Category Archives: War

SIFF 2015: The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 30, 2015)

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If you’ve seen Roland Joffe’s 1984 war drama The Killing Fields, you’ll likely never forget the extraordinarily moving Oscar-winning performance by “non-actor” Dr. Haing S. Ngor. Ngor didn’t need to call on any Actor’s Studio “sense memory” tricks to deliver his utterly convincing turn as a man who somehow survived and escaped from captivity during Cambodian dictator Pol Pot’s unspeakably bloody purge of his own people…he had lived the experience himself. Arthur Dong’s documentary fills us in on what led up to Ngor’s surreal moment in the Hollywood spotlight, and his subsequent second life as a political activist. Unfortunately, despite the late Dr. Ngor’s admirable achievements and Dong’s noble intentions, the workmanlike construct of the film makes it a bit of a slog; it loses focus and runs out of steam about halfway through. Still worth seeing for the simple fact that (Joffe’s film aside), few have expended time and energy to document the worst holocaust since WW2.

SIFF 2015: Beti and Amare ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 23, 2015)

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It’s an old story: In the midst of the Italo-Abyssinian War, teenage Ethiopian girl meets mute alien boy, who has hatched from an egg that has appeared out of nowhere next to a desert well. Girl brings boy to her uncle’s isolated home, where she is hiding out from Mussolini’s invading forces and marauding members of the local militia while her uncle is traveling. Romance ensues (how many times have we seen that tale on the silver screen?). German writer-director-DP-editor-producer Andy Siege has crafted a fairly impressive debut feature that is equal parts harrowing war drama, psychological thriller and sci-fi fantasy. I don’t know if these were conscious influences, but Siege’s film strongly recalls Roman Polanski’s 1965 psychodrama Repulsion, and 1970s-era Nicolas Roeg (more specifically, The Man Who Fell to Earth and Walkabout).

SIFF 2015: Beats of the Anatov ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 16, 2015)

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In the harrowing opening sequence of Sudanese war journalist Hajooj Kuka’s documentary, members of a refugee camp frenetically scatter for cover as one of them exclaims “The plane is coming! The Antonov! It’s here!” The obviously unnerved cameraman swerves his lens skyward, where a solitary, seemingly benign prop plane lazes overhead. Then suddenly, a massive explosion…followed by shocked silence for a few seconds as the camera surveys the damage; several huts engulfed in flame. Then, as the smoke clears, a most extraordinary sound; the last thing you would expect to hear: the laughter of children. “The laughter is always there,” a resident explains, “People laugh despite the catastrophe because they realize they are not hurt…laughter is like a new birth.” This pragmatism has become a crucial coping mechanism for the people of the Blue Nile and Nuba mountain regions of Sudan, an African nation that has been in a perpetual civil war since 1956. Kuka  illustrates how it’s not just laughter, but non-stop communal singing and dancing that keeps spirits (and culture) alive. Most interestingly, there is zero demarcation between the “performer” and the “audience”. Anyone can play along or improvise a verse; it’s Democracy at its purest.

Yet another fruitless war: Tangerines ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 9, 2015)

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So there was this card-carrying commie banjo player named Pete Seeger, who used to perform an antiwar singalong called “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” The lyrics are essentially a set of rhetorical questions, ending with a haunting refrain “…when will we ever learn?” Apparently, the answer to that last question is: “Never?” At least, judging from the fact that 60 years after that song was written, wars continue to rage all over the world. Yet people keep singing that silly tune, in the vain hope that those who hold the power to wage them will listen, and that its message will finally sink in: Wars are dumb.

Card-carrying dumb.

Pete Seeger based his lyrics on a passage from a traditional Cossack folk song lamenting the fruitlessness of war. I only mention this because it so happens the latest antiwar film to inquire as to the whereabouts of the flowers also originates from the steppes of Russia.

