Category Archives: War

DVD Reissue: Gone With the Wind ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 28, 2009)

Gone With the Wind  (70th Anniversary Edition)  – Warner (2-disc)

1939 was a good year for director Victor Fleming. Even if he had been hit by a bus after helming The Wizard of Oz, his rep would have been secured; but he also delivered a little sleeper you may have heard of called Gone With the Wind that  same year. Technically,  he “inherited” the project from  George Cukor, who dropped out over differences with producer David O. Selznick (who in essence co-directed). No matter who actually called the shots, the end result is generally considered the quintessential American film epic.

You know the story (based on Margaret Mitchell’s  sprawling novel); spoiled, narcissistic Southern diva (Vivien Leigh) has unrequited love for dashing Confederate war hero (Leslie Howard) who is betrothed to her saintly rival (Olivia deHavilland) and takes 2 hours of screen time to realize she really belongs with the roguish and equally self-absorbed Clark Gable.

The burning of Atlanta (and other Civil War distractions) provides an occasional sense of release from the smoldering passion and sexual tension (consummated in torrid fashion about 3 hours in). That’s a lot of foreplay, but in the meantime you are treated to a visually sumptuous feast and mythic performances by all four leads. It is worth noting that co-starHattie McDaniel became the first African-American actor to win an Oscar (Best Supporting Actress, 1940, for her role as “Mammy”).

While it is hopelessly “of its time” (particularly in its unfortunate characterizations of African-Americans), it is ahead of its time in one respect-it features some very strong and self-sufficient female protagonists. This is one film that transcends its own medium. Warner’s 2009 transfer is breathtaking.

Torah! Torah! Torah!: Inglourious Basterds ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 29, 2009)

Care to repeat that anti-Semitic remark?

World War II movies can be divided into four categories. There’s the no-nonsense, fact-based docudrama (The Longest Day, The Battle of the Bulge, Tora! Tora! Tora!). There’s the grunt’s-eye-view, “based on a true story”  yarn (Saving Private Ryan, The Big Red One, Hell is for Heroes). There’s the Alistair MacLean-style action-adventure fantasy;  with maybe one toe grounded in reality (Where Eagles Dare, The Dirty Dozen, The Eagle Has Landed). And finally, there’s the “alternate reality” version (Castle Keep, The Mysterious Doctor, and The Keep). Quentin Tarantino’s new war epic, Inglourious Basterds, vacillates between action-adventure fantasy and alternate reality.

Sharing scant more than a title with the correctly spelled 1978 original (itself a knockoff of The Dirty Dozen) Inglourious Basterds is ultimately less concerned with WW2 than it is with giving the audience a Chuck Workman on acid montage of 20th century cinema, “101”. It’s not like we haven’t come to expect the cinematic mash-up/movie geek parlor game shtick in Tarantino’s films, but he may have outdone himself here, referencing everything from the Arnold Fanck/Leni Riefenstahl mountain movies to Tony Montana making his final stand in Brian DePalma’s Scarface.

Tarantino wastes no time referencing his Sergio Leone obsession, with a prelude cut straight out of Once Upon a Time in the West and pasted into “Nazi-occupied France”. Remember Henry Fonda’s memorably execrable villain? He has a soul mate in SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), a disarmingly erudite sociopath who has been assigned the task of combing France to round up and eliminate Jews hiding out in the countryside. Landa is very good at his “job”, which has earned him the nickname of “The Jew Hunter”.

A scenery-chewing Brad Pitt stars as Lieutenant Aldo Raine (whose name, I am assuming, is homage to the late actor Aldo Ray, who was a staple player for many years in war films like Battle Cry, The Naked and the Dead, Men in War and The Green Berets). Lt. Raine has been charged with assembling a Geneva Convention-challenged terror squad comprised of a hand-picked group of Jewish-American G.I.s.

Their special assignment: Kill Nazis. I know – “Wasn’t that the goal of the Allied forces in Europe?” Yes, but the mission orders normally didn’t include a directive to take scalps. And forget about taking prisoners; although they always leave a lone survivor (not before they etch out a Charlie Manson-style souvenir in his forehead).

The self-anointed “Basterds” have managed to “carve out” quite a name for themselves, and have become the bane of evil Nazis (or as Raine refers to them in his Huckleberry Hound drawl, “gnat-sees”) everywhere; these are some bad-ass Jews. Even the Fuhrer (Martin Wuttke) fears them; he is particularly chagrined whenever the name of the dreaded “Bear Jew” (horror director Eli Roth) is mentioned.

This particular team member (known to fellow Basterds as Sgt. Donny Donowitz) has earned his nickname from his swarthy, hulking appearance and a preference for dispatching Nazis utilizing a baseball bat (move over, Sandy Koufax). These happy Jews, this band of bubelehs have even enlisted a Nazi-hating German defector (Til Schweiger) who fits right in; he’s a complete psychopath.

This outing is not strictly a Braunschweiger fest. No Tarantino film from Jackie Brown onward would be complete without an ass-kicking heroine. Shosanna Dreyfus (played with smoldering intensity by Melanie Laurent) is a French Jew who has a score to settle with one of the main characters (recalling “The Bride” in Kill Bill).

