Director: Zhang Yimou
Writer: Zhang Yimou
Cinematographer: Hou Yong
by Jon Cvack
This is my second film from Zhang Yimou, having first checked out Raise the Red Lantern, which is one of most beautiful Chinese films I’ve ever seen. In Not One Less, Yimou turns the camera to a small impoverished school in rural China, having absolutely no money to operate, in which chalk is the most valuable asset, with no piece, not even a crumb, too small to use its very last grain. The film was exploring the byproduct of China’s cultural revolution from the 1960s and 1970s where over 160 million students had lost out on or received inadequate education. Soon nine-year compulsory education was required by the government, but it was a dismal program, soon lessening to only seven years.
The story focuses on a thirteen year old girl, Wei Minzhi (Minzhi Wei), who has no formal training or even high school education. She substitutes for Teacher Gao (Enman Gao) who is going away on business, and if she avoids losing one kid, will receive a 10 yuan bonus. As with any new-teacher-in-the-crumbling-school-film (i.e., Lean on Me, Dangerous Minds, etc.) the students walk all over her. Minzhi Wei was such an incredible casting decision, whose gentle and timid nature, combined with a passive face, make us question whether she’ll accomplish anything. She just doesn’t seem to have the temperament or the discipline, especially as she’s not much older or wiser - or taller - than most of her students.
When the school’s most mischievous student Zhang (Zhang Huike) takes off for the city in order to go find work to help with his parent’s debts, Wei petitions the city to help pay for her bus ticket to go find him. But with the city dead broke this is out of the question, and thus Wei recruits the students to try and scrape together as much of the money as possible. One of the jobs they find is manually moving tens of thousands of bricks into a silo, using the little math she knows and helping the students to determine how long and how many they would need to move in order to reach their quota. With the brick owner reluctant to pay much given that they broke most of the bricks, they scrape together less than 10 yuan and Wei takes off for the city and discovers that the people Zhang was working with lost him, leaving him wandering through the city streets alone.
Wei decides to spend the entirety of her remaining money on some ink, a pen, and some paper in order to place up ads across town. In a brilliant shot, we see a bunch of sharpies in the background, but the shop owner convinces Wei to spend all of her money on 100 sheets of paper, a brush, and old fashioned ink. Wei then heads to a bus depot, writing out Zhang’s description by hand, going all night, refilling the bottle with water in order to get to the very last drop. When she wakes up the next day a bypasser explains that she hasn’t placed any contact information on the notices, rendering them useless as no one is going to try and look up some random school name in order to try and get in touch.
Like Zhang, Wei then takes off to the streets, completely broke, taking whatever food is left over at restaurants. She sleeps on the streets and the fliers end up blowing away during the night, swept up by the city workers, leaving her with nothing.
Knowing that television might be her only hope, she decides to wait outside the entrance, asking every single person who enters or leaves if they know the station manager. Eventually she gets in touch with the man, asking him to make an announcement about the missing Zhang. After 36 hours it finally works, and she’s put on air, and in the film’s most powerful scene, overwrought with nerves, breaks down in tears asking the country to find Zhang, who’s now working as a part time dishwasher at a restaurant. The two are then reunited, taken back to the school, along with thousands of pieces of chalk dedicated by the news station amongst a truckload of other school materials. The kids then take turns writing just a single character on the board - as even with thousands of pieces of chalk they know not to waste it; except for Zhang who requests the students draw two characters on the chalkboard. They each write “Teacher Wei” on the board.
Like Raise the Red Lantern, or reminding me of the Dardennes Brothers, I’m blown away by Yimou’s ability to take incredibly simple scenarios and tap right into the core of what makes them universal. Did Wei actually care about Zhang, or was she more determined to get the 10 yuan bonus for keeping all the students? We’re never really certain. I think it’s safe to say she came around, as evident by the tears streaming down her face, never concerned about her own safety, but only for his; as being a teacher, it is her responsibility, money or no money. Regardless of the education system, this is something shared by all. We want our children to have the best opportunities available, and tugs at the heart strings in knowing that some just do not have the same resources as other more affluent countries, or even communities. To think the United States provides 12 years of free public education is a right that’s difficult to imagine living without. It seems so ingrained in our culture; a inalienable right. And still within certain communities, as property taxes pay for the education, it’s easy to see that more affluent counties are able to provide far more to their students than lower class ones. This isn’t an overtly political film so much as a celebration of the student and the teacher, who when stripped away of everything, can only depend on their reciprocal relationship - for the student to teach the teacher and for the teacher to care for and guide the student, no matter the nuisance. Yet still, Yimou portrays a world that is completely removed and, at times, difficult to understand for most Western Countries; the idea that chalk is so precious that every grain must be used. It’s not heavy, it’s not sentimental, it’s just a film that shows a world and connects it to our own.