Tangerines is an Estonian-Georgian production written and directed by Zaza Urushadze. Urushadze sets his drama in Georgia, against the backdrop of the somewhat politically byzantine Abkhazian War of the early 1990s. Although this bloody civil war is raging quite literally on the doorstep of their sleepy little hamlet, two crusty Estonian men with adjoining properties, woodworker Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak) and farmer Margus (Elmo Nuganen) are more concerned with harvesting Margus’ small tangerine crop and getting it to market before the fruit rots (or before the orchard itself becomes collateral damage).

However, faster than you can say “acceptable losses”, a sudden, violent skirmish erupts one evening, mere steps away from Ivo’s modest cottage. Ivo and Margus cautiously investigate the resultant carnage, and discover that there are two survivors: a Chechen mercenary, who is fighting for the separatists (Giorgi Nakashidze), and a Georgian government soldier (Mikheil Meskhi). Ivo takes both soldiers under his roof and begins to nurse them back to health. As these wounded men are sworn enemies of each other, you may already have an idea where this story is going. Or maybe you only think you do.

While there are obvious touchstones like All Quiet on the Western Front, La Grande Illusion and Hell in the Pacific, Urushadze’s film sneaks up on you as a work of true compassion. As the characters slowly come to recognize their shared humanity, so do we (after all, everyone bleeds the same color).

As the characters come to recognize their shared humanity; so do we. Beautifully written, directed and acted as the film is, I hope there comes a day in this fucked-up slaughterhouse of a world when no one feels the need to make another like it.  As a great 20th Century English poet once wrote: You may say I’m a dreamer…but I’m not the only one.

Start the revolution without me: The Liberator **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 4, 2014)

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The stats on democratic revolutionary Simon Bolivar are pretty impressive. By the time he died at age 47 in 1830, he had waged over 100 battles against the Spanish throughout Central and South America, liberating and establishing the united territory of Gran Columbia (an area stretching south from the modern nations of Panama at one end and Peru at the other). He’s highly revered in Latin America to this day (hell, they even named Bolivia after him).

I wish I could say the same about Alberto Arvelo’s slickly produced yet cloyingly idealized biopic, The Liberator. It’s too bad, because charismatic leading man Edgar Ramirez gives it his best shot (and looks convincingly dashing wearing a waistcoat and wielding a saber), but Timothy J. Sexton’s script takes a Cliff’s Notes approach that skimps on Bolivar’s motivations.

What made him decide to give up his life as a wealthy country gentleman (who grew up on a family plantation maintained by slave labor, no less) and transform into “El Libertador“, freeing South America from the Spanish Empire? The epiphany is implied, but never fully explained; from watching the film, he may as well be Bruce Wayne donning a cape and transforming into Batman every night…and that’s all we need to know. Rousing battle scenes and lush period details are fine and dandy, but an historical epic ultimately requires some innate sense of history.

Goodnight, Saigon: The Last Days of Vietnam ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 4, 2014)

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Call this an intervention, but someone has to say it. America has an ongoing co-dependent relationship with the Vietnam war. Oh, I know, it’s been nearly 40 years since we were “involved”. And to be sure, as soon as the last Marine split, we wasted no time giving the war its ring back. We put our fingers in our ears, started chanting “la-la-la-la can’t hear you” and moved on with our lives, pretending like the whole tragic misfire never happened. But here’s the funny thing. Every time we find ourselves teetering on the edge of another quagmire, we stack it up against our old flame. We can’t help ourselves. “We don’t want another Vietnam,” we worry, or “Well…at least this doesn’t seem likely to turn into another Vietnam,” we fib to ourselves as we get all dressed up for our third date.

But do all who use that meme truly understand why it’s so important that we don’t have another Vietnam? For many (particularly those too young to have grown up watching it go sideways on Walter Cronkite), the passage of time has rendered the war little more than an abstract reference. It’s too easy to forget the human factor. Even for many old enough to remember, dredging up the human factor reopens old wounds (personal or political). But you know what “they” say…those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it. Which is why I would encourage you to catch Rory Kennedy’s documentary, The Last Days of Vietnam, precisely because she dares to dredge up the “human factor”.

