Tag Archives: drama

An Imperfect but Captivating Look at the Final Days of WWII: JAPAN’S LONGEST DAY

JAPAN’S LONGEST DAY


(4/5)

Pros:  Fascinating from a historical perspective; strong acting and directorial style


Cons: Introduces literally hundreds of characters, making it difficult to follow the unfolding storyline

Released to mark the 35th anniversary of the famed Toho Studios, 1967’s Japan’s Longest Day (a.k.a. Nihon no ichiban nagai hi) details the events from late July 1945 until the official Japanese surrender on August 15 of that year. The story begins just before the dropping of the Hiroshima bomb, as Japanese bureaucrats argue about whether they should agree to the demands of the Pottsdam Declaration, which laid out conditions for an unconditional surrender. The deployment of “the bomb” has little effect on the tone of these arguments, but while the politicians continue to bicker over wording in the Declaration which suggests Japan would be “subject to” the command of the Allies, Nagasaki is destroyed, prompting Japanese Emperor Hirohito to step in and declare that he wants to end the war as quickly as possible. Many Japanese find unconditional surrender to be an unacceptable, dishonorable way to exit the war – the Declaration establishes Japan as a “subordinate” nation, and most of the country’s military leaders prefer to fight to the last man – a situation which would likely lead to an incredibly costly American and Soviet invasion of the home islands. Disagreeing with the Emperor however is simply not an option, so even the most reluctant of the military leaders finally accepts the Allies’s terms.

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All of the above action, presented in an almost documentary-like manner replete with actual wartime footage and a narrator who explains and provides context to the events, takes place in the first twenty or so minutes of this 167-minute film – the opening titles only show up around the twenty-one minute mark. This might seem strange since it would appear that the main conflict in the story has been resolved with Hirohito’s explanation that he wants his military leadership to agree to surrender. In truth, writer Shinobu Hashimoto’s script (from a story by Soichi Oya) is just getting started, since it’s at this point that Japan’s Longest Day truly gets into its groove, presenting an incredibly detailed, chronological timeline of the events of August 14th and 15th, 1945. As Hirohito records a speech to be broadcast over the radio, telling his nation that he has agreed to surrender, a group of lower-ranking military men and a rogue civilian military battalion choose to march in anger against the Prime Minister and the Emperor himself. It’s the LP recording of the surrender address itself that the rebelling military men are most interested in capturing since they can effectively prolong the war by ensuring that the speech isn’t broadcast.

220px-Hirohito_in_dress_uniformInterestingly, though Emperor Hirohito (pictured here) figures prominently in the film, the audience never sees his face and he exists as an almost mystical figure.


Given the lengthy running time, it might not be surprising that Japan’s Longest Day is very talky – particularly during its first half. There’s precious little of what most viewers would consider action during this opening section, which presents a very dramatic portrait of a proud nation in severe pain as it comes to terms with its first major military defeat. Though the prolonged dialogue scenes only reinforce my belief that the film would have a limited audience, with those interested in Japanese history or World War II perhaps having the most to gain by watching it, these moments are nonetheless fascinating to watch from an American perspective. Until very recently, there’s been almost no effort made to present the “other side” of the World War II story: the war is often (still) viewed as an “US versus them” affair, with the Japanese clearly being the “bad guys.” Japan’s Longest Day obviously shows a much different side of the war, but also is rather eye-opening since it shows happens when an ultra-nationalistic country is put in its place so to speak after an extended, far-reaching conflict. One can only imagine what would happen in the United States should it face a similar situation.

japans-longest-dayThough it’s long and slow-going at first, the film gets plenty tense down the stretch.

Around the halfway point, just as a narrator explains that only half of Japan’s longest day had elapsed, the film makes a sudden turn into more action-oriented territory. Following a moment pulled straight out of ultra-violent samurai cinema, momentum in the film slowly starts to build and dramatic tension gradually increases, reaching a literal fever pitch by the conclusion. Honestly, I was a bit surprised by this abrupt shift in mood: while captivating in its own way, Japan’s Longest Day seemed all-too willing to simply continue on with its dialogue-heavy presentation. The violent action that eventually turns up is made all the more thrilling simply due to the fact that a viewer who stuck with it had probably grown accustomed to the film’s (up to that point) languishing pace.

002be1c1_mediumOutstanding shot composition is one of the best things about the movie.

Director Kihachi Okamoto (who was primarily known before this film for samurai pictures such as Samurai Assassin, , and Kill!) does a masterful job of juggling concurrent events . Often, footage showing the most mundane of tasks (discussions about the exact wording of the surrender address that the Emperor will deliver, for instance ) are juxtaposed against scenes of violent struggle taking place in other locations at the same time. The editing work here is really slick, obviously designed for maximum impact, and I especially appreciated the varied choice of camera angles and perspectives as well as the framing in those shots. Directing cinematographer Hiroshi Murai, Okamoto is able to create numerous striking moments: all the hyper-violent scenes are quite shocking in the way they’re related to the camera, but the way Okamoto is able to express the feelings of his characters without dialogue is equally impressive. The film frequently alternates between tight close-ups showing the pained expressions on the actors’s faces and long shots which establish the ways in which their characters are drifting apart ideologically, and I especially liked a scene in which the grief-stricken Emperor is shown clutching a handkerchief in his hand in the foreground while the bitter Minister of War sits stoically in the background.

hJmUr4Jkb8v8Fq5rsUWpStJ3vYdA statue-like Toshiro Mifune as the Japanese War Minister.


Consistent with American-made war epics like The Longest Day, Battle of the Bulge, or Tora! Tora! Tora! to name but a few, Japan’s Longest Day is an all-star film if there ever was one. Virtually every actor I’ve ever seen in a Toho sci-fi flick (of which the Godzilla films are the most well known) shows up here, and it was a treat for me to see what they could do with quality material.  That being said, it’s Toshiro Mifune, never a player in a Toho monster mash, who appears as the obvious main character, playing Minister of War, General Korechika Anami. Mifune says more with just his eyes than many actors could in pages of dialogue, but later in the film, he also handles a moving speech about how the young people in Japan have to carry on after the war, working to improve the nation. His final scene in the picture is absolutely stunning, complimented by one of Okamoto’s best directorial flourishes. In a smaller role, Takashi Shimura is his usual, stately self playing Information Bureau Director Hiroshi Shimomura, but it’s Toshio Kurosawa who arguably turns in the most genuinely memorable performance, playing a major who decides to take matters into his own hands in an effort to prolong the war and achieve a “glorious” final battle. Generally, I found the acting in this film to be very strong and full of an appropriate level of both anguish and fervor.

japan-s-longest-day-1967-re-10Many regulars from Toho’s sci-fi flicks turn up here, and do a surprisingly good job tackling more dramatic and serious material.

Finishing up with a batch of hard-hitting and absolutely astounding stats (some 3,000,000 wartime casualties) and a cautionary statement about how Japan must never experience another 24 hours like the one depicted in the film, Japan’s Longest Day wound up being quite a different film than I would have expected. In all honesty, many American viewers would have no interest in watching this black-and-white, subtitled foreign film in the first place, but the fact that so many characters (identified through use of onscreen text) are thrown at the viewer makes it very difficult to keep track of the ongoing action. At a certain point, I fully expected this to be a sort of endurance test to watch, with strong acting but little action; imagine my surprise then when director Okamoto made sure it went off with a bang during its back half. Confusing though the narrative may be, the observant non-Japanese viewer gets enough of the gist of what’s happening to follow the unfolding events, and in terms of its historical value, I’d have to call this picture important. It definitely provides insight into a time and place that’s not-often (if ever) discussed in America, and I would certainly recommend this challenging but entirely worthwhile film to patient viewers willing to stick with it.

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5/10 : Just when you think this movie’s going to be all talk, it lets loose with some blood-spurting violence.


0/10 : No profanity, lots of hard-hitting dialogue.



0/10 : Nada.

3/10 : Will undoubtedly impress history buffs, but many will be turned off by an incredibly talky first half and a story that’s difficult to get a handle on.

“You’re still thinking in terms of success or failure…will it preserve our nation or destroy it?”

Fascinating True Story of the Man Behind the LSD No-Hitter: NO NO – A DOCKUMENTARY

NO-NO: A DOCKUMENTARY

(4/5)

Pros: Outstanding selection of archival footage; everyone likes a story of redemption right?

Cons: Doesn’t stray much from the typical trajectory of these sorts of stories

On Friday, June 12, 1970, professional baseball player Dock Ellis pitched a(n admittedly ugly) no-hitter in a game between his Pittsburgh Pirates and the San Diego Padres. This is an accomplishment in its own right, but it’s made even more astonishing by the fact that Ellis was under the influence of LSD while playing. Unable to clearly see the opposing batters, Ellis had to rely on reflective tape around the catcher’s fingers to determine the signals being called. At one point during the game, he even recalled hallucinating Richard Nixon working the plate as umpire and imagined rocker Jimi Hendrix swinging his guitar instead of a Padres player ready to bat. Needless to say, while there’s been some dispute about the veracity of the account, the game has gone down in pro sports history, serving as the starting point for 2014’s No No: A Dockumentary, which chronicles the colorful life of the Ellis himself.

