Movie Project #50: Gone with the Wind [1939]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

Gone with the Wind [1939]

Gone with the Wind [1939]
Director: Victor Fleming, George Cukor (uncredited), Sam Wood (uncredited)
Writers: Margaret Mitchell (novel), Sidney Howard (screen play)
Country: USA
Genre: Drama/Romance/War
Starring: Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Thomas Mitchell, Leslie Howard, Olivia de Havilland
Running Time: 238 minutes

“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that I saved Gone with the Wind for the very end of this project. The idea of sitting through a nearly four hour historical romance epic is incredibly daunting, no matter the accolades of the film. What more can be said about this 1939 feature anyway? It’s still the highest grossing film of all time (when adjusted for inflation), it won ten Oscars (including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay) and it has one of the most quoted movie lines ever. Yet even with all of these honors, perhaps the best thing I can say about the film is that it really does not feel like it’s four hours long.

Split into two distinct parts, Gone with the Wind is set in the Old South right in the midst of the Civil War. At first glance, life is grand for the white folk. Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) is a true southern belle, soaking up the adoration of all the local men. She lives on a massive cotton plantation in Georgia called Tara, and she has everything she wants — except for one thing, the man she is in love with. This man, Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), does not share this same love, and he is more than happy to marry his cousin, Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland), who just so happens to be Scarlett’s best friend. As you could imagine, there is a ton of melodrama at play, as Miss O’Hara does everything in her power to make Ashley fall in love with her, or at least find ways to get back at him.

Gone with the Wind [1939]

A wrench is thrown into her plans when a local drifter named Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) meets her at a party. Butler, already disowned by his family, raises the ire of the other guests when he announces that the South has no chance against the superior numbers of the North. Nonetheless, his antics catch the attention of O’Hara. She plays “hard to get” with him, yet he keeps finding ways to run into her.

As the war grows more intense, the South receives heavy damage. The “good ol’ south” becomes a fragment of the past, forcing those who were once well off (like Scarlett) to get in and do some manual labor themselves. Eventually, through much persistence, Rhett and Scarlett do get together, and the second part of the film focuses on their relationship.

It’s quite the sprawling, epic story, and it takes place over decades. The tumultuous marriage of Rhett and Scarlett is shown in great detail, and there are also glimpses at the lives of those around them, including Ashley and Melanie. Yet throughout all of this, Scarlett O’Hara remains the focal point, for better or for worse.

I say “for worse” because quite frankly Scarlett is one of the most despicable women in the history of film. She is a spoiled, arrogant brat who puts herself above everyone else. She manipulates everyone around her, even engaging in multiple sham marriages just to improve her personal wealth or get back at others. Four hours of her greed and selfishness just grows to become too much. However, by the end of the film, when Clark Gable mutters that immortal line of “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”, it is one of the most satisfying payoffs I have seen.

Gone with the Wind [1939]

I can only imagine how revolutionary Gone with the Wind was during its heyday. It’s still an impressive piece of filmmaking today, but some of its faults are more noticeable now. Namely, the glorification of the South is often ridiculous. The northerners are depicted as brutes who slaughter innocent townspeople and try to rape women, whereas most of the southerners are portrayed as perfect gentlemen. Many of the African Americans shown in the film come across as dumb and perfectly content to be slaves. These depictions are farcical, and they are especially inappropriate today.

Still, historical inaccuracies and all, Gone with the Wind remains an inspired classic that somehow manages to never get boring. I am glad that I finally watched it, though I have to admit I have little desire to sit through it again.

8/10

 
And with that, this year’s movie project is complete! Stay tuned within the coming days for a wrap-up of all 50 films, including a ranking of my personal favorites.

Movie Project #49: The Bridge on the River Kwai [1957]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

The Bridge on the River Kwai [1957]

The Bridge on the River Kwai [1957]
Director: David Lean
Writers: Carl Foreman, Michael Wilson
Country: USA/UK
Genre: Adventure/Drama/War
Starring: William Holden, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Sessue Hayakawa
Running Time: 161 minutes

David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai is not a conventional prisoner of war story, even though it appears to be at first. At the beginning of this 1957 epic, a large group of British soldiers are led through the jungles of Burma to the closest POW camp — all while whistling the catchy opening strain of the “Colonel Bogey” march. It is here where they meet the local commandant, a very stern Japanese man named Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa). His orders are to make these prisoners finish the construction of a railroad bridge over the nearby River Kwai.

