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.
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Get Back

Yesterday, filmmaker Peter Jackson — the guy who made those lavish, but incredibly long, Lord of the Rings movies — announced his next project, and it’s pretty intriguing.  Jackson has been given access to more than 50 hours of never before seen footage shot by director Michael Lindsay-Hogg during the Beatles’ recording sessions that ultimately were used to produce the album Let It Be.  Jackson will be using the footage to produce what is, in effect, a remake of the documentary that was released in 1970.

maxresdefaultBeatles fans know the prevailing story:  the band went into the studio to record a new album that was originally going to be called Get Back, because the idea was for the band to get back to its rock ‘n roll roots, with Billy Preston playing along on keyboards.  After some initial highlights — including an impromptu concert on the rooftop of Apple Corps that happened 50 years ago yesterday, and was the last time the Beatles performed live in public — the album effort supposedly ground down in a maze of acrimony and dissension that presaged a group on the edge of a final break-up.  The effort was shelved, and months Phil Spector was enlisted to produce something out of the recordings.  Let It Be then emerged in 1970 — a combination of some great, quasi-live recordings, classics like the song Let It Be, and awful, overproduced Spector versions of songs like The Long and Winding Road.  Let It Be would be the last original Beatles’ album to be released (with Abbey Road being the last album the Beatles recorded);

That’s the story we’ve heard, and it was largely framed by the 1970 film that emphasized the tension and dissension, but Jackson suggests that it’s not the true story.  He’s watched the unseen footage, and listened to more than a hundred hours of the audio tapes from the recording sessions, and he says:   “It’s like a time machine transports us back to 1969, and we get to sit in the studio watching these four friends make great music together.”  He added:  “Sure, there are moments of drama, but none of the discord this project has long been associated with. Watching John, Paul, George and Ringo work together, creating now-classic songs from scratch, is not only fascinating – it’s funny, uplifting and surprisingly intimate.”

It’s hard to imagine that there is much new to be learned about the Beatles — they are clearly among the most loved, photographed, analyzed, and psychoanalyzed musical and cultural figures in history — but this unreleased footage may help to alter the storyline.  I’ll be heading to the theater to watch the result.  These days, how often do you have the opportunity to watch musical legends at work, in their prime?

Green Book

Kish and I have taken a break from going to the movies — the holidays were hectic, we were on the road, and the standard superhero and shoot-’em-up fare just isn’t very appealing — but we wanted to get back into the habit of identifying thoughtful, interesting films and supporting them with our ticket money.  Yesterday, we went to see Green Book.  It was an excellent vehicle for allowing us to reengage with the movies.

16GREEN-BOOK-articleLargeGreen Book tells the story of a brilliant African-American pianist, Dr. Donald Shirley, who decides to take his musical trio on a tour of the Midwest and then the deep South during the last two months of 1962.  It was a brave decision intended to help spur social change, because in 1962 Jim Crow treatment of African-Americans, and legally enforced segregation, was still very much alive in the South.  Dr. Shirley’s record label decides he should hire a driver to shuttle him from performance to performance and also help him to navigate the racist barriers that he will inevitably encounter.  Dr. Shirley chooses Tony Vallelonga, a bouncer at the Copacabana who is temporarily unemployed while the club is undergoing renovations.  Vallelonga knows how to use his fists and is nicknamed “Lip” because, by his own admission, he’s a consummate bullshitter who can talk his way out of a jam.  The record label then gives Vallelonga the “Green Book” that gives the film its name — a paperback publication for African-Americans that tells them which hotels and establishments in the South will actually welcome them as guests and patrons.

Dr. Shirley and Tony Vallelonga are an odd couple indeed.  One is a virtuouso musician who is highly educated, extremely refined in his tastes, and impressively (and at one point in the film, surprisingly) multi-lingual; the other is a barely literate graduate of the school of hard knocks who has street smarts and a prodigious appetite for hot dogs, fried chicken, and just about everything else in life.  And, Vallelonga is a product of the casual, everyday racism found even in the North at that time.  According to the film, at least — the Shirley family disputes the film’s accuracy on this point — during the tour Dr. Shirley and the Lip overcome their differences and become friends.  Dr. Shirley schools Vallelonga on his diction, helps him to write more meaningful and expressive letters to his wife, and exposes him to music, musical talents, and concepts that Vallelonga had never experienced before.  Vallelonga, in turn, introduces Dr. Shirley to fried chicken and popular music and uses his bullshitting skills and street smarts to support and protect Dr. Shirley as he deals with racist treatment on a daily basis.