Starting off with a trippy intro that relates this most famous story about Ellis, No No continues on by following the man’s career from his early days playing ball around his California neighborhood through various minor league assignments. In the 1960s, the world of professional baseball was quite a different place then it is today – particularly for black players assigned to teams based in the American south. Though he was, for the first time, faced with discrimination, Ellis didn’t stop standing up for his beliefs, and by the time he broke into the majors in 1968 playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates, he was an outspoken proponent of African-American rights (eventually being dubbed the “Muhammad Ali of Baseball” due to his attention-grabbing antics). This caused some problems throughout his playing career, since Ellis frequently got into disputes with team management who didn’t particularly appreciate his challenges to their authority. Still, Ellis won the World Series with the Pirates in 1971, and his solid numbers ensured that he was able to find a home in pro ball, spending time with both New York teams, Oakland and Texas before retiring after the 1979 season.

dockellisposter-e1409184510151-228x300Ellis during his playing career, with trademark hair curlers.

On thing a viewer clearly takes away from this Dockumentary is that Ellis was a bit of a hothead and troublemaker, though for the most part, he seemed to not only know what he was doing, but why he was doing it. One of the key moments in the film occurs when Ellis himself, recorded in the mid-2000s, reads a letter written to him by Jackie Robinson. This letter essentially thanked Ellis for continuing the fight for equal rights for minority players in the world of pro sports, but also warned him about the toll that this fight might have on him. Ellis gets quite emotional while reading the letter, and it’s immediately clear how much the letter and the sentiments it echoed meant to him.

207981_001It’s cool that the filmmakers were able to secure actual interview footage in which Ellis tells his own story; he passed away in 2008 at the age of 63.

This emotional moment comes as a bit of a surprise during the film however since a good deal of No No details the wild lifestyle and heavy drug use that accompanied Ellis’s playing career. In the years after his retirement, Ellis admitted that he never played a game without some sort of drugs – whether they be amphetamines, cocaine, or even LSD – in his system, and one sidepoint in the film is to detail how rampant drugs were in the MLB of the 1970s. Former players interviewed here attest to the fact that uppers like Dexamyl were used by an estimated sixty percent or more of pro ball players because it gave them an edge that they wouldn’t have had otherwise, and even after the so-called “greenies” were banned, underground usage continued virtually unabated. Ellis’s substance problems didn’t stop on the field however, and his rampant abuse of alcohol would eventually ruin several of his marriages.

DSCF4591Ellis, center, living it up with teammates.

To be honest, much of the material contained in No No could be taken from any number of athlete or celebrity profiles: many of these folks go down the road to substance abuse when they acquire large amounts of money and have the free time to use it. Some of these stories don’t end up so well, but for every tragic outcome, there’s a positive one and Ellis’s story certainly worked out quiet nicely. Following his retirement, Ellis got clean and began telling his story to audiences who would most be in need of it. Aside from working for the betterment of up-and-coming athletes, Ellis spent a great deal of time working with inmates, and it’s obvious from interviews seen in the film that he viewed his accomplishments in the field of counseling as some of his greatest.

dockellis_large-294x375Always the flashy – and provocative- dresser.

While one could argue that the basic story of redemption contained in No No is pretty familiar, the film certainly benefits from the fact that the person at its heart is an incredibly fascinating character. The various anecdotes revealed in the film are sometimes quite amusing, occasionally cringe-inducing, but always captivating, and a viewer winds up getting a sense that Ellis always fought the good fight even if he went about it in ways that were somewhat unsavory. Directed by Jeff Radice, the film is as wild and colorful as its subject in terms of its look, making nice use of period-flavor music. There’s splendid use of a large quotient of archival footage, including film taken of various games which Ellis participated in, and I was also rather stunned by the amount of candid and press photographs assembled for use here. It’s true that No No contains the usual amount of talking head interviews with former teammates and players, family members, and sports journalists, but I found the film to be more varied in its presentation than many vaguely similar productions, even including animated sequences such as one which relates the story of Ellis’s showdown with opposing player Reggie Jackson.

Screen-Shot-2014-10-10-at-5-02-51-PMPart of the animated sequence from the film, showing Ellis staring down an opposing batter.

It might go without saying that baseball fans will probably enjoy this film the most, but I don’t necessarily think an appreciation of the sport is absolutely required – No No to some extent works equally as well as a chronicle of the ways in which society was changing in the late ‘60s and 1970s. Director Radice does a fine job of framing the events in the events of the film with what was happening outside of pro baseball, a fact which ultimately emphasizes the ways in which Ellis helped draw attention to the plight of minority players and initiate change – for instance, the 1971 Pirates team was the first time that a major league team used an all-black starting lineup in a game. It’s difficult to ignore the fact that No No: A Dockumentary plays out similarly to other films and stories dealing with characters who fall from grace only to pick themselves back up later on: Ellis’s story is virtually identical to the one told by hockey documentary The Unreal Life of Derek Sanderson that just premiered earlier this year on cable. Still, I think there are enough unique and original elements to Dock Ellis’s story to make this slick-looking Dockumentary worthwhile. Check it out if you get the chance.

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2/10: A few accounts of aggressive domestic violence; no onscreen blood.

5/10: Isolated instances of profanity, including the f-bomb.

1/10: Glimpses of scantily clad ladies and some brief innuendo.

5/10: The whole LSD no-hitter thing may give this some appeal to the drug crowd, but it’s more a fairly typical but well-done sports documentary.

“I’m not one of those guys that won 300 games and the Cy Young Award, but I was a guy that was personable, I was controversial, my entire career I was an angry black man. Although I was there playing a dream of a lot of people, but I was angry.”

Scary and Sadly, Still Very Relevant: Peter Watkins’s THE WAR GAME

THE WAR GAME

(4.5/5)

Pros: Harrowing, realistic, thought-provoking, and still very timely

Cons: There’s a reason why this wasn’t broadcast on British television back in 1965: it is quite disturbing and grim

On this 70th anniversary of the Trinity nuclear test, I present this review of Peter Watkins’s The War Game. 

From the early 1950s onward, it seemed that the threat of nuclear weapons was everywhere one turned at the movie theater. As science fiction films by the dozens used radiation-induced mutation to explain any number of monstrous creatures that threatened mankind, more serious efforts such as Fail-Safe focused on the behind-the-scenes machinations involved in a nuclear strike. Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb actually turned the Cold War into a pitch black comedy, but British filmmaker Peter Watkins’s 1965 made-for-television program The War Game stands as one of the most realistic and still-unsettling portraits of thermonuclear war that’s ever been made.

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Unleashing a fictional “what if” scenario that imagines what would happen if a nuclear air burst occurred just outside Kent in England, The War Game also uses straight-forward documentary techniques to explore the potential for and results of a Soviet nuclear strike against the UK. The piece begins by having a narrator reveal a map of hypothetical targets in the country, going on to investigate the official evacuation procedures that would be put into effect should a real nuclear attack seem imminent. The dramatized response of the public to this evacuation order is somewhat alarming and hints at underlying, unforeseen problems: when being told that she has to suddenly house eight refugees, one woman inquires of the commanding official “are they colored?” Meanwhile, the fictionalized portion of the program creates its doomsday scenario by suggesting that tensions in Southeast Asia – very much a reality in 1965 – or even a dispute along the Berlin wall might create a flashpoint that would lead to a full-on nuclear showdown. After a missile is fired, missing its intended military target and heading instead for a populated area, the film transitions to a grim and gritty portrait of the aftermath of an atomic explosion.

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The War Game makes a pronounced effort to explain the real world, on the ground results of a nuclear blast: the inevitable firestorm resulting from the incredible heat generated, the choking clouds of carbon monoxide and methane, the psychological damage caused by seeing so much death and destruction.  Director Watkins’s camera doesn’t shy away from depicting the more graphic and disturbing images: dead bodies are burned en masse (with one military man describing the process of corpse disposal as being similar to “making a grill”), survivors suffering from serious burns are shot by police in an effort to put them out of their misery, civilians looting in an effort to get much-needed supplies are fired upon by military guards. It’s really no surprise that The War Game was initially pulled from television broadcast because authorities believed it to be too horrifying for viewers, and the fact that the film is very critical of official protocol relating to nuclear attacks probably didn’t help matters.