She’s a clandestine resistance fighter (a la Melville’s Army of Shadows) who has covered up her Jewish heritage by changing her name and “hiding in plain sight” as proprietress of a movie house. Her story eventually converges with the Basterds (and her quarry), culminating in an audacious, Grand Guignol finale.

Love him or hate him, Tarantino proves again to have a real knack for two things: writing crackling dialogue, and spot-on casting. As usual, every actor seems to have been born to play his or her respective part , especially Waltz. Repellent as his character is, Waltz manages to telegraph the pure joy of performing, just short of hamming it up.

Pitt, who doesn’t get as much screen time as trailers infer, seems to be having the time of his life. Diane Kruger is good as a German movie star who is feeding intelligence to the Allies. A heavily made-up Mike Myers can be seen as a British general; playing he type of supporting character “back at HQ” that you could picture Anthony Quayle, Jack Hawkins or Trevor Howard playing back in the day.

As you might expect, there are cameos a-plenty, including Rod Taylor (as Winston Churchill) and Bo Svenson (a veteran from the original film). Don’t strain your eyes trying to spot cameos by QT stalwarts Harvey Keitel and Samuel L. Jackson; they are heard, but not seen. Tarantino appears as a dead German soldier getting scalped, which undoubtedly fulfills the fantasies of some of his detractors.

Much of the dialogue is spoken in-language by the French and German actors. It’s quite a testament to the director’s formidable writing skills that after the first few scenes, you don’t really notice that some characters will frequently switch idioms (especially the amazing Waltz, who proves equal fluency in German, French, Italian and English). Even when subtitled, the words veritably sing and dance with Tarantino’s unmistakably idiosyncratic pentameter.

In the context of pure visual storytelling, I think that Inglourious Basterds signals the director’s most assured, mature and resplendent work to date (beautifully photographed by Robert Richardson, who was the DP on both Kill Bill films and previously a veteran of 11 Oliver Stone collaborations). This is particularly evident in the film’s opening scene, which immediately draws you in with an eye-filling, gorgeously expansive exterior shot of the French countryside.

The buildup to the finale is the visual highlight of any QT film to date. In a possible homage to Joan Crawford’s Vienna (whose name is derived from the French word for “life”) donning her rose red blouse for the final showdown with her black-clad nemesis in Nicholas Ray’s  lurid revenge western Johnny Guitar, Shosanna (whose name derives from the Hebrew word for “rose”) dons her vividly Technicolor red dress as she prepares for the showdown with her black-clad nemesis, scored with David Bowie’s “Putting Out Fire” (originally the theme for Paul Schrader’s 1982 version of Cat People).

It’s a ballsy move by Tarantino, but not unlike his similarly brash gamble lifting of the theme song from Across 110th Street for Jackie Brown’s credits, I’ll be damned if it ain’t the perfect choice (maybe he figured it would have been pushing his luck to also “borrow” the “harmonica man” theme from Once Upon a Time in the West?).

Finally, I wanted to share a thought or two about the violence, which is de rigueur for any Tarantino film, and which invariably provides the catalyst for discord in any conversation between his disciples and detractors. Yes,  you will see scalpings, stabbings, shootings, and deaths by strangulation and bludgeoning. This is not Pinocchio.

Yet, if you were to add up all of this mayhem in screen time, I’m guesstimating that it wouldn’t be more than 10 minutes (out of a 153 minute total running time). With the possible exception of Kill Bill Vol. 1 (an over-the-top affair in the bloodletting department by anyone’s standards) I think that the knee-jerk tendency is to perceive a higher ratio of violence in Tarantino’s films than actually exists.

In fact, do you know which scene has the most white-knuckled, edge-of-your seat, heart-pounding suspense in this film? People playing a game of Celebrity Heads. I won’t spoil it for you; just know that wherever Alfred Hitchcock is, he’s probably looking down on QT with a nod and a wink…from one inglourious basterd to another.

Welcome to the Hotel Babylonia: Waltz with Bashir ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 7, 2009)

George Carlin had an absolutely brilliant routine concerning his disdain for the rampant use of euphemisms to sugarcoat hard truths. As an example, he traced the metamorphosis of the term “shell shock” throughout the course of 20th century warfare:

There’s a condition in combat. Most people know about it. It’s when a fighting person’s nervous system has been stressed to its absolute peak and maximum. Can’t take anymore input. The nervous system has either (click) snapped or is about to snap.

In the First World War, that condition was called “shell shock”. Simple, honest, direct language. Two syllables, shell shock. Almost sounds like the guns themselves.

That was seventy years ago. Then a whole generation went by and the Second World War came along and the very same combat condition was called “battle fatigue”. Four syllables now. Takes a little longer to say. Doesn’t seem to hurt as much.” Fatigue” is a nicer word than “shock”. (Stridently) “Shell shock!” (Subdued) “Battle fatigue”.

Then we had the war in Korea, 1950. Madison Avenue was riding high by that time, and the very same combat condition was called “operational exhaustion”. Hey, we’re up to eight syllables now! And the humanity has been squeezed completely out of the phrase. It’s totally sterile now. Operational exhaustion. Sounds like something that might happen to your car.