The story of the friendship is entertaining — and Mahershala Ali, as Dr. Shirley, and Viggo Mortensen, as Vallelonga, are terrific — but the emotional core of the movie is found in its depiction of the Jim Crow South and the ugliness of its racist, segregated, hateful ways and of the people who stubbornly refuse to change.  Whether it is the overtly racist small-town deputy enforcing a “whites only after dark” law, or a rich owner of a lavish house who won’t let Dr. Shirley use the bathroom in his home, or the country club manager who refuses to allow Dr. Shirley to eat in the dining room and pleads with him to “be reasonable,” the onslaught of racist ugliness is constant, jarring, and deeply appalling.

Green Book is a powerful film that will leave you embarrassed, sick to your stomach, and shaking your head about a terrible chapter in American history.  It’s well worth seeing.

Bohemian Rhapsody

Yesterday Kish and I went to screen Bohemian Rhapsody, which tells the story of Freddie Mercury and Queen.  Biopics about rock stars have become something of a genre unto themselves these days — according to the previews yesterday, there’s another one coming out soon about Elton John, by the way — and Bohemian Rhapsody is a worthy addition to the playlist.

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODYThe film begins as Mercury and Queen prepare to perform at the Live Aid concert, then takes us back to the group’s earliest roots.  We meet Farrokh Bulsara, a buck-toothed baggage handler at a British airport who dreams of doing something bigger.  He finds a struggling band called Smile playing in pubs, and when the group loses its lead singer, Queen’s journey begins and Farrokh becomes Freddie Mercury.  The film traces the artistic arc of the group, which became one of the most inventive, boundary-breaking bands of the ’70s — as the song that gives the film its name attests — and the band steadily moves from playing small towns to filling some of the largest stadiums in the world, with the flamboyant Mercury leading the way.

As the band’s story is told we get glimpses into Freddie Mercury’s personal life, from his frosty relationship with his Indian parents and their Zoroastrian faith, to his long-term bond with a woman he called the love of his life, to his embrace of his gay lifestyle and ultimately to his discovery that he had AIDS at a time when that diagnosis was viewed as a death sentence.  And, as always seems to be the case with rock star biopics, enormous success and fame have their price, and we see Mercury dealing with drugs and alcohol, leaving the band that was like a family to him, and supporting the creeps and hangers-on who always seem to find a way to latch on to the successful creative minds and sap them of their unique energy.  But Mercury breaks the downward spiral, sheds the leeches, and reunites with the group just in time for a triumphant performance at the Live Aid concert.

Bohemian Rhapsody has been criticized for glossing over some aspects of Mercury’s life, especially his sexuality, but the film is telling a wide-ranging story that simply doesn’t allow it to delve deeply into every relationship — whether it be Mercury’s relationships with fellow bandmates or his relationships with his lovers.  The result is a film that increased my appreciation of Queen and the dazzling personality who was one of its principal creative forces.  And Rami Malek is himself brilliant as the brilliant Freddie Mercury.

Why are there so many rock star biopics?  I think it’s because the music world is home to a lot of very interesting stories that are well worth telling.  The story of Freddie Mercury and Queen is one of those stories, and Bohemian Rhapsody tells it well.

First Man

Last night we went to see First Man at the Gateway Film Center. The movie tells the story of Neil Armstrong, from his days as a test pilot flying the X-15 over the California high desert to his work as a NASA astronaut and, ultimately, to his step onto the Moon that indelibly wrote his name into the history books.

It’s a riveting tale, and the movie leaves a powerful impression as it follows two narrative threads — the arc of the lunar space program and the equally compelling story of the impact on families. The film presents the life of the astronauts with intense realism, as they wedge themselves into cramped spaces atop enormous rockets, are routinely shaken to bits even in a successful launch, and have to deal with technical malfunctions that, in Armstrong’s case, left him in a Gemini capsule spinning out of control above the Earth and on the verge of passing out before he discovered a fix. Tragedy and death are an accepted part of the job, and above it all is the sense that the astronauts were playing a key role in an essential national mission. You can’t watch the film without acquiring a new appreciation for the brave and resolute men who were part of the astronaut program.

But the home front tale is just as powerful. There, too, untimely death has a huge impact, and families struggle as husbands and fathers become increasingly absorbed in the mission and are frequently away. The wives shoulder the burden of keeping their families together and moving forward, listening worriedly to the mission control feeds in their suburban homes as TV crews and photographers and reporters jostle on the front lawns, and living with the oppressive reality that, at any moment, their husbands might be killed and there is absolutely nothing they can do about it. The grit and fortitude of wives and mothers were just as crucial to the success of the mission as the courage of the astronauts.