BELOW: The importance of chalk
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Director: Kevin Macdonald
Cinematographer: Neve Cunningham and Alwin H. Küchler
by Jon Cvack
Spielberg’s Munich was a great portrayal of this tragic event, and yet, as with some films like Lone Survivor, upon learning more about the event, I was surprised to see how much it excluded. I had forgotten about the tragic conclusion, in which all of the hostages were killed and the bulk of their captors were burned alive after a grenade was tossed into a plane, while poorly positioned snipers were unable to neutralize the situation. I’m not sure why I don’t recall this from Spielberg’s film, even after seeing it twice. For some reason I thought that, with the exception of the few athletes who were killed in the complex, most got away.
For those who don’t recall, with the ongoing feud between the Palestine and Israel, a group of PLO terrorists broke into an athletic complex during the 1972 summer Olympics where eleven Israeli athletes were housed. Given Germany’s recent Nazi history, the government decided to avoid stationing any official German Police, instead creating unarmed security personnel, wearing light blue colored outfits, looking straight out of a cheesy 1970s sci-fi film. And so it wasn’t all that difficult for the terrorists to sneak into the building, take the hostages and demand the release of 234 Palestinians and non-Arabs jailed in Israel. The inevitable “we don’t negotiate with terrorists” prevented any of these goals, and after numerous botched attempts to take down the terrorists, resulting in the murder of a few of the athletes, they headed out on a bus, heading to an airport in order to fly out via helicopter.
What the film does a fascinating job with is exploring the hints of possible anti-semitism (a degree of racist-lite), where given the tragic situation that was occurring, the Olympic Committee continued to host the games. In one devastating single shot, with a news camera positioned on top of one of the buildings, we start with the armed police and terrorists positioned on the terrace and pan over to another section of the complex where the other athletes are sunbathing, playing ping pong, and otherwise enjoying themselves, seemingly ignoring the entire situation. Rather than shutting the down the event entirely with athletes unifying around the hostage release, it was as though - both literally and symbolically - the Jewish people were on their own once again in dealing with the situation.
When the terrorists reach the airport, the direction takes a more questionable turn. As Ebert publicly condemned, he didn’t appreciate the nonstop action sequences and recreations of the event playing to exciting music, which seem to exploit the event for entertainment purposes rather than informative. It goes on for a bit too long, discussing the position of snipers with elaborate graphics, showing the line of fire and where people were stationed. It makes me wonder if the reason Spielberg’s film so briefly touched on this moment was due to Ebert’s condemnation. It’s one of those rare true life instances where it played as though ‘straight out of a movie’, but unfortunately that doesn’t mean it needs to be recreated or told as such. Added was director Kevin MacDonald’s refusal to allow any Academy member to see the film openly, reserving the screenings for a few private events and thus increasing his chances for winning the award. Fellow documentarian Joe Berlinger (of Paradise Lost ['96] fame) joined in Ebert’s criticism, in that these two factors were morally questionable.
It was this event which led to the complex spy mission that took out many of those involved, portrayed in Spielberg’s Munich. Still, one of the most jaw-dropping moments is when German authorities staged another terrorist plot on one of its commercial airliners Lufthansa, using it as a way to release the remaining Palestinian prisoners who were captured from the event. While at first the situation sounds conspiratorial, nearly all of the experts in the film agree on what actually happened. Germany didn’t want to face another terrorist plot in the future and used this event to mitigate their chances, once again demonstrating an offensive at-best/anti-semitic at-worst position.
There’s still one terrorist alive, interviewed throughout the film, living in refuge with his wife and kids, proud of what they accomplished. With the ongoing dispute between the two Nations, it’s easy to see the passions on both sides. But when eleven athletes who are doing nothing more than playing for their country - and in an event that’s meant to unify the world - are brutally slaughtered, I think all politics go out the window. The fact that many of the terrorists were considered martyrs highlights this fact. I won’t go into my own personal opinions on the current and ongoing conflict, other than that there are culprits on both sides. But to expand those tragedies toward those who are meant to serve as a gesture of peace is despicable. To think that the passions on either side could either agree with what the terrorists did, or on the flip side, to observe that all Palestinians supported these actions, is unfair and just goes to show that there is a long way before peace is established.
BELOW: Not much on YouTube, so here's a short doc on the tragedy
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Director: Joel and Ethan Coen
Writer: Joel and Ethan Coen
Cinematographer: Roger Deakins
by Jon Cvack
I’ve seen this film probably four or five times, recalling my friend Phil in high school - one of the funniest people I’ve ever met - quoting it incessantly. It was released prior to my interest in film, and looking back, it’s crazy to think that I was witnessing the cult phenomenon taking place, as beyond Phil there were countless others, often the pot-heavy crowd, who loved the film. In all honesty, I don’t think I fully understood the film the first time I watched it, or the second, or even the last before this, which must have been over seven years ago when I think about it. I didn’t grasp the hard boiled narrative, inspired by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett; that the Coen Bros were essentially making a stoner comedy out of the classic film noirs; and all of the more subtle jokes that maturity often brings to great films.