Then of course, came the war in Viet Nam, which has only been over for about sixteen or seventeen years, and thanks to the lies and deceits surrounding that war, I guess it’s no surprise that the very same condition was called “post-traumatic stress disorder”. Still eight syllables, but we’ve added a hyphen! And the pain is completely buried under jargon. Post-traumatic stress disorder.

I’ll bet you if we’d of still been calling it shell shock, some of those Viet Nam veterans might have gotten the attention they needed at the time. I’ll bet you. I’ll bet you.

A rose by any other name. Whether you want to call it shellshock, battle fatigue, operational exhaustion or PTSD, there’s one thing for certain: unless you are a complete sociopath and really DO love the smell of napalm in the morning…war will fuck you up.

In a new animated feature called Waltz with Bashir, writer-director Ari Forman mixes the hallucinatory expressionism of Apocalypse Now with personal sense memories of his own experiences as an Israeli soldier serving in the 1982 conflict in Lebanon to paint a searing portrait of the horrors of war and its devastating psychic aftermath. A true visual wonder, the film is comprised of equal parts documentary, war diary and bad acid trip.

The film opens with an unsettling sequence of a terrified young man being relentlessly pursued by a pack of raging, snarling hell-hounds, nipping at his heels as he flees through a war-torn urban landscape. This turns out to be the visualization of a recurring nightmare that haunts one of the director’s fellow war vets. While lending a sympathetic ear to his pal as he props up the bar and continues to recount his psychic trauma, Forman has a sudden and disturbing epiphany: his own recollections of his tour of duty in Lebanon are nowhere near as vivid; in fact they are virtually non-existent.

This leads Forman on a personal journey to unlock the key to this selective amnesia. He confides in a psychiatrist friend, who urges him to seek out and interview as many of his fellow vets as he can. Perhaps, by listening to their personal stories, he will ultimately unblock his own.

The answer may lie in the possibility that he had a ringside seat to the horrific Sabra and Shatila refugee camp massacres, in which a large number of Palestinian non-combatants (including women and children) were rounded up and summarily executed by members of the Lebanese Christian Phalangist militia while Israeli Defense Force troops stood by. What follows is an affecting rumination on repressed memory, circumstantial complicity and collective guilt.

The director generally steers clear of heavy-handed polemics; this is more of a “soldier’s story”, a universal grunt’s-eye view of the confusion and madness of war, in which none are really to blame, yet all remain complicit. This eternal dichotomy, I think, lies at the heart of the matter in trying to understand what it is that snaps inside the mind of the walking wounded (or “shell-shocked”, if you will).

How do we help them? How do we help them help themselves? With the recent distressing news about the ever-escalating suicide rates of our own American Afghanistan/Iraq war veterans, I think these questions are more important than ever, for a whole new generation of psychically damaged young men and women. In the meantime let’s continue to hope for a day when the very concept of war itself has become but a “repressed memory” for the entire planet.

The whole Bolivian army: Che ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 24, 2009)

Bosch:  A series about a bunch of bank-robbing guerillas? 

Schlesinger:  What’re we going to call it –the ‘Mao Tse Tung Hour’?

Diana:  Why not? They’ve got StrikeForce, Task Force, SWAT — why not Che Guevara and his own little mod squad?

-from Network (by Paddy Chayefsky)

No…wait! How about a full-length feature film about Che Guevara? No, wait….two full-length feature films, combined as a 4 ½ hour epic? We’ll throw Fidel into the mix, and make it a buddy movie. We’ll show how these two young, rugged and idealistic Marxists sowed the seeds of the Cuban Revolution with little more than a couple of guns, a rag-tag band of rebel soldiers, and a leaky boat. Then, we’ll move the action over to Bolivia, where Che plays cat and mouse in the jungle, Rambo-style, with the whole Bolivian Army looking for him…then he goes out in a blaze of glory! How’s this for a working title: “Butch Castro and the Argentine Kid”? We could get that kid who just directed another Oceans 11 sequel? Oh yeah, Soderbergh. That means he’s due for one of his Art House Cred films? Perfect!

Well, as far as Art House Cred flicks go, you could do worse than Che, Steven Soderbergh’s new biopic about one of the most iconic figures in the history of revolutionary politics. I know what you’re thinking. You’ve got your Thomas Jefferson, with the intellectualized ideals and the Declaration thingie; you’ve got your Mahatma Gandhi, with the passive resistance and the civil disobedience.

However, let’s face facts: Whose mug do you see on all the T-shirts and the dorm room posters? The stately, bewigged gentleman farmer? The lovable, bespectacled uncle? That’s not sexy. The bearded guy with the beret and the bandolier, leading his own little mod squad through the jungle like Robin Hood and his merry band, sticking it to The Man in the name of the People. Now that’s sexy.

Let’s get this out of the way first. Ernesto “Che” Guevara was no martyr. By the time he was captured and executed by a unit of CIA-directed Bolivian Special Forces in October of 1967, he had played judge and jury and put his own fair share of people up against the wall in the name of the Revolution. He was Fidel Castro’s right-hand man; some historians have referred to him as “Castro’s brain”.

That said, he was a complex, undeniably charismatic and fascinating individual. By no means your average run-of-the-mill revolutionary guerilla leader, he was also well-educated, a physician, a prolific writer (from speeches and essays on politics and social theory to articles, books and poetry), a shrewd diplomat and had a formidable intellect (he “palled around” with the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir; like many native Argentines, he was fluent in French as well). He was also a brilliant military tactician.