Kennedy focuses on a specific period of time; literally the “last days” of American involvement in Vietnam, detailing the drama that unfolded at the U.S. Embassy compound in Saigon in April of 1975, as North Vietnamese forces closed in on the city. The city defenses were virtually nil; U.S. troops had withdrawn (save a small contingent of Marines assigned to protecting the embassy grounds). The South Vietnamese soldiers who remained were sorely under-equipped and in disarray. No word had arrived from Washington as to any official contingency plans for evacuating any of the South Vietnamese from the city (Congress was gridlocked on the subject…imagine that). It began to dawn on some of the embassy workers that time was running out for their South Vietnamese co-workers and friends. With no time to lose, they decided to go a bit…rogue.

Blending archival footage with recollections by participants (American and Vietnamese), Kennedy reconstructs the extraordinary events of those final days and hours that ultimately resulted in the successful extraction of 77,000 men, women and children (which is about, oh, 77,000 more than would have been able to escape had everyone just sat around and waited for an act of Congress…sometimes, you’ve got to break a few protocols in the name of basic human decency). And as you watch the film you realize what a tremendous act of courage and compassion this was on the part of those who spearheaded this makeshift exodus (it’s reminiscent of Dunkirk). For some participants, who refuse to accept any laurels, memories remain bittersweet at best; obviously they did not have the time or the resources to get everyone out, and that hits them hard to this day.

Of course, there’s that big question that remains: Why were we there in the first place? “The end of April 1975 was the whole Vietnam involvement in a microcosm,” one of the interviewees quietly observes as he wells up with emotion, “Promises made in good faith, promises broken. People being hurt, because we didn’t get our act together. The whole Vietnam war is a story that kind of sounds like that.” Sadly, as we now find ourselves chasing ISIS down the rabbit hole, this is starting to sound like a story without an ending.

WW 2, the B-sides: The Wind Rises ***1/2 & Generation War **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 1, 2014)

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Jiro dreams of Zeros: The Wind Rises

If I understand Hayao Miyazaki’s take on the life of Jiro Horikoshi correctly, he was sort of the Temple Grandin of Japanese aviation; a photo-realistic visual thinker who lived, breathed, and even dreamed about elegant aircraft designs from childhood onward.

The fact that his most famous creation, the Zero, became one of the most indelible icons of Japanese aggression during WW2 is incidental. As I was hitherto blissfully unaware of Horikoshi prior to viewing the venerable director’s new (and purportedly, final) anime, The Wind Rises, I’m giving Miyazaki-san benefit of the doubt; though I also must assume that Miyazaki’s beautifully woven cinematic tapestry involved…a bit of creative license?

Those who have followed Miyazaki’s work over the past several decades may be surprised (perhaps even mildly disappointed) to learn that the director’s swan song is a relatively straightforward biopic, containing virtually none of the fantasy elements that have become the director’s stock-in-trade. Still, he makes his fans feel at home right out of the starting gate with a dream sequence…about flying (a signature theme that recurs throughout Miyazaki’s oeuvre).

The young Jiro has nightly dreams about meeting his hero, the Italian aircraft designer Caproni, who gives him tours of fantastical flying machines that spark his imagination and creativity. Too nearsighted to become a pilot himself, Jiro finds solace in his natural gifts for engineering and design. As he follows Jiro into adulthood, Miyazaki gives us a crash course in Japanese history between the wars. Also along the way, Jiro meets the love of his life, a young woman named Nahoko.

Miyazaki largely maintains an apolitical tone (and leapfrogs over the war years to go straight to the denouement), although there is some implied conflict of conscience in a scene where Jiro laments how the military just wants to subvert the aesthetics of his elegant designs into weapons of destruction (I suppose you could argue that one can’t fault Einstein for coming up with an elegant equation that was subverted into a mushroom cloud of death).

