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War

Da 5 Bloods

Da 5 Bloods

War is hell, but at least the good guys got paid, right?

dir: Spike Lee

2020

It’s what the world needed right now: A film about four African-American Vietnam veterans returning to the scene of the crime, like, 50 years later, in order to honour their fallen comrade Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), but really they’re there to get some gold they buried back in the day.

Not, just, like a little bit of gold, but a whole shitload of CIA gold, which is the worst kind.

The men are old but not completely broken down. Paul (Delroy Lindo) wears a MAGA hat and is generally paranoid, aggressive and annoying. Otis (Clarke Peters) is calm and charming, and somehow has a pony tail. Melvin (Isaiah Whitlock Jnr) is like a cuddly teddy bear who can draw out saying “Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit” longer than anyone else in human history. Eddie (Norm Lewis) is just there. I have no opinion about Eddie.

1 of the so called 5 Bloods is clearly missing, and clearly died all those years ago, his life and his death having cast a pall over these men’s lives. They are getting together again presumably for the first time in a long time, in a city that had another name when they fought in the country. They fought in a country that didn’t really want them there, sent by a country at the time that clearly didn’t want them home either. It sent as many as it could to fight and die in a pointless war, and was brutalising the ones back home who were fighting for the civil rights of their brothers and sisters.

Rating:

Beanpole

Dylda

She's a bad mother...hush your mouth, I'm talking about my
lady Beanpole! You're damn right.

(Дылда)

dir: Kantemir Balagov

2019

Beanpole is a fairly amazing movie, of which I knew nothing before watching, and of which I could not predict anything as it was happening. A lot of contemporary Russian war movies tend to be fairly nationalistic, so this has nothing to do with that idea. It’s actually about a complex relationship between two female survivors of World War II. It’s not about beans, or poles, or poles with beans on them, or tall people in general. It’s about one tall girl, like a Russian Brienne of Tarth, just taller and more fragile.

Set in Leningrad just after the end of the war, Beanpole refers to the tall protagonist, so tall that she looms over almost everyone else, male or female, on the street, on the tram or at the hospital where she works. She has an actual name, being Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), but more often than not she’s referred to by her “affectionate” nickname. She hunches over a lot, and her eyes are already haunted. She survived the siege of Leningrad, so she must have seen some shit.

She not only survived the war, but fought in the anti-aircraft division, where she received a head wound, which occasionally results in her having a kind of seizure. Not like narcolepsy, where she would collapse, limp like a marionette with cut strings; she freezes in place, unseeing, unhearing, rigidly insensate until it passes.

The hospital where she works looks to be mostly for the soldiers wounded in the war, many of whom are missing limbs or worse. Many seemingly have no hope of recovering, but aren’t going to immediately die of anything either). The head doctor, who looks suspiciously like a Russian version of Jeremy Irons (Andrey Bykov), pulls her aside at one point and pointedly tells her he needs her help with something.

It’s not what you think it is; it’s far worse.

So, not only does she have a harsh job, a worrying condition, and the kind of Soviet impoverished life of starvation we would come to expect from the “winners” of the great war against the Germans, she also comes home to a little boy, Pashka (Timofey Glazkov), who must have been born during the war. Can you imagine anything more terrifying? It puts the children born during this strange pandemic / apocalypse of 2020 seem like blessed lucky angels in comparison.

Rating:

Jojo Rabbit

Jojo Rabbit

Genocidal fun for the whole family

dir: Taika Waititi

2019

I know that there are a lot of people for whom stories and movies like this are too much, that it’s disrespectful to those who were persecuted and murdered by the Nazis, that it minimises the sheer enormity of what happened. Similar criticisms were aimed at Roberto Benigni for making Life is Beautiful; a comedy about a Jewish father trying to playfully shield his son from the fact that they’re in a concentration camp.

How did they get away with that one? I also remember people bleating similar crap about the book and the film of The Book Thief, which also was seen as not treating the Holocaust with enough reverence, or centring the narrative on non-Jewish characters at the expense of the worst affected by the genocide.

And here, in Jojo Rabbit, a ten-year-old boy has Hitler as his best, imaginary friend, and wants to do nothing more than make his Fuhrer proud by killing Jews.

If I walked into the offices of Fox Searchlight, and said any of the above, I’d probably not only get arrested, I’d get the shit kicked out of me in alley somewhere for good measure.

But I’m not Taika Waititi, so when he says it, people listen and take him seriously, and they think “this might work” and not “Security, get this bum out of here.”