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Even though Watkins never quite says as much in his script, it’s very clear that one of the goals of this film was to shed light on the irresponsible and ignorant approach to nuclear proliferation and war that had been taken by many government, scientific and even church personnel. As the film progresses, various quotes and reenacted interviews with so-called “experts” are related to the viewer, most of which now seem unbelievably naïve and idealistic: after a meeting in the Vatican, one bishop declares that he is sure “our nuclear weapons will be used with wisdom,” implying that there’s any wisdom to using such a device against other human beings in the first place. Watkins also slyly voices his displeasure about the methods used to inform the public about the dangers of radiation – we’re told that a government pamphlet detailing precautionary measures that the public should take “didn’t sell well…it cost ninepence,” and various “man on the street” interviews reveal that efforts to inform the population about the realities of nuclear warfare simply haven’t worked. The average citizen would appear to have precisely no realistic expectation about what a nuclear explosion would entail – I was amused by a moment when a couple “ducks and covers” under a table; surprisingly, this doesn’t seem to offer them any amount of protection from the incoming blast.

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It’s pretty amazing that some fifty years after the making of this film, many of the issues discussed in it are still extremely relevant. Despite the fall of the Soviet Union, nuclear arsenals remain for the most part intact and at the ready not only in the remnants of that country, but in the United States as well. Though I guess it’s encouraging that full-scale nuclear war didn’t happen by 1980 as was predicted in The War Game, it’s unfortunate that the human race still seems to believe that the prospect of mutually assured destruction is the way to go – a thought process that’s perhaps even more dangerous now, in the era of terrorism, than it was during the Cold War. I think it’s important that Watkins reminds the viewer of the Biblical commandment of “Thou shalt not kill” immediately after a segment in which various citizens being interviewed reveal that they believe retaliation following a nuclear strike from an enemy is not only justified but almost necessary. This is a notion that frequently seems to be forgotten by those in positions of power despite the vast majority of them seeming to be “persons of faith”: Watkins suggests that these people have a moral responsibility for their actions even though they’re “working for the good of the country” and should answer for them. If only moral and humanitarian concerns played a bigger part in the way modern governments operate…

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The whole of The War Game is intensely provocative, but a few segments towards its conclusion really stand out. Following a scene in which disorderly citizens and looters are executed, the film asks “Would the survivors envy the dead” following a nuclear event, an idea that’s furthered when a group of children who survived the blast reveal that, as a result of this event, they “don’t want to be nothing” when they grow up. That’s the sort of reality that the world would face in the wake of full-on nuclear destruction: what would really be left in the aftermath, and would it even be worthwhile to carry on?

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Filmed using non-actors in scratchy and shaky black and white, often from a first-person or faux-documentary perspective, The War Game is put together incredibly well. The film boasts a fascinating sound design that at various point emphasizes childrens’ screams or blaring air raid sirens, and I liked the way in which various film techniques were integrated into the finished production. The film is very concise when it comes to making its points, and the unrelentingly bleak and sober tone ensures that the viewer will be paying attention. Though director Peter Watkins has gone on to make various other challenging and sometimes incendiary pictures, none has remained as relevant and unsettling as this. Even though The War Game wasn’t a true documentary, it won the Oscar in that category, and deservedly so I think. I’d urge most anyone to watch this film: without doubt, it’s an incredibly important piece, and one that serves as a reminder of what we as human beings have the power to do to each other and ultimately, ourselves.

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6/10 : Not nearly as outright graphic as today’s films, but this is very gritty and bleak, with some intensely disturbing moments and implications
0/10 : No profanity

0/10 : You’re kidding, right?

7/10 : Very nicely done as a piece of cinema, and about as sober and authentic a portrayal and fascinating an investigation of nuclear war as has been produced
On preparedness for a nuclear strike: “I think extra numbers would’ve made no difference at all toward this, 15 or 20 times the number of civil defense, wouldn’t have stopped the initial attack from killing or maiming exactly the same number of people.”

On survival: “You can’t eat a pound note.”

On almost the entire subject of nuclear weapons, on the problems of their possession, on the effects of their use, there is now practically a total silence in the press, in official publications, and on television. There is hope in any unresolved and unpredictable situation. But is there a real hope to be found in the silence? The world’s stockpile of nuclear weapons has doubled in the last 5 years, and now is the equivalent to almost 20 tons of high explosives to every man, woman, and child on the planet. This stockpile is still steadily growing. ”

Film can be viewed in its entirety at the link below:

Oh it’s This Movie Again…NIGHTINGALE Treads Down a Beaten Path

NIGHTINGALE

(2.5/5)

Pros:  Oyelowo at least tries to generate interest…

Cons: …but his efforts of undermined by a script that’s entirely predictable and lacks genuine insight.

Made for HBO and first aired in 2015, Nightingale is virtually a one-man-show that tells the story of army veteran Philip Snowden. From the opening moments of the film, it’s clear that something’s not altogether right with Snowden: he lives in his childhood home with his mother and works at a nearby supermarket, but he’s become dangerously obsessed with trying to reconnect with an army buddy named Edward. Initially, Snowden’s infatuation with Edward seems relatively innocent: the guy appears to be having trouble adjusting back to civilian life, and maybe just wants to try and work out some of his issues with the help of a friend. As time goes on however, the viewer realizes that Snowden’s interest in Edward virtually governs the way he goes about his everyday life, making it problematic that Edward’s (off-screen and never seen nor heard) wife has precisely no interest in letting her husband talk to him. I should also say that Philip used to live with his mother, because she’s never seen in the film and a viewer quickly puts the pieces together as to why.

hqdefaultViewers will see a lot of this throughout Nightingale – Snowden constantly seems to be on the phone.

Writer Frederick Mensch clearly wanted to create a portrait of a mentally unstable character with his work here, and while this may be a noble cause, it’s simply handled poorly in the case of Nightingale. The script is predictable to the point of being a virtual cut and paste copy of other films: I knew exactly what was going to happen by the end of this story and spent the whole time watching it waiting for certain key events to happen. Some might find there to be a few gasp-inspiring moments here, but I was more fighting off the urge to yawn. I also don’t particularly think Nightingale provided much of a genuine insight into mental illness: Snowden’s instability almost seemed like a convenient plot device used to make an entirely predictable and generally forgettable picture more “edgy.” This is also (perhaps especially) true in the case of Snowden’s heavily implied homosexuality; I imagine some people were turned off by the character’s sexual orientation alone, but I found it more problematic that this was another film (like, say, Silence of the Lambs) dealing with a disturbed non-heterosexual. I can almost picture the writer and director rubbing their hands together at the thought of making a film about a gay, mentally deteriorating black man – if that doesn’t get a viewer’s attention, then what would?

maxresdefaultSomeone’s having a bad day…

Considering the fact that only one character is seen throughout the whole film, I guess writer Mensch and director Elliott Lester can at least breathe a sigh of relief that they cast someone capable of literally carrying the film – to a degree. David Oyelowo, who gained immediate attention for playing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr in 2014’s Selma, really gets to flex his chops playing Snowden. It’s very clear that Oyelowo had stage experience prior to his role here, and it’s a good thing too – this role all but required that sort of an exaggerated performance since it literally was the only real point of interest throughout the 85-minute film. Even if the inclusion of moments where Snowden talks to a webcam and the unseen, mostly unacknowledged viewers of this video log seem a bit gimmicky, Oyelowo does as good a job as the script allows at letting a viewer into the mind of his character. Snowden’s mood literally flips on a dime: one second he’s candidly singing showtunes or dancing around his house, the next he’s smashing everything in his dining room with a baseball bat, and the viewer does wind up feeling for the guy. After everything, the incredibly lonely Snowden just wants to be with the person he loves, but it seems like achieving that goal and acquiring some level of happiness is all but impossible for him – largely due to his own erratic behavior and poor choice of actions.

hqdefaultOyelowo’s performance is affecting…but it’s not enough to overcome a pathetic, unbelievably familiar storyline.

Aside from Oyelowo’s acting, the ominous and gloomy atmosphere of the film may be its strongest aspect. The Snowden character clearly has a rather twisted sense of religious fervor to him: it’s clear that faith plays an important part in his life and his behavior – at least when he’s somewhat rational. It’s also the thing which all but doomed him and his attempt to reconnect with Edward: Snowden’s devout mother absolutely forbid him to invite Edward into her house since she found their homosexual relationship to be intolerable. It’s appropriate then that crosses other religious knick-knacks lurk in the corner of almost every frame in the film, working to establish the almost overpowering iconography that surrounds Snowden as he slowly loses his mind. For the opening half hour or so, director Lester and cinematographer Pieter Vermeer keep focusing the flowing camera on a closed bedroom door, daring the viewer to work out what may lie behind it. Even if solving this riddle doesn’t exactly take rocket science, any semblance of ambiguity is welcome in a film that offers a viewer few surprises as it heads down the stretch. Finally, I should say that Mark D. Todd’s plodding music score works perfectly in the context of this film, creating a definitively unsettling mood.

523682685_640Nightingale is photographed very well, with ordinary images becoming quite ominous in context.