It’s a film where the history and trivia is almost as interesting as the film, and far better than any review could sum up. In fact, while watching the film on my laptop, I discovered that each time I paused it, Amazon Prime would pull up a piece of trivia, with one of the most memorable being that Metallica tried to incorporate their reference into a summer tour at one point (if you forgot, The Dude was a their roadie on the “Speed of Sound” tour, thinking they were all assholes). In the background of it all is the ongoing tension between Saddam Hussein and Bush Senior’s administration, taking place more or less on the eve of the Gulf War. I recall wondering and arriving at wild ideas of what this meant, only to discover that it was deliberately unrelated, which makes it all the funnier.
The film leaves you longing for that old LA which is rapidly fading. I recall an article about the tech development in Venice Beach and what it was doing to the small community, which use to be cheap destination for artists, with Dogtown and Z-Boys portraying the famous beach as once a run down, trashy neighborhood. With Venice now one of the most expensive areas in the city, filled with the likes of YouTube, Facebook, SnapChat, and hundreds of other tech companies, the area has now become a destination for the wealthy, with Santa Monica serving as a type of San Francisco satellite. There was a bowling alley, Mar Vista Lanes, down the street from where I lived that reminded me of The Big Lebowski, to the point of leading me to research if it’s where the film was shot (it wasn’t). It had an old diner, and looked like it was built in the 1980s and hadn’t been renovated since; a place completely removed from the ‘hipness’ of LA. Well, that place was closed for half a year for remodeling, and now it has expensive neon light art designs all over the place, an old motel facade, $12 burgers, and ambient lighting. Not knowing any of the regulars, I could see them all ditching the place.
The point being that in about 20 years time, The Dude’s home turf has completely transformed, and a person like him couldn’t afford a shared Airbnb room for even a week. I still don’t entirely understand why the film takes place in LA, and wonder if that’s only because I now know the city as the 2nd Most Expensive in the Country, complete with all the overpriced amenities such a place would demand. My best guess is that the location was honoring the hardboiled novels and films that inspired the narrative. Still, I also think the Coens unfamiliarity worked against them (they live in NYC; born in Minnesota). The place was painted much more as a MidWestern town, except with a beach, palm trees, and porn industry. I kept thinking that it would have worked so much better in a Florida town, or even in the Midwest, and that it might have worked better. The absence of glitz and glamor, which from all I understand, has been here forever - beautiful women, the movies, and fame. Or, maybe the Coens deliberately chose to exclude such things as another bit of hilarious and unrelated humor. Or maybe it’s because I recently watched Night Moves and enjoyed it’s Key West setting given the film noir throwback. And for anyone arguing that LA was just different back then, I agree, but I also think that Paul Thomas Anderson did an incredible job of portraying LA as it is, and shot it around the same time. There’s something about capturing your home town that adds another dimension of plausibility, and why Fargo worked so well (and yes, No Country for Old Men was shot in the South, but that might have been their twenty-plus years of skill and collaboration with the greatest novelist of modern times). It's the intricate plot, inspired by Hammett and Chandler, that really makes you appreciate the noir throwback; which the Coens have executed brilliantly a few years before with Miller’s Crossing, and attempted, though not that well, with the recent Hail Caesar!.
However, I never did and still don’t like Maude Lebowski’s character, who I think just doesn’t fit that well against The Dude, though this might be on account of Julianne Moore’s stolid performance, which while brilliant, seems too muted against the other more colorful and hilarious characters. Compared to everyone else, she’s lifeless and unfunny, which might provide a break from the more ridiculous humor, but always leaves me wanting to fast forward. I just don’t find the character all that interesting, and it could have been much better served by a more traditional femme fatale with a nice Coen Bros touch.
It’s a film where the history and trivia are just as entertaining as the story; a movie that transcends genre, in which the Coens essentially redefined the formula; getting better with each viewing, especially with there is to unpack and all the brilliant gems discovered in the process.
BELOW: One of the funniest scenes in history
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Director: Terrence Malick
Writer: Terrence Malick; based on The Thin Red Line by James Jones
Cinematographer: John Toll
by Jon Cvack
Continued from Part 1....
After the battle ends, Quintard takes Staros for a walk, asking if he is willing to sacrifice any of his men, which is a fair question. Malick avoids creating an overly righteous individual, holier than all others, but instead provides us with a flawed individual, who might be allowing his relationships to the men jeopardize the overall mission, however slight. Later, the two share another scene where Quintard relieves Staros, stating that so long as Staros avoids formal objections to Quintard’s irresponsible orders, Staros will go back to the states, with no consequences to face and with a much safer and more manageable role, away from the action.
Throughout the film, Staros is seen praying with all his might, hoping to make it out alive. It’s clear what the deal means, and what’s more nuanced is that he takes it with minimal resistance. We never know if he cherished the opportunity to escape, or knew that prolonging the situation would only make things worse. The best part of this scene is its similarity to an earlier moment, when a pudgy soldier feigns a stomach ache right before the initial battle charge, begging to go back. Sgt. Keck (Woody Harrelson) scolds him for cowardice and orders him to prepare to charge. The man starts drooling and shaking, a look of fear strewn across his face. 1st St. Edward Welsh (Sean Penn) intervenes, and excuses the man, much to Keck’s disagreement. Earlier in the film, we see Welsh castigate Bell (Ben Chaplin) for going AWOL, demoting him back down to private, where he’ll now help the medics with the wounded. In the scene, Welsh declares that any man like Bell is a weakness to the unit and unfit for combat.