Taika has been making his absurdist masterpieces for a while now, so I would hope that he and the people he works with have a good enough idea of how to balance the various elements one needs to in order to make something like this work. This isn’t, on the surface, that complicated a story – young boy indoctrinated by Nazi propaganda hates the Jews, but slowly learns to not hate at least one of them. We often see these kinds of stories with adult characters, and it’s a redemption story in those contexts. But Jojo, or Johannes (Roman Griffin Davis) as he’s more commonly known, isn’t looking at redemption, he’s a kid who believes vile Nazi propaganda because he doesn’t know any better, and he doesn’t realise how close Germany is to losing the war. His path, since he’s only ten, is to realise some of the stuff he thought was true, isn’t.

Rating:

1917

1917

Nine nine nine nineteen. Seventeen. Nineteen Seventeen.
Should catch on

dir: Sam Mendes

2019

1917 is a well-choreographed, well-shot film about that minor skirmish that used to be called The Great War, until the unending War on Christmas began. It says nothing new about war, or new about anything other than on the technical level (of what’s achievable with a massive budget and the latest in filming tech), because we already knew war sucked.

But for the director, Sam Mendes, who based this movie on a story his grandfather told him, it’s personal. It’s not biographical, but it’s possibly about the images imagined and the feelings engendered within a young Sam upon hearing his pop talk about what it was like to live through such a hell and survive.

World War II flicks are usually about, at least the American ones, how war is hell but at least the Americans won, because they were the toughest and the bravest. World War I flicks, because of the nature of the pointlessness of it all, with its imagery of trenches, mustard gas, barren no man’s lands surrounded by walls of barbed wire, mud and corpses, of soldiers going over the top and dying in their droves, aren’t as conducive to the idea of visceral, exciting cinema that is the cinematic ideal for action set pieces. What might have worked with a goddess in Wonder Woman, where she fights against the very embodiment of War, doesn’t work as neatly with mere mortals when it’s treated realistically. The very nature of it not only obliterated so many people, it obliterated the illusion that any one individual could make a difference. Films depend on that illusion. A lot of films don’t work without that illusion.

Not to say that any of this is realistic, but it is meant to give us a taste for what it might have been like over two crazy days in April of 1917 for two desperate soldiers. Or at least how a child listening to his granddad talk about the war imagined what he was hearing. No matter how much of it was bullshit.

Two mere mortals, or more accurately, two British lance corporals, are tasked with running across an area that until that very morning was controlled by the Germans, in the French countryside. They carry orders to a specific Colonel, who thinks the Germans are retreating, even though he’s planning a counterattack with which to cover himself with glory.

Rating:

The Water Diviner

Water Diviner

Rusty still has that "I'd kill you for the sandwich you're
eating" look in his eye, even in his attempt at 'prestige'
award bait drama! Is there nothing he can't not do?

dir: Russell Crowe

2014

I never thought I’d be typing the words “dir: Russell Crowe” at the beginning of one of my reviews, but then we live in a brave, new world where anything is apparently possible.

Anything is possible, to the extent that Crowe could make and star in a flick set around Gallipoli, and that it actually ends up being an okay film that I enjoyed.

Even more perplexing is that this is one of the few flicks I can think of where the Australians aren’t praised to the high heavens for their sun bronzed bravery on the sands of Gallipoli, and the Turks aren’t demonised for their actions defending their homeland. It may be this great nation’s foundation myth, but its utility in magnifying how great we Aussies truly are (for dying in great numbers in the service of the British Empire) isn’t used here.

It’s a far more personal story, in that it’s mostly about one chap (Crowe, good ol’ Australia’s Own Kiwi Rusty Crowe) trying to find the remains of his three sons who went and died on the shores of Gallipoli. So it’s not about re-prosecuting the war, or depicting a bunch of larrikins fighting and dying in splendidly heroic ways: it’s about a father wanting to fulfil his wife’s most heartfelt wish that her boys, if only in spirit, could be brought home to her.

Rating:

American Sniper

American Sniper

America? Fuck Yeah!
Coming again to save the motherfuckin' day, yeah!

dir: Clint Eastwood

2014

I know there’s a lot of controversy surrounding this flick. There are probably some ethical and moral arguments to be listened to and appreciated. Whenever American right-wing nutjobs start praising something to the high heavens, and attacking people who have issues with it as being commies and traitors, I reflexively think the thing they’re praising most likely has to be a piece of shit that pushes all the right buttons that so need pressing.

Well, the nutters are out in all their nutty glory about this flick, and it has made a ridiculous amount of money thus far. I still want to approach it from as objective a perspective as I can.

Thing is, I can’t. I can’t be objective about it. I love snipers too much. I know how shallow this is going to make me sound, but of all the slayers on the battlefield, American or not, it’s the sniper I’ve always thought had the hardest and ‘coolest’ job.

One of my favourite war movies ever is Enemy at the Gate. It’s still my favourite, because this flick doesn’t supplant it one bit.

I think American Sniper has its boosters seeing what they want to see in it (and ignoring the inconvenient aspects), and its detractors doing the same. I don’t feel any particular need to be either for or against it, so I can appreciate it or not solely as a Clint Eastwood film.