Soderbergh and his screenwriters Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. Van Der Veen have adapted their two-part story from a pair of Guevara’s own autobiographical accounts (respectively): Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War and The Bolivian Diary.

Part 1 begins with Guevara (Benicio Del Toro) preparing to address the U.N. in 1964, in his capacity as the head of the Cuban delegation. It was during this brief yet significant visit where Guevara’s cult of personality was first seededin America; he made a TV appearance on Face the Nation and was even feted by Senator Eugene McCarthy (both events are recreated in the film). Guevara also met with Malcolm X during this  junket; although the film skips over that.

DP “Peter Andrews” ( Soderbergh in actuality…long story) shoots the footage of the 1964 trip in a stark, B&W verite style, which gives it a faux-documentary vibe and cleverly instills an effective period flavor. It also makes an eye-catching contrast to the beautifully photographed full-color flashbacks that make up the bulk of Part 1, which covers Guevara’s involvement in the Cuban revolution, beginning with his initial introduction to Castro in 1955, and culminating with an expansive, rousing, Sergio Leone-worthy recreation of the decisive battle of Santa Clara in 1958.

Regardless of your feeling on Guevara’s significance as a historical figure (or Castro’s, for that matter), what ensues in the movie’s first half is nothing less than a thoroughly absorbing, and at times downright exhilarating, piece of ace film making. What I found most fascinating about this part of the story is the amount of sheer determination and force of will that can be summoned up by people who are so thoroughly and immovably committed to an ideal.

Intellectually, it helps you grok the romanticism of “revolution” and the  rock star appeal that leaders of such political movements can possess. Again, however, Castro and Guevara were no saints. They “freed” the Cuban people from an oppressive dictatorship, only to turn around and install their own oppressive dictatorship (meet the new boss, same as the old boss). And so endeth Part 1.

Part 2 is a different bailiwick. In late 1966, following an unsuccessful attempt to stir up a people’s revolution from the disarray caused by a civil war in the Congo (mentioned only in passing in the film), Guevara headed for Bolivia to see what kind of trouble he could scare up there (he was nothing, if not committed to his principles).

Unfortunately for Guevara, this venture was to lead to his final undoing. Compared to the relative cakewalk of a small island nation like Cuba, the rugged, desolate vastness of landlocked Bolivia proved to be a more daunting logistical hurdle for his preferred method of using “armed struggle” to win over the hearts and minds of the peasants; consequently this revolution didn’t quite “take”.

Since we know this going in, and after checking our watches, we also know that the film still has 135 minutes to go, the question is: How can Part 2 be as engrossing as Part 1? Well, it depends on how you look at it. If you’re the completist type (like me), naturally you’re going to want to know how the story ends.

I found Part 2  equally involving, but in a different vein. Whereas Part 1 is a fairly straightforward biopic, Part 2 reminded me of two fictional adventures with an existential bent, both of which also happen to be set in similarly torrid and unforgiving South American locales; Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear and Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Like the doomed protagonists in those films, Guevara is fully committed to his journey into the heart of darkness, and has no choice but to cast his fate to the wind and let it all play out.

A word about the presentation. My review is based on the “special road show edition” of the film that I saw here in Seattle (now playing in selected cities). This was presented as a 4 ½ hour film (ow, my ass), with a 15-minute intermission, and no opening or closing credits.

When it goes into wider release, it will be presented as The Argentine (Part 1) and Guerilla (Part 2), with individual admissions. I also noticed (to my chagrin) that it has now popped up on PPV in two parts (if your lineup includes the “IFC in Theaters” feature). I would recommend seeing it as a whole; but if your budget and/or attention span dictates otherwise, at least try to catch The Argentine if you can.

Earsplittenloudenboomer: Valkyrie **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 3, 2009)

A patchy uprising: Tom Cruise in Valkyrie.

One of my favorite  lines from Mel Brooks’ The Producers is uttered by psychedelicized thespian “Lorenzo St. Dubois” (Dick Shawn), star of the Broadway musical romp Springtime for Hitler. After “Goebbels” (David Patch) carelessly tosses a lit reefer into a vase, making it explode, our “Hitler” turns  to the audience with a wink and bemoans in mock consternation: “They try…man, how they try!”

Man, how they tried. By 30 April 1945, the day Adolph Hitler finally put us all out of his misery by treating himself to a cyanide cocktail, followed by a Walther PPK 7.65mm caliber chaser, there had been no less than 17 (documented) schemes/attempts to take him out.

The would-be assassins ranged from military officers (captains to field marshals) to members of his  inner circle (including Armaments Minister Albert Speer, who toyed with the idea of sending poison gas down the ventilator shaft of his Berlin bunker in 1945). It looked like Hitler was going to be tougher to get rid of than Rasputin.

The most famous attempt, code-named “Valkyrie”, was spearheaded by an idealistic German nationalist named Colonel Count Claus von Stauffenberg, an army staff officer who ingratiated himself into a well-organized consortium within the German resistance.

