Movie Review: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)


Title: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
Release Date: November 14, 2003
Director: Peter Weir
Production Company: 20th Century Fox | Miramax Films | Universal Pictures |
Samuel Goldwyn Films
Summary/Review:

From time to time, someone on Twitter asks “What movie do you think mosts deserves a sequel that never got one?”  My answer is always Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.  The 2003 film is based on details from several of Patrick O’Brian’s novels in his 20 book series about Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin (I read about half of them before my interest petered out). I personally think The Fortune of War, which is primarily set in Boston during the War of 1812, would make for great source material for a movie sequel.

I saw the movie on the big screen in December 2003 and it’s the subject of one of my earliest movie reviews.  Despite being wowed by the movie on the big screen, I haven’t revisited it until now, partly inspired by a recent episode of The Cine-Files podcast. Well, I have to say that this movie is still impressive on the small screen.  The special effects and sound design are amazing.  But best of all the movie really gives one a sense of everyday life on the ship – the drudgery and the terror of battle as well as camaraderie and beauty.  It’s a movie with a lot of action scenes but not afraid to slow down to set the mood and establish good character moments.

Russell Crowe seems perfectly cast a “Lucky” Captain Jack Aubrey, while Paul Bettany is great as the scientific and introspective (albeit ignorant of anything nautical) Dr. Maturin.  While they are the big stars, this is really an ensemble movie and everyone is well cast. The historical detail of young boys of noble families serving as officers in training is well represented, especially by Max Pirkis who steals scenes as Lord Blakeney. Of course, the ship HMS Surprise is a character as well.  While I’m not really someone into war and masculinity as presented in this movie, it really is an excellent work that deals with themes of leadership, friendship, and persistence very well.

Rating: ****1/2

Book Review: The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Serbia

Author: Téa Obreht
Title: The Tiger’s Wife
Narrator: Susan Duerden and Robin Sachs
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2011)
Summary/Review:

Téa Obreht’s debut novel mixes together folklore and magical realism with the grim realities of the war-torn Balkan region in this story set in fictionalized Balkan nation.  The framing story is told by Natalia, a doctor on an errand of mercy who reminisces about her recently deceased grandfather who was also a doctor.  Natalia’s story is intercut with the story her grandfather told her about his many encounters with The Deathless Man, who claimed he couldn’t die and couldn’t age. A third story is intertwined about a Muslim girl who was deaf and mute and a child bride in Natalia’s grandfather’s childhood hometown. She befriends a tiger that escapes from a zoo during World War II and becomes known as The Tiger’s Wife by the superstitious villagers.

I confess that the shifting narratives and points of view threw me off a bit, but that’s more of a reader’s error than any fault of the book. Obreht magnificently deploys magical realism in a narrative that attempts to unlock memory in a land torn apart by violence.  She also tells a story of a family over time that parallels the region’s experience with death and war.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: M*A*S*H (1970)


Title: M*A*S*H
Release Date: January 25, 1970
Director: Robert Altman
Production Company: Aspen Productions | Ingo Preminger Productions
Summary/Review:

My mom was a fan of the tv series M*A*S*H so watching M*A*S*H was a big part of my childhood.  We could watch two old reruns every weeknight, while the new episodes on Monday night were the first show I was allowed to stay up past 9pm to watch. After the last episode of M*A*S*H was broadcast, one of our local stations showed the original movie.  As a 9-year-old, I wasn’t impressed with the movie. I liked Alan Alda and Mike Farrell a lot better than these guys I’d never heard of in the movie. I also found the movie to be very mean-spirited and was bored that so much of it took place at really stupid football game.

Revisiting the movie now as an adult, with an appreciation for Robert Altman as a director and the acting of Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould, and knowing the context of the Vietnam War the movie was responding to, I figured I might like it better.  I did not.  The movie is angry and mean-spirited and really none of the jokes land for me.  And the whole football plot lasts for about 30 minutes, so it is 1/4th of the movie’s runtime.

