Tag: wwii

MOVIE REVIEW | Flags of Our Fathers (2006)

This might not seem like great praise, but I do mean it that way, Clint Eastwood makes efficient movies. I’m not even close to having seen everything he’s directed, but of the movies I have seen, I’m always impressed with how quickly and simply he can tell a story (J Edgar being the glaring exception). The running times are always lean, the bells and whistles are kept to a minimum, and he always gets to the point. Just the fact that a bloke in his 80s can churn them out as regularly as Eastwood is a testament to his non-messing around. So it’s great to see him go a little bigger, even approaching epic, with Flags of Our Fathers.

When the famous photos of six marines raising the American flag on a hill in the Pacific becomes the inspiration that will hopefully begin the final push in the Second World War battle against the Japanese, those soldiers become the heroes their country needs. Cutting back and forth between their poster boy, fund raising tour in America, and the battle in Iwo Jima that made them poster boys, Flags of Our Fathers is all about perceptions, and that reality can sometimes be what we want it to be, regardless of what it actually is. (more…)

MOVIE REVIEW | The Dam Busters (1955)

It’s such an old man thing to say, but sometimes, a movie just makes you think, they sure don’t make ‘em like they used to.  That’s not to say everything made before a certain time is better than what’s made today.  It’s just to say that certain styles, aesthetics, methods and approaches to film making that were common place at one time, simply aren’t seen in movies made today.  And a movie that is sure to make you think, they sure don’t make ‘em like they used to, is The Dam Busters.

It’s early in the Second World War and Barns Wallis (Michael Redgrave) listens to German planes fly over his country house, on their way to bomb London.  A skilled engineer, he has determined that one way to cripple the German war machine would be to blow up three key dams, the water of which supplies all the major manufacturing plants of the Nazis.  The only problem is, they’ve been fortified against underwater attacks and there’s no way for planes to drop bombs from directly above.  Until Barns develops a new bouncing bomb, that can be launched from planes flying low enough to avoid the major antiaircraft measures of the krauts.

After convincing the British government that has plan has legs, Barns is given an elite squad of allied airmen, and the training begins.  Here’s one of the big surprises I got form The Dam Busters.  Saving all of the traditional action for the final act when the planes launch their attack, the majority of the film is built around the scientific and mathematical work of Barns, as he refines is theories and puts them into practice.  The Dam Busters does what I would have thought is impossible.  It makes trigonometry exciting, edge of your seat, compelling stuff.

Like I said, it saves the action until the final act, and if you’ve ever seen the 1977 original Star Wars, this final attack run will look more than just a little familiar.  Director Michael Anderson did such an effective job of depicting the tense thrill and danger, that George Lucas openly and admittedly ripped it off, almost shot for shot, more than 20 years later to make one of the most iconic action sequences in movie history, when Luke Skywalker takes out the Death Star.

I know it was a different time and that the writers had no idea what they were writing would become offensive or insensitive, but when you watch a movie in 2014, it’s gonna be just a bit jarring when the good guys have a dog named “Nigger”.  Not only that, the devotion of the one of the main characters to this dog is supposed to be one of the reasons the audience sees him as a top bloke.  Nothing builds audience sympathy for a character like bandying about the N-word.  Oh wait, there’s one thing that does it even more, a delightful montage of half a dozen characters all spouting the N-word as the loveable pooch wonders the base, looking for his master,.  Hilarious and heartfelt.

The Dam Busters is British.  Terribly, terribly British, old chap.  And that is one of the main things that makes this movie so watchable.  That stoic, English reserve, the old friends who, even at their most casual, talk to each other like they’re at royal engagement, addressing the Queen.  If I was watching a WWII movie and saw American soldiers in anything less than hellish, muddy, battlefield squalor, I’d think the movie was sugar coating things.  But for some reason, when I see British airmen in a well appointed, borderline luxurious dining room, sipping tea from delicate cups and saucers, it just seems right.

