Lots of catch-up to do in the Trailer Bin…
Finally out of The Master‘s clutches, a lonely Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with, for all intent and purposes, Siri (Scarlett Johansson) in the first trailer for Spike Jonze’s Her, also with Amy Adams, Olivia Wilde, Chris Pratt, and Rooney Mara. I believe this is called going the full-Lars. (Also, I’m never not going to hear the name of this film as “Her?”)
Alan Rickman and Donal Logue — now there’s one of the best buddy pairings on film since Ray Winstone and Brendan Gleeson in Beowulf — meet a lot of 24 Hour Party People American-style in our first look at CBGB’s, with Ashley Greene, Freddy Rodriguez, Johnny Galecki, Bradley Whitford, Rupert Grint, Justin Bartha, Stana Katic, and Malin Ackerman (as Debbie Harry?) I see Severus is now teaching young Mr. Weasley a completely different set of Dark Arts. Hrm, maybe.
Michael Fassbender finds he’s taken a wrong turn into Cormac McCarthy land in the newest trailer for Ridley Scott’s The Counselor, with Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Goran Visnjic, and Dean Norris. Looks very McCarthyish, and no mistake. The good news is Ridley Scott still owes Fassbender a solid film after Prometheus.
It belongs in a museum! WWII soldiers George Clooney and Matt Damon put together a crack team to save priceless art and artifacts in the first trailer for Clooney’s The Monuments Men, also with John Goodman, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin, and Cate Blanchett. As one wag aptly noted on Twitter, this is basically an Elseworlds Ocean’s movie, but I trust Clooney’s choices. Still, here’s hoping it works out better than Clooney & Blanchett’s last trip to Germany.
Over an unfortunately poppy soundtrack, Idris Elba and Naomie Harris channel Nelson and Winnie Mandela in the first trailer for Justin Chadwick’s Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. This looks a bit standard-issue-biopic-y, I’ll admit. But I’ll watch just to see Elba as Mandela — just no Henley poems, k?
Team Silver Linings Playbook joins forces with Team Fighter (sans Wahlberg) to dabble in the luxurious world of art forgery in this brief trailer for David O. Russell’s next, American Hustle, with Bradley Cooper, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro, Louis CK, Jack Huston, Alessandro Nivola, Michael Pena and Elizabeth Rohm.
Lowry? Has anybody seen Sam Lowry? Er, sorry, that would be Mitty, as in Ben Stiller’s adaptation of James Thurber’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, with Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Sean Penn, Adam Scott, Patton Oswalt, and Shirley MacLaine. I have to admit, this looks much fresher than I anticipated. Definitely maybe.
A terrible accident, an unexpected boon, and A Simple Plan all add up to another bad day for Sam Rockwell in the trailer for David Rosenthal’s A Single Shot, also with William H. Macy, Jason Isaacs, Jeffrey Wright, Kelly Reilly, Ted Levine, Melissa Leo, and W. Earl Brown. A great cast through and through, but you had me at Rockwell.
And if you need another reason to worry about Found Money, Alice Eve gets into trouble with the Russian mob, in the form of Bryan Cranston, in the trailer for Cold Comes the Night, also with Logan Marshall-Green. If nothing else, it’ll be good for Cranston to get some more menacing reps in before signing up with LexCorp (although, in that department, Mark Strong’s a solid choice as well.)
Where’s a mermaid when you need one? Tom Hanks is in considerable peril on the sea in our second look at Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips, also with Catherine Keener, Max Martini, Yul Vazquez, Michael Chernus, Chris Mulkey, Corey Johnson, David Warshofsky, John Magaro and Angus MacInnes.
I thought Greengrass’ most recent film, 2010′s Green Zone, was an overly preachy dud — I get annoyed with edutainment that aggressively berates me to endorse opinions I already hold. (I’m looking at you, Aaron Sorkin.) But Greengrass has a lifetime pass after United 93, Bloody Sunday, and the Bournes, so hopefully this is a return to form.
Thor Odinson, meet Clarice Starling: In a tight spot with a new Big Bad, Earth’s mightiest Asgardian (Chris Hemsworth) is forced to enlist help from his brother in the joint in the second trailer for Thor: The Dark World, also with Tom Hiddleston, Natalie Portman, Christopher Eccleston, Idris Elba, Anthony Hopkins, Rene Russo, Jaimie Alexander, Kat Dennings, Stellan Skarsgard, and Ray Stevenson.
After The Dark Knight, Skyfall, and ST:ID, I’m not sure we need any more villains unfolding their master plans from behind prison bars this decade — Heck, even Loki himself was doing this same shebang in The Avengers last year. Still, the first Thor was better than expected, and Marvel’s on a pretty consistent streak at the moment. I’m in.
I also thought the Nick Stoller’s 2011 reboot of The Muppets was decent enough, but I’m not getting good vibes at all from this first teaser for James Bobin’s Muppets: Most Wanted, with Ricky Gervais, Ty Burrell, Tina Fey, Salma Hayek, Frank Langella, Till Schweiger, Debby Ryan, Danny Trejo, Ray Liotta, and Christoph Waltz. Early yet, and I do like Stoller and Bobin’s prior output, but right now this looks like it’ll hit at about Smurfs 2 level.
