90 Movies in 90 Days: The Breadwinner (2017)


I’m kicking off 2023 by trying to watch and review one movie every day for the first 90 days, all of which will be 90 minutes or less.

Title: The Breadwinnner
Release Date: November 17, 2017
Director: Nora Twomey
Production Company: Cartoon Saloon | Aircraft Pictures | Guru Studio | Jolie Pas | Melusine Productions
Summary/Review:

Cartoon Salon and director Nora Twomey (The Secret of Kells, My Father’s Dragon) bring the unique visual style used in films based on Irish folklore to a story about recent history in Afghanistan.  Set in 2001, under the rule of the Taliban, 11-year-old Parvana (Saara Chaudry) is the middle child in a poor family living in Kabul.  When her father is imprisoned the family faces starvation due to the laws that require women and girls to be escorted by a male relative any time they are in public.

With no man in the family, Parvana cuts her hair and wears the clothes of her deceased older brother Sulayman in order to make money and bring home food for the family.  Adopting the name Aatish, she meets another girl Shauzia disguised as a boy named Deliwar (Soma Bhatia) who shows her the ropes on finding jobs.  The movie has a storytelling element as well as Parvana tells an ongoing story of a boy on a quest to save his village from an evil Elephant King.  The stories are vividly animated in a style that stands apart from the more lifelike depiction of contemporary Kabul.

It’s a beautiful film that depicts a grim side of humanity but with the inspiration of Parvana’s perseverance.

Rating: ****

90 Movies in 90 Days: The Battle of San Pietro (1945)


I’m kicking off 2023 by trying to watch and review one movie every day for the first 90 days, all of which will be 90 minutes or less.

Title: The Battle of San Pietro
Release Date: May 3, 1945
Director: John Huston
Production Company: Army Pictorial Service
Summary/Review:

This documentary/propaganda film shot for the War Department by Hollywood director John Huston depicts a key battle in which the Allied forces capture a small town that controls entry to a valley in southern Italy.  The narration takes a just the facts approach but the visuals offer an unflinching account of the horrors of the war.  This begins with the prologue of the film that states the Italian villagers are preparing a future for their children and then immediately cutting to image of a dead child.  Later in the film, several American soldiers killed in battle are shown being tied into body bags.  The realism has lead to The Battle of San Pietro being called an anti-war film, although when it was shown to troops it was recognized as showing the sacrifice necessary to win the war.

Rating: ***

Movie Reviews: West Beirut (1998)


Title: West Beirut
Release Date: September 1, 1998
Director: Ziad Doueiri
Production Company:  3B Productions | ACCI | Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée (CNC) | Ciné Libre | Douri Films | Exposed Film Productions AS  L’Agence de la Francophonie (ACCT) | La Sept-Arte | MEDIA Programme of the European Union | Ministère de la Culture de la Republique Française | Ministère des Affaires Étrangères | Norsk Rikskringkasting (NRK) | Radio Télévision Belge Francophone (RTBF)

Summary/Review:

Set in 1975, West Beirut depicts the early days of the Lebanese Civil War through the perspective of a mischievous teenager, Tarek (Rami Doueiri).  At first the war is an opportunity for fun and adventure much like the children in Hope and Glory.  Tarek and his best friend Omar (Mohamad Chamas) are delighted when their French-operated school is closed and they spend the day making Super 8 movies.  The city is divided into the Christian East Beirut and the Muslim West Beirut, although the city is not so easily divided as Tarek befriends May (Rola Al-Amin), a Christian orphan living in his family’s apartment building in West Beirut.

A major part of the movie involves Tarek accidentally finding his way into an infamous brothel and then trying to return there with Omar and May.  I feel that the movie spins its wheels here a bit and would’ve been more interested in seeing more of Tarek’s relationships with his friends developed more.  But overall this is a sweet and comic movie about how young people deal with troubled times and ultimately with heartbreaking tragedy.