Saito immediately discredits any notion of fairness by ordering everyone, officers included, to begin work immediately. The senior British officer, Lt. Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), cites the Geneva Conventions and refuses to make his fellow officers work. This draws the ire of Saito, who forces every officer to stand all day in the sweltering tropical heat. Nicholson is sent off to “the oven”, a small box for solitary confinement.

At this point, it appears the film is going to be about the conflict between the Japanese and the British officers. Yet it is here where things go in a different direction.

The Bridge on the River Kwai [1957]

Three prisoners attempt to escape — two are shot dead, the other is wounded but manages to get away. The surviving escapee, U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander Shears (William Holden), stumbles onto a village and eventually ends up in the open arms of the Mount Lavinia Hospital. Just as he begins settling into a relaxing life on the beach, he is approached by the British Major Warden (Jack Hawkins), who forcefully coerces him into “volunteering” for a commando mission. The goal? To blow up the very bridge the prisoners are working on.

Meanwhile, back at the camp, Nicholson is suffering from a very bizarre variation of “Stockholm syndrome” where he changes his tune and pushes his soldiers to do the best job possible on the bridge, even going so far as to tear down the original one in favor of starting from scratch at another point of the river. These two subplots eventually merge together at the end of the film, an absolutely thunderous, unpredictable climax.

The journey to this point is admittedly a bit of a taxing one. The film takes its sweet time setting up its plot devices, and it could use a bit of trimming at certain points. At the same time, the film is visually stunning, especially on the big screen (which I was fortunate enough to see). The Burmese jungles (actually filmed in Sri Lanka) are beautiful, with long sweeping shots of the scenery. The environment is also used to wonderful effect in the form of its sound effects — the bird calls, running water, etc. are constantly heard in the background. And of course, the whistling is insanely catchy, and it has been in my head for days.

The Bridge on the River Kwai [1957]

The cast here is phenomenal, with Alec Guinness being the biggest highlight. In fact, I found myself wishing more time had been spent on his plight rather than that of the impending commando mission. Both stories are tied together perfectly at the end, but it’s Guinness’s character’s spiral into madness that I found most captivating.

Really, that’s what the film is all about — madness — and it’s even the very last word uttered on screen. Perhaps the most glaring example is how Nicholson and Shears, both prisoners of war, have completely different goals. One wants to finish the bridge as a matter of British pride, the other wants to blow it up to save his own ass. Altogether, it’s a really interesting take on the tolls of war.

The Bridge on the River Kwai is quite lengthy, but it is a viewing experience I will never forget.

8/10

Movie Project #45: Grand Illusion [1937]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

La Grande Illusion [1937]

Grand Illusion [1937]
Director: Jean Renoir
Writers: Charles Spaak, Jean Renoir
Country: France
Genre: Drama/War
Starring: Jean Gabin, Marcel Dalio, Pierre Fresnay, Erich von Stroheim
Running Time: 114 minutes

It’s something of a miracle that Grand Illusion is available to be watched these days. The original print was thought to be destroyed during an Allied air raid in 1942. It was later found in the 1960s then transferred from Germany to Russia to France, with none of them realizing that they had the original negative. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that it was rediscovered, and eventually it made its way to the Criterion Collection. And what luck! The Criterion version is absolutely beautiful.

Grand Illusion is set during the First World War, and it follows a group of French soldiers who are held as prisoners of war by the Germans. After two French aviators, Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin), are shot down by acclaimed German Rittmeister, von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim), they arrive at the nearest German base. Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein are able to bond over their high social class, making the captivity seem more cordial than anything. After seeing the treatment of prisoners of war in other films, it’s shocking to see just how well the French are treated here. Even Maréchal, a working class man, is offered lunch immediately.