So, yeah, Harrison Ford hasn’t gotten all that much better at voiceovers since Blade Runner, has he? Anyway, there’s also a new trailer for Gavin Hood’s Ender’s Game, also with Asa Butterfield, Ben Kingsley, Viola Davis, Hailee Steinfeld, Abigail Breslin, and a ridiculous number of clichés (the Inception BWOMP, “We’re running out of time,” etc.) Everyone wants a Ford comeback, but it’s hard to imagine this one getting my money, even if Orson Scott Card wasn’t a jackass. Oh well.
Don’t turn around, uh oh. Der Kettle Fuhrer’s in town, uh oh. If I remember correctly, this teapot with an ill-favored look is an exact replica of the one once used in a small boarding house in Minehead, Somerset. “Sorry Mein Dickey Old Chum!”
“For the first time, I felt that numb terror that all of London has known for months. It is the terror of not being able to do anything but fall on your stomach and hope the bomb won’t land on you. It’s the helplessness and terror of sudden visions of a ripping sensation in your back, shrapnel coursing through your chest, total blackness, maybe death.”
71 years after the day of infamy, the WP publishes a graphic first-hand account of the Pearl Harbor attack by journalist Betty McIntosh, now a hale and hearty 97.
Newly-released documents tell of how America learned of the 1940 Katyn Massacre seventy-two years ago, and worked to keep it quiet. “The directive was to ‘never to speak about a secret message on Katyn.’ During the 1951-52 Congressional hearings, for example, no material was presented to demonstrate that Washington knew about Katyn as early as it did.”
If anything, The First Avenger is more faithful to its titular character, since Johnston, unlike Branagh in Thor, plays this period piece straight, without the likes of Kat Dennings and Clark Gregg providing a security blanket of 21st century irony. Speaking of which, Chris Evans has already shown he exudes star presence in movies like Sunshine and Scott Pilgrim, and he was easily the best thing about otherwise bland comic-book flicks like Fantastic Four and The Losers. But, in the past, he’s always skated by on his snark, and I was worried Steve Rogers might be turned into a self-aware, wisecracking Spiderman sort to accommodate that. But, no, Captain America here is noble, earnest, and maybe a tiny bit dull — exactly as he should be.
In this incarnation as in the original comic, Steve Rogers is a puny kid from Brooklyn whose spirit is willing and flesh is weak: Even as his best friend James “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stans), and seemingly every other able-bodied American male in the borough, head off to fight Hitler and Japan in the Big W-W-I-I, Rogers is rejected from one recruiting office after another for being a tiny, wimpy asthmatic. That is, until a German emigre named Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) overhears Rogers again trying to serve his country for the umpteenth time. Perhaps, Erskine decides, this brave little man might be the perfect candidate for America’s top-secret Super Soldier program, conveniently headquartered in New York City. (Not to be confused with the Manhattan Project.)
It had better work, since Nazi Germany already has a Super Soldier of its own. That would be Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), a.k.a. The Red Skull, head of Hitler’s deep-science division HYDRA. And, while Hitler wastes time “digging around in the desert” (heh), Schmidt has located the all-powerful Cosmic Cube in Eastern Europe, where it had been under guard by Mr Filch/Walder Frey. Now, with his right-hand man Arnim Zola (Toby Jones), Schmidt threatens to use this powerful device to (wait for it, wait for it) take over the entire world. Can anyone stop his dastardly plan? Anyone, anyone? Rogers?
So, ya, pretty standard set-up, of course. Along the hero’s journey, Captain America suffers through boot camp (led by Tommy Lee Jones, who’s phoning it in but who at least isn’t doing his Two-Face schtick.) He gains a costume, a shield, a squad (the Howling Commandoes), and the attentions of a plucky and beautiful British agent, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell of Cassandra’s Dream.) And he learns, more than once, that war isn’t a USO show, and that with great power comes great sacrifice…but let’s save those spoilers for The Avengers.
Speaking of that forthcoming super-team, there’s plenty of chum in the water in The First Avenger for Marvel fans, from Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper here, not Roger Sterling) to the aforementioned Cosmic Cube to a great first shot of Jones’ Zola, which pays homage to his four-color incarnation. When it comes to real, not comic-book, history, however, The First Avenger is obviously a bit fast and loose with the era. Several years before Truman desegregates, the Howling Commandoes are a multiracial brigade, and in fact the entire US Army seems integrated. And while Peggy has to put up with some macho bravado, she still seems unencumbered by the sexism of the period.
Still, given that this is a movie about a guy wrapped in Old Glory who continually punches Hitler in the face, the rose-tinted ahistoricism didn’t bother me all that much. Captain America is a propaganda vehicle by design — arguably the best section in the movie has him being taken on a Flags of our Fathers-style USO tour. And like Superman’s commitment to truth, justice, and the American Way, Cappy has always been more about who we as a nation should be than who we actually are, so I found myself more willing than usual to forgive the film some well-intentioned anachronisms. If anything, I’m glad The First Avenger didn’t choose to make Cap an overly militaristic hero. Instead, he’s a unassuming kid from Brooklyn, given great power, whose patriotism mainly consists of just trying to do the right thing.