So why would Welsh allow the pudgy man to head back down the hill? It was only this round that I think I finally understood - as the last thing any of the men needed to see at that moment was someone scared out of his mind, pretending to be sick, possibly forcing Keck to take drastic action - either continuing to yell at the soldier, making him grow increasingly frantic, or killing the man, exasperating the fear all the other men are trying to contain.
This is the same deal as Quintard provided Storos - an easy way out for Storos, that would have the littlest effect upon the man and most positive result for Quintard. There seems a genuine respect for Storos and what he did, as is evident by the tears and bargaining. But again the performance comes on. He can’t empathize too much. You get the sense that Quintard would like to open up and explain that he understands. Perhaps Quintard was not offering the deal as a way to save himself, so much as reward Storos for having saved so many men. Quintard wasn’t strong enough to question his superior. Storos was and Quintard respected that. In the end, we don’t know what Quintard exactly believed. You could argue either way. The character embodies emptiness; where the further you go the more it leads to uncertainty.
It was during the charge through the weeds that I remembered an essay I read about the opening shot with the alligator head dipping into and out of the swamp; a perfect image for unpredictable death. I’ve written on the idea in other films - I can’t understand overcoming the fear to charge into battle. There are books like Red Badge of Courage, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and All is Quiet on the Western Front, movies like Saving Private Ryan, Platoon, and When Trumpets Fade, even a few songs that I’d be embarrassed to mention specifically for fear of misinterpreting their meaning - all which can make you come as close as possible to understanding the fear a soldier faces. To know that you are, whether agreeable or not, in a situation where you must charge into battle, where people will die all around you, and the only difference between living and dying is pure luck, chance, or randomness. The alligator doesn’t care which human it wants to eat, but it is going to eat. The battle commences and between Hans Zimmer’s score and Malick’s direction and Toll’s photography we are completely immersed within the minds of these men. There is nuance and depth, and each of us is able to interpret the vast array of characters in such unique and subjective ways, it’s as though we’re there with them, following the movie forward.
Allegedly Hans Zimmer recorded over four hours of music for the film, meaning the original film ran over that amount, eventually trimmed down by an hour and change to its 170 minute running time; Billy Bob Thornton had recorded an hour of voice over, none of it used, with Malick opting to use other characters; in a Hollywood Reporter interview with Christopher Plummer and George Clooney, Plummer vowed never to work with Malick again after how he cut the film, with Clooney stating that Adrien Brody actually had the lead in the film, only to be almost completely edited it out. While the trivia is fascinating, I can’t help imagining what else this film could have been - not better or worse, just different. Rarely has one film’s history illustrated that this story could have been assembled in a myriad of ways. Now that I’ve accomplished seeing this film in the theater, I can only hope that eventually that four hour cut is discovered. It has to be somewhere and what an experience that could be. I consider this one of the finest films ever made; where Malick accomplished the rare feat of introducing an entirely new cinematic style, that was only recently adopted by the more mainstream and accessible The Revenant (and done marvelously, at that).
The closing scene, as the men are charging through the gate, as Zimmer’s “Journey to the Line” kicks in - what I consider to be one of the finest pieces of film score ever created - and we follow the men as they head into one last dash, so close to coming out alive, and filled with such rage that you wonder what rumors the Japanese passed on afterward. I wasn’t able to finish these thoughts before that post cinematic feeling wore off. It stuck with me for a long, long time. There was so much else I wanted to explore and simply did not have the time to write it down. Even with just a few weeks and a half dozen films taken in since then the details are muddied. There is a power that this film contains. When I hear actors complain and that the film is too abstract, it all adds up to the epitome of talent. Malick had the rare privilege to create and explore a film that would completely stray from what anyone expected. Somehow the stars don’t feel like stars; the don’t pop out at you; they assemble, and like the marines they play, they each have a role. It is not about them. It is about the grander story, in which you can truly feel the craft behind each shot and scene. It’s rare that even after five viewings there’s more discover. I won’t return too soon. A film like deserves time between viewings; so that you forget where it goes, allowing it to pierce deep into your soul and transport you to a place that film and only film could ever accomplish.