Rating:

Fury

Fury

He looks a bit sad, doesn't he? Do you think he might cry?

dir: David Ayer

2014

Fury. Pure, unalloyed Fury.

That’s what I felt after paying good money (I received free tickets) to see this flick. Actually, it’s not a feeling I had afterwards, it’s a feeling I felt while watching it, which tempered to relief when it ended.

And the thing is, it’s not because it’s a particularly bad film. I am not sure whether, objectively speaking, it’s a good or bad film. I can’t say I’m sure either way objectively speaking about any of the flicks I see and review. I’m at slightly more of a loss than usual with this one.

See, there are these scenes of great ugliness that horrified me or made me uncomfortable, but if that was the intention, surely it’s not a failing of the film? It’s a failing of mine if it repulsed me in the sense that it made me dislike the film even if it strove for and achieved what it set out to achieve.

As I said, it confuses me somewhat. Fury is not in the grand tradition of American war movies that posit the hallowed idea of War is Hell, but We Were Righteous and Awesome and We Won. I don’t think I saw a single rah rah American flag floating in a slow motion breeze. There wasn’t a plaintive trumpet playing a variation on the Last Post throughout the soundtrack. There wasn’t any nobility, patriotism or any “tell my wife I love her”, or “I am glad I am dying for my country” type bullshit.

Rating:

The Monuments Men

Monuments Men

Monumental men doing manly stuff that's less than monumental

dir: George Clooney

Is a work of art worth as much or more than a human life?

It's not just the central question of this film, asked out loud literally, multiple times, in case we didn't get the point. It's an important question in anyone's life.

It's also not a question Clooney should be getting the audience to ask themselves as they watch one of his movies.

"Sure, films can be works of art, but no-one should have to take a bullet for a film by George Clooney".

The film, The Monuments Men, asks and answers the question several times, with a different answer at the beginning versus at the end, but it's not entirely convincing.

It's convincing as a film, since there are people in it, and the story has an intriguing premise, is a true story, and has a whole bunch of other reasons to recommend it. It will bore the pants off of people who aren't interested in the subject matter or who were hoping for Saving Private Ryan II. It transpires during World War II, but it is not a war movie in the usual sense of the genre, though it uses all of the tropes from All Quiet on the Western Front through to M*A*S*H, and many cliches in between.

It's not a great film, but it's not a completely horrible one either. It looks at the war from another perspective beyond the immense human toll, which, surely, we needed, but in a way rarely considered.

Rating:

The Book Thief

The Book Thief

Keep an eye on the silverware as well, with this one.

dir: Brian Percival

2013

Homework. Some books feel like homework. Some movies feel like homework.

Now, please don’t start interpreting this as veiled or unveiled anti-Semitism: I am not going to launch into Holocaust-denying or Climate Change-denying or arguing that there's empathy fatigue because of the sheer quantity of books and movies about World War II and the Nazis and the Final Solution. It's great, wonderful, we need more of them, surely.

It's just that, well, since high school, where we had to study books like The Diary of Anne Frank and Elie and had to be taken along as a class to see Schindler's List, I just automatically associate World War II - Weren't Those Nazis Total Bastards? narratives to be somewhat obligatory and something tedious. I feel like I'm watching it or reading about it because I have to write a 500 word essay about it to be handed in first thing first period.

But of course, writing a review about it is a completely different prospect! I initially read the book years ago, thinking I would hate it, actively hating it when I started, but I was won over as it went on. There was something about how it was calculatedly put together, and the clumsiness of the narrator as Death, or Death as the narrator, I guess more appropriately, that brought my hackles up. The hackles came down over time as Liesel and her story moved me in appreciable ways.

Rating:

Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty

Fear the flag, sure, but fear the redhead more

dir: Kathryn Bigelow

Torture is awesome! Who knew?!?

Obviously it’s not as wonderful to the people it happens to, but, for the rest of us, it works beautifully. It’s effective. It’s necessary. It’s entertaining. It’s awesome.

Zero Dark Thirty is less about the hunting down of Bin Laden like the dog that he was, than it is about how one woman’s, and the CIA’s, determination to do anything including torture to get him (and her capacity for overacting) are the only reasons they ever found the fucker.

First, we have to endure a lengthy justification for the torture, in the form of audio recordings of soon-to-be victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Talk about moral blackmail. The film is practically daring you to disagree that any actions taken by the US and its allies after that dread day were so utterly justifiable that you deserve to be shot out of a cannon if you think otherwise.

We meet Maya (Jessica Chastain) as she watches a torture session, with rough justice being meted out by some other CIA guy (Australia’s Own Jason Clarke). He’s really good at his work, but he doesn’t love doing it. We get the clear impression that he’s not a sadist, that he doesn’t “like” what he’s doing, but he sees the sadly necessary utility of it. Poor diddums.

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