So, apparently, a stammer was the least of King George VI’s worries. As the Oscar field is announced with The King’s Speech at the head of the pack, Martin Filler muckrakes the rest of the King George story in The New York Review of Books, and Christopher Hitchens piles on over at Slate: “The King’s Speech is an extremely well-made film with a seductive human interest plot, very prettily calculated to appeal to the smarter filmgoer and the latent Anglophile. But it perpetrates a gross falsification of history.“
Part monarchical bromance, part speech impediment Rocky, Tom Hooper’s impressive if Oscar Bait-y The King’s Speech — about King George VI of England’s attempts to overcome his debilitating stammer — is, in its own way, as edutaining and well-made a recent royal micro-history as the film concerning his daughter, Stephen Frear’s The Queen. The acting is on point, the writing is keenly-observed, the direction is crisp and well-paced, and if Colin Firth gets a Best Actor Oscar for this to make up for his A Single Man loss (much like Jim Broadbent won for Iris after being overlooked for Moulin Rouge), well, no harm, no foul.
The point being, if in doubt, go see this film. You probably know if this sort of thing — a BBC-ish historical production with a feel-good, sports-movie narrative arc — is your cup of tea, and if it is, have at it, good fellow. Still, chalk it up to haters gonna hate, but I left the theater feeling a little underwhelmed by The King’s Speech. Yes, it is well-made. But it also didn’t do anything that surprised me — wait, so Geoffrey Rush’s speech therapist is both wacky AND wise? Irreverent AND endearing? What a delightful combination! — and I ultimately found the stakes to be rather small.
The film opens in October of 1925, as the shy, discomfited Duke of York, Prince Albert (Firth), waits within the bowels of Wembley Stadium with his doting wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter). Third in line to the throne behind his father the King (Michael Gambon) and his rapscallion brother David (Guy Pearce), the Duke is about to deliver an address — to be broadcast worldwide — at the closing ceremony of the British Empire Exhibition. This, alas, he bombs painfully: Albert’s pitiful, strangulated attempts to overcome his stammer make the speech a chore for speaker and millions of listeners alike.
Cut to a decade later, and the poor prince is still prisoner to his unruly glottis. And so, with the Duke at the end of his rope, Elizabeth (who we know better as the beloved “Queen Mum.”) seeks out some aid from a commoner who’s ostensibly trained in the arts of speech therapy, one Lionel Logue (Rush). An Australian transplant to the isles, Lionel is a congenial family man far removed from the etiquette and ostentation of the Crown: The closest he’s ever gotten to royalty is his well-reviewed portrayal of Richard III — another “rudely-stamped” Duke of York, as it happens — back in Perth. But is it possible this scampish, egalitarian therapist has the wisdom and the potential to break through to the future king where others have failed? Gee, you think?
I don’t want to make light of Prince Albert’s stammer, because it seems like a cruel fate indeed for a man born into a family business of speechifying to be afflicted with such a curse. (And Firth does a great job of conveying the sheer horror of it all. At any moment, you can see his fear that he might once again be betrayed by his tongue.) Still, perhaps it speaks to a failure of empathy on my part — I usually do well on the Voight-Kampff, I swear — but the question of whether or not an extraordinarily wealthy and catered-for man can manage to overcome his embarrassing speech impediment was not one I found all that engaging in the end. (This is sorta the same problem I have with Sofia Coppola films, and I fear Somewhere will be no exception.)
It seems the writers recognize the problem here, so to square that circle they invoke the encroaching thunder of World War II. Albert (later George, of course) is more and more explicitly contrasted with that eloquent demon on the Continent, Adolf Hitler, who is mustering a frightful army by virtue of his silver tongue. How will England’s monarch be able to stand against the wrath of Nazi Germany, if he too is not possessed of royal gravitas and a kingly p-p-p-p-poker face? Well, ok, that does raise the stakes some, and, yes, from his decision to stay in London during the Blitz to his 1939 Christmas speech (not featured in the film), the dignity and fortitude of King George VI was indeed a rallying point for his people during the Second Great War.
Still, from watching this movie you’d never get the sense that John Bull already has a great orator in his pocket, in Winston Churchill. (Here, Timothy Spall, who sadly comes off like a guy in a Halloween costume.) At the end of the day, it’s Churchill’s speeches — “their finest hour, “blood, toil, tears, ands sweat,” “we shall fight on the beaches” — that stand the test of time, which, for all its good intentions and attention to craft, makes the central tale in The King’s Speech feel like even more of an historical footnote. (And, as Dangerous Meta points out, Churchil himself was a stammerer. That’s mentioned briefly in the movie, but perhaps not given as much due as it could’ve been.)
In the end, though, the question of stakes is less important than the nagging suspicion throughout The King’s Speech that it was basically just a sports movie for the Merchant-Ivory crowd. There may be a Big Speech at the end instead of a Big Game, but we’re still playing in the same old ballpark. We even have a training montage at one point.