Ryan Gosling is terrific as Neil Armstrong, the buttoned-up and buttoned-down engineer who immerses himself in the mission and strives to keep his emotions in check, and Claire Foy is equally terrific as Janet Armstrong, the pillar of the family who holds it all together. The film is beautifully photographed and the sense of realism is total — from the buttons and switches and configuration of the spacecrafts to the shuddering rocket launches to the desolate lunar surface . . . and to the cans of Budweiser, the TV sets with rabbit ears, and the clothing that were part and parcel of suburban life in the ’60s.

First Man is the best film I’ve seen in a long time; I give it five stars. And as we left the theatre I was struck by the thought that once, this country could come together to try to do great things — and then actually accomplish the mission. I wish we could capture more of that spirit these days.

Searching For Planet X

Astronomers want to know what’s out there beyond the orbit of Pluto, the tiny world that once was deemed a full-fledged planet but now is classified with the non-PC designation of a “dwarf planet.”  Specifically, they want to know whether, far past Pluto’s orbit, the gigantic and provocatively named “Planet X” lurks in the dark interstellar void.  And now they are beginning to find evidence that suggests that Planet X may actually exist.

181002095442-01-planet-x-super-teaseIn 2015, researchers at Caltech concluded that there was mathematical evidence that there was a “Planet X” that followed a long, elongated orbit at the far outer reaches of the solar system.  The Caltech team used data about the unique orbits of certain objects in the solar system, applied advanced equations and computer simulations, and hypothesized that the orbits were being affected by the gravity of a large planet with a mass about 10 times the mass of Earth that followed an orbit about 20 times farther from the Sun than Neptune.  The hypothetical planet was called “Planet X,” or “Planet 9.”  (Either planet name, in my view, would fit well in the title of a ’50s sci-fi thriller beginning with The Creature From . . . .)  The hypothetical planet won’t get an official name, by the way, until it is actually discovered and its existence is confirmed.

So far, there is no visual evidence that Planet X exists.  This week, however, astronomers from the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center announced that they have verified the existence of a 200-mile wide rock orbiting billions of miles beyond the orbit of Pluto.  They found the object using telescopes in Hawaii, Chile, and Arizona, and the existence of the object is consistent with the Planet X theory.  In fact, one of the astronomers said:  “These distant objects are like bread crumbs leading us to Planet X.”

The Bread Crumbs Leading To Planet X wouldn’t be a bad name for a sci-fi thriller, either.  Either way, it’s good to know that scientists are out there looking for evidence of whether we should add a long-lost, distant cousin to our solar system family.

BlacKkKlansman

Yesterday Kish and I went to the Drexel to screen BlacKkKlansman, the new film by Spike Lee that has been getting some Oscar buzz.  It’s a powerful, jarring film that is well worth seeing.

blackkklansman-0BlacKkKlansman tells the story of Ron Stallworth, the first African-American police officer in Colorado Springs played by John David Washington.  In the early ’70s, Stallworth becomes an undercover officer who — first via telephone, and later through a white surrogate played by Adam Driver — successfully infiltrates the local chapter of the KKK.  He even establishes a telephone relationship with David Duke, the national Grand Wizard of the Klan.  At the same time, Stallworth is dealing with outright and implicit racism in his own police department, and trying to establish a relationship with the head of the local Black Student Union, who is the target of attention from the racists in the Klan.  Ultimately the local KKK decides to act at the same time Duke comes to town for a membership initiation, and the investigation turns to a race to try to prevent the Klan’s terrorism.

Washington and Driver are terrific, but this is one of those movies where it seems like every actor is at the top of his or her game.  The film very convincingly conveys the danger of the undercover operation and the simmering menace of some of the Klan members, who like to carry guns and drink and voice their bigotry and hatred and radiate rage and hostility.  It’s not a movie for the faint of heart, and the scenes depicting outright racism are especially hard to watch.  And lest we think this is an issue that has been buried in the distant past, the end of the film presents footage of a 2017 march of “white supremacists” in Charlottesville, Virginia, during which a lunatic drove a car into a crowd protesting the “white supremacist” march, killing one of the protesters.  The footage is stomach-churning, and leaves the audience with a lot to think about as it quietly files out of the theater.

Kish and I haven’t been to the movies in a while, because it’s hard to find an interesting film among all the superhero schlock and remakes.  BlacKkKlansman shows what film can accomplish if it’s willing to tackle hard issues and deserves every bit of the Oscar buzz it has been getting.