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity by Jill Lepore


Author: Jill Lepore
Title: The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity
Narrator: Bernadette Dunne
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2021) [Originally published in 1998]
Summary/Review:

Jill Lepore explores the history of King Philip’s War, fought in New England from 1675 to 1678 between an alliance of several Algonquian-speaking indigenous tribes under the leadership of Wampanoag Chief Metacomet, a.k.a. King Philip, and the English of the New England colonies and their Mohegan, Pequot, and Mohawk allies.  The war is poorly defined in American history with even the name controversial.  Was Philip a King? Was his name even Philip? Was it really a war or an exchange of atrocities?

Lepore investigates how the war changed the way the English colonists identified themselves.  She also examines the historical resources to find the Native perspective on the war that’s not often directly recorded in Western literature. A large part of the book focuses on the captivity narratives that became one of the major forms of literature that arose from the war.   She also details the lasting legacy of the war, particularly how Metacomet became a romanticized figure in American drama in the mid-1800s at the same time that Andrew Jackson is forcibly removing the Cherokee from the Southeastern states.

It is a very interesting historical account of a significant but forgotten war and a historiology of the study of war itself.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Lawrence of Arabia (1962)


Title: Lawrence of Arabia
Release Date: 10 December 1962
Director: David Lean
Production Company: Horizon Pictures
Summary/Review:

Who was T.E. Lawrence and why was he worthy of an extraordinarily-long biopic crafted by David Lean (Brief Encounter, Bridge on the River Kwai)? Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) is an enigmatic British Army lieutenant during the First World War whose eccentricities make him a poor fit for the rigid military hierarchy. He’s assigned as an advisor to the Arab troops under Prince Faisail (the very English Alec Guinness who nevertheless looks a lot like the real person) who are revolting against the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Lawrence uses this opportunity to try to unite fractious tribes in a Pan-Arab cause and make daring strikes against the Ottomans.  He’s also not above burnishing his own legend.

I’m sure that smarter people than me have written about the problems of casting white actors as Arabs and the “white savior’ narrative in this story so I won’t get into that.  But I will also point out that this film is actually critical of Lawrence, and even more so of his superiors who nakedly betray the cause of Arab independence.  This movie also does a good job of relating Lawrence’s deteriorating mental health as he is shattered by the trauma of war.

There are a lot of great supporting actors in this film.  Among them is Omar Sharif (an actual Arabic actor) who plays a tribal leader Sherif Ali ibn el Kharish.  Initially, Ali is an antagonist to Lawrence but over the course of the film he becomes the voice of conscience as Lawrence goes off the deep end. Anthony Quinn plays a leader of a rival tribe and Jack Hawkins plays Lawrence’s put-upon superior officer.  This is one of these movies that I will need to see on a big screen.  It’s full of Lean’s trademark wide shots of desert landscapes, sunrises/sunsets, and troops riding camels and horses.  All in all it’s a gorgeous yet complicated film!

Rating: ****

 

Classic Movie Review: Senso (1954)


Title: Senso
Release Date:  30 December 1954
Director: Luchino Visconti
Production Company: Lux Film
Summary/Review:

Set during the Third Italian War of Independence around 1866, Senso is a sweeping Technicolor melodrama, romance, and war film.  The story centers on Contessa Livia Serpieri (Alida Valli) who enters into a tryst with Austrian Lieutenant Franz Mahler (American actor Farley Granger dubbed into Italian by Enrico Maria Salerno).  Initially Livia appears to be using her womanly guiles to support her revolutionary cousin Marchese Roberto Ussoni (Massimo Girotti), but she quickly gives into her passions and lusts (“senso” in Italian) and falls madly in love with Franz.

The “romance” of this movie is a hard sell for me since it’s clear from the beginning that Franz is a cad who is totally playing Livia for his own ends.  I hate to admit this, but the battle scenes near the end of the film were the most interesting part of the film for me.  Call me a philistine, but I found this movie to be pretentious dull.  If this is the type of film the Italian neorealists were reacting too, I can better understand the impetus of their movement.