BELOW: The opening scene and an alligator
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Director: Terrence Malick
Writer: Terrence Malick; based on The Thin Red Line by James Jones
Cinematographer: John Toll
by Jon Cvack
When I first saw The Thin Red Line it must have been on a VHS tape on my family's old 31” CRT television. My parents had taken me to see Saving Private Ryan a few months before and that opening scene was burned into my mind forever since. I remember a friend’s mom saying she refused to take her kids due to the violence, never considering that maybe that’s why they should see the film; to understand the horrors of war, so often missed. It was a film that achieved the amazing feat of remaining apolitical. It’s equally a celebration and caution, exploring sacrifice and bravery, and it’s one of my favorite films of all time. Similar to 2008 with There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men, Saving Private Ryan had a brother. Although many sources say 1999, The Thin Red Line premiered on Christmas Day, 1998. I recall being a twelve or thirteen year old as the nonlinear narrative began, with scores playing throughout scenes that were cutting back to flashbacks and giving us random exchanges between soldiers, who often never returned to the story. I didn’t get it and I didn’t like it.
I’m not sure when I returned to the movie, but like all my favorite films (ex-Jaws), what began as a misunderstanding evolved into a deep love affair. Bit by bit I began to understand what Malick was doing. The older I became and the more I read and learned the more I was beginning to understand what the film was trying to explore. As in any Malick film, there’s no one idea or theme. Rather it’s a symphony of meditations, allowing the viewer to take and reflect upon whichever moment strikes them hardest.
I believe it was the third or fourth viewing that I realized that I was watching one of the finest pieces of cinema ever created. As the men work their way through the weeds, which expand like water across the steep hills, with the wind and sun swooping across the grass. Similar to the alligator in the film’s opening scene, which drops beneath the water, waiting to strike, the men sink below the grass, hardly seen, inching forward. It’s after the first shots break out that some of the most intense action of any war film takes place. I recall watching it during this third or fourth time and feeling fear, imagining being in the soldier’s situation, not sure where the enemy is, forever nervous that they’ll be called to lead the way, knowing they’re essentially bait for the men in the rear. By the fourth or fifth time I watched it this effect wore down a bit. It was though I was recalling the feeling rather getting the feeling; the sad sign that a movie’s power to transport you was fading as you realize there’s nothing more you can do. I believe I was in college when I first noticed the movie’s brilliance. Since then I’ve wanted nothing more than to see the film in theaters and have Zimmer’s score, Toll’s camera, and Malick’s direction transport me as I was meant to be transported. It’s films like these that make you understand the need for movie theaters, as it’s not so much that you can’t experience the same effect at home, so much as you wouldn’t be able to - there’d be a wife or kid, or you’re in an apartment, or you can’t get the room dark enough. The Thin Red Line demands a black room with amazing sound. After ten years of waiting, I finally got to experience this and it was one of the finest moviegoing experiences I’ve ever had.
Nick Nolte plays one of my new favorite characters of all time, Lt. Col. Gordon Tall, who has found the politics of military promotion frustrating. His immediate superior is Brigadier General Quintard (John Travolta), who for a moment is a friend and then backhandedly compliments Tall for refusing to enter into the politics toward becoming a general. Without having to dive into the details, we get a taste of the military where, similar to civilian life, there is no escaping the ruthless tenacity in being so close to that first star. We want to think of Generals as beyond politics, and yet some are ruthless in the pursuit. It’s easy to miss the scene’s details as you’re so enamored with the beauty and voice over. Malick provides us with a man who is putting on an act as a deferential second to Quintard, proactive in lighting the man’s cigarette, even after having his leadership questioned. When the movie ends you recall Tall’s shouting commands, with every iota of energy, his neck veins popping, sweat pouring out of his head. Contrary to his introduction, we see a man that is willing to expend any man to achieve his mission. Later, we discover that he felt overlooked; that victory on this mission could finally get him the star he coveted. We see that contrary to the other soldiers he’s a man that seems to have no empathy or concern for his men. Fortunately, his Platoon Leader Captain James Staros (Elias Koteas) eventually refuses to follow his orders, knowing that to keep on pushing will come at great expense to the men he has trained and cared for, each realizing the vast unlikelihood that they’ll make it out alive. Quintard is speechless, and yet Nick Nolte is such a master, able to communicate supreme frustration and empathy, while also knowing that he can’t show too much of the latter, returning again to the act as leader. More simply, we get to watch Nolte create a character that acts as a leader, all while overwhelmed by the terrors around him. In one of the most revealing moments, after the film’s most powerful scene, we see Quintard break down, with the reality finally catching up to him, though only for a moment.
BELOW: The greatest piece of film score ever created
Director: Kevin Reynolds
Writer: Pen Densham and John Watson
Cinematographer: Douglas Milsome
by Tory Maddox
The 90s deliver another film that serves as a throwback, in this case to the swashbuckler tales of Errol Flynn, relying on large practical sets complete with all the legendary characters from the original story. I haven’t seen this movie since it first came out, having long associated it with New Found Glory’s cover of “Everything I Do, I Do It For You”.
Strange to think that Robin Hood has become politicized in recent times, and that those who disagree with the philosophy are therefore taking the side of the Sheriff of Nottingham's, played in this film by the great Alan Rickman, who only accepted the role if he could have carte blanche over how he interpreted the character. As a result, we see a pretty awesome villain that’s a fairly decent follow up to Hans-boobie.