Ultimately, Nightingale is capably made, but that’s about what I would expect from an HBO movie. What I didn’t anticipate was how undeniably pointless this film was: there’s absolutely no doubt how the story is going to play out from its opening moments, and I didn’t think the film offered anything new to onscreen depiction of mental illness. A film like Lodge Kerrigan’s outstanding and unfortunately overlooked Clean, Shaven used all the aspects at its disposal, from the soundtrack to the disjointed visual style, to recreate what it was actual like to be suffering from a mental disorder. In comparison, the portrayal of this sort of condition in Nightingale (an effort that seems to borrow too many elements from Kerrigan’s film) feels artificial and almost forced: the actor at the heart of the film is clearly trying his damnedest to make things interesting, but he’s let down by the tiresome, cookie-cutter formula and lack of genuine insight. Truth be told, this is the sort of production that would get people talking (it was produced in part by Brad Pitt), but I think many viewers would be flat-out bored by it: Nightingale devotes significant screen time to seemingly insignificant events, and I simply got tired of watching Snowden talking on the phone. It’s to Oyelowo’s credit that this film is watchable in the first place, but his performance isn’t enough to justify this whole thing: it’s just a painfully mediocre movie.

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3/10 : Fairly mild onscreen violence, but there are some disturbing implications in the film.


6/10 : A few tirades of profanity and rough language, though maybe not as much as one might expect.
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0/10 : Nothing doing, though the homosexuality of the main character may turn some people off.


4/10 : It’s another movie about a character with mental illness, but this is easily among the more forgettable films of its type.


“That’s when it happened. That’s when I snapped. I’m not ashamed though…not even sorry. See, I see now that my whole life has pointed towards this moment, and I’m so grateful for that. See, a moment of clarity is the rarest gift we’re given on this planet…I just wish there hadn’t of been so much blood…”

The Best Motor Racing Movie Detailing the Sport’s Most Grueling Event: LE MANS

LE MANS

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(4.5/5)

Pros: A marvel of technique that places the viewer in the middle of the racing experience

Cons: Many viewers just won’t appreciate the way this film operates

Almost reminiscent of the 1970 documentary Woodstock in terms of the way it covers a real-life event, the 1971 film Le Mans is perhaps the finest auto racing film ever made. Chronicling the running of one of the world’s most well-known and dangerous racing events, the 24 hours of Le Mans – run each year on an eight-mile configuration that combines public roads with purpose-built racing corners, the film mainly follows driver Michael Delaney throughout the course of the race weekend. Honestly, the “story” here is almost non-existent and wholly irrelevant: director Lee H. Katzin focuses almost entirely on the racing action itself. The lack of a conventional story and minimum of dialogue means that Le Mans very clearly isn’t to all tastes, but in my estimation, the true flavor and essence of auto racing has never been better captured by a fictional theatrical feature.

phoca_thumb_l_24hdumans1971-0059Run since 1923,  the 24 Hours of Le Mans stands, with the Monaco Grand Prix and Indianapolis 500, as one of auto racing’s true marquis events

The film begins with a scene that finds a lone Porsche street car whizzing through the French countryside, passing through rows of trees, town squares, and stretches of farmland before stopping on a remote section of road. Steve McQueen (playing Delaney with a confident but low-key swagger) emerges from the vehicle and stares intently at a newly-installed section of metal Armco barrier running alongside of street. To those unfamiliar with the world of auto racing, this may seem an inconsequential, pointless sequence, but to anyone who knows a thing or two about racing – and specifically, Le Mans – it has devastating implications. Any time a major accident occurs, the likelihood that this Armco barrier will be destroyed is relatively high, thus a brand new section of barrier indicates a spot where a possibly horrific accident occurred previously. This turns out to be the case, since a flashback sequence shows Delaney’s involvement in a crash that killed a fellow competitor the year before.

urlSteve McQueen, who actually competed in several sports car races  and did much of his own driving in the film, stars as Delaney

Shortly afterward, we rejoin Delaney in the midst of the hustle and bustle of race weekend, with the sounds of a distant PA announcer providing the on-site crowd (and in turn, the viewer of the film) with a sort of crash course in how the famous Le Mans 24 hour race operates. An intense sequence leading up to the race start is next, punctuated by a rapidly accelerating heartbeat, a piercing moment of silence, then an absolute explosion of roaring engines and screeching tires. The race itself, filmed from a variety of camera angles situated around the track as well as on, in, behind, beside, and around the actual racing machines, makes up the main body of the film, with some downtime popping up when Delaney relinquishes control of his car to a secondary driver.

The Porsche 917K #031/026 of J. W. Automotive Engineering driven by Richard Attwood (GB) and Herbert Müller (CH) receives a full service

The Porsche 917K, one of which McQueen’s character pilots in the film

The first genuine dialogue in the film occurs around the 38-minute mark, a fact which should provide some indication of how this film is constructed. Removing the action cues, Harry Kleiner’s script would easily fit on one typed-out page and seems to delight in giving the viewer only brief glimpses of a typical Hollywood-type story. Perhaps the amazing thing then is that a viewer is able to pick up on the major dramatic elements of the piece, many of which relate to Delaney’s interaction with the widow of the driver killed in the previous year’s crash. These two exchange a very limited amount of words between one another, but the knowing glances they pass back and forth speak volumes. Aside from this rudimentary subplot, all attention is paid on getting through the endurance (and some might say torture) test that is the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and things do get rather exciting as the race nears its conclusion.

Racing in the rain at Le Mans; the race also runs through a full night of darkness

Truth be told, it’s quite shocking to watch a feature film in which the conventional story elements are downplayed to the degree they are here, but the nature of Le Mans makes it much more an experience to behold rather than an entertainment picture to sit through. The masterful film technique on display here only accentuates that notion – sound design, editing, and cinematography featured are absolutely stunning. It’s immediately clear from the film’s opening moments that an absolutely colossal amount of footage was shot during the production phase (much of the filming took place during the actual 1970 race, with additional footage shot to accentuate the film’s narrative). From the mechanics in the pitlane to the massive infield area at the track, to the actual on-track action itself, there’s coverage of anything and everything related to the Le Mans race, and even sifting through this massive amount of film to assemble a coherent work had to be a monumental undertaking. The cinematography by René Guissart Jr. and Robert B. Hauser is not only gorgeous to look at but incredibly innovative. Trackside vantage points provide eye-popping glimpses of the race, but the in-car perspectives are truly hairy, sometimes uncomfortably so – sequences filmed from the cockpit and in the rain prove just how far racing drivers push towards the edge of catastrophe. These amazing images are combined with fabulous sound design that accents the gut-rattling roar of the racing engines as well as the alarming silence that drivers face while away from the cars. All these elements are edited together precisely (to a wonderful, jazzy score by Michel Legrand) to create one of the screen’s most jaw-dropping and authentic portrayals of auto racing.

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One of several wild crashes in the film.

As I mentioned previously, Le Mans simply won’t appeal to everyone, but to car and/or racing enthusiasts, it’s simply a must-see. The 1970s were arguably one of the most thrilling periods in motor racing: the cars were wickedly fast, achieving speeds on the Le Mans circuit of some 230 MPH in spots – yet driver safety technology had lagged to the point where these vehicles were often described as “bombs on wheels.” The tracks themselves were often insanely hazardous as well, as evidenced in the film by the lack of a pit wall (literally, the mechanics servicing these vehicles were directly beside the racing line) and presence of a track-side runoff area that would virtually launch a car into the nearby forest. Though the fatal accident detailed in the film’s opening moments isn’t clearly seen, a pair of other nasty crashes feature prominently in the picture. One sequence, which finds a driver reliving the accident he just suffered in slow-motion while sitting in his mangled cockpit, pretty much nails what goes on in the mind of a racer following such a shunt, and I think the overall film captures the mindset of a racing driver very precisely and accurately.

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No pit wall at the Circuit de la Sarthe in 1971 – fans of motor racing will be keen to note the many, many safety innovations that have been introduced since the making of this film

Over the years, audiences have gotten used to the “come from behind” story that features in sports movies of all types, but I was pleasantly surprised that Le Mans unveils a more realistic ending of the Rocky (I) variety. Combine its denouement with the documentary-like presentation of its story and Le Mans stands as the polar opposite of pictures like 1966’s thrilling but formulaic Grand Prix – to say nothing of the more recent, utterly loud and obnoxious Days of Thunder. It’s not at all surprising that audiences used to Hollywood endings and more or less predictable scripts wouldn’t quite know how to take this largely free-form and dialogue-free picture – it bombed at the box office back in 1971 – but I’m glad that over the years, the audience that could appreciate the picture has discovered Le Mans. For my money, this is the flat-out best motor racing film ever made and those interested in racing – or artistically-satisfying cinema – would probably enjoy it.