Grand Illusion [1937]

Yet even with this hospitality, the Frenchmen are determined to escape the prison. Upon meeting the other POWs, it is learned that they have been working on a secret dirt tunnel below their room. Before they are able to finish, however, everyone is transferred to other camps. De Boeldieu and Maréchal bounce from camp to camp, eventually getting settled into a mountain fortress. It is here where where the two once again encounter von Rauffenstein (still very friendly) and also a prisoner from the old camp, Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio).

Even though the fortress is dubbed “inescapable”, the men immediately get to work on developing a plan. One tactic — to get the entire group of prisoners to cause a ruckus by playing wooden flutes — is sheer genius. This act is the most suspenseful of the film, as it focuses more on an actual prison escape, whereas the beginning is more of a social/political commentary.

Grand Illusion [1937]

The film has a lot to say in this regard, though it is difficult to understand the class relations without knowing quite a bit about what it was really like back then. Director Jean Renoir fought in World War I himself (Gabin even wears Renoir’s real uniform in the film), and his firsthand experience shows the vast difference between the two wars. The upper class in the first war act cordial with each other regardless of nationality, something unheard of just years later.

Filmed in 1937, not too long before the beginning of World War II, Grand Illusion is very much a portrait of its time. Given its overall statement and the general uneasiness of the world at this time, it’s easy to see why the Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels declared this “Cinematic Public Enemy No. 1″. The back story surrounding this film is absolutely incredible, and it only enhances the viewing experience today.

8/10

Movie Project #31: To Be or Not to Be [1942]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

To Be or Not to Be [1942]

To Be or Not to Be [1942]
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Writers: Melchior Lengyel (original story), Edwin Justus Mayer (screenplay), Ernst Lubitsch (uncredited)
Country: USA
Genre: Comedy/War
Starring: Carole Lombard, Jack Benny, Robert Stack, Stanley Ridges
Running Time: 99 minutes

Reason for inclusion: I had never seen an Ernst Lubitsch film.

Accolades: One Oscar nomination (Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture), National Film Registry, #49 on AFI’s 100 Laughs

While watching To Be or Not to Be, I couldn’t help but be amazed that such a bold political satire (and spoof of the Nazis) was filmed and released during the thick of World War II in 1942. Here is a film that pulls no punches, even including multiple Hitlers, cracking jokes about a real-life horrifying situation. Yet most astonishingly, it remains tasteful.

The film takes place in Warsaw during the Nazi occupation, and it follows a Polish theater company caught in the middle of it. Josef Tura (Jack Benny) and his wife, Maria (Carole Lombard, in what is tragically her last role), are the biggest names on the bill, but both have such out of control egos that they bicker back-and-forth more often than not. Their rocky relationship leads Maria to fall for a starstruck young pilot named Stanislav Sobinski (a 23-year-old Robert Stack), who has been sending her flowers during her shows.

To Be or Not to Be [1942]

Sobinski leaves Warsaw to join the fight against the Nazis, but he eventually returns on a top secret mission to find a possible spy. This traitor, Professor Siletsky (Stanley Ridges), attempts to recruit Maria to join the Nazi cause. At this point, the film gets more and more farcical, as the theatrical group becomes entangled between the two sides, with many of the actors posing as important members of the Nazi regime.

While it can get a bit tricky following the surprisingly complex plot, especially as there are multiple people playing both the “real” and “fake” versions of the same character, it all comes together quite nicely in the end. What I loved most about the film is how it combines so many different genres and ideals. Take a political satire, throw in a bit of screwball comedy, a dash of startlingly effective suspense, and some romance, and the end result is masterful.

To Be or Not to Be [1942]

To Be or Not to Be represents a number of firsts for me. Not only is this my first Lubitsch (and certainly not the last), but it is also the first I have seen from either of its co-stars, Jack Benny and Carole Lombard. Benny is someone I have heard a lot about over the years, and his hammy, over-the-top performance in this is great fun. Lombard is the perfect counterpart, both stunning in appearance and quick with her tongue. They are both ripe with razor sharp dialogue, and each member of their theater group is given their chance to shine as well.

To Be or Not to Be is loaded with witty one-liners and a number of unforgettable scenes (“Heil me!”), and its influence is still felt today. The theater scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds bares more than a passing resemblance to its counterpart in this film. Bottom line, this is a hilarious yet suspenseful film, and it has made me eager to see more of the famous “Lubitsch touch.”

