War Movies, Old And New

I’m trying to decide whether to go see 1917 this coming weekend.

From the reviews I’ve read, 1917 sounds like a a powerful, well-made movie, with an intriguing dash of extended take technical wizardry thrown in, so it’s not that I’m afraid I’d be shelling out the money to see a clinker.  No, it’s all about the fact that the reviews of the film emphasize that it fully and very effectively exposes the brutal horror of war generally, and World War I specifically.  I’m not sure that I’m ready for that.

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Growing up, “war movies” were a pretty simple genre.  The Americans were the good guys, and the countries we were fighting — especially the Nazis — were the bad guys.  War movies inevitably involved some barracks hijinks and basic training footage showing the tough drill sergeant and the camaraderie of soldiers coming together to fight for a noble cause, and the soldiers who died did so heroically in pursuit of a clear, greater good.  War movies really weren’t really all that bloody, either.  Soldiers who were killed after taking some courageous and selfless action tended to get shot in the gut and die grimacing and clutching their midsections, like Jim Brown’s character in The Dirty Dozen.

Of course, everyone — especially veterans — knew that the movies were a totally sanitized depiction of war, and eventually filmmakers began striving for more realism, first gradually and then more and more extensively.  With Saving Private Ryan and its groundbreaking treatment of storming of the Normandy beaches on D Day — showing men shot through the head, blown apart, searching for lost limbs, dying horrific deaths covered with gore and entrails on a faraway beach — the old war movies were officially gone and a new form of war movie had taken their place.  When I saw Saving Private Ryan, I found it to be a powerful and brilliant movie .  . . but boy, it was tough to watch and hard to take.  1917 sounds like more of the same, and I’m not sure I want to see it.

This sounds like a wussy reaction, and no doubt it is.  And I also think that it’s a positive that the old form of war movie, with its naive treatment of good guys and bad guys and bloodless heroism, isn’t being made to deceive people about what war is really like.  In fact, I feel somewhat guilty about feeling reluctant to go to movies like 1917 for a refresher course on how terrible war actually is.  But is it really how I want to spend a Friday night or a Saturday afternoon?

The Last Star Wars

The new Star Wars is out in the theaters.  The commercials for Star Wars:  The Rise of Skywalker have been running for a while now, and the expected Star Wars movie hype machine is in full swing.  In one article, for example, a former Disney executive reports that George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, felt “betrayed” by the studio’s plans for the last trilogy in Lucas’ contemplated nine-part opus, and fans and critics are already emotionally debating whether this latest film is a disaster or is helping to get the Star Wars franchise back on its footing.

f9c0b8_f7ef85e98f5449c6b4f994a9f6e1507fmv2All of this, I think, is part of the fundamental problem with Star Wars.  It’s clearly a “franchise,” and it feels like a “franchise.”  When the first Star Wars came out 40 years ago it was fresh and new and funny and interesting and ground-breaking in its use of special effects.  Now the Star Wars model is old and tired.  When was the last time somebody had a good laugh, or even a chuckle, at a Star Wars film?  I’m guessing it probably coincides with the last time Harrison Ford was on the screen.  And when you’ve got obsessive fans debating every instant of a film for consistency with what has gone before and comparing it to the eight prior episodes, you’re never going to achieve “fresh” and “fun” status.  Every successive film is weighted down, more and more, by the ponderousness of the Force and the Jedi and the Sith and the increasingly confusing plot lines and story arcs.  How can anybody be expected to keep it all straight?

And the fact that every Star Wars movie seems to involve a lightsaber duel between a good character and a bad character, and a Death Star plot device, and heroes saving the universe from evil and seeking redemption, doesn’t help.  Who here didn’t react to the commercials for the new film with a shrug and the rueful thought that there’s another long lightsaber duel we’re going to have to sit through — like the lightsaber duel between Luke and Darth Vader, or the lightsaber duel with Darth Maul, or the lightsaber duel by the molten lava that caused Darth Vader to need all of his protective clothing, or the lightsaber duel in the forest.  Lightsabers are nifty, elegant weapons, to be sure, but there are only so many ways to have a lightsaber duel — and changing the setting for the duel really doesn’t change that.  I find myself longing for Han Solo to pop up during one of these interminable lightsaber duels and shake his head and say there’s no substitute for a good blaster.

