Classic Movie Review: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) #AtoZChallenge



#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter L

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

Title: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
Release Date:
10 June 1943
Director:
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Production Company:
The Archers
Summary/Review:

This is a movie I’d never even heard of before I started working on lists of classic movies.  The title amuses me, partly because “blimp” is an inherently funny word, but also because in America the word refers to an airship, although I don’t that word is in use in Great Britain.  From some lazy internet research, I’ve learned that “Colonel Blimp” was a British comic strip satirizing the military elite.  There is actually no character in this movie named Blimp, although the main character, Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesy), matches the image of the rotund, walrus-moustached comic strip caricature.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp joins in the trend of Allied Powers in World War II producing epic historical dramas at the same time their countries are being bombed and/or invaded by Nazi Germany (France’s Children of Paradise and Russia’s Ivan the Terrible are previously reviewed films of this genre). This film alone actually deals with the present-day issues of World War II, beginning with a prologue about British soldiers beginning a mock war as part of training exercises.  Despite being informed that “War starts at midnight!,” the leader of the troop decides that the Nazis would never follow the rules of a start time, and decides to “invade” London and captures Major-General Candy in a Turkish bath.

The outrage of Candy’s embarrassment leads to a series of flashbacks that detail his history and ideology in the British military.  The first is set in 1902 when Candy has just returned from the Boer War and rashly travels to Berlin to counter anti-British propaganda by the Germans.  The next segment is set in the final days of The Great War and its aftermath.  The final flashback is set during the early days of World War II, where Candy is retired from the regular army based on his outdated views, but then appointed to lead the Home Guard.  Which leads back to the “present day” scenes of the prologue.

The movie has several plotlines tying everything together.  One is Candy’s long-time friendship with the German officer Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook), whom he initially meets in a duel.  Another plot deals with Candy’s relationship with three women, all played by Deborah Kerr (later to appear in An Affair to Remember): Edith Hunter, who Candy realizes he loves after she marries Theo; Barbara Wynne, a WWI nurse that Candy marries; and Johnny Cannon, Candy’s driver when he’s leading the Home Guard.  The movie also deals with the erosion of the ideas of honor and rules among the European military elite, and idea also explored in The Bridge on River Kwai’s Colonel Nicholson. There’s propaganda in this movie too, as characters flat out lie and say the British did not commit atrocities in the Boer War or World War I.

The movie starts out very strange as a series of really awkward attempts at satirical madcap comedy.  But it’s worth sticking it out as the movie deliberately uncovers the human Candy underneath the “Colonel Blimp” caricature.  The movie never loses its sense of humor, but definitely becomes less silly over time.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959) #AtoZChallenge



#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter H

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

Title: Hiroshima, Mon Amour
Release Date: 10 June 1959
Director: Alain Resnais
Production Company: Argos Films | Como Films |
Daiei Studios | Pathé Entertainment | Pathé Overseas
Summary/Review:

Along with The 400 Blows and Breathless, this movie kickstarted the French New Wave.  Director Alain Resnais previously made the Holocaust documentary Night and Fog, and this movie similarly pulls no punches in using archival footage depicting the horrors of the atomic bomb detonation in Hiroshima.  The better part of the movie though focuses on a non-linear conversation between French Actress Elle (Emmanuelle Riva) and Japanese architect Lui (Eiji Okada) as the have a brief and passionate affair.  Note that their names are French for “Her” and “Him.”

They talk about Hiroshima and the bomb, and they talk about their own experiences during the war (which includes many flashbacks to Elle’s family home in Nevers, France).  The focus of the film is on memories and trying to remember while needing to forget.  It is a bit on the talky side and a bit pretentious as well.  I’m afraid it didn’t hold my attention all that well, but the lead actors are great and I liked the location work and the then innovative “flashes” of memory.

Rating: **1/2

Classic Movie Review: Grave of the Fireflies (1988) #atozchallenge



#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter G

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

Today’s film is not on any of these lists, but it is highly regarded and in my opinion is an all-time classic film.

Title: Grave of the Fireflies
Release Date: April 16, 1988
Director: Isao Takahata
Production Company: Studio Ghibli
Summary/Review:

I have very limited experience watching anime and associate the genre with fantasy film so was surprised to learn that Grave of the Fireflies is an historical drama set in Kobe, Japan in the final months of World War II.  It tells the story of two children struggling to survive on their own after their mother is killed in by American firebombing raid and their father is away serving in the Japanese Navy.  Seita (Tsutomu Tatsumi) is a young teenager who takes on the responsibility of raising his four-year-old sister Setsuko (Ayano Shiraishi).  The film depicts him as hard-working and devoted but nevertheless still a child himself and limited in what he can do.  Setsuko is the sweetest and an accurate depiction of a very young child.

