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: ****

Documentary Movie Review: The White Helmets (2016) #AtoZChallenge


This is my entry for “W” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “W” documentaries I’ve reviewed are Waking Sleeping Beauty, WattstaxWhat Happened, Miss Simone?, Wild AfricaThe Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, and Word Wars.

 

TitleThe White Helmets
Release Date: September 16, 2016
Director: Orlando von Einsiedel
Production Company: Grain Media | Violet Films
Summary/Review:

This short but harrowing documentary  focuses on a group of volunteers in the Syrian Civil Defence – known as The White Helmets – in the war-torn city of Aleppo. The organization was formed in 2014 in response to Syrian government forces and their Russian allies targeting civilian populations. Their main responsibility is to help recover people trapped in the rubble of bombed-out buildings, saving the lives of thousands of people across Syria, as well as recovering the bodies of the dead.

The movie provides a mix of hope and humanity at the volunteers who put their lives on the line to rescue their neighbors, mixed with the bitterness that this cruel war never should have happened in the first place.  A key part of the film features the rescue of a week-old baby that was trapped under debris for 16 hours.  Later we see the White Helmets reuniting with the “miracle baby” as a healthy and happy toddler.

For part of the film, the volunteers we are following go across the border to Turkey for more in-depth training.  There they observe the strangeness that comes from finding peace and quiet just by crossing a line on a map. While they are there, one of the volunteers also learns that his brother died in an attack and they all deal with the grief and guilt of that loss.

The movie is heartbreaking and hopeful and worth watching to learn about the horrors still being faced in part of our world.

Rating: ****

Book Review: When the Irish Invaded Canada by Christopher Klein


Author: Christopher Klein
Title: When the Irish Invaded Canada: The Incredible True Story of the Civil War Veterans Who Fought for Ireland’s Freedom
Publication Info: Doubleday (2019)
Summary/Review:

Several years back I first heard about how Irish revolutionaries attempted to invade Canada from the United States and thought to myself “That would make a good movie!”  But I never knew the details until I read this history book.

The invasions, known as the Fenian Raids, occurred from 1866 to 1871 with attempts by Irish Republicans to cross the border from Maine to New Brunswick, Vermont and northern New York to Quebec, Buffalo to Ontario, and the Dakota Territory into Manitoba.  The purpose of these raids was to capture territory of the United Kingdom in hopes of drawing supporters to the cause and perhaps even exchanging Canada for Ireland’s independence.

Klein sets the stage for the Fenian Raids by establishing the 19th-century perspective that Americans had on borders.  The practice of filibustering, private military expeditions across borders, was well known at the time, especially with Mexico.  The United States and Canada also had many border conflicts and Manifest Destiny looked north as well as west, with many Americans assuming that all or parts of Canada would one day become the United States.  Finally, there was resentment against Great Britain for tacitly supporting the Confederacy during the Civil War which made it possible that some people within government might turn a blind eye to incursions across the Canadian border.

Ireland had suffered the potato blight and Great Hunger of the 1840s and 1850s which caused the death of over a million and the emigration of at least a million more.  The survivors within Ireland used the cavalier indifference of the British to their starvation as impetus to revive the fight for independence.  The Young Ireland movement of the 1840s was succeeded by the secret society of the Irish Republican Brotherhood.  With so many Irish immigrants in the United States, it became a place where Irish Republicans could raise money and organize freely.  The Fenian Brotherhood was founded in New York City in 1858 where they established headquarters and a government-in-exile.

Or I should say, two headquarters, because much like Irish Republican movements throughout history, the Fenian Brotherhood was divided by infighting.  One of the contentious issues was whether to invade Canada or to focus solely and supporting an uprising in Ireland.  Klein notes that both Fenian branches would succumb to popular pressure and support raids in to Canada at different times.

Irish-born soldiers made up a large proportion of the men who fought on the front lines on both sides of the Civil War.  Some of them specifically enlisted in order to gain the military experience they could then use to fight for Ireland’s liberation, and in the early raids, the officers and troops were predominately Civil War veterans.  The Irish invaders had success early on at the Battle of Ridgeway, across the Niagara River from Buffalo, on June 2, 1866 where they defeated reservists and militias from Toronto and Hamilton.  This proved to be the only victory in the cause for Irish independence in-between  the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and the Irish War of Independence in 1919.

The raids more typically were a comedy of errors. The Fenian Brotherhood faced as much trouble with the United States government enforcing the Neutrality Act as they did with British and Canadian military forces.  But hubris and lack of organization were their biggest obstacles.  Again and again, the Fenians gathered together a small band to strike into Canada with the optimistic belief that once they start fighting people would flock to their cause, and they’d even gain support from French Canadians and the American government.  On one of the last raids with the supposed goal of linking up with the Métis in Manitoba, the Fenians not only failed to make any allies but they also didn’t even manage to cross the border.