9/10

Movie Project #27: The Best Years of Our Lives [1946]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

The Best Years of Our Lives [1946]

The Best Years of Our Lives [1946]
Director: William Wyler
Writer: Robert E. Sherwood (screen play), MacKinlay Kantor (from a novel by)
Country: USA
Genre: Drama/Romance/War
Starring: Myrna Loy, Fredric March, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright, Virginia Mayo, Cathy O’Donnell, Hoagy Carmichael, Harold Russell
Running Time: 172 minutes

Reason for inclusion: This is on a whopping 24 lists at icheckmovies.com.

Accolades: Won 7 Oscars (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Music, Best Writing) + one more nomination (Best Sound), won BAFTA Film Award, Golden Globe Best Picture, National Film Registry, #179 on IMDB Top 250

At the time of its release, The Best Years of Our Lives was a monster hit. It won an impressive seven Oscars (plus an additional honorary award) and raked in the cash at the box office, second in revenue only to Gone With the Wind (which I will be reviewing later this year). The film was also released just one year after the conclusion of World War II, offering a fresh view of what life was like for returning veterans.

Perhaps most amazingly, it is still incredibly relevant over 60 years later.

The film focuses on three servicemen who form a friendship on their flight home to the fictional Midwestern town of Boone City. Each man is coming back to a completely different scenario, and all three struggle to come to terms with an America that is vastly different than they remembered.

The Best Years of Our Lives [1946]

Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) was a respected Army Air Forces captain in Europe, and he returns to a beautiful young wife, Marie (Virginia Mayo). He attempts to get his former job back as a drugstore soda jerk, but the pharmacy is now under new ownership, forcing Fred to earn his way to a better position. His wife, apparently now interested in the luxuries of life, is not thrilled with Fred’s low-paying job, causing significant problems for their marriage.

Homer Parrish (the real life veteran, Harold Russell) lost both hands in the war and now has metal hooks in place of them. He tries to make the best of his disability, but struggles when confronted with tasks that he can no longer perform. It doesn’t help that his parents are now treating him differently either. At least he still has his fiancee, Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell), who eagerly loves him even though Homer continually tries to distance himself in order to not be a “burden.”

Al Stephenson (Fredric March) might have it best out of the three veterans, though he still has his own issues. Al has a nice family, including wife Milly (Myrna Loy), older daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright) and a college freshman son, and he even gets his old job back as a bank loan officer. Better yet, the bank is pleased with his military background and offers him a promotion. However, Al is a bit too lenient in granting loans for other veterans, at least in the eyes of his superiors, and this presents a moral dilemma for him.

The Best Years of Our Lives [1946]

All three men have to deal with people treating them differently, and it sometimes seems that their only real sanctuary is gathering together at the local watering hole, Butch’s saloon. There they get good and drunk in the company of each other, the only people who can truly understand what they went through.

Nowadays, it’s discouraging to hear of veterans treated poorly by those who don’t believe in the wars they are fighting in. Shockingly, there is even an example of this in The Best Years of Our Lives. I couldn’t believe it when I heard a customer at Fred’s pharmacy ranting about how Hitler and the communists were actually the ones doing good in the war. Apparently Fred couldn’t either — he beat the living tar out of the man!

The Best Years of Our Lives [1946]

Perhaps most impressive about the film is that it doesn’t really have an agenda. I was worried that it would be a bit too heavy-handed, but thankfully that’s not the case. These veterans and their stories feel exceptionally authentic, aside from a love story that perhaps wraps things up too nicely. The performances from the three men are terrific, including the non-actor Harold Russell. He was so good that the Academy felt it necessary to grant him *two* Oscars — one for Best Supporting Actor, and one honory award “for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance.”

The Best Years of Our Lives runs a bit long, and the conclusion may be a little too optimistic, but it’s still a damn fine piece of cinema. Given the story behind it and its year of release, it’s easy to see why it was such a hit back then. It’s just a shame that so many of the difficulties it presents are still relevant today.