I’ll go see this newest Star Wars film because I’ve seen the prior eight and I suppose I need to, to close the book on what once was great.  But I’m hoping that this latest Star Wars is the last Star Wars.  Really.  It’s time.

Harriet

Yesterday we had to decide which one-word, proper noun Hollywood movie we would go to see with friends.  It was a tough call, but ultimately we decided on Harriet over Judy and Joker.

hero_harriet-movie-review-2019Harriet tells the story of Harriet Tubman, the legendary woman who escaped slavery and then devoted her life, and risked her own personal freedom, to help other slaves — ultimately, dozens of them — make their way to liberty via the Underground Railroad.  Harriet Tubman is an American historical figure whose courage and fortitude should always be remembered, and her story is well worth telling.  Harriet does an excellent job of capturing the brutality and inhumanity of the slave-holding system in the Old South, and stage actress Cynthia Erivo gives a brilliant portrayal of the brave, stubborn woman who shed her slave name of “Minty” and blazed her own trail in a crusade for freedom.

Of course, movies can be expected to add their little story-telling flourishes to actual history, and Harriet has its share of familiar Hollywood plot devices.  (You can read about some of the liberties taken with the actual historical record here.)  But the movie doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of slavery, nor does it give short shrift to Harriet Tubman’s intense religious faith and belief that the seizures she experienced were communications from the Almighty.  In fact, you would be hard pressed to identify other recent Hollywood fare where Christian beliefs played such a central role in the  story.

Harriet is well worth seeing — and hopefully, it causes young people who might not be familiar with the life and work of Harriet Tubman to learn more about an extraordinary woman who did extraordinary things.

Once Upon A Time . . . In Hollywood

After Kish and I went to The Hateful Eight, I swore off ever going to another Quentin Tarantino film.  I meant it, too.  I’d just had enough of seemingly pointless, ultraviolent bloodbaths.

But three years of lots of superhero movies and remakes and uninteresting, formulaic movie fare have a way of undermining your resolve and making you hunger for something different.  Whatever else they may be, Quentin Tarantino films are definitely different than your normal Hollywood fare.  When the hype started building for his new movie Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood, I thought it looked sufficiently different — and decidedly less bloody — to be worth a screening, so Kish and I went to see it yesterday.

once_upon_a_time_still.0The movie acquaints us with Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), former star of the black-and-white, ’50s TV show Bounty Law who is now relegated to making guest villain appearances on other TV shows and starring in spaghetti westerns, and his stunt double, chauffeur, gofer, and pal Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), as they make their way through the Hollywood movie and TV scene of 1969.  Along the way, we see members of the Manson Family, Bruce Lee, some of the singers in the Mamas and the Papas, a party at the Playboy Mansion, and other mainstays of the swinging late ’60s Hollywood scene.

DiCaprio and Pitt are the human stars of Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood, but the real stars are Hollywood itself, and the ’60s.  The movie is a full-on immersion in that time and place, from the cars the characters drive to the clothes they wear to the old-time Hollywood landmarks where the characters meet to the music playing on the car radio to TV shows playing in the background to the huge movie posters for long-forgotten films that you see as the cars with the characters roll by.  It’s almost as if the movie’s plot is an excuse to visit places from days gone by and get a few shots of a well-known restaurant or theater.  And there’s no doubt — the feeling that what you are seeing must be what it was actually like to be a fading star knocking around Hollywood in 1969 is pretty much total.

The setting was thoroughly convincing, but most people don’t go to films just to revel in the setting.  We’d like a little plot with the fantasy world, and that’s where Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood falls short.  The movie is less bloody than other Tarantino efforts, for sure.  It wouldn’t be a Tarantino product without some gore, but at least the violence is pretty much limited to the end of the film.  And the film is well-acted by both DiCaprio and Pitt, and you definitely come to like the ever-emotional Dalton and the tough, common-sense Booth and appreciate their unique friendship.