In the context of the counterculture/antiwar movement, I guess the anti-authoritarian antics of Hawkeye Pierce (Sutherland), Duke Forrest (Tom Skerritt), and Trapper John McIntyre (Gould) may have been appealing. But they’re not resisting the system so much as doing whatever they want and letting other people clean up their messes (and rushing through surgery in order to play golf is the antithesis of counterculture). M*A*S*H  is described as an anti-war film but I don’t see it actually opposing war.  Instead it falls more into the tradition going back to at least to World War II of veterans creating popular entertainment that lampoons the ineptitude of the military, but not questioning the nation’s militaristic goals (this tradition includes Hiester Richard Hornberger Jr., the politically conservative veteran who authored the book MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors under the name Richard Hooker).

But the worst part of the movie is its mistreatment of women. In one of the film’s most harrowing scenes, the Swamp men make a bet regarding whether Major Margaret Houlihan (Sally Kellerman) is a natural blonde.  They set up chairs around the shower tent and watch as the canvas is lifted to expose her naked body. Kellerman’s performance captures rage, terror, and humiliation and I can’t imagine how anyone can watch it and not be on her side.  One could argue that Altman was simply reflecting an accurate depiction of how women were (and continue to be) abused in the military. But everything in the context of the film says that Houlihan is a regular Army stuffed shirt and a “bitch” who deserves her punishment and we should be laughing at her.

The Sexual Revolution that was occuring at the time this film was released brought many positive changes.  But within patriarchal thinking, sexual liberation was interpreted that women should always be sexually available to men. This attitude is prevalent in this movie which served as a progenitor to the raunchy comedies of the 70s and 80s. From Animal House to Caddyshack to Revenge of the Nerds, we see again and again that “sticking it to the Man” is accomplished by humiliating and sexually abusing women.

My feeling is that in 1970, M*A*S*H was one of the first Hollywood films to caustically lampoon the military, mock religious devotion, drop an f-bomb, and talk openly about sex. It must’ve seemed refreshing for audiences at the time to see something they’ve never seen before.  Over 50 years later, we’ve had films that addressed all of these issues in ways that are far less problematic and often in ways that actually make me laugh. M*A*S*H  will be remembered for launching the careers of Altman, Sutherland, and Gould, as well as spawning one of the most beloved tv comedy series of all-time.  But the film itself doesn’t deserve its spot on the AFI 100 or any great movies list.

Rating: **

Movie Review: Da 5 Bloods (2020)


Title: Da 5 Bloods
Release Date: June 12, 2020
Director: Spike Lee
Production Company: 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks | Rahway Road | Lloyd Levin/Beatriz Levin Production
Summary/Review:

Four African American veterans reunite in Vietnam in order to recover the remains of their inspirational squad leader Stormin’ Norman (played in flashback scenes by Chadwick Boseman, whose death in real life adds gravitas to the character who never lived to see old age).  Their ulterior motive is to also recover a cache of gold bars they hid almost 50 years earlier.  Spike Lee intercuts the narrative with documentary footage of the various injustices of the war in Vietnam and violence against Civil Rights and anti-war activists in the 60s & 70s.  The movie is kind of a bizarre combination of Apocalypse Now, The Treasure of Sierra Madre, and The Black Power Mixtape. And Lee has some fun by making some very obvious allusions to older films.

The main cast is made up of veteran actors, some who’ve worked with Lee before, but none of them superstars.  It’s good to see them all get a chance to demonstrate their acting chops.  Delroy Lindo plays Paul, who suffers from severe PSTD which contributes to his anger and paranoia, as well as contrariness such as supporting Trump.  Otis (Clarke Peters) is a calmer presence who also uses the trip to Vietnam to reunite with a Vietnamese girlfriend, Tiên (Lê Y Lan).  Eddie (Norm Lewis) is a successful owner of car dealerships and likes to show off his wealth, but is also the most adamant about using the gold for Norman’s vision of supporting Black Liberation. Melvin (Isaih Whitlock Jr.) is the rock of the group who tries to hold the Bloods together when things get strained. Paul’s estranged son David (Jonathan Majors), is the uninvited guest on the expedition adding additional tension to the movie.