At the end of the day, The Wind Rises is an old-fashioned love story and elegiac look at prewar Japan. And there is no denying the sheer artistry on display (a recreation of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 is the most epic and technically brilliant sequence I have ever seen in the realm of cel animation). Incidentally, Miyazaki has “retired” at least once before. I hope he doesn’t mean it…again.

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Dedicated followers of fascists: Generation War

German filmmakers step into a PC minefield whenever they tackle a WW2 narrative from the perspective of German characters; it’s a classic “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” conundrum. If you present your protagonists in too much of a sympathetic light, you’re a revisionist, or (at worst) an apologist. If you go too much in the opposite direction, you’re feeding the stereotype that every German who was alive during Hitler’s regime was an evil Nazi. Okay, a lot of Germans were party members, and the Nazis were evil, but that’s beside the point. The politics of war are seldom black and white; there’s plenty of gray area for an astute dramatist to navigate.

The most well-known example of successfully navigating that gray area is Lewis Milestone’s 1930 WW1 drama, All Quiet on the Western Front, which follows a group of young Germans as they transform from fresh-faced, idealistic recruits into shell-shocked combat veterans with 1000-yard stares (well, those who survive). The humanistic approach gives the story a universal appeal; it’s a moot point that the protagonists happen to be “the enemy” (war is the great equalizer). While less-celebrated, I would rank Masaki Kobayashi’s 1959 epic The Human Condition as the greatest achievement in this arena (9 hours…but I’d still recommend it).

Falling somewhere in the middle (epic in length but somewhat tepid in narrative) is Generation War, a 5-hour German mini-series hit that has now been repackaged as a 2-part theatrical presentation. Directed by Philipp Kadelback and written by Stefan Kolditz, the film is sort of a German version of The Big Red One, with echoes of the Paul Verhoeven films Soldier of Orange and Black Book.

The film opens with five close friends enjoying a going-away party on the eve of Operation Barbarossa (which will change all their lives…forevah). Actually, only three of them are “going away”. Wilhelm (Volker Bruch), an officer in the Wehrmacht, and his younger brother Friedhelm (Tom Schilling) will be off to the Eastern Front, and Charlotte (Miriam Stein) hopes to lend her nursing skills to the Red Cross. Greta (Katherina Schuttler), an aspiring chanteuse and her verboten Jewish lover Viktor (Ludwig Trepte) will hold down the home front. After much drinking and dancing, there’s consensus that the war should wrap by Christmas.

Of course, the war doesn’t wrap up by Christmas (besides, as the audience, we’ve still got 4 ½ hours left on the meter at this point). Unfortunately, what ensues is more cliché than bullet-ridden, and the film itself becomes as much of an arduous slog as Wilhelm and Friedhelm’s 3-year trudge toward Moscow (with Wilhelm’s interstitial voice overs excerpting Deep Thoughts from his war journals to serve as the Greek Chorus). The five leads give it their best with commendable performances, but (with the exception of one or two scenes) are handed barely-above-soap opera level material to work with. Also, there is one too many “Of all the gin joints of all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine” moments.

To give credit where credit is due, there is one eminently quotable epiphany, via one of Wilhelm’s journal entries. It arrives too late in the film to fully redeem the lulls in the preceding several hours, but it bears repeating: “To start with, on the battlefield, you fight for your country. Later, when doubt sets in, you fight for your  comrades…whom you can’t leave in the lurch. But when nobody else is left, when you’re alone, and the only one you can deceive is yourself? What do you fight for then?” Granted, that may just be a long-winded variation on  “War isn’t about who is right, but who is left”…but as far as rhetorical questions go? It’s a doozy.

Vermeer to eternity: The Monuments Men ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 8, 2014)

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Saviors of the lost art: Clooney & co. in The Monuments Men

My late Uncle Irv was an even-keeled man; kindhearted, easy going, and always up for a good laugh over coffee and a bagel. In all the years I knew him, I have no particular memories of ever seeing him angry or vitriolic. Except for one occasion.

