Tangerines- sp Most Americans don’t know very much about the various regions of the former Soviet Union and regional wars that have occurred there over the years. For example in the 1990s there were intense battles between the Chechens and the Georgians who were fighting over land formerly lived in by people from Estonia most of whom fled back to Estonia. If these historical facts don’t mean much to you, it isn’t necessary to study maps of this area to appreciate this film. The plot is relatively simple. Ivo, an Estonian man has stayed behind to build wooden crates to help harvest a crop of tangerines, which are grown on his friend’s nearby farm. Some bloody encounters between the warring factions leave several soldiers dead and 2 injured at Ivo’s doorstep. What develops is a moving drama between these two soldiers on opposing sides and the two civilians who attempt to rescue them The story was written in two weeks by Zaza Urushadze who also eventually directed the movie after it was set up for a 30 day shoot by producer Ivo Felt. The film emerges as good of an anti-war movie that you will have ever seen. The acting is suburb with starring roles by very well known actors in their region of the world. They are: Lembit Ulfsak, Mikheil Meskhi, Giorgi Nakhashidze, Elmo Niiganen and Raivo Trass. The film was nominated for a Golden Globe and currently is one of the nominees for an Oscar as Best Foreign Film. It has English subtitles and deserves to be translated into many different languages and shown all over the world. It may be a little while until is passes through your local Art Movie theatre but it is worth tracking down and seeing it when it becomes available. (2015)
American Sniper –rm After being shut out at the box office last week because it was sold out we finally got in to see this film. It has already grossed over 217 million dollars (so they really didn’t need our money) on a budget of 59 million dollars to make it. The film has been nominated for an Oscar as best picture and Bradley Cooper as best actor as well as receiving nominations for sound, sound editing and best adapted screenplay by Jason Hall. (It was adapted from the book by the sniper himself Chris Kyle) It is directed by Clint Eastwood. We tend to side with the Hollywood Foreign Press Association who decided that this film didn’t make the grade for any Golden Globe Awards. In our opinion we just didn’t make any emotional connection with the character as depicted in the movie. Yes, we were genuinely touched at the end of the film when there were actual movie clips of the funeral tributes to this war hero who died as a civilian in 2013. (Sorry about the spoiler but you probably knew this already and it won’t take away from the movie). He had an unusual skill with a long range rifle and he cared about his buddies. Chris Kyle had more than 160 “kills” which is the most by far in the history of the United States military. He volunteered for extra tours of duty (actually having 4 tours and he had over 1000 days in a combat zone) despite the pleading of his wife (played by Sienna Miller) that she and their children needed him. He could have spent more time at home training other soldiers. Perhaps the writers and filmmakers try too hard to stick to the exact story presented to them and don’t use the poetic license that a good fictional drama can explore when they develop a character. It was interesting to us that we felt the same way about the movie Unbroken (see our review) which was another recent movie about a real life war hero which stayed close to the facts without very much depth.. It also didn’t move us although our admiration for the man especially as shown in the book was tremendous. Compare this to what we think is one of the greatest war films to come out in a long time, The Hurt Locker (see our review). This was fictional drama perhaps based on real events, but the main character is a composite. In our opinion this allowed the writers and director to explore subtle themes and find ways of bringing about an emotional attachment with the audience. In the the American Sniper, as in most war movies today, the combat scenes were very realistic. The sound was fantastic (does deserve the potential Oscar acclaim ) and the music with a lot of drums and included one composition credited to “the man of all seasons,” the director Clint Eastwood, was quite effective. There were the requisite expensive special effects, which likely made it just like it would really be if we were there. Sometimes all the smoke made it hard to see who was shooting who and we couldn’t tell the bad guys from the good guys but maybe that is the way it is in some combat situations. But without a strong connection to the main character we can’t put this film near the top of our list. (2015)