Interesting also is that Jack Shaheen, an activist who was petitioning Hollywood for more favorable representations of Arabs, approved of Morgan Freeman’s character Nadir, who portrayed him as a devout and intelligent Muslim who behaved admirably, rather than falling into the usual stereotypes.
Roger Ebert derided the film for its ceaseless violence, including the opening scene where men’s heads are getting cut off, all the way to the end in which a young boy is about to be hanged. To think that this seems completely mild by today’s standards is an understatement. I saw it as extremely cookie cutter, taking a classical Hollywood style and injecting it with a bit more rawness. I didn’t really see it as stygian so much as attempting to modernize the silver era, and providing yet another example of why the 90s should be regarded as the post-modern era, in which traditional genres were revisited and revised. I have not yet scene Ridley Scott’s version, but I’m confident that it’s probably overwrought with CGI and aims toward presenting a very ‘realistic’ rendition of Robin Hood. Perhaps if Scott chose instead to take what worked from the traditional approach and added to it, we could have gotten something worth talking about.
BELOW: Gotta miss those 80s/90s music videos accompanying tent pole films
Director: John Irvin
Writer: W.W. Vought
Cinematographer: Thomas Burstyn
by Jon Cvack
Continued from Part 1
The next day, Earning takes the team on the patrol. They’re in a fog heavy forest, warned that they are now only a few hundred meters from the enemy. Sandy gets lost in the fog, separated from the other soldiers. Soon he sees figures emerging from the woods; the enemy. He hides and they stop near him, thinking they heard something, before wandering off. He breathes a sigh of relief. We have all had moments in our lives where we didn’t want to get caught, out of absolute fear of the consequences. Irving comes as close as anyone to capturing the fear of knowing you’re either going to jail, or more likely, getting killed.
Later, he returns and a hot meal is getting served. Experience has demonstrated that this means they’re going on the offensive the next day. The fresh recruits, including Sandy, all look around, smoking, and share a couple of laughs. It’s not a forced scene to give you a superficial taste of camaraderie. It’s a very real moment of shared fear, excitement, and humor. Statistically, one of the four is going to die. Given their lack of experience, they all seem to grasp that it’ll probably be more.
In a great shot, starting in wide, we see the troops entering the woods, the camera tilts down and we start following a foot, walking on the dead leaves. And then we see the first land mine trigger, hidden in the ground. Addd are the .88’s in the distance. Within moments, they both open up. The blood effects aren’t as terrifying as Saving Private Ryan, but they do the job. The soldiers are slaughtered and within minutes retreat back, only to be told they have to go forward. There’s no arguing. The Captains know what it means.
It’s another brilliant moment where we see how difficult the job of Captain, or any leader really is. He’s just taking orders from those who received them, to pass them down to his Sergeants, who’re equally reserved about having to pass them on. Everyone knows what it means. Except we also grasp the fear in Sgt. Earning, along with his Captain Roy Pritchett (Martin Donovan). They too will face death, except showing as much courage as they can muster. I suppose the promise Pritchett makes to Earning about getting a Section 8 Discharge was a little heavy, but it does far more good than bad. He’s told if he takes his fresh recruits behind the line to destroy the guns, he can receive the Section 8.
The next offensive is launched and they flank the .88s. Sandy and his fellow soldier (don’t know the name) both have flame flowers. When the covering fire is provided, Earning tells them to rush. Sandy does the job with terrifying energy, screaming his lungs out as he sets fire to the German soldiers. His friends attempt to run away and Earning, without hesitation, shoots the flame pack and blows him up. We’re appalled and don’t completely understand. It’s only when Sandy says if he didn’t do it they would have all died that we completely understand. Some might not have seen it this way. Some might have grasped it from the moment he killed the deserter. But there was something with Sandy describing the action; a transformation in his character that really drove the point home. Like the 25% who would die, it was another necessary casualty.
And then the tanks arrive. And just when they thought it was over, the carnage continues. In another sequence reminiscent of Paths of Glory (and in the best way possible) they wait for night to fall, cut their way through barbed wire, and attack the ,88’s from the rear. With patience and painstaking intensity, Irving shows Earning cut each of the strands of barb wire, trying to keep as quiet as possible. Eventually he succeeds and they attack a supply truck, and subsequently the tanks. They win the offensive. For now. And only Sandy survives.
When you read the history it’s even more tragic. Over 60,000 lives lost in a battle that is hardly remembered. And the one film that attempted to memorialize it has met the same fate. I’m confident that it will soon join the ranks of the films mentioned. It’s that good. It’s a treasure that was a thrill to find.
BELOW: Posting again, mostly because there isn't much else to find
Director: John Irvin
Writer: W.W. Vought
Cinematographer: Thomas Burstyn
by Jon Cvack
Tis the year of seeing movies I’ve never heard, let alone would consider tragically underrated. Very close to top of this list is When Trumpets Fade, mostly on account of I’ve never heard of this movie, nor have I ever come across it on a list of “Films You’ve Never Heard of, But Should See’ and all variations or genre-specific lists.