On July 20, 1944, Stauffenberg, who had finagled himself into a position to attend Hitler’s military strategy meetings, managed to smuggle a briefcase full of timed plastic explosives into a conference at the “Wolf’s Lair”. He slipped the briefcase under the table, close to where Hitler was positioned, excused himself to take an “important call”, and waited outside for the earth-shattering ka-boom.

Once all hell broke loose, Stauffenberg made a beeline to Berlin to initiate the next phase of the plot, which would require neutralizing the SS and mobilizing the reserve army (under an emergency contingency government reorganization plan that ironically had been set up by Hitler himself). It almost worked (except for the part where they forgot to check Hitler’s pulse before proceeding with Step 2). The day did not end well for Stauffenberg and several other key conspirators; they did not live to see the next sunrise.

This true-life tale contains all the thrills, suspense and complex plotting of a ripping WW2 yarn by Alistair MacLean, except that in this case, the “good guys” and the “bad guys” are all…the “bad guys” (i.e., based on the traditional Hollywood depiction of WW2 era Germans). This presents an interesting dilemma for a filmmaker. It is only in recent years that we have seen films that (for better or for worse) posit a relatively objective view of what the Second World War looked like from the perspective of the Germans.

Now, I am by no means an apologist (I had many distant relatives who perished in concentration camps, and the very sight of a swastika makes me physically ill) but it is a fact that not every single person who lived in Germany between 1933 and 1945 was a blindly obedient member of the National Socialist Party who worshiped Hitler. There was actually an active military and civilian domestic resistance movement that flourished during that era.

One of the earliest films to lurch in that direction was Edward Dmytryk’s The Young Lions (1958) which featured among its three principal characters a conflicted Nazi lieutenant (Marlon Brando) who was devoted to duty, yet palpably repulsed by the inhumanity being perpetrated in the name of the Fatherland. Cabaret (1972) tentatively touched on the idea of the anti-Nazi sentiment within Germany, but the story ends just as Hitler is coming to power, so in historical context, his full capacity for avarice and evil would have still been an unknown quantity to the general populace at the time.

Das Boot (1981) was probably the first film to portray members of the Nazi era German military in a “sympathetic” light and was one of the first to feature German military characters expressing anti-Hitler sentiments. Then again, this was not a Hollywood production (it was originally produced for German TV). And tangentially, we have Schindler’s List (1993) which cheers for an unlikely war hero-an (initially) opportunistic Nazi businessman who profited from the abundance of cheap labor from concentration camps.

All of which now inevitably (unavoidably?) brings us to the new Tom Cruise vehicle, Valkyrie, reuniting director Bryan Singer with his The Usual Suspects screenwriter, Christopher McQuarrie (who co-scripted with Nathan Alexander). Cruise stars as Stauffenberg; stern of jaw, steely of gaze and nattily resplendent in polished jackboots and matching eye patch. To the chagrin of some, he is also bereft of a German accent. This is a moot point, because most of his co-stars sport British accents. Since we know  everybody in this story is German, it’s but a momentary distraction (like when Tony Curtis informs Spartacus that he is “…a singah of sooangs.”)

Singer showcases his prowess for well-staged action sequences in a slam-bang battle scene early on the film that depicts how Stauffenberg suffered his disfiguring wounds. As he recovers from his injuries, we catch a glimpse of his family life, and glean  a warm relationship with his children and his devoted wife (Carice van Houten). As the tides of the war turn against the Reich, Stauffenberg comes to realize that Hitler’s hopes for victory are becoming more delusional by the day and can only lead to the complete annihilation of his beloved Germany, so he decides that he must be stopped.

The film recreates several other assassination attempts by Stauffenberg and his associates which preceded the conference room bombing at Wolf’s Lair in July 1944. The final attempt is quite riveting, tautly directed and full of nail-biting suspense. Unfortunately, however the film is marred by an abrupt ending; the split second after Cruise has his Big Death Scene, it’s time to fade to black and roll credits (it’s probably in his contract rider).

Another problem is Cruise himself. Yes, he is a Movie Star, right down to those dazzling choppers, but try as he might over the years (bless his heart), he is just simply not cut out to be a character actor.

The real Stauffenberg was a complex person; a fervent German nationalist, an aristocrat, politically conservative and introspectively philosophical by nature. All I kept seeing up on that screen was…Tom Cruise with an eye patch. Don’t get me wrong, when a part is tailor made for his particular energy (Risky Business, Jerry Maguire, Magnolia) he can be undeniably appealing and genuinely charismatic.

Two supporting performances are particular standouts; the always-excellent Tom Wilkinson as General Fromm, and Bill Nighy as Genral Olbricht. A couple other venerable Brits are on board (Terrence Stamp and Kenneth Branagh) but they aren’t given too much room to flex (perhaps Producer Tom didn’t want to be upstaged).

Singer does have a keen eye for historical detail. Several key scenes were filmed on location, most significantly the recreation of Stauffenberg’s execution, which was staged in the Berlin courtyard where the actual incident took place (that courtyard now contains a memorial to the conspirators, now regarded as national heroes in Germany). History buffs will likely be more forgiving regarding the film’s shortcomings, and just enjoy it as a straightforward WW2 action thriller. Tom Cruise fans will see it regardless of critical opinion, and the rest…may want to just wait for the DVD.