8/10

Movie Project #25: Au Revoir Les Enfants [1987]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

Au Revoir Les Enfants [1987]

Au Revoir Les Enfants [1987]
Director: Louis Malle
Writer: Louis Malle
Country: France/West Germany
Genre: Biography/Drama/War
Starring: Gaspard Manesse, Raphael Fejtö, Francine Racette
Running Time: 104 minutes

Reason for inclusion: I had never seen a Louis Malle film.

Accolades: Two Oscar nominations (Best Foreign Language Film, Best Writing), BAFTA Film Award for Best Direction + three other nominations, César Award – Best Film + six other wins, Golden Lion Award at Venice Film Festival

(This review discusses the film’s big “secret”, and thus contains possible spoilers.)

Based on director Louis Malle’s own childhood experiences, Au revoir les enfants is a subtle, tragic tale of friendship set in war-torn 1944 France. Technically, it is a war film, but one that is staggeringly different from most set during this period.

Gaspard Manesse stars as Julien Quentin, an 11-year-old student at a Catholic boarding school in occupied France. After returning from a much-welcomed vacation, Julien and the other kids are introduced to a new student: Jean Bonnet (Raphael Fejto). It doesn’t take long for the other children to make fun of Jean — after all, boys will be boys — and even Julien gets in on the action. Hell, at first Julien downright despises the new kid.

Au Revoir Les Enfants [1987]

It isn’t until Julien learns Jean’s secret that two of them are drawn together. You see, Jean’s real last name isn’t Bonnet — it’s Kippelstein. The boarding school, like many others in France, has been secretly harboring Jews under assumed identities in an attempt to provide them safety from the omnipresent Nazis. This is a huge risk for the school’s headmaster, and close calls with German soldiers (and French fascists) keep everyone on their toes.

Once this secret is revealed to the audience, the film grows in suspense. Nazis are continually in the picture, though surprisingly they aren’t always shown in a negative light. During one scene, Julien and Jean become lost in the woods. They eventually wander into a nearby country road where they see headlights coming in their direction. The two boys are ecstatic — at least until it is clear that these are enemy soldiers. Jean immediately takes off running — a natural impulse, to be sure. The boys are quickly caught, but rather than being tortured or worse, they are given blankets and driven back to the school. It’s rare to see Nazis portrayed positively, especially when the Holocaust is a focal point of the film.

Au Revoir Les Enfants [1987]

Of course, there are plenty of evil Nazis as well, and much of the film feels like it is a matter of when — not if — they will discover the hiding Jews. Through it all, the friendship of Julien and Jean is tested. While it is fun to watch their playful behavior throughout, this makes the seemingly inevitable conlusion even more heartbreaking to watch.

I was most impressed with Au revoir les enfants‘s absolute subtlety. Malle never forces emotions onto his audience, instead opting to just show everything as it happens. Everything feels authentic, almost certainly because Malle himself went through a similar experience as a child. As such, this is a beautiful piece of cinema, a story that will move even the bleakest of hearts.

8.5/10

Movie Project #3: The Battle of Algiers [1966]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

The Battle of Algiers [1966]

The Battle of Algiers [1966]
Director: Gillo Pontecorvo
Screenplay: Gillo Pontecorvo, Franco Solinas
Genre: Crime/Drama/History/War
Starring: Brahim Hadjadj, Jean Martin, Yacef Saadi
Running Time: 121 minutes

Reason for inclusion: This is considered one of the greatest and most important war/political films ever made.

Accolades: Golden Lion winner at the Venice Film Festival, three Oscar nominations in two separate years (Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay), ranked #6 in Empire magazine’s “The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema

It’s rare to find a war film that doesn’t pledge its allegiance to one side of the battle. In the U.S., we are so accustomed to films that either act as tributes to our soldiers, or those that paint us as bloodthirsty warmongers. There is usually no middle ground.

The Battle of Algiers has no commitment to either of the two sides it shows at war, and that’s what makes it so refreshing and still relevant.

The film acts as a capsule of the Algerian War (1954-62) between native Algerians and its French colonists, with the greatest emphasis placed on the Battle of Algiers. This is a war I knew nothing about, but the film does a good job getting viewers up to speed. The first half of the movie follows along with the urban guerrilla tactics of the insurgents in the National Liberation Front (FLN). Their goal is simple: they want their freedom back, and they will do anything to get it.