This is the kind of good old war picture that makes me love good old war pictures.  The characters might teeter on the edge of being on dimensional and overly idealistic.  The special effects, cutting edge at the time, look amateurish now.  And the N-word is thrown around like confetti in a parade.  But all of those things work as strengths, not weaknesses.  The simplicity of the characters is so optimistic, it’s infectious.  The dated special effects are charming, not cheesy.  And the N-word thing…  Well, there’s no way to see that glass half full.

The Dam Busters
Directed By – Michael Anderson
Written By – R.C. Sherriff

MOVIE REVIEW | ***SODERBERGH WEEK*** The Good German (2006)

Steven Soderbergh was never predictable in the stories he chose to tell. He’s also a weird combination of classic Hollywood appreciator, lover and early adopter of all things technology. He was one of the first A-list directors to really embrace filming with digital cameras, yet he has no problem going the in the exact opposite direction in making something like The Good German. Not just an old Hollywood story, but filmed using old Hollywood technology and techniques.

It’s 1945, the war in the Pacific is still going strong, but the Germans are out for the count. The Americans and Russians descend on Germany to divide the spoils of war, and while the officials go about their diplomacy, the men on the ground are quietly looting the country for everything it has to offer. Men on the ground like Toby McGuire’s Tully. Working in the army motor pool, Tully is a big customer of and supplier to the black market. As every German is accused of being a Nazi and waits for seemingly inevitable persecution, Tully tries to secure papers to help is kraut whore girlfriend, Lena (Cate Blanchett), get the hell out of there.

It just so happens that during the war, Lena was the kraut whore girlfriend of George Clooney’s Jake, back in Berlin and stuck with Tully as his driver. Early on, Jake talks about moving on from the war with the Germans that only finished a few months earlier, and preparing for war with the Russians. When Tully shows up murdered in the Russian section of town, the cover ups, twists and double dealings start to pile up.

In true noir tradition, each solving of a crime simply leads to uncovering an even bigger one, and every character is a viable suspect. The twists and turns mount up until it’s almost impossible to keep track of everyone’s allegiances, alibies and motives. But it’s the kind of convolution that works to make The Good German better and richer as each new layer of complications is added.

The Good German opens with stock footage from Germany at the time and plenty is used throughout, but Soderbergh didn’t stop there in going for his authentic, period look. He strictly only used technology from the 40s in filming the movie. Things like camera lenses, lighting and sound recording gear were all from that time and it really does work to give the movie an authentic period feel.

With its wartime backdrop, black market dealings and talks of papers to travel across borders, The Good German has a real Casablanca feel and it’s obvious that’s no coincidence. The whole movie is a perfect example of what I love about Soderbergh. He seems to approach so many of his movies as an experiment in film making. A lot of his movies feel like he did it just to see if he could. And while that approach would feel indulgent or pretentious with most other directors, Soderbergh somehow pulls it off.

The Good German
Directed By – Steven Soderbergh
Written By – Paul Attanasio


MOVIE REVIEW | The Rape of Europa (2006)

In George Clooney’s latest directorial effort, The Monuments Men, Hitler’s egomaniacal plan to steal the greatest pieces of art in Europe to populate his giant Furher Museum, is turned into a classic Hollywood adventure of everyday men becoming wartime heroes.  It’s a fun enough movie for the most part, but it’s still a movie.  And certain artistic licence is expected when any true story has to be bent to fit a neat, three act structure.  So while Clooney’s version of the story definitely has a deep love and respect for the art it’s chasing, it’s covered by an unavoidable Hollywood sheen of artificiality.  But it did make me want to know more about this story, which lead me to The Rape of Europa.

A straight forward, no frills, classic talking head documentary, The Rape of Europa uses it’s no nonsense approach to really cram in the info.  But it’s a good cram, the kind of cram that makes you feel smarter once it’s over.  It also covers more time and info by being split into two distinct parts.  The first hour focuses on the German theft, while the second looks at the allied attempts to track the pieces down, even interviewing a few of the actual Monuments Men.