But there are a lot of diversions along the way, like scenes of the Sharon Tate character watching herself in a movie theater or flashbacks that happen when Booth is repairing a TV antenna, that don’t really seem to advance the story and make the movie overlong.  As is always the case with a Tarantino movie, there are some great scenes sprinkled in — I particularly liked some taut scenes about Dalton acting as the guest-villain in a TV western, and a tense encounter between Booth and the full, creepy Manson clan at a ramshackle movie ranch — but there’s also a lot of fluff in the package.  And ultimately the final, bloody encounter between Dalton, Booth, a well-trained hound, and the Mansonites seems like little more than a convenient way to bring the movie to a close.

Quentin Tarantino obviously has a huge amount of talent, and few directors can pull you to the edge of your seat like he can.  But boy . . . he sure could use an editor.  You wonder what kind of quality he could produce if he worked with a more focused script and a producer who is willing to leave some of the film on the cutting room floor.

Watching One Of Dad’s Favorites

Dad’s favorite actor was Humphrey Bogart.  I don’t think anyone else was even a close second.  And his two favorite movies — both of which featured Bogie, of course — were Casablanca and The African Queen.  So when Kish and I went with friends to see Casablanca to kick off the Ohio Theater Summer Movie Series last night, at the bargain ticket price of only 50 cents a person, of course I thought about Dad.

It turns out Dad had pretty good taste in movies.  Casablanca is generally considered one of the very best movies ever made, and if you get a chance to see it on the big screen, you shouldn’t pass it up.  The tale of star-crossed lovers set in exotic, desperate Casablanca, with the grim early days of World War II as its backdrop, is a terrific, timeless classic that is filled with memorable lines and characters, from Dooley Wilson’s warm and decent Sam to Sidney Greenstreet’s fly-swatting Ferrari to Paul Henreid’s impossibly noble Victor Laszlo.  The chemistry between Bogart and Ingrid Bergman’s Isla Lund crackles and almost jumps off the screen, and stands in sharp comparison to many of the modern romance movies where the “chemistry” is either forced or totally lacking.  And Bogart’s depiction of Rick — the tough, fearless, gravel-voiced American who will stick his neck out for nobody, but turns out to have a conscience and a heart of gold — has become so iconic we tend to take for granted what a fantastic acting performance it was.  Watching the scenes where the anguished Rick is drinking to try to forget the painful wound that Ilsa has reopened should be required study for anybody who wants to become an actor.

One other thing about Casablanca that you notice in comparison to today’s Hollywood fare:  it somehow manages to combine a compelling personal narrative that grabs you by the collar, and real potential peril from believable villains, with great humor.  Claude Rains as Louis, the jocular Prefect of Police, gets most of the laugh lines, but Bogart has some and other characters do, too.  How many modern films can you think of that successfully feature drama and humor side by side — or even try to do so?  It’s one big reason why Casablanca typically ranks right up there on the GOAT lists.

Living In The Matrix

I thought The Matrix was a terrific movie.  I like the sequel, too.  (The last film in the trilogy, eh, not so much.)

But I had no idea that reputable scientists were seriously considering the central premise of The Matrix — that what we think of as the real world is in fact a huge computer simulation run by machines and designed and policed to enslave humanity.  In fact, a scientist named Rizwan Virk has written a book, entitled The Simulation Hypothesis, about that possibility.

matrix_inThe Matrix concept is gaining traction for several reasons.  One is that computer technology, and games-playing technology, apparently is developing to the point where sophisticated multi-player, on-line games are routine and it’s becoming harder and harder to distinguish reality from simulation.  (I say “apparently” because I’m not a gamer — that is, unless I’m really trapped in a computer simulation and playing, unwittingly, just by living my life.)  If our technology is developing in that direction, the argument goes, isn’t it possible that we are living in a more advanced simulation created by more advanced computer system developed by a more advanced civilization?

And there’s also a weird statistical argument for the simulation hypothesis that goes like this:  once a civilization creates computers that are powerful enough to create plausible simulations for millions or billions of players, it’s comparatively easy to create entirely new, realistic settings for entirely new simulated players that are all artificial intelligence.  Crossing that technological-capability threshold means that trillions of AI creations could be living in games — making it statistically likely that you’re an AI creation rather than a flesh-and-blood being.