The Battle of Algiers [1966]

Many of the acts of the FLN could be considered flat-out terrorism. There is one particularly gripping scene in which a trio of Algerian women get haircuts and ditch their traditional garb in order to casually stroll past the French checkpoints in their city. Once through, each woman obtains a bomb, heads to a populated area and leaves their purse — containing the bomb — behind in a hidden location. The destruction is horrifying and we are there to see it all — the effects are made worse due to the fact that we are shown shots of people sitting down, eating, talking, basically not knowing that they are living the last moments of their lives. The shot of a little boy eating ice cream slayed me.

The Battle of Algiers [1966]

With the FLN it’s all or nothing, and while we can empathize with their request for freedom, we sure as hell can’t sympathize with their terrorist actions.

The second half of the film focuses on the French army paratroopers who are sent in to find and kill all of those active in the FLN. This group of elite soldiers, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin), are there to do their job, nothing more, nothing less. Their tactics are as ruthless as the rebels — torture, assassinations and lynch mobs are just some of the Draconian methods they use. Their method is to systematically take down the movement, one-by-one, before ultimately reaching the head of the group.

The Battle of Algiers [1966]

The Battle of Algiers is shot documentary-style, making the presentation even more effective. While everything is staged, certain scenes could easily pass as news reel footage. Director Gillo Pontecorvo made sure to include a disclaimer at the beginning of the film stating that this was shot live. The cast is composed of almost entirely unknowns, with Jean Martin being the only professional actor in the bunch. As such, there is little in the way of character development; instead, Pontecorvo relies on the war itself to tell the story. We know some of the participants in the revolution (the actual insurgent, Saadi Yacef, even plays someone loosely based on himself), but they are bit players in the grand scheme of things. This is a battle between two nations.

The influence of The Battle of Algiers is still widely present today. In 2003, during the beginning of the Iraq War, the film was screened for Pentagon employees. In the late 60s, it was mandatory viewing for Black Panthers. The film is perhaps most relevant today, given the recent Arab uprisings in Egypt, Libya and other countries. This is one that has stood the test of time, and will almost certainly continue to do so.

9/10

Movie Review: Zero Dark Thirty [2012]

Zero Dark Thirty [2012]

Zero Dark Thirty [2012]
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Writers: Mark Boal
Genre: Drama/History/Thriller
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt
Running Time: 157 minutes

When Osama Bin Laden was killed by American forces a year and a half ago, a movie release was inevitable. How could Hollywood pass up such a juicy story as the hunt for the man responsible for the deaths of 3,000 innocent Americans? Although such a film was expected, it was still a surprise to see it released the very next year. Even more shocking is that it is a damn good film getting all sorts of Oscar buzz, although it certainly helps to have the talented Kathryn Bigelow at the helm.

Zero Dark Thirty begins in 2003 with the introduction of Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA officer who has been reassigned to work at the U.S. embassy in Pakistan. She is teamed up with Dan (Jason Clarke), a fellow officer who has been interrogating detainees as to the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden (“UBL”) and other Al-Qaeda terrorists. As this is the early 2000s and during the Bush administration, this involves gratuitous torture, much of which we are there to witness. In fact, many have deemed these scenes to be controversial, some stating that they glorify torture. I don’t see it that way, as none of the interrogators are actually enjoying the torture, especially not Maya, who seems startled by it at first. It’s also hard to say just how much the torture helped in the hunt to find Bin Laden — it’s not like the only helpful information came from those who were abused. But I digress.

Zero Dark Thirty [2012]

A few years later, Maya has her eyes on a well-concealed man known as Abu Ahmed. She is determined to find him, whose whereabouts are unknown according to every detainee she talks to. Others involved in the CIA, including the top chief Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), tell her she is wasting her time. Yet Maya is anything if not persistent.

