform a waltz accompanied by a military band. The rest of the time, the audience enjoys the spectacular long tracking shots that brought Jancsó renown. The flowing camera reinforces the sense of constantly changing front lines on a battlefield where an individual soldier never knows what is happening meters away: one man is executed on the banks of the Volga, while we can see his comrade hiding nearby in the reeds. One battle sequence has the outnumbered Reds singing “The Internationale” before charging a superior White position, only to be mowed down. It’s a maneuver only slightly more effective than lining up against a wall to be shot, but it’s the type of scene that could be sold to the Soviet backers as a portrait of heroic sacrifice. In full context, however, it’s just another example of how the common man finds himself cast into a no-win situation in service to one camp or another of brutes more united by sadism than divided by ideology.

In 2022, Kino Classics re-released its Jancsó catalog on Blu-ray for the first time. The Miklós Jancsó Collection includes The Round-Up, The Red and the White, The Confrontation, Winter Wind, Red Psalm, and Electra My Love, along with a host of supplements and short films. About half of those had never been released on home video in North America, or were hard to find. If you just want the essential Jancsó, they released his two most popular films, The Round-Up and The Red and the White, in a separate 2-disc package, with the seven short films also included. Kino restored all six films in 4K for these releases.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

‘…both masterful and absurdist, using cutting-edge cinematic techniques to show the chaos and pointlessness of war.”–Christopher Lloyd, Film Yap (Blu-ray)

CAPSULE: MAYDAY (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Karen Cinorre

FEATURING: Grace Van Patten, , Soko, Havana Rose Liu, Juliette Lewis

PLOT: Escaping a horrible day of work at a restaurant, Ana finds herself amongst girl guerrilla fighters in the midst of war.

COMMENTS: Though others may have said it better, few have said it with as much swagger and clarity as Queen: don’t try suicide. This is among the handful of messages littered around the intriguing mess that is Karen Cinorre’s feature debut, Mayday. In fact, every other line of dialogue seems to be some kind of advisement:

  • Getting dizzy? Of course you are: you’ve never seen that far before.
  • You’ve been in a war your whole life, you just didn’t know it.
  • Girls are better off dead, ’cause now we’re free.
  • A lot of girls just slip away. They deserve better.
  • He needs to learn what fear feels like.
  • Wars always get out of hand. Soon everyone will be in on it.

This last line bears dissection, as the gist of it perhaps makes some sense (the spiraling nature of violence), but the execution of the aphorism collapses under scrutiny. This is a difficulty that Mayday battles throughout. But despite nearly buckling under the weight of its own heavy-handedness, Mayday pulls off the sermonizing while remaining generally entertaining.

The film begins with an airman parachuting from a plane’s open hatch. The story begins with Ana (Grace Van Patten) waking up abruptly in her car. She is awoken by her friend and coworker Dmitri: they are grunts-in-arms at a fairly hellish venue, catering a wedding beset with freakish electrical episodes. Inside, the maitre d’ brushes past Ana, chiding her, “Clean yourself up! I have to look at that face.” The bride-to-be abruptly grabs her, and the two crash into the ladies’ room for a bridal meltdown. When Ana is then tasked with a trip to the basement to futz with the fuse box, things become increasingly jumpy. Flipping the main switch, she ascends the stairs to an empty kitchen and climbs into an oven only to emerge on some seaside rocks.

What follows is a girl-vs-boy fantasy adventure whose tone speedily careens toward a clunky patrio-normative finale. Marsha leads a partisan trio that somehow knew when and where to collect Ana upon her arrival. “Gert” is weapons-obsessed, “Bea” is the playful adventurer, and the now-complete gang of four hide out in a beached submarine. They spend their days frolicking and sending out distress signals, siren-style, to lure would-be rescuers (all men) into deadly storms.