The movie is both heartwarming and heartbreaking.  Heartwarming in that is a love story between the siblings who care for one another when there is no one else to do so.  Heartbreaking in that it depicts the suffering and poverty of child refugees that is a constant outcome of war.  This film could easily be updated today and be set in Syria, Yemen, or Myanmar, and that’s terrible.  The movie is also beautiful with the bucolic setting of their pondside shelter and a trip to the beach contrasted with the devastation of war.  It’s clearly a deliberate choice by the filmmakers to draw the titular fireflies in the same style as the incendiary devices falling from American bombers.

Grave of the Fireflies is among the saddest films I’ve ever watched but it’s also one of the best.

Rating: *****

Classic Movie Review: The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) #AtoZChallenge



#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter B

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

Title: The Bridge on the River Kwai
Release Date: October 2, 1957
Director: David Lean
Production Company: Horizon Pictures
Summary/Review:

The Bridge on the River Kwai may be one of the first classic movies I watched and enjoyed as a child. It was either this or The African Queen.  Oddly enough, both movie have in common people traveling down a river to blow something up and leeches.  I watched Kwai numerous times in my youth and into my young adulthood, but I was returning to it after many decades.

The movie, for the most part, part holds up very well.  It has many iconic moments.  The English POWs marching into camp whistling the “Colonel Bogey March” (which I only just learned that during WWII was given parody lyrics and was sung as “Hitler Has Only Got One Ball“), English Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) standing off against the Japanese camp director Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), Nicholson staggering out of the punishment box, and the whole final sequence which I found extremely satisfying after all the build up. William Holden (who keeps appearing in these classic movies) plays the token American who escapes the camp only to return as part of team of commandos, and he represents the audience as the person who recognizes the absurdity of the situation.

When I watched this when I was younger, I took at face value, so watching it this time I really noticed how the movie is deeply satirical, with dark and absurdist humor, and an anti-war movie.  The final word of the film is “Madness!” and the entire film is an examination of madness, or perhaps more accurately, monomaniacal behavior, as exhibited by Nicholson, Saito, and commando leader Major Warden (Jack Hawkins).  What makes this movie work is that in some ways, each of these three “mad” characters does have a good point.  Saito is correct when is says that there are no rules in war.  Nicholson is right that giving the POWs a sense of purpose by building the bridge leads to better morale and health, and Warden is right that they need to destroy the bridge.  The moral quandary is how far they are willing to go to pursue these goals.  The real “madness” is the war itself, which pushes them to the edge.

Rating: ****1/2

Classic Movie Review: The Battle of Algiers (1966)


Title: The Battle of Algiers
Release Date: September 8, 1966
Director: Gillo Pontecorvo
Production Company: Igor Film | Casbah Film
Summary/Review:

I’ve meant to watch this movie for quite some time but never felt I’d be “in the mood” for a grim depiction of guerilla warfare and the horrors of colonialism.  While my assumptions of the movie are correct, I also found it to be a gripping drama that tells a very familiar story. Set in the Algerian capital during the early years of the Algerian War for Independence, 1954-1957, it depicts the  atrocities committed by insurgents and the police and military in an escalating series of reprisals in neorealist newsreel style. The movie reminded me of films of conflicts in Ireland, such as The Wind that Shakes the Barley and Bloody Sunday. But it’s also familiar from just watching the news from Iraq in recent decades.

The movie focuses on Ali la Pointe (Brahim Haggiag), a real life figure who is recruited and rises to a leadership position in the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN). The role of counterinsurgency is taken by Colonel Philippe Mathieu (Jean Martin, the only professional actor in the movie), a fictionalized character based on the leaders of the French paratroopers who are called in to suppress the revolution.  But by and large, this is an ensemble film with hundreds of non-professional actors, many of whom were veterans of the war.

The Battle of Algiers begins and ends in 1957 with Mathieu victorious, with the rest of the film being an extended flashback.  But an epilogue shows the a revived and unified movement for independence beginning in 1960, which eventually lead to Algeria winning independence in 1962.  I find it stunning that this movie was made just a decade after the events depicted, shot on location with so many people who lived through the war in the cast.  It must have been so raw for them, but it also adds to the feeling of documentary-style authenticity.

This movie is not easy to watch with its unflinching depiction of mob violence, shootings, terrorist bombings, and torture. But it is an important movie to watch as it is a document not just of the Algerian War for Independence but of the repeating pattern of colonized and oppressed people rising up for their freedom, meeting harsh reprisals, and expanding into guerilla warfare.