It’s a long paper trail to Osama Bin Laden, and when the CIA finally believes to have discovered his location, they are anything but certain. Everyone involved have varying levels of confidence as to whether or not “UBL” is in the targeted compound, and there is a great deal of uncertainty as to whether or not they should go through with the raid. Of course, we all know how this plays out, but it’s still fascinating to watch as we follow the breadcrumbs leading to the world’s most wanted fugitive.

Zero Dark Thirty [2012]

While many are bound to praise the scene during the final raid inside Bin Laden’s fortress, I found the thrill of the hunt to be far more enthralling. I only vaguely remembered hearing about some of the “smaller” terrorists attacks over the years, and it was quite stunning to see them reenacted on screen. Watching Maya piece together every lead or hint she found became an intriguing process, even if the end result was known.

Perhaps most interesting is that the film focuses so heavily on a female’s perspective. I was not aware that Maya (or rather, her real-life counterpart) had such a crucial role in the pursuit of Bin Laden, and without her persistence it’s hard to say whether he would still be alive. The role of Maya is played admirably by Jessica Chastain, who continues to rise to the occasion with every new role she takes. Maya’s progression (or rather, deterioration?) over the last decade is remarkable, as she toughens up with every attack, even becoming a bona fide badass by the end.

The rest of the cast is impressive as expected, another who’s who of great character actors. Jason Clarke and Kyle Chandler have important roles in the CIA, the former of which caught my eye as someone I hadn’t even heard of before. Familiar faces such as James Gandolfini, Mark Strong, Jennifer Ehle and even Mark Duplass all make welcome appearances, each playing a small, but important part in the film.

Zero Dark Thirty [2012]

While Zero Dark Thirty succeeds in many areas, I am a little surprised by the overwhelming praise surrounding it. The film’s running time — nearly three hours — could have used a little trimming, and the final raid was surprisingly anticlimactic. It’s kind of amazing that the operation had so many mistakes and yet the mission was still accomplished; however, this is well-known information and still fresh in the mind. Perhaps with a few years perspective, this could have been more riveting.

Regardless, I rather enjoyed the film overall, and any reservations I have had are relatively minor in the grand scheme of things. Bigelow has been on a roll lately, and it will be interesting to see where she goes next.

8/10

Video Game Review: Spec Ops: The Line [Xbox 360]

Spec Ops: The Line [Xbox 360]

Spec Ops: The Line
System: Xbox 360 (also on PS3 and PC)
Genre: Third-Person Shooter
Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: Yager Development / Darkside Game Studios
Release Date: June 26, 2012

Let’s get the inevitable comparisons out of the way. Spec Ops: The Line owes a lot to Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness, and Francis Ford Coppola’s war film, Apocalypse Now, and quite frankly it almost certainly would not exist without either of these.

At its core, Spec Ops is a third-person shooter with the standard cover-based gameplay found often in its genre. Levels generally consist of killing a bunch of enemies, moving to a new area, and then killing some more. However, it’s what happens between these moments of gunfire that separates this from the rest. Morality often comes into play, and the choices are never easy.

Spec Ops: The Line [Xbox 360]

You play as Captain Mike Walker (voiced by Nolan North, aka Nathan Drake from Uncharted), who is sent to Dubai on a reconnaissance mission along with two squadmates. Six months earlier, a cataclysmic sandstorm destroyed the wealthy UAE city, and the ensuing chaos has left the area a veritable no-man’s-land. After discovering a looped radio signal from a U.S. Army Colonel, Walker and his two partners are covertly sent to determine the status of Konrad and anyone else they may come across. Essentially, it’s a get in and get out mission. If only it were that simple.

It doesn’t take long for Walker to decide that they need to *rescue* Konrad, and not just learn his location. This decision leads his team into an onslaught of violence, as they run into a resistance far greater than they could have expected. Along the way, horrifiyng moments present themselves, leaving you as a player to make increasingly more difficult moral decisions. One early choice has you deciding whether to save a handful of innocent civilians or to gamble on saving the life of an agent with precious intel you could really use. There is no right answer here, only “wrong” and “less wrong.”

Spec Ops: The Line [Xbox 360]

There are a number of unforgettable moments during the campaign, all of which tie in with the “war is hell” theme. Other games have showed the atrocities of war, but not like Spec Ops. It’s quite fascinating to watch Walker and his squadmates change over the course of the game. During the early stages, they are joking around and acting like stereotypical soldiers. By the end of the game, they are at each other’s throats, constantly bickering back and forth.