Speech is very well put together to be sure, and if this genre speaks to you then do go see it. Still, I left the theater feeling like I’d seen this exact same sort of tale — adversity overcome with determination and the aid of a kooky-but-wise mentor — way too many times before. Adding British accents, and a stammering one at that, doesn’t really change the tried-and-true Rocky/Remember the Titans/Great Debaters equation at work here in the end.
Another intriguing selection from the trailer bin: Peter Weir, who arguably has never made a bad film, sends Colin Farrell, Ed Harris, Jim Sturgess, and Sairose Ronan on a walk across continents in the trailer for The Way Back. “The book is Rawicz’s account of being captured by the Red Army in 1939 and his journey to freedom with other inmates. The group crossed the Siberian arctic, the Gobi desert and the Himalayas, finally settling in Tibet and India.“
Ninety-one years after the terms were first agreed to, Germany makes its last WWI reparations payment this weekend. “Hatred of the settlement agreed at Versailles, France, which crippled Germany as it tried to shape itself into a democracy following defeat in the war, was of significant importance in propelling the Nazis to power.”
“Tully took the president’s dictation for his famous Pearl Harbor speech. ‘Miss Tully had been with Roosevelt since his days as governor of New York,” said David S. Ferriero, archivist of the United States. ‘And many of his most sensitive letters, instructions, notes and even scribblings passed through her hands.‘”
The National Archives obtains 5,000 pages of new FDR documents, courtesy of the archives of personal secretary Grace Tully. (This video describes the acquisition.) “Archivists hope to have the collection publicly available by November and online by January.“
“Nonfiction writers who succumb to the temptations of phantom scholarship are a burgeoning breed these days, although most stop short of fabricating interviews with Presidents. But Stephen Ambrose, who, at the time of his death, in 2002, was America’s most famous and popular historian, appears to have done just that.“
In less-sanguine history news, and by way of Past Punditry, a new blog by an old Columbia colleague of mine, it appears that the late Stephen Ambrose — already unmasked as a serial plagiarist — also conjured several purported interviews with President Eisenhower out of thin air. “Access to Eisenhower in his retirement years was tightly controlled…These records show that Eisenhower saw Ambrose only three times, for a total of less than five hours. The two men were never alone together.” Hmm…I could’ve saved a lot of time in gradual school if I could just make it up. (Sadly, there’s been a rash of fake presidential quotes going around lately.)
Put briefly, and while adding a frisson of Funny Games‘ Aryan youths-gone-wild to the mix, The White Ribbon attempts to do for the rise of the Nazis in Germany what Haneke’s Cache did for the French-Algerian conflict. But, at least for me, lightning didn’t strike twice. Perhaps it’s due to either knowing the trick this time ’round or having a greater familiarity with the history at hand, but I thought the allegorical content of Ribbon started out rather didactically, and only got more obvious and belabored at the movie churned along. And, shorn of its historical musings, the story here doesn’t really hold up on its own — It’s mostly just long, meandering takes of (usually) unfortunate things happening to German peasants.
First, the story. The year is 1913, and in the (fictional) village of Eichwald, a German doctor (Rainer Bock) is thrown from his horse and gravely injured, apparently due to a tripwire someone — one of the Black Hand? — placed across his path. And before this event can even be fully processed, another tragedy takes place: A worker for the local Baron (Ulrich Tukur) falls through some rotted boards to her death. Yep, Eichwald is having a frozen run of luck like you read about.
As suspicions and recriminations deepen throughout this hamlet, more troubling events ensue. An aggrieved farmer ruins the harvest festival by slaughtering all the Baron’s cabbages. The Baron’s young son is taken by unknown parties and brutally horsewhipped (for some reason, and as in Doubt, nobody ever thinks to ask the kid who did this to him.) Fires are set, folks disappear (or leave while they still can), birds are mutilated, and, perhaps most frightening, even souls are in peril: For example, the son (Leonard Proxauf) of the local reverend (Burghart Klaubner) puts his eternal salvation in doubt by indulging in a nasty habit of onanism. To be sure, this evil must be beaten out of him, and his siblings, as soon as possible. In other words, we must destroy these children in order to save them.
Narrating this tale throughout (as an old man, years on) is the local schoolteacher (Christian Friedel), who, as a relatively young newcomer to the village, stands between its feuding generations. When not courting the Baron’s young nanny (Leonie Benesch), he watches the events unfolding in town with growing unease, and tries to figure out who is responsible for all the incidents driving the citizens of Eichwald mad. The problem is, he’s already tipped what’s actually going on in the very first scene of the movie, when he says something along the lines of “This is not just the story of a random German village, but the story of my nation.” Ooh, really? Allegory time.
Pretty soon thereafter, we are regaled with a scene where the Reverend’s children are taken to the proverbial woodshed and unduly punished for their transgressions, real and imagined. Given both the time I’ve spent on this subject in recent years and the schoolmaster’s “time to play German History Jeopardy!” warning in the first scene, this set off Versailles Conference bells and alarms right away, and especially so once these children are then forced to wear white ribbons as symbols of purity. Hmm…who else in 20th century German history ran around wearing armbands? Let me think on it.