Widescreen format DVD includes the theatrical trailer as well as a take-it-or-leave-it featurette: “Filming at Speed: The Making of the Movie Le Mans.” One wishes there were more…


3/10 : A few incredibly violent auto racing accidents, showing the bloody aftermath.


1/10 : A single instance of the word “ass.”


1/10 : Apparent sexual innuendo on one occasion and plenty of onscreen tension.


4/10 : Not at all a movie the general public would appreciate, but it would hold significant appeal to the arthouse crowd and racing enthusiasts.


“Lotta people go through life doing things badly. Racing’s important to men who do it well. When you’re racing, it’s life. Anything that happens before or after is just waiting.”

Mood Over Matter in the Worthwhile but Messy LOST RIVER

LOST RIVER

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(3.5/5)

Pros: Commanding visuals and overall weirdness make it fascinating for those with adventurous tastes Cons: Lacks a strong story and narrative; absolutely NOTHING like the typical Gosling movie

Featured prominently at 2015’s South by Southwest Film Festival after having premiered at Cannes in 2014, Lost River, Ryan Gosling’s debut effort as a director, has polarized audiences ever since, and it’s not difficult to see why. A vaguely futuristic (is this what America is going to be like in a few years???) and very dark tale about a single mother and her two sons who live in squalor in a section of America that’s clearly been passed over during any supposed economic recovery, Gosling’s film is about as far removed from the sort he typically acts in as can be imagined, reminding me of something Harmony Korine might make. That alone should tell you something about what to expect here: this would have positively no appeal to the rom-com crowd – or those who enjoy blockbuster films in general for that matter. iInstead, Lost River might just be the grimy and unsettling piece that fans of David Lynch’s peculiar brand of cinema have been looking for, an artistically satisfying, visually striking piece that’s as perplexing as it is clumsy. lost-river-01 Living in a dilapidated, graffiti-covered section of America (the film was made in Detroit – and it shows), single mother Billy is about to lose the rundown house she lives in with her two boys due to foreclosure. A particularly seedy banker gives her a potential way out however, offering her a job at a weirdo nightclub that he operates which caters to, well, specific tastes. Meanwhile, her teenage son named Bones is having troubles of his own – a vicious crimelord named Bully has put a stop to his copper-stripping operation, leaving him to fend for himself in an effort to make a few bucks. While talking to a female neighbor named Rat, Bones learns that a nearby reservoir hides the remnants of a town which was flooded during its construction, and eventually comes to believe that the flooded town may hold a sort of mystical power that can provide his family with the means they need to escape their troubling surroundings before it’s too late.

To be completely honest, Gosling’s story is very difficult to come to grips with while watching the film and his script is easily the worst element of the picture. Confused and plain messy, it seems to be a cut and paste collection of scenes more than a consistent or remotely coherent narrative, and the fact that so much of what is seen in Lost River was tackled in works by the likes of Lynch, Nicolas Winding Refn, and others winds up being problematic – viewers well-versed in the dark side of cinema would have seen much of what’s here before. Hell, I could make an argument that Gosling’s picture very much resembles Refn’s Fear X, an intriguing little film which was universally misunderstood by critics and audiences to the point that it nearly ended the director’s career, or even Andrei Tarkovsky’s divisive Stalker. Like those pictures, Lost River is much more concerned with establishing a quietly creepy atmosphere than with giving the audience much in the way of answers or even a logical story arc. This ultimately means that many viewers will simply be baffled by this film – it’s just not at all designed for viewers with mainstream tastes. lost-river-official-stills-billy-04 Those willing to allow themselves to fall under the spell cast by the film are likely to enjoy Gosling’s effort quite a bit however. Photographed extraordinarily well by frequent Gasper Noé collaborator Benoît Debie, the film is plain gorgeous to look at, chock full of astounding and memorable visuals which include many repeated motifs which foreshadow events that happen later. Odd camera angles and vantage points are utilized extensively, a fact which only accentuates disorienting nature of the picture and heightens its level of eerieness. Since a large portion of this film takes place in underlit or flat-out dark environments, instances of vivid color are all the more arresting and eye-catching. Considering the way in which many of today’s directors relish shots of gore and bloodshed, I appreciated the fact that, although there are some scenes of intense violence, Gosling chooses to show the effects of the violence more than the act itself  – which actually makes these moments more shocking since a viewer’s imagination fills in the gaps. maxresdefault I thought the acting here was generally decent. Mad Men‘s Christina Hendricks seems a bit overwhelmed playing Billy, appearing to be as confused in her portrayal as some viewers are likely to be with the film. Some of this is intentional and works in context, but I’m not entirely convinced that Hendricks knew where to go with the character at certain points – more the fault of the muddled script and unsure director than hers. Iain De Caestecker, playing her son Bones, is frankly given more to work with in the script and fares better in his performance. While Billy is left to go about her business, the film mainly focuses its attention on how Bones views and is affected by what’s going on around him and DeCaestecker is up to the task of relating the character’s fragile emotional state. Saoirse Ronan (playing Rat) provides about the only genuinely bright character in the piece, and though she comes across as a fairy-like being who guides Bones toward his destiny, it’s refreshing that the film didn’t go overboard with the inevitable romance between the two. As the villains, we have Matt Smith playing Bully and Ben Mendelsohn as the slimy and nefarious banker named Dave who makes the viewer’s skin crawl whenever he’s onscreen. Finally, former scream queen Barbara Steele appears as Rat’s comatose grandmother – it’s cool to see her here, but she’s wasted in a very minimal, thankless role. cdn.indiewire.com Boasting a wonderful, John Carpenter-like soundtrack from electronic producer Johnny Jewel, Lost River clearly positions Gosling as a director of note and is a more-than respectable first effort. The film has an almost uncomfortable air of desperation throughout, and is quite harrowing to watch at times. Still, it’s problematic in many respects particularly with regard to the script, indicative of a director’s ambition exceeding his actual ability at an early point in his career. Idiosyncratic and just plain weird, this is a ready-made cult film that will undoubtedly leave a bad taste in many viewers’ mouths – and may be downright shocking to those accustomed to seeing Gosling involved in more wholesome, mainstream entertainment. Personally, I liked this film but it seems tailor-made to suit my (admittedly outlandish) tastes. Though I’d certainly recommend Lost River to adventurous viewers looking for something unusual, those in the market for a sure-handed, purposeful piece may as well avoid it like the plague. lost-river-film-ryan-gosling 6/10 : Though not nearly as graphic as some films out there, the violence in this film is rather disturbing and the film as a whole is very unsettling. 7/10 : Generally pointless use of harsh four-letter profanity: almost seems like a case of having the language thrown in to secure an R-rating right off the bat. 4/10 : What it lacks in actual nudity or onscreen sex, the film tries to make up for in sleazy implications. 8/10 : A genuinely strange movie (and ready-made cult film) that would be an acquired taste – at best – for many. That said, I dug it. “Everybody’s looking for a better life somewhere…maybe you will find some, someday…”

Though Deserving of the Best Picture Nod, BIRDMAN is an Odd Choice…

BIRDMAN or (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE)

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(4/5)

Pros: A masterpiece of concept and execution, with strong acting, visuals, script and music

Cons: Definitely not for all tastes

An extremely quirky, definitively odd film along the lines of Being John Malkovich, 2014’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is in many ways, about as strange a choice for Best Picture as could be imagined. Here’s a film (the fifth from director Alejandro González Iñárritu who previously had made the outstanding but downbeat Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel) that boasts terrific acting, a sharp script, and is technically astounding, yet would have absolutely no appeal to anyone aside from the arthouse crowd: the kind of flick that audiences of “normal people” would not only be bored by, but actually scoff at. Appearing to be filmed in one continuous take, the film deals with a movie star named Riggan Thompson who made a name for himself years ago playing the titular superhero in a series of films.

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Michael Keaton as Thompson, existing in the shadow of the role he’s best known for.

That success is long behind Thompson as the film begins however, and in an effort to burst back into the spotlight, he’s in the process of staging a Broadway play based on a short story by Raymond Carver. Acting as the play’s writer, director, and star, Thompson can only watch as he’s upstaged by a pompous method actor named Mike Shiner who joins the production as a last minute replacement for a leading cast member. All the while struggling to make the play a success, Thompson appears to be bordering on outright insanity: he’s harassed by the voice of the “Birdman” character who seems to be the manifestation of his own ego, and also imagines himself performing various telekinetic feats. What’s real and what’s imagined are more or less left up to the viewer to decide, but the real question is whether or not Thompson can manage to stay relevant in a world that’s all but passed him by.

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One memorable scene finds Thompson, wearing only a pair of briefs, running through a crowded Time Square.