Their mental and physical deterioration becomes even more glaring in the form of the “execution” option. After damaging an enemy enough, they will sometimes fall to the ground and squirm, desperately trying to do something in the last seconds of their lives. Walker has the option of executing them and putting them out of their misery. As the game progresses, Walker’s executions become increasingly violent, as he continues to become more and more desensitized to the brutality of war.

On these terms, Spec Ops offers a lot of depth. This isn’t just some mindless shooter, as its awful TV commercial suggests. This is about a squad’s descent into madness, and it serves as a sort of deconstruction of the entire shooter genre. By the end of the game, you as a player will feel like you have been to hell and back, which is exactly what this is trying to do.

Spec Ops: The Line [Xbox 360]

Spec Ops relies heavily on its themes, and without its polished narrative, it could easily get lost in the shuffle as another third-person shooter. There are noticeable flaws — the controls could be tightened up, the AI is questionable at times, the campaign is relatively short and the multiplayer mode feels tacked-on and unnecessary — but I am more willing to forgive these issues since it felt like I was playing something meaningful. As gamers, we don’t get treated to narratives like this very often, and this is a game that people will be talking about for years. Hell, it has already inspired one game critic to write a lengthy critique of the campaign, something unheard of in the industry.

If you’re willing to overlook some gameplay limitations, Spec Ops: The Line comes with a very high recommendation. This is one of the most mentally challenging games I have played all year, and it is one with more layers than anyone could have expected.

9/10

Movie Project #45: The Pianist [2002]

Due to the surprising success of my initial Movies Project, I decided to do a part two for 2012. This time around I put a greater emphasis on directors I am not familiar with, but I also tried to compile a mix of different genres and eras. This will be an ongoing project with the finish date being sometime this year.

The Pianist [2002]

The Pianist [2002]
Director: Roman Polanski
Genre: Biography/Drama/War
Starring: Adrien Brody, Thomas Kretschmann and Frank Finlay
Running Time: 150 minutes

It’s always difficult to watch films about the Holocaust, and it’s especially challenging to write about them afterward. What can be said about one of the most horrifying events in all of mankind? Because of this, it has taken me ten long years to finally see The Pianist, Roman Polanski’s film based on the World War II memoir by Polish-Jewish musician Wladyslaw Szpilman.

Adrien Brody stars as Szpilman, and the film begins with a German bombing during one of his popular radio station performances. It doesn’t take long for Germany to defeat Poland, and they quickly begin pushing the Jews into ghettos with extremely poor living conditions. This only gets worse as the Germans linger in the country, with Jews being executed randomly, and many of them being sent to concentration camps.

The Pianist [2002]

Eventually Szpilman becomes separated from his family, and he is forced to live in hiding from the Nazis. He must rely on the hospitality of others, but this becomes increasingly difficult as the war goes on. Jews begin turning on each other, and the Nazis start wiping out entire areas for no reason. Soon many ghettos are looking like post-apocalyptic war zones.

This destruction makes for an exceedingly arduous viewing. The punishment is relentless, and quite frankly we do not need to see most of it. The devastation and tragedies just keep getting piled onto Szpilman with no end in sight. There is no humanity or compassion at all, except for a brief glimpse at the end. It’s harrowing to watch, a painful look at an absolutely darkest time.

The Pianist [2002]

The attention to detail in The Pianist is astounding, and this is to be expected given Polanski’s own Holocaust survival tale. This is an extremely well-crafted film, one brought together by Adrien Brody’s well-deserved Oscar-winning performance. Szpilman’s physical and mental deterioration over the years is hard to watch, but Brody’s dedication to the role is admirable.

While watching The Pianist, I wondered what separated Szpilman’s story from thousands of others during the Holocaust. Was it the fact that he was a well-known musician? Or perhaps that he received a rare moment of compassion as the Nazis left Warsaw? Ultimately, this question does not matter. At the end, this could have been the story of any number of survivors, and The Pianist is an exemplary portrait of this.

8/10