Men with puns: Military Intelligence and You! ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 22, 2008)

As both Groucho Marx and George Carlin have famously (and astutely) observed, the phrase “military intelligence” may very well be the ultimate oxymoron. Writer/director Dale Kutzera takes that concept one step further in a unique film that has been simmering on the festival circuit since 2006, but is currently making a round of limited runs around the country. Military Intelligence and You! cleverly mixes the political satire of Dr. Strangelove and the skewering lunacy of Catch-22 with the film parodist sensibilities of Mel Brooks and the Zucker brothers to deliver a volley of not-so-subtle allusions to the current administration’s all-to-real comedy of errors at home and abroad since 9/11.

Seamlessly incorporating film clips from vintage B&W movies and historical archive footage with newly shot narrative (a la Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid and Zelig), Kutzera  creates a faux-WW2 military training film, circa 1944. The “film” is replete with the stilted dialogue, over-the-top melodrama, uber-patriotism and jingoist stance that one expects in a government-sanctioned wartime propaganda production. It is lorded over by a ubiquitous Narrator (Clive van Owen) whose delivery falls somewhere between a vintage Ed Herlihy newsreel and the droll voice-over in Dr. Strangelove.

The story is divided between the intrigue taking place at an army intelligence HQ and the ordeals of a downed and captured bomber crew in a Nazi POW camp. Back at HQ, intelligence officer Major Nick Reed (Patrick Muldoon) is convinced of the existence of a Super Secret German Fighter Base that has been launching damaging sneak attacks on Allied bomb squadrons headed for Germany. Reconnaissance missions have failed to produce evidence of these weapons of mass destruction, and Reed is having a tough time convincing his colleague, Major Mitch Dunning (Mackenzie Astin) and their superior, General Jake Tasker (John Rixley Moore) that this Nazi “ghost squadron” airfield even exists. The only one who has faith in him is his trusty aide/ex-squeeze Lieutenant Monica Tasty (Elizabeth Ann Bennett, spoofing Lauren Bacall and Veronica Lake).

Meanwhile, back at the POW camp, our intrepid fly-boys are teaching us the “Dos and Don’ts” of dealing with Gestapo interrogators, whilst the narrator duly notes whose example we should be following and whose we shouldn’t (like the guy who spills the beans after letting the commandant liquor him up in front of a cozy fire…that’s a definite no-no!).

Most of the real WW2 era training film footage (taken from a War Department film called “Resisting Enemy Interrogation”) is folded into the POW camp narrative. The rest of the film is seasoned with well-selected scenes from vintage Hollywood WW2 action movies, which infuses Kutzera’s modestly-budgeted production with an impressive roster of “supporting” stars like William Holden, Alan Ladd, Elisha Cook, Jr. and Van Heflin. There is also a notable appearance by a young and particularly gung-ho fighter pilot by the name of Ronald Reagan, who really gives it to those evil empire builders-with a purposeful squint and a pair of hot blazing barrels.

Although it is a one-joke premise, I found it a very amusing one. Kutzera’s script will  likely not age as well as Terry Southern’s  has for  Dr. Strangelove…but for now, it’s on target. For instance, the narrator refers to Pearl Harbor several times, but never mentions it by name. It is referred to as “the events of 12/7” or simply “12/7”. At one point, General Tasker lowers the threat level from “orange…to tangerine.” Major Reed gives Lieutenant Tasty a pep talk, urging her to go shopping; otherwise “the evil doers win” . Not all of the laughs rely on the nudge-nudge wink-wink ; every time the fictional German city of “Riboflavin” was mentioned, I fell out of my chair. Then again, I still find the running “blucher!” gag in Young Frankenstein hysterical. What the hell-I’m easy.

Some viewers might find all the anachronistic references to our current political situation a little too smug and overly obvious, but you know what? I think people need to be hit over the head with these kinds of allusions right now, even if it comes in the guise of a goofy little 78 minute film that will lose its topical relevance a year or two down the road. And for all of our sakes, let’s pray that it does, starting next Inauguration Day.

Thin Lizzie: Elizabeth: The Golden Age (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 20, 2007)

Alas and anon…just when you thought it was safe to assemble an armada and go back into the water, here comes another costumer concerning a certain virgin queen. Bollywood director Shekhar Kapur has re-enlisted Cate Blanchett and Geoffrey Rush for one more crack at the old girl in Elizabeth: The Golden Age. Picking up a few decades hence from where he left off in his 1998 film Elizabeth (which depicted her ascendancy) Kapur condenses a turbulent, historically significant 4-year period during Elizabeth’s reign into what appears to be a very eventful week in the life of HRM.

As the film opens, we are introduced to a much more wary and care-worn monarch (an alarmingly thin Blanchett) holding court over England’s destiny. Gone is the radiant, rosy-cheeked and free-spirited “Bess” who lit up the screen in the previous film; she has been replaced by a mercurial, slightly paranoid monarch constantly on guard against duplicitous well-wishers and sycophants. Even close confidants are kept at arm’s length, especially her Machiavellian “spymaster”, Sir Francis Walsingham (Rush).