It also digs deeper into the Russian Trophy Brigades, who openly took great works of art which they saw as reparations for the millions of people lost fighting the Germans.  Where The Monuments Men makes the ruskies moustache twirling villains, Europa goes to much greater lengths to let them tell their side of the story.

I watched The Rape of Europa within hours of seeing The Monuments Men, so it was impossible to not compare their different versions of the same story.  Clooney’s movie gives us plenty of shots of massive warehouses filled with paintings and impressive figures like “five million pieces of art recovered”, and it really did hit me at the time.  But watching Europa, these figures all of a sudden became a lot more real, a lot more devastating.

More than just the art, the documentary  gets more into the racial persecution of the time.  The Monuments Men addresses the issue too, but only in the way that it’s impossible for any WWII move to not get there at some point.  I can’t explain how, but Europa connects these works of art to the heritage of the culture how made them, better than The Monuments Men did.  More than just paintings or sculptures, they are a part of these people and their formation into the people and cultures they are.

“Art is what makes us human”.  This quote in the closing minutes of The Rape of Europa almost makes the combined four hours of this documentary and The Monuments Men seem like they pussy footed around the real heart of the issue.  In those six words, I think I got it more than the rest of the two movies in their entirety.

The Rape of Europa
Directed By – Richard Berge,  Bonni Cohen, Nicole Newnham
Written By – Richard Berge,  Bonni Cohen, Nicole Newnham

MOVIE REVIEW | The Monuments Men (2014)

From TV hunk, to a pretty rocky beginning on the big screen, to legit super star, to respected director, George Clooney’s career has been pretty interesting to watch.  Confessions of Dangerous Mind is was the perfect directorial debut to show he was a real film maker with real ideas.  Goodnight and Good Luck was a deserved award winner that got plenty of attention at the time, but doesn’t seem to be all that talked about these days.  Leatherheads seemed like a bit of a tossed off dick around of Clooney having fun.  It was nothing to rave about, but it was perfectly fine.  The Ides of March was a return to trying something a little more important, along the lines of Goodnight and Good Luck, but it came and went without leaving much of an impression.  But now, Clooney gets his first chance at a big budget, big star cast, big everything kind of movie, with The Monuments Men.

The Second World War is coming to a close and Hitler is on the ropes.  But that hasn’t stopped him stealing and amassing the greatest pieces of art on offer as he makes his way through Europe.  Now, there are two possible outcomes.  Either the Nazis win the war and the art will all be shown in the planned Furher Museum, a massive literal building and even bigger figurative wank.  Or, the Nazis lose, and follow Hitler’s orders to destroy all these masterworks before the allies can get their hands on them.

Cue the Monuments Men, a group of art experts led by George Clooney’s Frank Stokes, and played by Mat Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Hugh Bonneville, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin and Dimitri Leonidas.  After a brief stint in basic training, these candy assed New York intellectuals are soon landing in Normandy, just behind the D Day invasion, and on the hunt for some of the greatest pieces of art ever created.  Matt Damon’s James Granger is deployed to Paris where he meets Claire (Cate Blanchett), a former French resistance member who may know where the Germans have taken the stolen art.

It’s a great story that needs to be told, it’s made up of a great cast, and Clooney’s direction is, well, great.  The only problem is, for all its great aspects, The Monuments Men only adds up to be a good movie.  In no way bad, it just doesn’t reach the levels it really should.  And I put that down to its weird, sluggish pacing.

Almost immediately after arriving in Europe, the core group is split up into four or five little units, all heading to different countries on their own little missions.   Add to this the Russians not so well intentioned version of the Monuments Men, Blanchett’s story line and the odd German character, and it feels like Clooney’s biggest problems should have been finding time to fit everything in.  Yet somehow, every scene, every story, every event seems to be a little slower than should be, and go just a little longer than necessary.  It doesn’t quite ever get the momentum it needs.