The rest of the story pans out as you might expect. For various reasons, predominant among them the Sins of the Father(s), these kids go terribly wrong, eventually even going so far as to attack a developmentally disabled boy (i.e. the local minority in their midst.) Also, for some reason, the movie is constructed like a mystery, even tho’ — even if you didn’t pick up on all the hints in the last paragraph — one of the kids basically confesses to the schoolteacher what’s going on in the first reel. Uh, can we speed this along? Bitte?
I’d like to say The White Ribbon remains engaging despite all of its allegorical ambitions. But it doesn’t, really. When you’re not playing spot-the-German-history as it goes along — Is the Baron supposed to be Kaiser Wilhelm? Are we gonna get a Beer Hall Putsch? Hey, look, Pius XII! — Ribbon mostly just offers long, intermittently interesting digressions on agrarian village life, like harvest festivals, courting carriage-rides and the cruelest break-up of the German pre-war period. (Some of this plays a bit like Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven — A period film, told in period (B&W) style, with then-taboo subjects like incest, sexual assault, and the aforementioned onanism now thrown in.)
Simply put, there’s not enough story to sustain interest in this enterprise without the allegorical content that’s driving the movie. And, since this allegory was tipped in the opening half-hour, I pretty much just spent most of The White Ribbon waiting for all the various little Nazi shoes to drop. Without either the ambiguity or the open-endedness of Cache, I found The White Ribbon on the pedantic and stultifying side, and I can’t really recommend it. It’s not terrible or anything, but it is rather long and uninvolving, and I have to think one of the other Foreign Film contenders probably puts on a better show.
“Twice he was captured and escaped, once by back-flipping over a snow bank and running off into the woods before his guards could use their weapons. A third time, surrounded by the Gestapo at a maternity hospital in Oslo where he had set up a transmitter in a chimney, he shot his way to freedom with a pistol.” Via a friend, Knut Haugland, WWII resistance fighter and last surviving member of the Kon-Tiki expedition, 1917-2010.
We may “play” Call of Duty nowadays, but this guy lived it. “He particularly objected to the word ‘heroes’ in the title. ‘I never use that word about myself or my friends,’ he told BBC4 Radio in 2003. “We just did a job.” Referring to the glider crashes and the killing of the survivors, he added: ‘Forty-one men were killed, and it could have been avoided. Because of the loss of life, you shouldn’t glorify the story.’“Update, and via several Twitterers: Also passing very recently, another unbelievable survivor of WWII: Tsutomu Yamaguchi, 1916-2010. “On August 6, 1945, he was about to leave the city of Hiroshima, where he had been working, when the first bomb exploded, killing 140,000 people. Injured and reeling from the horrors around him, he fled to his home — Nagasaki, 180 miles to the west.“
Crazy. He’s like a real-life Pariah for the Atomic Age. “‘I think it is a miracle,’ he told The Times on the 60th anniversary of the bombings in 2005. ‘But having been granted this miracle it is my responsibility to pass on the truth to the people of the world. For the past 60 years survivors have declared the horror of the atomic bomb, but I can see hardly any improvement in the situation.’“
“Is it conceivable that Franklin D. Roosevelt’s doctors knew he had widespread cancer in 1944 and still let him run for his fourth term as president? New research makes this astounding argument — and claims that the physician who supposedly told the truth about Roosevelt’s death in 1970 was in fact continuing the deception he had helped create.” Slate‘s Barron Lerner evaluates new claims that FDR may have suffered — and died — from cancer.
“How plausible is this research? If Roosevelt indeed had a hemianopsia, it suggests a brain mass, and melanoma would be as likely a cause as any…But all of these symptoms have other possible explanations…Perhaps most important, there is no smoking gun: In all of the documents Lomazow and Fettman unearthed, neither Bruenn nor FDR’s other doctors ever used the word cancer. Still, Lomazow and Fettman’s research is of great importance.“
“A GCHQ historian, who would not give his name for security reasons, said: ‘JRR Tolkien is known the world over for his novels, but his involvement with the war effort may take a few people by surprise.’” By way of Ed Rants, it seems J.R.R. Tolkien was briefly trained in the art of code-breaking at the Government Codes and Cypher School (GCCS), and was even approached to partake in the Council of Turing in the fields of Bletchley, where presumably his linguistic skills would help in deciphering the Black Speech of the Enemy.
John, son of Arthur, however, took the hobbit’s route…this time. “While he didn’t sign up as was probably intended, he did complete three days’ training and was ‘keen’ to do more. Why he failed to join remains a mystery. There is no paperwork suggesting a motive, so we can only assume that he wanted to concentrate on his writing career.” Perhaps he feared the seductive power of the Palantir, or perhaps he simply had had enough of war.
A weekend chock-full of movies on this end, beginning with a Friday night outing to Quentin Tarantino’s striking, rambling Inglourious Basterds. I’ve been down on pretty much everything QT has done over the past decade — Kill Bill, Vol. 1, Kill Bill, Vol. 2, Death Proof — but Basterds at last feels like a movie by the writer-director who gave us Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and the underappreciated Jackie Brown. To be honest, it’s hard to say whether Tarantino has finally reversed his decade-long slide into his own solipsistic, homage-heavy universe (which is the three-dollar way of describing his recent tendency to disappear up his own ass), or — more likely — that QT’s riffing on European film as much as 70′s exploitation flicks here makes this movie feel broader than the last few forays. Nevertheless, for whatever reason, Basterds works, and it is a welcome return-to-form.