Written by a quartet of writers (director González Iñárritu along with Nicolás Giacobone,Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., and Armando Bó), Birdman is downright bizarre, inserting the viewer immediately into a potentially baffling story which takes some time to get used to. Filmed by Emmanuel Lubezki, the film has about zero downtime: there are no noticeable edits in the picture, and the camera relentlessly flows through individual scenes to show other events taking place, jumping ahead in time at random. In the end, this creates an extremely immersive viewing experience, but it also makes for challenging viewing. A viewer really has to buy into, accept, and follow the director’s vision to really enjoy or even appreciate what this film has to offer.

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In terms of cinematography technique and individual visuals, this film is extraordinary.

Those used to experimental or arthouse cinema would likely be willing to roll with the punches Birdman offers, but general audiences might get completely lost and frustrated by what they’re seeing. At a certain point, I could almost believe that the writers and director did some of this intentionally: since the film not only doesn’t spell things out for the viewer but also pokes fun at modern Hollywood’s fascination with superhero movies while acting as a far-reaching commentary and satire dealing with celebrity culture, the prevalence of social media, and the nature of criticism, confusing and indeed jettisoning the mainstream crowd early on is actually a good idea that might just ensure the remaining viewers would at least be open-minded enough to think about and understand what they’re seeing.

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Yes, that’s Zach Galifianakis playing a somewhat more serious role, alongside Keaton and Naomi Watts.

Though Birdman will undoubtedly alienate many, the audience entering with at least a working knowledge of acting and theatre and/or who fancy themselves creative to some capacity will get a kick out of it. The picture goes a long way in capturing the mindset of the artist, and is especially fascinating in detailing the way in which they exist and act in the context of a modern society that’s increasingly fascinated with all things celebrity. Riggan Thompson may well be delusional, and definitely is troubled: the film explicitly deals with his many, many insecurities as an artist, actor, and general human being. Isn’t the public equally as delusional to become obsessed with he or any other famous person though? It’s pretty clear to me that this is a pitch black comedy which questions the public’s infatuation with stardom, but the writers are clever enough that this aspect of the film isn’t obvious. On some level, the film is quite sad in depicting how stars are used and abused by the society that made them: Kevin Mazur’s 2012 documentary $ellebrity explored the same range of topics, but lacked the focus, punch, and inspiration that Birdman has. In my opinion, the sorts of questions raised by these films more and more need to be asked and pondered as the public at large loses touch with reality in favor of worrying about information and people who really have no bearing on much of anything that’s going on around them. Dealing with this sort of material in as imaginative and provocative a manner as González Iñárritu does seems like a bonus.

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The inevitable showdown between Thompson and Shiner (played by Edward Norton) is one of the film’s major plot points.

As a film, Birdman is genuinely extraordinary. Acting across the board is very strong, with Michael Keaton (playing a role that’s quite obviously patterned after his real life) turning in phenomenal work as Thompson. I’ve never quite understood why Keaton virtually dropped off the map in the ‘90s, and hopefully this film will have the same effect on his stagnant career as what his character was looking for in the story. In supporting roles, Edward Norton gets to shows his own chops playing the abrasive method actor Shiner (one gets the feel this character may have been patterned after some real-life “eccentric” performers), Naomi Watts is somewhat underutilized as a first-time Broadway actress who’s romantically involved with Shiner, and Emma Stone makes a strong impression as Thompson’s strung-out daughter and assistant. Photography throughout the picture is absolutely astounding: since the entire production was filmed in extended takes, I can only imagine the meticulous, across-the-board pre-production and planning that went into this. Though it’s more impressive due to its cumulative, overall effect, there are still some fantastic individual sequences to be found here: I loved a moment in which the climax of Thompson’s play is heard taking place while the camera roams the hallways backstage, and a scene in which the actor’s superhero fantasies boil over into the real world in a big way is also quite memorable. A final winning aspect of Birdman is jazz musician Antonio Sánchez’s score: made up almost entirely of drum rolls and staccato percussion accents, it adds an interesting dynamic and considerable energy to the piece.


Emma Stone during the film’s ambiguous – and I would say classy – ending.

I recently read an article in Time magazine that made a case for the Academy Awards creating separate categories for, essentially, “entertainment” pictures and “arthouse” films, and I think that’s a legitimate point that seems to pop up every few years (and especially after a particularly baffling award recipient). Birdman may wind up being one of the more divisive Best Picture recipients – at the time of this writing, the film enjoys just a 2.5 star rating on Amazon, which frankly isn’t very surprising all things considered. This seems to have won the 2014 Best Picture Oscar primarily because it was so flawlessly made from a technical standpoint and had a lot to say about acting, the creative process, and modern life. Hell, it was hard for me as a half-ass critic not to like a movie which pokes fun at the (very pretentious) institution of criticism: one of the quotes used in the film states that “A man becomes a critic when he cannot be a artist (sic), the same way that a man becomes an informer when he cannot be a soldier.” Ouch! Smart and quietly amusing with an especially ambiguous ending, Birdman is not a film for those who enjoy lots of explosions and eye-popping visuals even if it has its own amazing visual sense, but the more intellectual crowd will probably dig this movie a lot. I’d be willing to call it a technical marvel and near-masterpiece, but it clearly wouldn’t be to everyone’s liking.

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Blu-ray release includes a half-hour making-of feature and a fifteen-minute conversation between the director and star Keaton, as well as a photo gallery.


2/10 : Plenty of rather intense adult themes, some drug use, minor violent content, minimal blood


10/10 : Nearly constant profanity, including plenty of strong four-letter words


3/10 : Brief (male) rear nudity and occasional sexual references and innuendo


8/10 : This very bizarre movie will be right up some viewers’ alley but will alienate many others.


“People, they love blood. They love action. Not this talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit.”

US versus Them: AMERICAN SNIPER

AMERICAN SNIPER

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(3/5)

Pros: Bradley Cooper; nice-looking production

Cons: Emotionally flat and kinda pointless; is this film sending the wrong message to viewers?

It’s interesting to note how films dealing with the subject of armed conflict have a tendency to reflect the social values and popular mindsets of the time in which they were made. In recent years, several high-profile and undeniably well-made films have dealt with either the war in Iraq (The Hurt Locker) or the “war on terror” (Zero Dark Thirty for one), yet there appears to have been a conscious effort to present these films in as straight-forward a manner as possible without passing too much judgment on the events depicted in them. Many war films over the years have consciously or subconsciously promoted a more humanistic, “war is hell” sort of message, but modern Hollywood appears to be downplaying that message in an effort to appear more “patriotic.” Add the 2014 film American Sniper to that list.

Kyle and Routh
The real-life Kyle (on the left) and the disturbed young man who killed him in early 2013.

Directed by Clint Eastwood, the film is based on the admittedly amazing true story of Chris Kyle, a quintessential “redneck” who becomes a Navy SEAL sniper with the most confirmed kills in American history, and follows Kyle from his early days tooling around on the Texas rodeo circuit through four tours of duty in Iraq throughout the 2000s until his discharge in 2009. American Sniper starts off with a scene in which Kyle, sitting prone on an Iraqi rooftop peering through the scope of his high-powered rifle, spots a young child carrying a grenade towards a group of American ground forces. This scene sets up the inevitable struggle that Kyle faced throughout his tours of duty: how can a God-fearing, patriotic American justify killing 160 human beings in the defense of his country – and even mentally deal with the horrors of war in the first place? Unfortunately, while this basic idea is extremely relevant and undeniably interesting, it’s never handled in a manner which relates genuine insight.

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Bradley Cooper looks and sounds the part playing Kyle – though I suspect the film tones down some aspects of his personality.

One might expect that the fault for this situation might fall on the shoulders of the actor who handled the central role, but this isn’t the case: to put it simply, Bradley Cooper (previously known mostly as a comedic actor in films like Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, and The Hangover trilogy) as Kyle is extraordinary.   As mentioned, we follow Kyle from a youth spent with a father who instilled in him a cut-and-dry view of the world, to his time as a stereotypical “country boy” through to his transformation into a “legend” of the armed forces, and there is a definite evolution of the character in the hands of Cooper. Kyle initially comes across as a genuinely warm personality who gradually loses touch with the real world due to his activities in combat, and American Sniper is at its strongest when depicting the effects of Kyle’s obvious but unspoken and debilitating PTSD. While it would be easy to go overboard when dealing with this sort of material, Cooper’s acting is gloriously restrained, saying more with a foggy and distant facial expression than would be possible with any amount of dialogue. The scene featured in numerous trailers for the film which finds a confused and completely spent Cooper talking to his wife from a dive bar is flawlessly performed and very nearly heartbreaking, showing just how broken Kyle the man has become.

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One could easily draw comparisons between various scenes here (like this training sequence) and ones featured in earlier, better war movies like Full Metal Jacket.