Rating: **1/2

Classic Movie Review: Apocalypse Now (1979)


Title: Apocalypse Now
Release Date: August 15, 1979
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Production Company: United Artists | Omni Zoetrope
Summary/Review:

For the purposes of this review, I watched Apocalypse Now Redux, which I’d never seen before because it was streaming on Netflix and I was too lazy to go to the library for the original version.  The main difference is that 49 minutes of footage was added to the film ballooning the length to 202 minutes.  Apocalypse Now is definitely better without the extra footage, but I didn’t find it made the movie any less watchable.  In fact the story is so episodic that it would be possible to slide in and out various scenes to make several cuts that worked.

I first saw Apocalypse Now in college where it was something of a cult film among many of the students.  I watched the movie several times over a couple of years in the early 90s but hadn’t watched it since.  The movie depicts the war in Vietnam through a graphic depiction of the violence and brutality of that war.  Granted, it is not a very factual depiction of the Vietnam War, but one that catches the essence of the madness of that war through an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel The Heart of Darkness. I read Conrad’s novel a couple of times in college and it was one of those books I struggled with maintaining my concentration.  Although I do remember the narrator’s aunts advising him to wear flannel and write often from The Congo.

In the film, U.S. Army Captain Benjamin Willard (a very young-looking Martin Sheen) is ordered to sail upriver into Cambodia on a mission to assassinate Special Forces  Colonel Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando).  Kurtz has gone rogue from the Army and set himself up as a cult leader and warlord of his own army of indigenous people and other Americans gone A.W.O.L. On the journey upriver, Willard and the crew of a Navy river patrol boat (which includes Laurence Fishburne when he was only 14!) have many strange and disturbing encounters with members of the U.S. military and Vietnamese civilians (and in Apocalypse Now Redux, a family of French colonist holdouts).  The structuring of the film almost follows that of a fantasy story or of a mythological heroes journey.

Except that there are no heroes in this movie.  The further Willard and crew go into the jungle the further they descend into the darkest parts of their psyches.  Kurtz on the other hand, has seen the madness of the war and embraced the madness. And yes the metaphor of “the jungle” and “indigenous people” representing the worst of humanity is as problematic in this movie as it was in Conrad’s novel.  But beyond that this is an excellent movie with considerable skill in its production and excellent acting all around.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Hope and Glory (1987)


Title: Hope and Glory
Release Date:  16 October 1987
Director: John Boorman
Production Company: Goldcrest Films | Nelson Entertainment
Summary/Review:

Set in London from around 1939 to 1942, Hope and Glory provides a child’s-eye view of World War II and the Blitz. In the horrors of war, Billy Rowan (Sebastian Rice-Edwards) can find joy in escaping school because of an air raid, bombed-out houses become a playground, and there’s beauty in a runaway barrage balloon.  Billy’s middle-aged father Clive (David Hayman) enlists despite his advanced age and his mother Grace (Sarah Miles) has to hold things together on the home front.  She’s unable to part with Billy and his little sister Sue (Geraldine Muir) in the Evacuation so they stay in the London for the nightly “fireworks” and gathering bits of shrapnel.  Meanwhile, Billy’s teenage sister Dawn (Sammi Davis) enjoys dancing with Canadian soldiers and ends up with an unplanned pregnancy.

In the the third act of the film, the family’s house is destroyed not by a bomb but by an ordinary house fire.  They end up living in a rustic Thameside cottage with Billy’s grandparents. Thus Billy learns about rowing, fishing, and cricket from his eccentric grandfather (Ian Bannen).  The whole movie has the sheen of nostalgia, probably based on writer/director John Boorman’s own childhood experiences, which helps excuse details like the fact that the children don’t seem to age over three years or Ian Bannen’s over-the-top acting.

The story of this movie is rooted in the stories the English like to tell themselves about the home front during World War II, stiff upper lip and all that.  Yet, subtly, Boorman also satirizes all that.  We see characters being cruel, foolish, and outright stupid.  And yet, Billy’s family survives the war and even seem to be in a better place by the end of the movie, more from dumb luck than anything else. I remember really enjoying this movie in my teen years for its wry humor and its view of children running wild and thriving during the darkest times.  Revisiting Hope & Glory all these years later I still think it’s an enjoyable and underrated film.

Rating: ****

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