Rating: ****1/2

Classic Movie Review: Platoon


Title: Platoon
Release Date: December 19, 1986
Director: Oliver Stone
Production Company: Hemdale Film Corporation
Summary/Review:

Back in the 1980s, there were a lot of Vietnam War films that all came out around the same time, and I couldn’t remember if I’d watched this one. Upon reflection, I had not. The film focuses on the war-time experiences of Chris (Charlie Sheen), a volunteer from a more privileged background than his conscripted cohort in his platoon. The movie is filmed deliberately to make it hard to know what is going on, recreating for the viewer Chris’ experience of the “fog of war.” I think this movie was innovative in that effect although it has been repeated in ensuing films. I’ve read that veterans of the Vietnam War said that Platoon was the most accurate depiction of the war on film.

The large ensemble cast includes many actors who went on to greater fame including Forest Whitaker, Kevin Dillon, Mark Moses, and Johnny Depp. Outside of Chris, who narrates his thoughts in letters to his grandmother, we don’t get to know the members of the platoon personally (although this movie also avoids the war movie trope of having all the characters represent a stereotype of the regions that they come from). Instead, the platoon is divided into two ideological camps. On one side, the compassionate Sgt Elias (Willem Dafoe) leads the men who just want to get through the war and relax by smoking pot during down time (knowing what we know of Sheen’s real-life habits, it unintentionally funny that he portrays an innocent being drawn into the drug culture). On the other side are the more hard edge soldiers who revel in machismo and racist dehumanizing of their Vietnam rivals. They are lead by the scarred and sadistic Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger).

The movie follows several months of conflict where Chris goes from idealistic to frightened to disillusioned. While clearly an anti-war film and one that dramatizes the traumatic affect of war on the soldiers, it does seem to want to have it both ways by also being an exciting action film with a certain amount of jingoism. This includes a disturbing sequence where the platoon attacks a village with many parallels to the Mỹ Lai massacre. The Vietnam War was very unpopular in the 1970s and early 1980s with many veterans leading the anti-war movement. And yet by 2004, John Kerry could be swift-boated for his opposition to the war as a veteran, partially because the slew of 1980s Vietnam War movies like this one recontextualized the war from an unjustifiable quagmire into a time of great valor.

Platoon is a well-made film and is an influential pioneer in the war movie genre. But I don’t feel the movie holds the courage of its convictions and thus doesn’t hold up all to well over the decades.

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Map of Salt and Stars by Zeyn Joukhadar


Author: Zeyn Joukhadar
Title: The Map of Salt and Stars
Narrator: Lara Sawalha
Publication Info: [New York] : Simon & Schuster Audio, [2018]

Summary/Review:

This novel is the story of 12-year-old Nour, who grows up in Manhattan, but after the death of her father, her mother takes the family back to their native Syria. Nour find herself an outsider, unable to speak Arabic. Unfortunately, their move to Syria coincides with a time of increasing protests that grow into the Arab Spring and then the Syrian Civil War. Nour and her family become refugees crossing the Middle East and North Africa.

Throughout the novel, Nour tells herself her father’s story of Rawiya, a girl from hundreds of years earlier, who disguised herself as a boy and has adventures traveling around the Meditteranean. The two stories interweave through the novel, intersecting in the similarities of the two protagonists.

The novel is a good story and in Nour and Rawiya has two characters that readers can identify. It’s a good introduction for young adult readers (and old adults like me) to the issues of contemporary Syria from the perspective of a child.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Saving Private Ryan (1998)


Title: Saving Private Ryan
Release Date: July 24, 1998
Director: Steven Spielberg
Production Company: DreamWorks Pictures | Paramount Pictures | Amblin Entertainment | Mutual Film Company
Summary/Review:

This is another movie I’ve meant to see since it came out that I’ve procrastinated.  The epic war movie tells the story of a group of Army Rangers sent behind enemy lines to find a member of the 101st Airborne Division who parachuted into Normandy on D-Day.  Their mission is to bring him home because he is his mother’s only surviving son after his three brothers die in military action elsewhere.

In reality, Saving Private Ryan is really three movies.  The first part, and the most famous, is a verite style dramatization of the D-Day landing on the beaches of Normandy. It follows several American troops as they are initially repulsed by the German firepower but team together to break through the lines.  Characters are largely anonymous here and we don’t know who will play a part in the rest of the movie and who will die.  At the end of the battle we see that a soldier named Ryan is among the dead.  This is followed by several scenes on the home front where the military brass give hokey speeches about saving the only surviving Ryan child and we see his mother react to the tragic news. I would’ve have cut this part out and stayed with the troops in Normandy as the sappiness really drags.