Cinorre has chosen a compelling and (unfortunately still) topical premise to explore, but the experience is undercut with every Marsha-n diatribe. I am fully on board with criticizing male chauvinism, but have qualms about getting into bed with misandry. Mayday‘s ultimate acknowledgement of all genders’ capacity for ill-behavior, though welcome, isn’t enough when the plot clings to the “but you have a man who wants you” motivation for Ana to decide to carry on. Like Queen, Cinorre can swagger; unlike Queen, her message drowns in ambiguity.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“From ‘The Wizard of Oz’ to ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and beyond, the references are there in abundance, but Cinorre trusts in their familiarity so much that she ditches notions like logical world-building (yes, there needs to be some coherent and consistent logic even in fantasy), throwing the audience inside a barely-realized novel reality. If you don’t ask too many questions and just go with the flow, you might have a decent time in this dimension.”–Tomris Laffly, RogerEbert.com (contemporaneous)

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020: LABYRINTH OF CINEMA (2019)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Takuro Atsuki, Rei Yoshida, Yukihiro Takahashi, Takato Hosoyamada, Yoshihiko Hosoda,

PLOT: Japanese teenagers find themselves thrown into the movies screening at a cinema on the last night before it closes.

Still from Labyrinth of Cinema (2019)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Nobuhiko Obayashi’s final movie, completed only months before his death, is an exuberant, monumental, poetic and surreal ode to the power of cinema.

COMMENTS: I’d advise letting yourself get lost inside Nobuhiko Obayashi‘s Labyrinth of Cinema. Due to the way it hops around between eras and genres, the story may be easier to follow for those familiar with pre-WWII Japanese cinema; but given that the movie begins by introducing one Fanta G, a time-traveler who arrives in modern-day Onomichi, Japan, in a spaceship with goldfish floating inside it, it’s fair to say that narrative logic is not uppermost on Obayashi’s mind. This is a movie with atmosphere to absorb and imagery to intoxicate.

“Movies are a cutting edge time machine,” Fanta G tells us. “You’ll experience time lags in this movie.” You have been fairly warned. After he lands his spacecraft in the harbor and makes his way to Onomichi’s only cinema for the all-night war movie marathon, we’re introduced to the rest of the main characters. Noriko is a 13-year old schoolgirl from a nearby island who almost always appears onscreen bathed in an idyllic blue light. Teenage film buff “Mario Baba” is smitten with her; he sits in the audience with two companions, a nerdy aspiring historian and the son of a monk who intends to become a yakuza. As the first feature begins, Noriko climbs onstage and begins tap dancing in front of the screen; when she hops into the film itself, no one in the audience bats an eye. The three boys soon find themselves mysteriously absorbed into the screen, as well. But the movie keeps changing, and the trio find themselves involved in musicals, samurai films, and wartime adventures, playing out various scenarios, but always pursuing Noriko, who serves both as damsel in distress and an ever-receding symbol of the epiphanic power of cinema itself. The skipping-through-film-history format plays out like a live action variation on Millennium Actress, but with an even more dislocated plot.

Most long movies are slow-paced, languorously stretching out to fill the available time, but Labyrinth of Cinema jets like a rocket through its three-hour tour of Japanese cinema. This makes it exhilarating, but also a little exhausting. Besides the constantly shifting plots—the teenage trio find themselves in new roles, facing new adversaries, every five minutes or so—Obayashi constantly switches styles. He recreates traditional genres, but also throws his own immersion-breaking visual trickery onscreen: vertical wipes, big blocks of primary color, actors enclosed in circular irises that resemble the Japanese flag, blazing computer-generated sunsets, and sidebar text commenting on the action (when one character first appears, he shows us a legend cheekily explaining “we don’t know his name yet”). Along the way we get plenty of the surreal touches we’d expect from the mind that gave us Hausu, including a piano tune played by bullets, and an emotional death scene with a woman who just happens to be sporting a Hitler mustache. Many such surprises lurk inside this maze of movies.