Perhaps part of the reason I enjoyed the film was that I went in with egregiously low expectations. Particularly with Hostel director Eli Roth skulking about the premises — he’s Donny Donowitz, a.k.a. the “Bear Jew,” a Boston-born basterd who likes to go yahd on Nazi skulls with his Louisville Slugger — I went in thinking that this movie would basically be two and a half hours of grisly torture porn — or , in other words, the ear scene from Reservoir Dogs over and over again, made “ok” because the victims are Nazis. But Inglourious Basterds is both broader and more subtle than that. Yes, there’s some of that going on — particularly in Chapter 2 — but it’s handled much more expertly than I feared. (Nor are the victims in question just cartoon Nazis out of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but multi-dimensional individuals in a huge spot of trouble.)
And, in any case, the Basterds are really a small part of the film as a whole. Borrowing liberally from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly at the start, the movie begins in 1941 France with the interrogation of a French farmer (Denis Menochet) who may or may not be harboring his Jewish neighbors. His interlocutor is the courtly SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christophe Waltz, a bit over-the-top but probably a shoo-in for a Supporting Actor nod) who, in a wide-ranging conversation about milk, hawks, pipes, and paperwork, methodically picks apart the poor dairy farmer like a boy pinning down a butterfly. Then, we meet the Basterds, the elite unit of Jewish soldiers — led by “Aldo the Apache” Raine (Brad Pitt, also playing it broad) — who are kicking ass and taking manes all across Europe. Their dastardly exploits have even caught the attention of the German High Command — including the Fuhrer himself (Martin Wuttke), who wants them dead, like, yesterday. (Speaking of which, the early scenes in the FHQ, with Hitler throwing a tantrum over the Basterds, felt a lot like how I’d imagine a WWII-era Captain America film might pan out.)
Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth), meanwhile, is more interested in getting his newest propaganda film — A Nation’s Pride, about the Sgt. York-like heroics of one German sniper (Daniel Bruhl) — the grand opening it deserves in Nazi-occupied Paris. To that end, and on the advice of said sniper (who’s a bit smitten with the proprietor), he looks to book the premiere at a theater run by a melancholy French beauty named Emmanuelle Mimieux (Melanie Laurent). But Emmanuelle, it turns out, is in fact named Shoshanna — we met her earlier in the film — and she more than most has a score to settle with these godawful Nazis. And, like Herr Goebbels, she knows a thing or two about using the cinema to make a dramatic statement…
I haven’t even mentioned the German actress/double-agent Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), or the dashing British film critic-turned-lieutenant, Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender), or Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger), the expert Nazi-killer sprung by the Basterds for bad behavior, or military mastermind Gen. Ed Fenech (Mike Myers, distracting but getting to live out his Peter Sellers dream some more), the man with a plan to knock out the German High Command in one fell swoop. Yes, this film is a truly baroque creation. It’s more a collection of loosely-related setpieces, to be honest, and some work better than others (A vignette involving a rendezvous-gone-south in a basement pub is a masterpiece of slowly-ratcheting suspense; the scene where Shoshanna is forced to eat dinner with a gaggle of Nazis feels ten minutes too long.)
Although most of the speaking here is conducted in French, German, or really-bad Italian (it’s all lovely to listen to, by the way — the musicality of QT’s dialogue definitely carries over into other languages), this is a Tarantino movie through and through. We have the long, meandering conversations punctuated by staccato bursts of violence. (See also: Any other Tarantino film.) We have the throwback homage-ridden score (Mostly Morricone, but David Bowie’s “Cat People” shows up in a truly odd spot.) We have the random digressions on “Pop Culture According to QT.” (There’s an extended riff on King Kong here that momentarily took me out of the film.) We have an obvious lapse into foot fetishism (the Cinderella scene, which, imho, doesn’t make much sense given what happens later.) There are, of course, several Mexican standoffs. It’s all very Tarantino, alright.
And we have the powerful ending, which I won’t give away in detail here. [Warning: This rest of this review is spoilerish.] As several characters say in Chapter 5, “the shoe’s on the other foot now.” And it is — After the tension-wracked first chapter, Basterds completely inverts the usual Cat-and-Maus relationship inherent to almost all movies of this genre. The political economy of IB is hardly what you’d call Zen, and if “turn the other cheek” is your moral touchstone, then the ending is deplorable in many ways. (Even Tarantino seems to think so, given that we the audience have basically the same reaction to Basterds as the Nazis do to A Nation’s Pride.) That being said, it’s a weirdly and undeniably intoxicating thing to see the Jewish Basterds being the guys holding the guns for once, and to witness their disembodied, cackling Avenging Angel exult in a vengeance long denied.