The Queen has two big headaches keeping her on edge. The first is her cousin, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland (Samantha Morton, in a fiercely intense performance) who feels she is the rightful heir to the English throne, not the childless “bastard” Elizabeth (who is a Protestant to boot). Mary has some influential Catholic sympathizers at home and abroad, including the other royal pain in Elizabeth’s derriere, King Philip II of Spain (Jordi Molla), who gets his jollies jeering at the English queen and rattling his saber.

Elizabeth finds a temporary distraction from all her political woes when the dashing adventurer Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen, in all his rangy glory) strolls into her court, full of tales and loaded with booty from his latest excursion to the New World. Elizabeth is obviously charmed, but has to suppress her schoolgirl crush for sake of appearances. However, when she learns that Raleigh has fathered a child and secretly eloped with her favorite chambermaid, Bess Throckmorton (Abbie Cornish) she is not so amused, and gives him a nice cozy jail cell to explore for a few years. Not to worry, however-history intervenes and the Queen pardons Raleigh in time to put him in charge of naval defenses in the year of the Armada (1588), which fuels the climactic (and rousing) battle scenes.

This is one of those “historical” epics where you have to make a decision going in whether you are going to nitpick and get cranky over odd factual inaccuracies and anachronisms, or just sit back and bask in the opulent pageantry and bodice-ripping court intrigue with a shit-eating grin on your face. Keep in mind, the screenplay is by William Nicholson, who scripted the (very) loose re-invention of the Camelot legend, First Knight, and Michael Hirst, who wrote for The Tudors, Showtime’s recent mini-series about the reign of Henry VIII. In other words, this ain’t Masterpiece Theater, folks.

Kapur seems indecisive; as if he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to make an updated version of Fire Over England (which depicted Elizabeth and Raleigh embroiled in court intrigue in the year of the Armada) or pay homage to The Sea Hawk (the swashbuckling action scenes featuring Owens in full Errol Flynn mode will definitely make history majors twitch). Nicholson and Hirst’s dialogue fuels some spirited exchanges between Blanchett and Owen in the first half of the film that reminded me of the clever repartee from Shakespeare in Love, but it ultimately clashes with some of the heavier moments later on (Samantha Morton nearly steals the movie in her execution scene, but it seems to belong in a different, darker-toned film).

If you are a genre fan, you’ll be pleased. Blanchett is excellent in the lead role, and Owen is charismatic as always. Rush is good, although his character is a bit one-dimensional (not his fault). One thing for sure-this should be the last of Liz the First for a while. Right? Tell me there isn’t another one in pre-production. Prithee (sp.?), tell me.

War is unhealthy for children: Pan’s Labyrinth ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 13, 2007)

In 2001, Mexican writer-director Guillermo del Toro used the Spanish Civil War as a backdrop for his ghost story The Devil’s Backbone. Six years later, del Toro has returned once again to the tumultuous Franco era, this time with a twist of dark fantasy in his wildly imaginative and visually striking Spanish-language drama, Pan’s Labyrinth.

12-year old newcomer Ivana Bacquero delivers an impressive, nuanced performance as the film’s central character Ofelia, an intelligent, introverted girl on the verge of puberty who still clings to her childhood fascination with fairy tales. She and her very pregnant mother have just set up quarters with her new stepfather Captain Vidal (the always brilliant Sergi Lopez), a brutal, sadistic Fascist officer charged with mopping up stubborn rebel forces entrenched in the Spanish countryside.

With nothing resembling love or affection forthcoming from the odious Vidal, and with her mother becoming increasingly bedridden due to a difficult pregnancy, Ofelia finds an escape valve by retreating ever deeper into a personal fantasy world, which she enters through an imaginary gate in a nearby garden. This is not necessarily Alice through the looking glass, as you might think; this is a much darker world of personified demons and monsters borne from Ofelia’s subconscious take on the real-life horrors being perpetrated by her monstrous stepfather and his Fascist henchmen.

In some respects, the film reminded me of 1973’s Spirit of the Beehive, also set against the backdrop of Franco’s Spain, and likewise centering on a lonely young girl retreating into a private fantasy world in response to feelings of estrangement from her family. While there are also some similarities here to the likes of Alice In Wonderland, Spirited Away, and The Secret Garden, be advised that this is not a feel-good fairy tale with a warm and fuzzy ending that you want to sit down and watch with the kids. The fantasy elements are closer in tone to Brothers Grimm morbidity than Tolkien whimsy; and del Toro pulls no punches depicting the horror and suffering that takes place during wartime.

What did you do in the war, Mommy? – Black Book (***1/2) & The Good German (**1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 2, 2007)

If you have perceived a deluge of WW2-themed films as of late, you’re not imagining things. Most of the critical brouhaha seems to have been centered on Clint Eastwood’s   Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima (neither of which I have seen yet, I will admit), which likely explains why two other WW2 dramas helmed by a pair of equally noteworthy directors have slipped in and out of theatres relatively un-noticed.

Paul Verhoeven’s Zwartboek (aka Black Book) and Steven Soderbergh’s The Good German share some interesting similarities. They both represent a throwback to a certain type of old-fashioned WW2 adventure yarn, and they both feature strong female protagonists doing whatever it takes to survive their wartime nightmare.