And here’s an even weirder concept:  if we’re all players in a video game, maybe our scores are being kept somewhere for some purpose that we don’t quite know yet, and won’t know until our own experience in the simulation ends.  It would help to know the rules of the game, wouldn’t it?

Are we living in a simulation?  I don’t see how you can prove or disprove that, from our perspective as potential players in an ultra-advanced game created by an ancient alien civilization.  But I do know this:  if that is our reality, I’m glad the programmers have finally allowed the weather to warm up a bit.

They Shall Not Grow Old

World War I ended just over 100 years ago.  There are some people who were living during the years of the Great War who remain alive today.  Somehow, though, World War I seems to belong to a much more distant past.  A war in which the primary modes of transportation were horses and steam engines, between countries governed by kings, kaisers, czars, and sultans, seems to belong in the 19th century, not the 20th.  The existence of only scratched, herky-jerky footage of men marching in strange uniforms doesn’t help to give the war any more modern immediacy, either.

THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLDThey Shall Not Grow Old takes dead aim at the last point.  It brings the men who fought in the Great War for Great Britain into closer focus — and puts them in a light that the people of the 21st century can understand.

Filmmaker Peter Jackson was given access to more than 100 hours of film shot by the British that has been gathering dust in the British War Museum and, as he explains in his introduction to the film, was told that his assignment was to do something different with it.  He looked at hours of scratched, often overexposed or underexposed film, shot at different speeds by hand-cranked cameras, and initially was at a loss about how to approach the assignment.  But he decided to apply modern technology, computer imaging, and careful colorizing techniques, and the results are jaw-dropping.  Forget the scratchy, blurred, quick-stepping soldiers you remember, and be prepared for a movie that brings those soldiers to life.  (If you go to see the film this weekend, you’ll also have a chance to watch a very interesting 30-minute film after the credits have run, in which Jackson explains how the refurbishing of the film was done and also shows that he has an amazing collection of World War I uniforms, weapons, and other memorabilia.)

The technology employed isn’t the only thing that distinguishes They Shall Not Grow Old from other documentaries.  If you’re expecting any kind of narrative arc that explains the causes of World War I, the alliances, the kings and czars and assassinated archdukes that triggered a senseless global conflict — or, for that matter, attempts to establish any kind of broader historical context — you’ll be disappointed.  The film’s focus is on the soldiers, period, and is narrated using clips of BBC interviews of Great War veterans that were conducted decades ago.  We see, and hear, why they enlisted, how they were trained, what they ate, how they performed other bodily functions, and what it was like when they went home — but mostly, about life in the front lines in one of the most brutal, deadly wars ever fought.  Be prepared to learn about the horrors of rats, and lice, and trench foot, and frostbite, and mustard gas, and brace yourself for footage of insects crawling on the bodies of dead humans and horses alike.  (And Americans should also get ready for some close-up exposure to human teeth the likes of which you’ve never seen before.)

Not surprisingly, many of the images are immensely powerful.  I won’t soon forget the hopelessly terrified, blank face face of one young soldier, eyes bulging with intense fear, moments before a big battle that he knew he wasn’t likely to survive, or a soldier in the aftermath of a battle clutching a small dog to his chest and possessively stroking its fur, or a battle-scarred veteran walking away from the front lines, right hand shaking uncontrollably.  And the footage of soldiers passing the time, and mugging for cameras that were a novelty in those days — such as the soldiers who gave the impromptu concert pictured above, in which one of them strummed a beer bottle — will change your view of these young men, so that you never again think of them as ancient, herky-jerky marchers from a forgotten earlier day.

The title of the film comes from a line in the poem For the Fallen by Laurence Binyon, which was written in 1914 in the early days of the war.  The particular verse reads:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: 
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. 
At the going down of the sun and in the morning 
We will remember them.
They Shall Not Grow Old helps to bring that sentiment to reality.  It’s well worth the price of a movie ticket.