After all its Eurocinema-meets-The Dirty Dozen twists-and-turns, Inglourious Basterds ends up being a sort of a Leni Riefenstahl film for the Jews. And, well, propaganda it may be, but you don’t have to be a Tarantino-level foot fetishist to find it at least somewhat refreshing, even exhilarating, to see that boot on the other heel for once.
“The free men of the world are marching together to victory. I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty, and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full victory. Good luck, and let us all beseech the blessings of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.” — Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, June 6, 1944. And, while remembering fallen heroes, today is also the 64th anniversary of D-Day.
A busy day traffic-wise here at GitM: In a speech before the Knesset today, Dubya compared Obama to Sen. William Borah of Idaho (and not in complimentary fashion, although that case could be made too.) Here’s GWB: “Some seem to believe we should negotiate with terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along. We have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: ‘Lord, if only I could have talked to Hitler, all of this might have been avoided.’ We have an obligation to call this what it is –- the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history.“
Now, as it turns out, Sen. Borah was the subject of my undergraduate thesis and features prominently in my dissertation. So, notwithstanding the self-serving idiocy and sad invoking of Godwin’s Law in Dubya’s words, I do want to take a moment to defend Sen. Borah, before — just as Philip Roth Cheneyed up Burton Wheeler — he disappears down the memory hole and is reinvented as simply a kneejerk reactionary. (I know Dubya brought him up to bash as a weak-kneed surrender-monkey, but I’ve also read several left-leaning comments out and about today that make note that Borah was a Republican, and thus belongs in Dubya’s camp. He really doesn’t.)
However wrong he was about Hitler in his final years, and obviously he was very, very wrong (although not perhaps as wrong as George Prescott Bush), Sen. Borah is neither the apostle of appeasement nor the GOP stooge that Dubya and folks pushing back would respectively make him out to be today. With La Follette and Johnson, Borah was one of the leading progressives in the Senate for decades, and one of its strongest civil liberties advocates in the years after World War I. In fact, if Dubya wants to ponder aloud the words of Borah, may I suggest the following?
The men who are destroying American institutions and who are a menace to American principles are not the ‘reds,’ nor the anarchistic…but rather the men who, professing like Augustus the Great, to preserve our Constitution, are subtly and with sinister and selfish purposes, undermining them.” — Borah to Frank Morrison, 1921.
But, civil liberties aside, what should we take from Sen. Borah’s unfortunate remarks about Hitler (which he made at the age of 75, less than a year before his death?) Well, to me, it might suggest that age can cloud the judgement of all of us, even long-standing Senate mavericks much-beloved by the media. It’s just a good thing that ancient, venerable lion of the Senate didn’t win the election of 1936, eh?
As Claus von Stauffenberg, Col. Tom Cruise (sporting a funky, funky eyepatch, man) plots to kill Adolf Hitler in the new trailer for Bryan Singer’s Valkryie, also starring Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Terence Stamp, and Eddie Izzard. Hmmm, maybe.
Ollie, you should’ve stayed at home yesterday. Conservative radio host and Iran-Contra embarrassment Oliver North gets in a tussle with the Smithsonian over his attempt to film a segment on the Enola Gay for a forthcoming Fox News show, “From the Manhattan Project to Tehran.” (The Smithsonian has secured what admittedly sounds like a rather shady exclusive deal, for a public institution, with Showtime Networks.) “We were surprised to read the column because we consider the request to be pending,” [Smithsonian spokesman] Brown said.“
While I thought most critics lavished too much praise on Pan’s Labyrinth, the very similar swells of appreciation for Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima are, surprisingly, much closer to the mark. Eastwood’s first crack at Iwo Jima in 2006, Flags of our Fathers, was to my mind a well-meaning dog, one made particularly lousy by the heavy-handed fingerprints of Paul Haggis all over the film. But (perhaps due to the different screenwriter, Iris Yamashita), Letters is really something quite remarkable. A mournful, occasionally shocking testament to the inhumanity and absurdities attending war, and a elegiac dirge for those caught in its grip, even on the other side of the conflict, Letters from Iwo Jima is an impressive — even at times breathtaking — siege movie. And strangely enough, elements that seemed trite or intrusive in Flags — the desaturated landscape, the minimalist piano score — are truly haunting and evocative here. In fact, Letters from Iwo Jima is so good it even makes Flags of our Fathers seem like a better movie just by association, which, trust me, is no small feat.
As you probably know by now, Letters from Iwo Jima follows the famous World War II battle, ostensibly depicted in Flags, from the Japanese side. Here, nobody cares about artfully raised flags or the Ballad of Ira Hayes — the emphasis instead is on honor and survival. General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe, as captivating here as he was in The Last Samurai) has been ordered to lead the defense of the island against the Americans. To this task, he fully devotes himself, despite fond memories of his earlier days on US soil. But it only takes a few walks around Mt. Suribachi for Kuribayashi to figure out it’s pretty much a no-win scenario — the Americans are too many, too productive, and too strong. And once word leaks out that the Japanese fleet has been broken at Leyte Gulf, Kuribayashi and his men — most notably friendly grunt Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), and former Kempetai Shimizu (Ryo Kase) — must slowly come to grips with the fact that they’re not digging cavern defenses so much as their own tomb…a tomb in which many Japanese officers, and not least the headquarters on the homeland, will expect them to die with honor.