Though the film is anchored by this strong performance, it stumbles numerous times when putting its disjointed and downright clunky script (which borrows a “battle of the snipers” subplot straight from 2001’s Enemy at the Gates) into action. Individually, there are some extremely effective scenes in the film, but the script (written by Jason Hall from the book by Kyle, Scott McEwen and James Defelice) never quite settles into any sort of rhythm, jumping back and forth between intense moments of combat on the ground in Iraq and awkward moments which finds Kyle attempting to reconnect and indeed reconcile with his long-suffering wife Taya (played by Sienna Miller). The abrupt, jump-cut transitions occurring throughout the film may be an attempt to replicate what is happening in Kyle’s mind (it’s very apparent that he feels more “alive” – and indeed thrives – when under duress on the battlefield and is completely lost when dealing with “normal people”), but it winds up disconnecting a viewer from the characters and events depicted. While there’s a significant amount of action and drama in the picture, the narrative is very jerky; I lost interest after awhile and eventually became bored.

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Good thing Cooper effectively relates his character’s anguish – the script doesn’t do him any favors in spelling things out.

The fact that there doesn’t seem to be much of a point to the picture only added to my level of frustration. American Sniper simply tells the story of Chris Kyle, one which undoubtedly would appeal to the flag-waving crowd, and ends with a final scene that attempts some sense of foreboding but instead seems corny. I should note that Kyle’s eventual murder, which took place in early 2013 at the hands of a schizophrenic ex-Marine, is included as an epilogue to the film, with real-life footage of his funeral procession and ceremony being played during the end credits. Considering the powerful story, it’s really a shame that this film didn’t achieve substantial emotional resonance, but I could hardly think of a film that’s more disappointing and “flat” than this one. The writing seems downright lazy in this regard and the viewer leaves the picture having gained no perspective from having watched it.

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The film’s examination of the costs of conflict is somewhat unsatisfying despite many eye-opening scenes.

Going into a film like this, I would have expected there to be some sort of underlying message or statement to be made, but Eastwood and Hall seem to have had no interest in really saying anything with this work. This more and more seems to be the norm in war-related films and other potentially controversial pictures of the post-9/11 era, and I think speaks to the fact that some people in Hollywood are wary of being labeled “anti-American” or “unpatriotic” if they were to make a film which hammered home the ultimate futility and tragedy of armed conflict or was too critical of the “establishment.” It seems to me that the ultimate purpose of a film like American Sniper is to act as an advertisement of sorts for the military or as a piece that would help “sell” the war on terror to the public. Eastwood’s film is borderline offensive in its portrayal of the Iraqi people and/or Arabs in general, with some material that would likely disgust (and probably rile up) the crowd this film was designed for. As might be expected then, it’s very much an “us versus them” film harkening back to the “good ol’ days” of war movies, and may as well be an updated, louder, more profane and much more violent “cowboys and Injuns” flick. Considering the film has, thus far, made some $500 million at the box office however, making it the highest grossing war film of all time, SURPRISE! America doesn’t much seem to care.

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A viewer may as well assume that every Arab seen in the film is a would-be terrorist and/or militant. That probably plays into what the target audience would want to see, though it’s kinda sad.

Even if I was disappointed by the general ineffectiveness of the storytelling and lack of real insight into the characters, in terms of the actual production and technique on display, American Sniper is impressive. I wasn’t a fan of the way the story progresses, but the actual editing here is marvelous, heightening the intensity of the numerous action sequences. Equally crisp sound design completes the effect during these scenes, and I appreciated the fact that relatively little potentially manipulative music was introduced into the film – the opening and end titles for instance play out to absolute silence. Tom Stern’s photography has a noticeable starkness to it, looking particularly washed-out and grimy when depicting situations taking place in Iraq, and the overall production design is astounding with regard to creating seemingly authentic locations. In the end, American Sniper boasts an amazing true story, handsome production, and a strong central performance, but this is hardly an outstanding or even good film, seeming to be the product of a writer and director going through the motions and covering the same ground that’s been explored before. I don’t think the film would appeal across the board to more discriminating viewers, but it’s worthwhile as populist, crowd-pleasing entertainment.

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9/10 : Lots of (fake-looking) CGI blood splatter and very intense violent scenes.


10/10 : A continual barrage of harsh profanity


4/10 : Brief sexual situations, related dialogue, and crude references. No nudity.


3/10 : Fairly straightforward, and actually somewhat dull in the long run despite the strong central performance.


“I’m willing to meet my creator and answer for every shot that I took… ”

“You’re Too Busy Teenybopping All Over The Place…” THE LAST AMERICAN VIRGIN

THE LAST AMERICAN VIRGIN

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(3.5/5)

Pros: Good-natured, raunchy fun, with a lot of nudity and a memorable ending

Cons: Script and acting issues; overbearing pop soundtrack

Perhaps one of the more unduly overlooked ‘80s teen comedies, 1982’s The Last American Virgin plays out in much the same manner as the same year’s classic Fast Times at Ridgemont High – this despite the fact that Virgin is a remake of a 1978 Israeli film (Eskimo Limon, a.k.a. Lemon Popsicle). As might be expected, LAV follows the exploits of a group of hornball high schoolers in Hollywood who, in between classes and menial jobs, are looking to score with any number of available females. The main character here is the awkward and sensitive Gary, who’s fallen for Karen, the new girl at school. Karen barely seems to notice Gary – she has her sights set on Gary’s more suave buddy Rick – until she’s left high and dry after Rick knocks her up. Could this be the chance that hard-luck Gary needs to win over the love of his life?

trio
From left, Gary, Rick, and David – out to get laid and loaded.

Even if writer-director Boaz Davidson (who also was at the helm for the original Israeli version) isn’t really venturing into unknown territory with his basic story, The Last American Virgin certainly offers up the sort of raunchy content one would expect from this type of film. Rick, Gary, and their friend David get themselves into all sorts of goofy predicaments while partying as much as possible and trying to get laid. An encounter between the trio of teens and a sex-crazed Spanish woman, for instance, turns ugly when the woman’s not-so-friendly sailor boyfriend decides to show up at about the worst possible moment, and the trio is forced to take extreme measures to get rid of crabs contracted from an especially trashy prostitute. Par for the course in these types of movies, there’s also an isolated batch of scenes taking place in school, including a wager to see who has the biggest “tool” in the boys’ locker room.


Karen – played by Diane Franklin.

Just when one thinks this film is all about the lowbrow content, however, things get real in its final third, when Karen winds up pregnant after being dumped by Rick. Honestly, the whole Rick-Gary-Karen situation in Last American Virgin is remarkably similar to the material relating to Mark Ratner, Mike Damone, and Stacy Hamilton in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. It’s interesting then to note that Davidson’s film actually beat Fast Times… to theaters by a few weeks and was based on a story that, in 1982, was already four years old.

raunchy
OK, so the movie’s a little raunchy, but that’s to be expected from an ’80s teen sex comedy.

That said, in my opinion, Fast Times… seems a more authentic representation of teenage life in the early 1980s. By comparison, Last American Virgin seems exaggerated and not nearly as poignant. At least part of that is due to the caliber of acting in the film: Fast Times showcased an impressive array of up-and-coming actors and actresses in the roles that would put them on the map, and although I could tolerate the performances of Steve Antin (as Rick, who increasingly seems like a total scumbag as the film progresses), Joe Rubbo (as the “fat kid” David), and the stunning Diane Franklin (as Karen), Lawrence Monoson, who plays perennial underdog Gary and easily has the most screen time in the picture, doesn’t quite seem credible – especially during some key moments. I certainly could relate to Gary’s frustrations when watching his would-be girlfriend go for the sleazy womanizer instead of the genuine “nice guy” (i.e. him), but Monoson’s idea of putting some genuine feeling into his performance involves talking quietly in a wavering voice while putting on an “abandoned puppy face” – and just doesn’t work. Thus, right when the film should be tugging at a viewer’s heartstrings, things fall apart.

expression
Better get used to that quivering lip expression from Lawrence Monoson – it’s seen quite often throughout the film.