I actually misread the year and thought it was produced in 1988, which blew my mind given how advanced it was. It was actually produced in 1998, and thus it makes sense that with Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line’s tremendous success, along with the onslaught of additional WWII/various War films following that success, that a few gems would get lost.
Coincidentally, this film is about the Battle of Hurtgen Forest, which immediately preceded the Battle of the Bulge and thus has been often forgotten where 33,000 American troops and 28,000 German troops died. The movie actually limits its description on how tragic this war was, as after the Allied losses and minimal gains (as scene in the film), the Germans launched the Ardennes offensive, which then led to the Battle of the Bulge.
The film is very much like a feature length bonus episode of Band of Brothers meets Paths of Glory. Instead of an ant hill, they are fighting a heavily fortified line, in which the Germans have countless land mines and a load of .88’s that reigns down a thunderstorm of bombs. Allied command knew they needed to capture this to maintain the momentum of D-Day and thus sent in troops, no matter the bloodshed and severe loss of life. It’s clear that it was simply a game of odds. Someone received the command that they would lose 25% of the men in order to capture the hill. As Paths of Glory captured so perfectly, you can’t help wondering who's making the call, and whether it’s because upper command actually believe it’s the right plan, or that they are simply pushing orders to succeed at any cost, and those below them are willing to do whatever it takes. To give you context for how tragic this is, the battle lasted for five months from mid-September to mid-February and cost 33,000 American lives. The Iraq War lasted eight years and had 4,500 American casualties. What’s worse is you’ve probably never heard of the Battle of Hurtgen.
As stated in Tigerland, it’s hard to find a good realistic war film anymore. You pull up a list and you get Platoon, Apocalypse Now, Saving Private Ryan, Full Metal Jacket, Jarhead, Black Hawk Down, Battle for Haditha, Come and See, and Restrepo (I know I’m leaving out others; especially foreign). There really aren’t that many that demonstrate the realities of war, not just the horrors, but also - as Tigerland failed to accomplish - the moments between the battles; the relationships, loneliness, and worthlessness. Up there with The Thin Red Line, director John Irvin captures the terror of oncoming death.
We follow a band of new recruits, who are in one way or another, told that they could very well die and that it's far more likely as compared to other deployments. None of the new recruits have ever faced battled. One in particular, Private Warren “Sandy” Sanderson (Zak Orth), has never even smoked. They’re taken out on a patrol, guided by a fresh Sergeant, hours previously a private, David Earning (Ron Eldard), who doesn’t want the job.
In one of the best sequences, Sandy is led up to the front line, looking up at the trees, warned that he is now at the very front of the line. Anyone who comes near him that doesn’t know the code word (not Flash to Thunder, but I forget what specifically) is to be shot dead. Within moments he sparks up a cigarette. Later, in the the middle of the night, a flare goes up. He hears gunfire, having no idea whether troops will be headed his way. The closest reinforcements he has are 30 meters to his right and left. He’s all alone. It’s brilliant and terrifying.
Stay tuned for Part 2 - coming next week!
BELOW: A brilliant sequence, focusing on the men right before they enter battle, knowing the odds
Director: Steven Zaillian
Writer: Steve Zaillian
Cinematographer: Conrad Hall
by Tory Maddox
"It's like this. A dead plaintiff is rarely worth as much as a living, severely-maimed plaintiff. However, if it's a long slow agonizing death, as opposed to a quick drowning or car wreck, the value can rise considerably. A dead adult in his 20s is generally worth less than one who is middle aged. A dead woman less than a dead man. A single adult less than one who's married. Black less than white. Poor less than rich. The perfect victim is a white male professional, 40 years old, at the height of his earning power, struck down in his prime. And the most imperfect? Well, in the calculus of personal injury law, a dead child is worth the least of all."
With such an effective intro, I came across the book at a Thrift Store recently, expecting the same exact monologue in the opening chapter. It wasn’t. I don’t recall what it was, other than boring and far less effective; a testament to Zaillian's supreme abilities. I remember a friend near guaranteeing that I'd be hooked from the first few minutes.
The story follows Jan Schlitchman (John Travolta, at the height of his resurgence) who's a personal injury attorney that’s made a killing in Boston, approached by Anne Anerson (Kathleen Quinlan) who’s recently lost her son to a mysterious illness, suspecting that the local tap water had something to do with it. It’s the second time I’ve seen the film, and given all of the news about tap water containing record high amounts of prescription medication, flammable spouts, and devastating droughts the whole story took on a new feel.
This 90s film has a powerhouse cast - William H. Macy (playing financial adviser James Gordon), Tony Shalhoub (as attorney Kevin Conway), Sydney Pollack in a brief role, playing a pompous and arrogant executive/former Harvard grad, and, of course, Robert Duvall who puts on one of his greatest performances as Defense Attorney Jerry Facher.