What’s particularly surprising here is how unafraid Eastwood is to invert the usual sympathies of a World War II film. It’s not just that the Japanese are the “good guys” here — True, Letters dramatizes the soldiers’ plight by portraying them, particularly Saigo, as just like our fun-loving GI’s at heart. But it also doesn’t shy away from examining a cultural emphasis on dying well that seems completely foreign to the American mind. And, although a wounded American serviceman shows up later in the film, for the most part the US forces are — surprisingly — portrayed here like something out of The Empire Strikes Back, all gleaming, remorseless battleships and Fiery Death from Above. (Some have argued that Eastwood elides over Japanese atrocities in this film, but I’m not sure that’s really fair, unless I somehow just missed the Dresden firebombing subplot in Saving Private Ryan. This is not to say that all war crimes are equivalent or that both sides are equally guilty (although Lord knows it got ugly) — that gets into a moral calculus well outside the bounds of this review — only that Letters seems more interested in portraying war itself as an atrocity, and that enough reference is made to ugly tactics (aiming at medics, for example) that the film doesn’t feel to me like a whitewash.)
The sobering truth at the heart of the grim, moving Letters from Iwo Jima is captured in its penultimate image. (Alas, like too many WWII films, Eastwood opts for an unnecessary contemporary bookend, but it’s not as distracting as the Greatest Generation stuff in Flags. In fact, you might argue that it plays very well off those scenes, in depicting what little survives the war on the Japanese side.) I won’t give it away here…suffice to say that Letters makes clear that War is a demon that rips lives apart and rends men asunder, no matter what side you’re on or for what reasons. Regardless of race, creed, nationality, or ideology, all who invoke its wrath will eventually come to taste tragedy.
As its conceit, the film follows the six soldiers pictured in the famous photograph of the Iwo Jima flag-raising, of which only three made it out alive: John “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillipe, better than usual), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach, also very good). As it turns out, surviving hell on earth was only the first of their trials: Once the federal agitprop powers-that-be figure out what a spectacular image they’ve stumbled upon, these three soldiers — who in fact were putting up the second flag of the day — are forced into a whirlwind publicity tour across the United States to drum up support for war bonds. For Gagnon (and his ridiculously golddiggerish fiancee), this is an unexpected stroke of luck. For Bradley, this is grist for several artfully timed flashbacks of the actual battle. And for Hayes, a Pima Indian forced to confront not only the twin demons of racism and alcoholism but also his own feelings of guilt and inadequacy on the road, the war bond schmooze train seems like it might just be worse than the battlefield… (There’s also a framing device involving Bradley’s son (the author of the book) interviewing the participants in the story, but it’s basically Greatest Generation filler.)
Between the battle itself and the opportunity for trenchant social criticism offered by the war bond tour, this may sound like it has all the makings for a quality film. And, to their credit, the players all acquit themselves decently, with lots of good character actors (say, Robert Patrick, Harve Presnell, and look for Luther of The Warriors (David Patrick Kelly) in a cameo as Harry Truman) around to leaven the likes of grunts Paul Walker and Jamie Bell. That being said, virtually every character in Flags comes across as shallow and inert: From start to finish, Bradley’s a polite, well-meaning cipher, Gagnon a boyish opportunist, and Hayes a weepy drunk, and they’re the well-rounded ones. Moreover, as Ed Gonzalez of The House Next Door aptly put it, “the stink of Crash hovers over Flags of Our Fathers.” Cheap, reflexive sentiment is the order of the day here, and even scenes that should be powerful — say, Hayes being refused service at a white-only bar, or America learning of the death of FDR over the radio — are ruined by Haggis’s usual brand of in-your-face hokum, baldly sentimentalized and applied as a paste. By the time we’re forced to sit through some deathbed histrionics about daddys and heroes — a scene which would seem to undermine the film’s earlier emphasis on not valorizing war simply for its own sake — I’d pretty much completely checked out of the film. In short, Flags of our Fathers means well, I suppose…but it’s far too saccharine here to do its subject justice, and is basically a long-winded, ill-conceived bore.
“The Nuremberg trials presupposed something about the human conscience: that moral choice doesn’t take its cues solely from narrow legalisms and technicalities. The new detainee bill takes precisely the opposite stance: Technicality now triumphs over conscience, and even over common sense. The bill introduces the possibility for a new cottage industry: the jurisprudence of pain.” Also at Slate, David J. Luban argues that Dubya’s recent torture bill spells the end of the Nuremberg era, a period when the US worked hard at “codifying genuinely international humanitarian law,” to say nothing of the Great Writ.
Two recent history-minded links courtesy of the NYT: National Review‘s Richard Brookhiser evaluates the marginalia of John Adams, and Sheryl Gay Stolberg examines the recent revival of Munich among the Bushies (as does the WP‘s Eugene Robinson.)
A trailer for Clint Eastwood’s forthcoming Iwo Jima double-feature, Flags of our Fathers and Red Sun, Black Sand, is now online.