Black Book (co-written by the director with Gerard Soeteman) is native Hollander Paul Verhoeven’s first Dutch language film in quite a while. It’s a “Mata Hari” style tale set in Holland in the waning days of the German occupation, as the Allies make their post-D-Day push across Europe. Carice van Houten is compelling as a former chanteuse named Ellis, a Dutch Jew who has spent the occupation in hiding with a farm family. When her hosts perish in a bombing raid, Ellis is left with the realization that she will now have to live by her wits if she is to survive (The Sound of Music meets Showgirls? Discuss.)

After a series of harrowing escapes, Ellis finds herself in the Dutch Resistance. As part of a plan to spring some imprisoned Resistance fighters, she is asked to seduce the commander of the local SS detachment, Colonel Muntze (Sebastian Koch, in a nicely fleshed out performance). Things become complicated when Ellis develops a genuine attraction to Muntze.

This is an exciting war adventure, with interesting plot twists along the way (replete with a few patented over-the-top Verhoeven moments, usually involving uncompromising nudity and gore). It’s refreshing to see Verhoeven escaping from Hollywood and getting back to his roots; while I generally enjoy his big budget popcorn fare, I have always felt his Dutch films (e.g. Spetters, The 4th Man, Soldier of Orange) were more challenging and substantive (Verhoeven the Hired Hand vs. Verhoeven the Auteur, if you will).

Steven Soderbergh loves to pay homage. In fact, (Mr. Tarantino aside), he probably holds the record for dropping more cinema buff-centric references per film than any other director. In his most recent film, The Good German (filmed in glorious B&W), he may have allowed this tendency lead him too deeply into “style over substance” territory.

The story is set in immediate post-war Berlin, with the backdrop of the uneasy alliance and growing mistrust between the occupying U.S. and Russian military forces. Captain Jacob Geismer (George Clooney) is an American military correspondent who has been assigned to cover the Potsdam Conference.

His G.I. driver, Tully (Tobey Maguire) is a slick wheeler-dealer (reminiscent of James Garner’s character in The Americanization of Emily) who procures everything from cigarettes to women and has a German girlfriend (a barely recognizable Cate Blanchett, dutifully delivering her lines in a husky Marlene Dietrich drone).

Imagine Capt. Geismer’s surprise when Tully introduces him to said girlfriend, and she happens to be an old lover of his. To tell you more risks revealing spoilers, so suffice it to say that Lena, a Woman with a Dark Secret, becomes the central figure in a murder mystery, with the hapless Geismer drawn right into the thick of it.

Unfortunately, despite a certain amount of suspense in the first act, the story becomes increasingly convoluted and curiously non-involving.  Blanchett’s performance feels phoned-in, and I wouldn’t call it Clooney’s best work either. Now, it is possible that Soderbergh is SO obsessed with aping an old-fashioned, film noir-ish, black and white late-40’s war thriller, that he may have in fact directed his actors to mimic the semi-wooden, melodramatic acting style that informed many of those films. (Even the DVD transfer appears to be part of the joke; as it is matted in full frame 1.33:1 aspect ratio).

The film does sport a great “vintage” look; the cinematography is outstanding (Soderbergh has never faltered in that department) and he perfectly captures the chiaroscuro look of a certain classic Carol Reed film (I am sure I am not the first person to draw comparisons to The Third Man). There are also some other obvious touchstones here, like Hitchcock’s WW2 thrillers Notorious and Foreign Correspondent.

At the end of the day, however, if I want to see something that reminds me of The Third Man or Foreign Correspondent, I think if I had my druthers, I would just as soon pull out my DVD of The Third Man or Foreign Correspondent, if you know what I am saying. While The Good German certainly looks pretty, it ultimately feels pretty… empty.

Incitement to mutiny: Sir! No Sir! ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 18, 2006)

There have been a good number of excellent documentaries examining various aspects of the Sixties protest movement (The War At Home, Berkeley In The Sixties and the more recent Weather Underground), but none focusing specifically on the members of the armed forces who openly opposed the Vietnam war-until now.

Sir! No Sir! is a fascinating look at the GI anti-war movement during the era. Director David Zeigler combines present-day interviews with archival footage to good effect in this well-paced documentary. Most people who have seen Oliver Stone’s Born On The Fourth Of July were likely left with the impression that paralyzed Vietnam vet and activist Ron Kovic was the main impetus and focus of the GI movement, but Kovic’s story was in fact only one of thousands (Kovic, interestingly, is never mentioned in Ziegler’s film).

While the aforementioned Kovic received a certain amount of media attention at the time, the full extent and history of the involvement by military personnel has been suppressed from public knowledge for a number of years, and that is the focus of Sir! No Sir!.

In one very astutely chosen archival clip, a CBS news anchor somberly announces that there appears to be some problems with “troop morale” in Vietnam (while in the meantime, behind closed doors, the US military was apparently imprisoning dissenting GIs left and right under “incitement to mutiny” charges, sometimes just for being overheard expressing anti-war sentiments).

All the present-day interviewees (military vets) have interesting (and at times emotionally wrenching) stories to share. Jane Fonda speaks candidly about her infamous “FTA” (“Fuck the Army”) shows that she organized for troops as an antidote to the somewhat creaky and more traditional Bob Hope USO tours. Well worth your time. The film would make an excellent double bill with the classic documentary Hearts and Minds (available from Criterion).