There is a lot going on this movie, so much it feels like it’s bursting out of the film’s 2-1/2 hour length.  It’s impossible for this movie to do justice to so many threads ranging from PTSD to landmine clearance to Black Lives Matter.  The movie is also more brutally violent than I expected and ends up a bummer despite the oddly-victorious tone Lee takes in the finale.  Although it’s a sprawling mess, the Da 5 Bloods still works, something I credit to the great cast. Despite this being a long movie, I still wish I could spend more time with these characters.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Aliens (1986)


TitleAliens
Release Date: July 18, 1986
Director: James Cameron
Production Company: Brandywine Productions
Summary/Review:

In the past few years as I’ve become something of a cinephile and watched lots and lots of movies, I often have an uneasy feeling about revisiting favorites from my childhood.  Will this movie have held up badly? Will it reflect my younger self’s bad taste?  Often, I end up delighted that I still enjoy a film I remember fondly. But what’s even better about revisiting movies is getting an entirely different perspective on a favorite movie.

As the parent of a 9-year-old girl, I was not prepared to be overwhelmed by the centrality to Aliens of the character Newt (Carrie Henn), a child who is the sole survivor of a human colony that is decimated by the parasitic xenomorphs.  Kind of like rewatching E.T. as an adult, the depiction of a child in extraordinary circumstances resonated with me more than it did when I was a child. Henn’s performance is very Spielbergian, and she joins Judith Vitter in my Hall of Fame of Child Actors Whose Great Acting Performances Somehow Didn’t Lead to Lengthy Acting Careers.

Newt plays of Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley developing the star character’s maternal role in what shapes up to be a battle of mother versus mother, human versus alien queen.  It’s not subtle, but it’s fascinating that in 1986 this idea of motherhood had never really been explored in an action film.  It’s one of the many things that makes Aliens one of the great 80s blockbusters and one of the greatest sequels of all time.

It helps that Aliens is an entirely different genre than its predecessor, moving from thriller to action adventure.  Ripley is joined by the rambunctious Colonial Marines as they investigate what happened to the human colonists on the terraformed planetoid where the Nostromo’s crew found the derelict alien ship in the previous film.  Bad things happen.  And as the title promises, there is more than one Alien. The great cast includes Paul Reiser (then primarily known as a stand-up comedians) as the sleazy company rep Carter Burke and Bill Paxton steals scenes as Private Hudson who sensibly panics when they’re overrun with xenomorphs.  Game over, man!

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Summerland (2020)


TitleSummerland
Release Date: July 31, 2020
Director: Jessica Swale
Production Company: Shoebox Films | Iota Films
Summary/Review:

Alice Lamb (Gemma Arterton) is a writer who researches and publishes studies on folklore and mythology.  She is also the village curmudgeon living alone in a seaside town in Kent during World War II where the local children call her witch.  To her surprise, she is assigned a child evacuee from London, Frank (Lucas Bond), to live with her.  Hijinks ensue.

This movie has indication of trotting out the tired trope of Independent Women Must Learn To Embrace Her Maternal Side (As Fits Her Womanly Duty).  But this movie has a few twists.  Throughout the movie Alice remembers her younger days when she had a romantic relationship with a woman named Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).  Past and present intersect and both Alice and Frank have to deal with their personal traumas as they bond.  Frank also befriends a mischiveous girl named Edie (Dixie Egerickx) who is my favorite character in the movie.

There are some historically-questionable oddities about this movie.  Like, weren’t children evacuated inland rather than to a village just across the Channel from Nazi-occupied France? But if you can avoid letting little things like that from bothering you, this is a perfectly fine drama and romance film that is sweet as much as it is predictable.

Rating: **1/2

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