When I first heard about The Monuments Men and saw trailers, I wondered how the movie would ever justify the loss of human life just for some paintings.  It’s obvious Clooney thought that too, because he shoehorns in three or four different conversations and monologues all addressing that very topic.  The only problem is, when the movie wasn’t talking about it directly, I kind of got on board with their mission and the huge risks they were talking, just for some paintings.  But whenever the story would stop dead in its tracks to address it, I was taken out of it.  Clooney really needed to have a little more faith in his movie and his audience.

After not so great reviews, I really, really, really wanted to prove them wrong and love The Monuments Men.  On paper, everything about it made it seem like a sure thing.  But ultimately I didn’t love it, I just liked it.  Which should be enough, but I just wanted more.

The Monuments Men
Directed By – George Clooney
Written By – George Clooney, Grant Heslov

MOVIE REVIEW | Sink the Bismark! (1960)

Here’s a move that wastes no time.  Opening with actual German archival footage of the real Bismark being launched, Sink the Bismark! makes it clear that this ship is like nothing any navy had ever seen.  And unfortunately, it belongs to the Germans, not the allies.  Coinciding with this sea threat, is the promotion of Captain Sam Shepard (Kenneth More) to the British Admiralty’s Chief of Operations.  He’s now the dude who basically commands the entire Naval fleet.  And his first job is to…  Well…  Sink the Bismark (see what I did there?).

Actually, his first job is to make us, the audience, see him is an uptight, by the book, asshole.  On his first day on the job, he cracks it over people slightly out of uniform, eating at the their desk and using each other’s first names.  If only there was a tragic back story to justify his attempts at emotional isolation.  Oh wait, there is, and it’s super clunky, predictable and on the nose.  But that’s OK, because the rest of the movie is good enough to distract you from it.

Following a series if sea skirmishes, Sink the Bismark! goes from one display of the titular boat’s might to another.  In its first test, the Bismark effortlessly takes out two allied destroyers.  The rest of the movie follows Shepard’s process figuring out how to take on this new threat that is like nothing anyone has ever faced before.

It’s different to see a war movie where the main character is so far removed from the actual fighting.  It also means much of the action is far removed from the actual ‘action’.  While the crews of the British Naval ships are largely interchangeable and just there to play a cameo in the story, More’s Captain Shepard is the central figure, standing over a table of toy ships, safe and sound in his London office.

It’s a testament to the screenplay and direction that when Sink the Bismark! cuts from the guns blazing and torpedoes swimming in the Bismark’s latest battle, to Shepard and his team in their quiet and cozy office, it never feels like we’re being taken away of the action.  The tension and stress of formulating strategy and making the decisions how and when to send ships into battle, is just as action packed as the battles themselves.

While the crews of the various British ships remain pretty anonymous, the Nazis helming the Bismark get a little more time to shine.  Unfortunately, it’s in a one dimensional, comic book villain kind of way.   The German Fleet Commander, Admiral Gunther Luthjens (Karel Stepanek) was commanding the ship that sunk Shepard’s last command.

He was also commanding the fleet that bombed London, hitting Shepard’s house and killing his wife.  And he’s on board the Bismark for its maiden run of ass kicking.  I know the screenwriter really wanted to make sure we hated the crew of the Bismark and got on the side of Shepard, but I might have suffered a concussion being hit over the head with it so hard and so often.

Sink the Bismark! Is exactly what I want from an old war picture.  Repressed, stoic men, coldly going about their business of war, and the odd battle thrown in every now and again to liven things up.  The characters and their motivations get a little broad and story-convenient at times, but if you write off every movies for those reasons, there wouldn’t be too much left.

Sink the Bismark!
Directed By – Lewis Gilbert
Written By – Edmund H. North