A few years before he passed, he took me aside and showed me his modest collection of personal WW2 memorabilia. I knew that he had flown  bombing missions over Germany as a navigator on a B-17; but I had never pressed him for details. He was showing me the weathered photographs, uniform patches, mission plans and such, when he paused and quietly hissed, “Those fuckin’ Nazis.” It was so out-of-character that it took me aback for a moment. But I got it. He and I lost  many of our mutual relatives in the concentration camps.

And when it comes to war movies, we all “get it” why Nazis are depicted as the ultimate villains. Because they were. Are. Will remain…until the end of recorded time. And you would think by now, Hollywood would have collated and dramatized all the empirical data that has led to a general consensus among decent human beings that the Third Reich was, overall, a terrible idea.

Believe it not, however, there are yet additional historically documented reasons why the Nazis are the ultimate villains (as if the mass genocide, the incursions and the wanton destruction wasn’t enough). Specifically, they looted. And they hoarded. Big time. Especially when it came to Europe’s treasure trove of great art.

Toward the end of the war, thanks to Hitler’s scorched earth directives, countless sculptures and paintings by (then) contemporary artists (like Picasso) were destroyed for not being “collectible” enough (Worst. Art. Critics. Ever.) Luckily, there was a U.S. Cavalry (of sorts) that rode in and saved the day.

The story of this little-known mission to rescue Europe’s plundered art and return it to its rightful owners has been dramatized in a  The Monuments Men. Directed by George Clooney, with a script he adapted with his  Grant Heslov from a non-fiction book by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter, the story takes place during the waning days of the war as the Allies close in on Germany from all fronts.

Clooney casts himself as museum curator Frank Stokes, assigned by FDR to hand-pick a team of qualified experts to take a crash-course in basic training and then head to the front with two directives: 1) Advise the advancing Allies about known locations containing renowned art so it is not inadvertently destroyed, and 2) Pinpoint the Nazi stashes. The resultant platoon of not-quite-ready-for-combat players is like The Dirty Dozen…with art degrees.

Initially, while I was watching the obligatory “We’re getting the band back together!” montage, I thought “Please, don’t let this be an in-jokey ancillary to the Ocean’s Eleven franchise” (especially when I noted that Matt Damon was on board) but those fears were dissipated as I got pulled into the story. In fact, Clooney and Heslov have fashioned a highly entertaining old-school WW2 adventure yarn, in the tradition of Where Eagles Dare and The Guns of Navarone.

Granted, you’re not going to see this team of art historians and professors scaling cliffs and blowing stuff up real good, but this is nonetheless an absorbing tale of courage and personal sacrifice, topped off by a fine ensemble including Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, and Hugh Bonneville (channeling Jack Hawkins). Look for a cameo by Clooney’s dad Nick. Alexandre Desplat’s rousing score keeps things rolling along.

It’s refreshing to see a WW2 angle that hasn’t been done to death. The only previous example I can think of is John Frankenheimer’s  1964 drama The Train (also set in 1944, it stars Burt Lancaster as a railroad stationmaster recruited by the French Resistance to prevent a trainload of stolen French masterpieces from reaching Germany). It’s also refreshing to see a true rarity these days: an unabashedly patriotic “rah-rah for the good guys” war movie that doesn’t ultimately involve Navy Seals blowing someone’s shit away.

When someone is trying to take over the world (pretty much Hitler’s goal), there are many things at stake. The preservation of innocent lives, of course is paramount, and the preservation of freedom. But the preservation of culture is crucial as well. As Clooney’s character says in the film “[Art] is our history. It is not to be stolen or destroyed. It’s to be held up and admired.” And worth fighting and dying for? I’ll bet if my Uncle Irv was here, he would say, “Yes.”