One of the great ironies is that Fenian Raids did help bring independence to a country, but not for Ireland.  There was division among the provinces of Canada before the raids, but the fear of invasion lead many people to support Canadian Confederation in 1867. The Fenian Raids also played their part in the longer struggle for Irish independence, especially the key role of Irish Americans as fundraisers and organizers which persists to this day. Klein’s book takes an historical curiosity and fleshes out a story of a campaign that consumed decades of the lives of many Irish Republicans. He demonstrates how invading Canada seemed a plausible and compelling idea as well as showing why it ultimately failed.  And yes, this would still make a great movie.

Favorite Passages:

The Canadian plan offered several scenarios that could result in Ireland’s independence. An attack could divert British army troops from Ireland, increasing the chances of a successful IRB uprising. It could perhaps even trigger a war between Great Britain and the United States, which had cast its land-hungry eyes northward after having expanded west and south in the prior three decades. Under another scenario, the Fenians could seize Canada and trade the colony back to the British in return for Ireland. In essence, a geopolitical kidnapping of Canada, with its ransom being Ireland’s independence. Even the plan’s proponents understood that the chances of success weren’t in their favor. But the odds would be against the Irish no matter what they did. A slim chance is all Ireland ever faced when challenging the British over the past seven centuries. The likelihood of failure might have been high, but it was guaranteed if they did nothing at all.

Recommended books:

  • The Great Dan: A Biography of Daniel O’Connell by Charles Chenevix Trench
  • The Man Who Made Ireland: The Life and Death of Michael Collins by Tim Pat Coogan
  • The Troubles: Ireland’s Ordeal 1966-1996 and the Search for Peace by Tim Pat Coogan
  • Biting At the Grave: The Irish Hunger Strikes and the Politics of Despair by Padraig O’Malley

Rating: ****

Podcasts of the Week Ending January 25


Back Story :: The Real Martin Luther King: Reflecting on MLK 50 Years After His Death

Breaking through the softened, public persona of Martin Luther King to reveal the radicalism of his life work.

Best of the Left :: Our Longest War Has Been a Lie All Along (The Afghanistan Papers)

Back in 2001, I stated that a full-scale military invasion of Afghanistan, was not only immoral but a strategically unsound response to the criminal acts of the September 11th attacks. I have sadly been proven correct as the United States remains mired in this deadly quagmire going on 19 years.

Twenty Thousand Hertz :: 4′ 33″

The story behind John Cage’s famous composition and why it’s more than a joke or a gimmick.

Have You Heard? :: History Wars: How Politics Shape Textbooks

How history is taught in schools is guided by textbooks, and the content of those textbooks is heavily shaped by politics, especially the government educational policy of two large states, California and Texas.


Running Tally of Podcast of the Week Appearances in 2020

Classic Movie Review: Paths of Glory (1957)


Title: Paths of Glory
Release Date: December 25, 1957
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Production Company: Bryna Productions
Summary/Review:

Paths of Glory is the earliest major motion picture directed by Stanley Kubrick.  Released just over a decade after World War II when Hollywood was still releasing heroic war movies, Paths of Glory is stunning in not only being anti-war but in depicting the military leadership as incompetent and cruelly cynical. Now this is set in World War I in the French Army, so there’s some distance from the American World War II movies, but all the actors are Americans with clearly American accents (except the Generals who affect something like a British accent).

Kirk Douglass portrays Colonel Dax, commanding officer of the 701st Infantry Regiment caught between the gloomy low morale of the troops who see no point in losing their lives to maybe gain a few meters of land, and the Generals who consider a 55% casualty rate acceptable.  When an attack on  German position called the Anthill fails, Brigadier General Paul Mireau (George Macready) wants troops shot for cowardice, and eventually settles on having one man arbitrarily selected from each of the divisions to be executed as an example.  Dax acts as the defense attorney for the three men in the farcical court martial that ensues.

I don’t like all of Kubrick’s films I’ve seen, but I’m always impressed with the things that Kubrick does in his movies.  The film is crisp and clear for a movie from 60+ years.  He makes good use of excess space, setting the small trial in a colossal ballroom much like Jack Torrance would later be seen writing in an oversize hotel lobby.  And there are great tracking shots of Dax walking through the trenches and the condemned men walking to the firing squad.  The depiction of the battle is a startling scene of war that’s not only impressive for its time but impressive for any time.

If there’s one great flaw for this movie is that it lacks any subtlety.  The generals are basically mustache-twirling villains while the condemned men are woeful villains.  Only Colonel Dax is allowed to have any complexity as a character.  Oddly, the most humanist scene of the movie comes at the end and doesn’t appear to have much to do with the rest of the story. A German woman (Christiane Harlan, the future spouse of Kubrick) captured by the French is forced to perform to the soldiers in a tavern, and they jeer her at first, but then as the song becomes familiar, they start to sing along, many of them weeping.  It’s a heartbreaking moment of shared humanity in an inhumane setting

Rating: ***1/2