It’s Duvall in particular who I remember the most from the film. Rarely is such a charismatic and likable character cast into such a nasty role. Throughout the film, with the wonderfully subtle, yet thick bite of his, we’re not really sure whether Facher actually knows that his client is wrong; if he’s so confident he’s right that it doesn’t matter; or that it’s all just a game to him, where he knows all of the tricks. For instance, he says he tells his law students to never ask the question ‘why?’ unless they 100% know the answer. It’s a minor moment that speaks volumes to his character. It’s both strategic and something he’s selflessly passed onto the country’s future Ivy League lawyers that will soon command the country.
The editing of this film is equally formidable. Particularly, in one sequence where, after losing in court and having no settlement at all, Jan is hunting down the last chance he has of getting any compensation for the victims by approaching the CEO of the campaign in question - Harvard alum, A.L.. Eustis, who can’t shut up about his alma mater credentials and numerous multi-million dollar yachts. The scene is intercut with Jan’s team back at the office, in which sentences are finished by cutting between the two sequences. Not until twelve years later, when Zallian’s competitor Aaron Sorkin and The Social Network went on to win the Oscar was such a style so well executed.
What’s most interesting is that aside from the $8 million he gets from the CEO - who, while an asshole the entire time, does break down that offering anymore would essentially open the floodgates for similar litigation, whether against his company or others - there’s not really much provided of the $350 million they were attempting to provide the victims. While we're hoping and expecting it to all work out in the end, the case ends. Jan is fired from his firm and forced to start completely from scratch, until the case was revived by the EPA (allegedly playing a much larger role in the book). This is the anti-ending, shifting our expectations, and begging as to whether the studio stepped in and begged for a few title cards to help mitigate the bleakness. It’s a solid film, with great writing, a phenomenal cast, incredible story, awesome direction, and fun editing. We need more from Steve Zaillian.
BELOW: The famous intro
Director: John Harrison
Writer: Michael McDowell (Lot 249 & Lover's Vow), George A. Romero (Cat from Hell)
Cinematographer: Robert Draper
by Jon Cvack
Turns out Tales from the Darkside is unofficially Creepshow 3, though allegedly there isn’t any good evidence for that (it was only George Romero’s involvement that lent credence to this rumor). But I’ll agree, since this offers all of the fun of the original, and makes up for what was one of the worst sequels of all time that is Creepshow 2. It contains three stories with one string that runs throughout the series, involving the guy from 'Boy Meets World' being stuck in a jail cell while a woman prepares to cook him.
One of the great elements of film is discovering movies that contain big stars in some of their earliest roles. In the first story, ‘Lot 249’, based off Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story of the same name, it stars Steve Buscemi, Christian Slater, and Julian Moore, involving a archeology graduate student Bellingham (Buscemi) who purchases an old sarcophagus, containing a mummy that comes alive and starts to kill of those involved.
In the second story, ‘Cat from Hell’, there’s the guy who plays the taxi driver in Scrooged (David Johansen) who plays a hitman hired by an old wealthy recluse (WillIam Hickey). Based on a Stephen King short story, which was likely inspired by the Edgar Allen Poe’s short story 'The Black Cat', this chapter does a lovely job of taking the 40s gangster archetypes and placing them within an incredibly creative and well blocked setting where the hitman battles a murderous cat. Director John Harrison fuses old blue-toned flashbacks and then integrates them within the same shot into the present moment. I don’t really find cats even remotely scary, but the performances by Hickey and Johansen more than make up for it.
The last story is by far the best, involving a struggling artist, Preston, played by the guy from the remake of Miracle on 34th Street (James Remar), who recently lost his agent. After a long, drunken night at a bar, Preston's attacked by a gargoyle. Sparing Preston’s life, the gargoyle makes him swear he won’t mention the event to anyone. Days later, he meets a beautiful woman, Carola (Rae Dawn Chong), who helps to completely transform his life, helping make his wildest dreams come true. Eventually he has a show that catapults him to the top echelons of the New York art scene. His life looks set. Ten years later, after Carola and Preston have a few kids, Preston finally reveals the story to Carola, who turns out to have been the gargoyle. In an effects transformation that’s worthy of the whole 90 minute film, Preston is then killed.
Not until Trick ‘r Treat did the anthology film really see a successful return. What makes films like TrT, Creepshow 1 and 2, and the Tales from the Crypt movies so great is their refusal to take the material too seriously. It’s meant to be fun and silly, and if they toss some scares in there as well, then mission accomplished. It’s been a long time since we’ve received storylines like this. Nowadays, horror films take themselves all too seriously, and I don’t just mean the narrative. The lighting and camera work all operate so realistically. I long for the days when the storytellers had fun with color, set design, and camera work. Trick r’ Treat returned us to these days, allowing us to laugh and squirm; the Town that Dreaded Sundown (2014) remake did the same. A few tried to follow their lead and what happened? Of course, they went straight back to the serious camp. I hope it turns around, one of these Halloweens.
BELOW: A phenomenal practical transformation from man to gargoyle, up there with - if not better than - American Werewolf in London (1981)
Thoughts on films, old and new
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