Seattle Jewish Film Festival 2014: Aftermath ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 22, 2014)

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This intense drama from writer-director Wladyslaw Pasikowski (which reminded me of the 1990 West German film, The Nasty Girl) concerns a Polish émigré (Ireneusz Czop) who makes a visit from the U.S. to his hometown for the first time in decades to attempt a reconciliation with his estranged brother (Maciej Stuhr). He quickly gleans that his brother (whose wife has recently left him) has become a pariah to neighboring farmers and many locals in the nearby village. After some reluctance, his brother shows him why: he’s been obsessively digging out head stones from local roads that were originally re-appropriated from a Jewish graveyard during WW2, converting his wheat field into a makeshift cemetery. Oddly, he’s also learning Hebrew (the brothers are non-Jews). Not unlike the protagonist in Field of Dreams, he can offer no rational explanation; “something” is compelling him to do it. It seems he’s also dredging up shameful memories among the village elders that they would prefer not to process. It is a powerfully acted treatise on secrets, lies…and collective guilt.

In her own write: Hannah Arendt ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 20, 2013)

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A comic I worked with a few times during my stand-up days (whose name escapes me) used to do a parody song (to the tune of Dion’s “The Wanderer”) that was not only funny, but a clever bit of meta regarding the very process of coming up with “funny”. It began with “Ohh…I’m the type of guy, who likes to sit around,” (that’s all I remember of the verse) and the chorus went: “Cuz I’m the ponderer, yeeah…I’m the ponderer, I sit around around around around…” Still makes me chuckle thinking about it. And it’s so true. Writers do spend an inordinate amount of time sitting around and thinking about writing. To the casual observer it may appear he or she is just sitting there staring into space, but at any given moment (and you’ll have to trust me on this one) their senses are working overtime.

There’s lots of staring into space in Hannah Arendt, a new biopic from Margarethe von Trotta. The film focuses on a specific period in the life of the eponymous character (played by Barbara Sukowa, in her third collaboration with the prolific German director), when the political theorist/philosopher wrote a series of articles for the New Yorker magazine (eventually spawning a book) covering the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. If that doesn’t sound to you like the impetus for a slam-bang action thriller, you would be correct; even if the film does in fact open with a bit of (murky) action. A man has his leisurely nighttime stroll rudely interrupted by a team of abductors, who unceremoniously toss him into the back of a truck and spirit him away (in 1960, Eichmann was nabbed in Argentina and smuggled to Israel by the Mossad to stand trial).

The remainder of the film more or less concerns itself with the personal and professional fallout suffered by Arendt (a German Jew who fled from France to New York in 1941 with her husband and mother) after she eschews the expected boilerplate courtroom reportage for an incendiary treatise redefining the nature of evil in a post-Nazi world. It was in this magazine piece that Arendt coined the phrase “banality of evil”, which has become part of the lexicon (god knows I’ve co-opted it once or twice in my own writing). While it doesn’t seem like such a big deal now, this was a provocative (and subsequently controversial) concept for its time.

Most fascinating to Hannah (and us, as we watch interpolated archival footage from the trial) was Eichmann’s  ho-hum businesslike demeanor as he recounted sending thousands to the gas chambers; just another bureaucrat punching a clock and filing in triplicate (remember Michael Palin as the torturer in Brazil, casually removing a blood-spattered smock to affably play with his little girl, who has been patiently waiting in Daddy’s office while he’s “working”?).

Sukowa gives a compelling performance as Hannah; particularly impressive considering how much of it is internalized (she’s so good that you can almost tell what she’s thinking). While a film largely comprised of intellectuals smoking like chimneys while engaging in heated debates over ethical and political questions is obviously doomed to a niche audience, its release turns out to be quite timely. A day or two after I saw the film, the “controversy” over the Rolling Stone Boston bomber cover was all over the media. I couldn’t help but immediately draw a parallel with the flak that Arendt received in 1960 because she dared suggest that Evil doesn’t necessarily wear horns and carry a pitchfork. There’s something about that simple fact what really pisses some people off. Go figure.