The pace slows a bit after intermission as the story makes its way towards its climax at Hiroshima. A strong and consistently humanist anti-war theme runs through the entire film, but the main focus is always on the cinematic form itself. Labyrinth of Cinema is an ode to the ways in which movies both distort and inform reality; it’s Obayashi‘s love letter to the art to which he devoted his life, shown as much from the perspective of a fan as of a craftsman. While doubtlessly the epic could have been edited down for clarity—and might have been, had Obayashi survived to tinker with it further—much of the movie’s ramshackle extravagance would have been lost. I’m not sure we would want to lose a single second of Obayashi’s last gift to the world.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…bursting with energy, passion and dreamlike invention… the border between reality and fantasy dissolves into a colorful alternative universe that is uniquely Obayashi’s.”–Mark Schilling, Japan Times (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE (1972)

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“I love George Roy Hill and Universal Pictures, who made a flawless translation of my novel Slaughterhouse-Five to the silver screen … I drool and cackle every time I watch that film, because it is so harmonious with what I felt when I wrote the book.”– Kurt Vonnegut, in the preface to Between Time and Timbuktu

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: George Roy Hill

FEATURING: Michael Sacks, Ron Leibman, Eugene Roche, Valerie Perrine

PLOT: Billy Pilgrim, a chaplain’s assistant in the thick of WWII,  comes unstuck in time and yet endures, partly through the philosophical guidance of aliens from the planet Tralfamadore.

Still from Slaughterhouse-Five (1972)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: While this movie is no weirder than it has to be, it is the most faithful movie adaptation of as novel from one of the strangest geniuses in American literature, so it has that going for it. Standalone, it punches the same weight as the war movies we honor here, while taking a novel that was seemingly impossible to film and making it look so natural you wonder that it wasn’t written as a script in the first place.

COMMENTS: At last, our quest for the ideal Kurt Vonnegut adaptation brings us to Slaughterhouse-Five (1972). This is the Papa Kurt movie that comes most highly recommended, with a promising directorial credit. George Roy Hill also directed the film adaptation of The World According to Garp (1982), another difficult book-to-film challenge with another author of sophisticated black comedy, which he pulled off with somersaults. Hill’s resume is bursting with offbeat cleverness like Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), the weirdest musical about a roaring-20s flapper busting a human trafficking ring. Charged with putting Kurt Vonnegut’s most acclaimed novel to film , Hill made an effort which the author himself would go on to praise, miracles never cease! Now let us pause to quaff a shot of something that will make our breath smell of mustard gas and roses, and prepare to be thrilled. I will try to explain what it means to be unstuck in time: take a normal life as a deck of cards, then shuffle it. That’s all; there’s no time-traveling DeLorean here.

We open with Billy Pilgrim (Michael Sacks) in an unexpectedly graceful setup: he’s typing a letter explaining how he is unstuck in time, jumping back and forth in his life, with no control over where or when… Then we segue into the war. Billy served as a chaplain’s assistant in the U.S. Army during WWII; he revisits this part of his life at random. He also shifts to the planet Tralfamadore, where he is held by aliens as an intergalactic exhibit with a mate, Montana Wildhack (Valerie Perrine), who was chosen for him by his alien hosts—who are quite pushy about having them breed. She’s sweetly Continue reading APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE (1972)

CAPSULE: MONOS (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Alejandro Landes

FEATURING: Sofia Buenaventura, Julianne Nicholson, Moisés Arias, Wilson Salazar

PLOT: A paramilitary squadron of teenagers guard a hostage at a remote jungle location; bad decisions by the inexperienced soldiers lead to tragedy.

Still from Monos (2019)

COMMENTS: Monos is a movie that reminds everyone of other movies, of Lord of the Flies and Apocalypse Now and Aguirre the Wrath of God. That’s not a knock on director Alejandro Landes; there’s no need to reinvent the wheel, when existing styles are the best means to tell the story you want to tell.