The second movie begins when a team is organized under Captain John H. Miller (Tom Hanks) to retrieve Private Ryan.  The characters in the team are largely war movie archetypes although they’re portrayed by good actors that gives them a bit of life.  There’s the cynical guy from Brooklyn (Edward Burns), the loyal second in command (Tom Sizemore), the devoutly Christian sniper  from the South (Barry Pepper), the medic (Giovanni Ribisi),  the Jewish guy who takes out his anger on Germans (Adam Goldberg), and the naive youngster with no battle experience who’s brought along as a translator (Jeremy Davies).  Along their journey they meet up with other Allied troops and participate in skirmishes.  They argue about the value of risking their lives to save one man and whether they should kill or release a German captive.

Finally, they find Private Ryan (Matt Damon before he was famous) in the French town of Ramelle where he and his fellow paratroopers are guarding a bridge against German crossing, and the third move begins.  Ryan refuses to leave and thus Miller decides to have his group provide reinforcement as they improvise ways to defend the bridge against a much larger German force, or destroy it. An epic battle ensues.

I found this to be a perfectly competent, well-made war film with strong acting, special effects, sound design, and cinematography.  But I don’t see it as one of the 100 greatest films of all time or even the best movie about World War II.  Too often their are effective set pieces but not enough time getting to really know and care about the loosely-sketched characters.  Moral quandaries are discussed but then brushed away with easy answers.  And the movie attempts to be a universal story of front soldiers facing the difficult decisions in war but then indulges in glurgy American patriotism.

I’d like it and I’d watch it again, but Saving Private Ryan is more Very Good than All-Time Great.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Duck Soup (1933)


Welcome to Marx Brothers Mondays! I’ll be watching and reviewing the Marxist oeuvre over the next several weeks.

Title: Duck Soup
Release Date: November 17, 1933
Director: Leo McCarey
Production Company: Paramount Pictures
Summary/Review:

The Marx Brothers did not set out to parody Mussolini, Hitler, or any other autocrat, but nevertheless this film’s satire of a corrupt government going to war to enrich its leader remains topical and astute. The wealthy widow Gloria Teasdale (Margaret Dumont, returning after a two film absence) insists on appointing Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) as the leader of the country of Fredonia.  Harpo and Chico are spies for the rival nation of Sylvania.  And Zeppo is Groucho’s secretary.

At a lean 68 minutes, Duck Soup is packed with gags.  There is no romantic subplot, and even Harpo’s harp solo and Chico’s piano recital are excised. The movie includes gags such as Harpo & Chico tormenting a lemonade vendor while swapping hats and the famed mirror sequence where Groucho and Harpo mirror one another.  I particularly liked the musical number “All God’s Chillun Got Guns” which is the rare occasion where all four brothers sing and dance together (and the last one too, as Zeppo would step down from performing after this movie).  The war scenes that complete the movie are full of references and puns and visual gags (such as Groucho’s uniform changing in every shot) that it’s worth rewatching to see all the things you missed.

This movie is definitely the Marx Brothers at their best and nearly 90 years hasn’t made it any less relevant.

Rating: *****

Movie Review: Ugetsu (1953)


Title: Ugetsu
Release Date: March 26, 1953
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Production Company: Daiei Film
Summary/Review:

Set during a Civil War in 16th-century Japan’s Sengoku period, this movie is the story of a potter Genjūrō (Masayuki Mori of Rashomon fame) who hopes to take advantage of the troubled times to make a profit selling his wares in a city across a lake. Due to fear of pirates he leaves his wife Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) and their young son behind, but is accompanied by his friend Tōbei (Eitaro Ozawa) and his wife, Ohama (Mitsuko Mito).

The trio are separated in the city. Tōbei, who always dreamed of becoming a samurai, stumbles into being recognized as a hero by one of the armies, and is rewarded with armor, a horse, and troops to command.  Meanwhile, Ohama is abducted, raped, and forced to work in a brothel.  A noblewoman, Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyō, who also starred in Rashomon and Floating Weeds) visits Genjūrō’s stall and he eventually he goes to live with her and marry her, not telling of his wife and child.

This movie is a ghost movie, but the spectral parts are subtle, and in a way unexpected.  This is also a movie where the two wives are severely wronged and the sympathies of the movie are with them against their foolish husband.  The movie is also a morality play, but again one that is well-done and moving.  I found myself weeping at the end, primarily because the final scenes involve some sweet scenes between Genjūrō and his toddler son.

Rating: ****