Above and beyond the acting, Davidson’s handling of the picture has other problems, namely the fact that instead of seeming like a coherent, evolving story, his film plays like a series of mostly disjointed vignettes, few of which seem to have any serious ramifications for the characters. After the carefree opening half, things eventually do gel late in the going when the major dramatic element of the film becomes apparent, but the shift in tone is so abrupt that it’s somewhat difficult to buy into the legitimate consequences that arise. Furthermore, The Last American Virgin quite often seems like a glorified music video since the prominent soundtrack (which includes some fabulous tunes from the likes of U2, The Police, Devo, The Cars, Oingo Boingo and others) is carefully matched up to the onscreen action. Unfortunately, this only further accentuates the sense of fragmentation present in the script; sure, the music is cool to jam out to, but it winds up being distracting and ridiculously overbearing since there’s nary a moment here when one popular song or another isn’t blaring. I’ve also got to say that the repeated renditions of Journey’s “Open Arms” used to punctuate the love story between Gary and Karen become very corny, very quickly.

happy ending
Banking on a happy ending? You might wanna think again…

Considering all of the potential problems, I was genuinely surprised when I enjoyed this picture much more than I ever thought I would. Frankly, it’s refreshing every once in a while to see a genuine, decidedly R-Rated sex comedy from this (pre-AIDS) era, since these sorts of films were made in a much different manner than they would be today. The level of mischief present never quite clashes with the film’s generally good-natured vibe, and it definitely provides a window into a time and place far different from the one that viewers are faced with in their everyday life. While Fast Times at Ridgemont High is famous for the (mouth-watering) scene in which Phoebe Cates strips off her bikini top, Last American Virgin delivers a few “cha-ching!” moments of its own: there’s quite a bit of female nudity here, including a substantial amount from gorgeous leading actress Franklin. Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the cynical ending, one which is likely to polarize viewers. I happen to like a lot: after playing like any number of other rowdy sex comedies for 85 minutes, LAV kicks a viewer in the balls in the last five – as real and shocking a conclusion as could ever be imagined in a film of this nature. Even if it deserves some amount of criticism for being told from a very male-centric point of view, considering what the typical viewer going into this film would want, The Last American Virgin delivers in a big way – even if it’s more a situational comedy than laugh-out-loud funny. I’d recommended it.

HA!


Released in several multi-movie packs and as a with 1983’s Losin It. MGM’s is a dual-format wide and full-screen disc with no extras.


1/10 : Some thematic material related to serious issues, including abortion


5/10 : Isolated instances of profanity and sexual references

YES!
8/10 : An assortment of nudity from some very nice-looking women; plentiful sexual content


7/10 : Strange that while Porky’s and Fast Times… went on to achieve legendary status, this surprisingly decent flick has been all but forgotten – it’s certainly worth rediscovering.


“Crabs – at your age! Young people – they ain’t what they used to be…”

Music dominates this trailer (and the film itself):

“The Army Doesn’t Joke or Play Games…” ARMY / RIKUGUN

RIKUGUN (a.k.a. ARMY)

(4/5)

Pros: Lots of food for thought

Cons: Won’t at all appeal to those looking for an exciting, more action-driven film

Conceived as a wartime propaganda film and sponsored by the Army Ministry of Japan, the 1944 film Rikugun (in English, simply Army) stands as an important and unfortunately ignored piece that provides a much different perspective on World War II and Japanese culture in general than most viewers would be used to. The story follows a typical Japanese family through three generations, from the Meiji era (in the latter half of the 19th century) through the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese wars (of 1894 and 1904 respectively) and finally into the more enveloping second World War. For the most part, the film deals with the second generation of the family, namely Tomosuke Takagi and his wife Tomonojo. At the urging of his father, Tomosuke joined the military and became a captain, yet health issues meant that he never actually took his place on the battlefield. Haunted by this “failure,” Tomosuke puts significant effort into making sure that his son Shintaro turns out to be a more successful military man, this despite the boy’s fragile and “cowardly” nature. Shintaro eventually joins the military once the second world war breaks out and quickly rises to the rank of Private, First Class, but will this be enough to calm his father’s relentless fervor?

Shintaro
Young Shintaro heads off to an uncertain fate…

Viewed some seventy years after its production, director Keisuke Kinoshita’s film is a remarkable look at life and attitudes in Japan during the midst of World War II. Though this piece (written by Tadao Ikeda from a story by Shohei Hino) was designed as flag-waving propaganda, it becomes something quite different in the hands of Kinoshita and frankly, I’m astonished it was made and released. On one hand, the picture certainly does provide a background into Japanese military history and makes a case for Japan standing up for itself after being “bullied” by European powers in the past. Rikugun also repeatedly reiterates the core beliefs of the Japanese military – Loyalty, Manners, Valor, Honor, Frugality – while showing how a family selflessly devotes itself to the emperor. In the eyes of the Takagi family, the only way to serve the country is to offer up their son for military service without thought of the potential consequences (i.e. the boy’s death), and one of the overreaching messages of the film is that this is the only way in which a true, honorable Japanese family should act.

devotion to the emperor
Devotion to the Emperor, above all else.

At the same time however, the film constantly features characters engaged in heated discussions about the nature and necessity of armed conflict, and hints more at the pointlessness of war more than anything else. Though Tomosuke is unyielding in his devotion to the country – going so far as to take a disagreement with a one-time friend who *gasp* insinuates that Japan may actually lose a war, to ridiculous extremes, his wife seems to secretly be quite worried about her son’s well-being in the military. Of course, this idea (i.e. the harsh realities of war) was not exactly what the military sponsors of the film wanted, and Kinoshita was eventually forced to walk a thin line in trying to prove his point about the absurdity of war and the tremendous amount of potential and resources it wastes while still remaining outwardly patriotic. To that end, Rikugun’s much-discussed and brilliantly-understated ending (which plays out to a very moving piece of music) is quite extraordinary – one can take away from it what he wants, but in context, it’s pretty clear how it’s designed to be read.

final scene
While this obscure film’s message is striking and provocative, its final scene is what most people will remember about it.

Indisputably, the most intriguing thing about this film is the historical and cultural perspective it offers. Few Japanese films about WWII, let alone ones actually made during this era, have been released overseas, and it’s fascinating to see what the general thought processes were like on “the other side.” Comparing the extremely ponderous, philosophical Rikugun with the much more gung-ho American propaganda films that were produced around the same time is an eye-opening experience. Simply put, it would be years if not decades before American war films would approach the subject of armed conflict in a similar manner to what Kinoshita did here – even John Ford’s relatively somber December 7th was plenty rousing and eventually upbeat despite the American military’s insistence that it would “damage morale.” I also really enjoyed the fact that the first half hour or so of Rikugun provided a sort of Cliff Notes version of late 19th and early 20th century Japanese history, nicely setting up what happens later, both in terms of the story and history itself. Additional explanations of Japanese devotion to the emperor and even the origin of the “divine wind” or kamikaze were also quite interesting – and information that I probably wouldn’t have been exposed to otherwise. It’s not hard to believe after watching this film that the Japanese military would indeed fight to the last man, regardless of whether or not that would seal victory – such was the conviction of its personnel.

Shintaro's parents
Shintaro’s parents – well acted by Chishu Ryu and Kinuyo Tanaka.

Americans tend not to focus much attention on the histories of foreign countries, which is unfortunate and maybe even dangerous in my opinion – understanding foreign cultures might give us a better idea of how to act in relation to them. That said, it’s a bit scary listening to the nationalistic rhetoric being spouted in Kinoshita’s film – and seeing the pomposity of the persons delivering that rhetoric. Various ideas presented in this film – one which, after all, was made by “the bad guys” – are more relevant than I think most Americans would like or want to admit. I’ve been fascinated in one way or another by Japanese cinema since I was a kid (thank you, Godzilla), but I think this is the first film I’ve seen from Japan that was made before the atomic weapons fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was more than a bit disturbing then to see explicit proof of how Japanese culture as a whole was instantaneously changed with the deployment of the atomic bomb – a weapon of mass destruction that targeted civilians, not military personnel.

no description necessary

In terms of the actual film making technique on display, Rikugun is capably-made, well-acted (Kinuyo Tanaka is especially good as the wife/mother), and very steady, even if it’s not mind-blowing in any respect. There are relatively few “artistic touches” in the film – the black and white photography is focused instead on capturing the action in an efficient manner – though I really liked a sequence in which the young Shintaro is seen looking out the window of a train while an image of Mount Fuji is reflected in the glass. The use of rousing military marches punctuates key moments in the film and heightens the propaganda value of the piece, but aside from some brief bits of stock footage, there are no scenes of combat to be found. As such, this extremely talky picture would bore the hell out of the viewer used to more lively cinematic offerings. Ultimately, Rikugun is quietly effective for what it is, and it’s almost worth watching just to check out the emotionally poignant final scene. It won’t be for everyone, but I’d certainly recommend it to those who enjoy foreign films and/or intellectually-stimulating movies.

concern


Released as part of the Criterion Collection’s Eclipse series in a box set which also contains Kinoshita’s Flowering Port (1943), Living Magoroku (1943), Jubilation Street (1944), and Morning in the Osone Family (1946). Rikugun looks a bit scratchy, which is to be expected from a 70-year-old film, but is very watchable. It’s presented in its original full-frame version, in Japanese with English subtitles. There are no extras to speak of included with this set.

soldiers
0/10 : Much more about discussions about conflict than actual warfare itself, the film contains only minor scenes of combat and some amount of peril.

happy family
0/10 : Lots of philosophy and discussion, nothing objectionable


0/10 : Nothing going


2/10 : A highly dramatic, most worthwhile film for fans of foreign cinema, but it’s definitely old-fashioned and almost entirely dialogue-driven.


“I’m going to die, fulfilling my duty to my lord, but those who come after me must bear in mind a greater duty…”

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