A co-ed group of eight teenagers are given rifles and tasked with guarding an American hostage (and a cow) on a lonely mountaintop. To pass the time, they play blindfolded soccer and shoot automatic rounds into the air; as the story begins, their life is more like summer camp than boot camp. They have code names like “Rambo” and “Bigfoot” and work for “the Organization,” with their single point of contact with the outside world a ripped dwarf dubbed “the Messenger.” We do not know why they are fighting or who they are fighting for or against. Besides providing an ambiguous ambiance, there’s an important reason for the lack of specific context to the military campaign–it puts you in the same position as the conscripted kids, who have no ideology and show no understanding of the prospects or merits of their side of the conflict.

Monos is a worthy movie, but it’s mostly a work of psychological realism exploring the dynamics of a group of child soldiers. The kids struggle against their hormones, form internal alliances, seem to not understand why their hostage isn’t friendlier to them, and make immature decisions that lead to their numbers being whittled down over the course of the movie. Its slim claims to weirdness stem from a number of impressionistic, ritualistic montages—in particular, one where three of the team discover psychedelic mushrooms on the eve of a government ambush—which gives it that surreal fog-of-war haze found in war films like Come and See. Mica Levi (Under the Skin ) contributes a misty, atonal score that heightens the ethereal unease.

Wilson Salazar (“the Messenger”) was himself drafted into the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) at the age of thirteen. He was initially brought in to train the kids to act like soldiers, but the filmmakers liked his look and persona so much that they cast him in a prominent role.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

…surreal, wildly beautiful… Easily one of the best films of 2019.”–Tara Brady, The Irish Times (contemporaneous)

360. COME AND SEE (1985)

Idi i smotri

“And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see. And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.”–Revelation 6:7-8

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Elem Klimov

FEATURING: Aleksey Kravechenko, Olga Mironova, Liubomiras Laucevicius

PLOT: Florya, a boy of about 14, digs in a field with a playmate, hoping to find a buried rifle so he can join the Belorussian partisans fighting against occupying Nazis. He finds one, and is soon roughly whisked away by soldiers to the forest campground, leaving his sobbing mother behind. When the troops go on patrol he is left alone to guard the camp, but after the Luftwaffe bomb the area he and a female companion return to Florya’s village, where he finds the war has devastated everything his once knew.

Still from Come and See (1985)

BACKGROUND:

  • Based on a memoir of a teenage Belarussian partisan, Come and See was commissioned to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory over the Nazis.
  • Director Elem Klimov, still a relatively young man at 52 when he completed Come and See, chose to retire from filmmaking after its release, saying that he could not top this achievement.
  • Come and See is included in Steven Schneider’s “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die” and tied for 30th (among directors) and 154th (among critics) in “Sight and Sound”‘s 2012 Greatest Movie poll, among other accolades and honors.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It could be the closeup of Aleksey Kravechenko’s prematurely aged face at the end. Or the S.S. skull-on-a-stick the refugees turn into an effigy of Hitler. For me, however, the most surprising and unforgettable image was the nightmare of Florya and Glasha sloshing through a muddy bog in desperation, fleeing from a horror they will never be able to outrun.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Forest Charleston; cow in a firefight; kill baby Hitler?

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Come and See’s flirtations with surrealism nudge it into the “weird” category, and then its sheer grueling intensity carries it to “must see” status. That recommendation should perhaps come with a warning that, despite containing nothing particularly graphic, this movie’s sheer aura of evil is likely to disturb you on a deep level. This is not a shock-for-shock’s-sake experience, however, but an honest, unflinching dip into the subconscious of an adolescent boy thrust into a horrific situation initially beyond his comprehension—one which he tragically comes to understand all too well.


DVD trailer for Come and See

COMMENTS: Come and See is war movie as horror movie. It is notable for its immersive intensity. It unrelentingly assaults your sensibilities, as sadistically eager to strip away your innocence as it is to Continue reading 360. COME AND SEE (1985)

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)