Unbroken- sp This movie is about the true story of Louis Zamperini, an Italian –American who grew up in a poor family in Torrance, California and became a champion track star and member of the US 1936 Olympic team in Berlin. He subsequently signed up with the US Air Force and became a bombardier during World war II. He and another crewmember survived a crash at sea and drifted in the Pacific Ocean for 2000 miles in 47 days dealing with starvation, dehydration, shark attacks and strafing from Japanese planes. He was then captured and spent most of the war as POW where he was brutally treated in part because he was recognized as a US Olympic runner. Most of the movie is spent recounting this experience. It is based a book by Laura Hillenbrand, a screen play by the Coen brothers and a few others. Angelina Jolie directed this film. Jack O’Connell, a 24 year old British actor plays Zamperini and he certainly does a adequate job although a more riveting actor such as a young Sean Penn might have helped to give this film some depth and that something special that seemed to be missing in our opinion. It didn’t help that we were struck by how the main characters mustache and goatee was fairly well groomed throughout the 47 days at sea and that he was pretty well clean shaven during prison time and also how most of the prisoners had clean military caps or hats. (It may have been that they were issued razors during imprisonment instead of decent nourishment, which they were surely not given.) We got the message that his brother gave him early on in his life that he should not give up but there was not much more in depth understanding of this important heroic person- other then he could stare his captors in the eye and was able to take a beating. Having read the book by Hildenbrand, (click here to see book review) one of us was disappointed that Zamperini’s bout with PTSD and alcoholism after he was freed was not shown nor was the story of his recovery with the help of the evangelist Billy Graham depicted. Some of the drifting and beatings could have traded for some more story with better insight into his psychological make up.. Another character that had great potential for a supporting role was Zamperini’s main nemesis among his captors and that was the Prison Commander known as “the Bird.” He is played in a somewhat bland manner by Miyavi (who is actually known best as a Japanese singer, writer, guitarist). He is supposed to be quite a mean cruel prison commandant but there is no attempt to show something about his character, which was developed in more depth in the book. Nevertheless the movie certainly stands as a tribute to Louis Zamperini, American hero who died at age 98 a few weeks before the release of the film, although he apparently saw the final version before he died. We don’t recommend that you do so. (2014)
Last Days in Vietnam-sp- Even if you were around in 1975 during the U.S pullout from South Vietnam, the true story of how it went down is probably not the way you remember it. Even that iconic photograph of people climbing up a ladder into a helicopter from what you thought was the U.S Embassy was not the U.S. Embassy. Rory Kennedy, youngest daughter of the late Robert Kennedy is a documentary filmmaker who realized that there was an interesting story here to be told. Together with her co-producer Keven McAlester and their team she researched the subject, dug out archive documents and film footage, followed leads, set up interviews with former CIA agents, American soldiers, as well as Vietnamese who got out and some that didn’t. She also was able to interview one of the key surviving players who surrounded and advised President Ford during those final days. That was none other than Henry Kissinger who had been Secretary of State for both Ford and President Nixon. Nixon actually looks quite good in the view of the historical circumstances, which are presented here. It was under his watch that the peace accord of !973 was signed which was followed by the withdrawal of US Troops. We are then shown in 1975 shortly after Nixon resigned from office that the North Vietnam troops began the march towards Saigon. The implication was clearly stated that they would have been afraid to do so if Nixon were in office. We then see how President Ford was not able to get Congress to raise money to support any effort to stop this new aggression.
The real story here was the denial by U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin of the threatening attack that was underway, spilling down towards Saigon with the ultimate evacuation of all the Americans and the desperate attempt to get out bythe South Vietnamese who were connected to the Americans. Rather than use an authoritative narrator, the filmmakers chose to use the faces and the voices of the Americans and Vietnamese who lived through those harrowing days who told their own stories. The latter group knew that if they did not get out, they stood a good chance of being killed or severely punished. In fact in the final credits we learn that some of these narrators subsequently spent years in “ reeducation camps” before making their way to the United States. We learn that the final dramatic evacuation was not only by helicopter but also by sea. The helicopters flew out thousands of evacuees to a flotilla of ships led by the USS Kirk.
A good documentary often relies on some fresh views of the historical event. In this case, that was not only provided by American and Vietnamese survivors of this unusual evacuation telling their tales but also by the discovery of a box full of 8mm movie film taken by one of the sailors aboard the USS Kirk almost 40 years ago. These movies provided a vivid picture of the thousands of civilians packed aboard these ships as they attempted to get to Manila. They also showed a never to be forgotten sequence of movie scenes of a gigantic Chinook helicopter that was too large and heavy to land on the US ship. Instead the Vietnamese pilot who was trying to save his family and others had to do a remarkable maneuver where he hovered so his young children could be dropped and caught by the sailors below. He then did what experts feel was an extremely difficult task of climbing out of his pilot gear, ditching his gigantic helicopter into the sea with its spinning blades disintegrating, while he jumped out into the water and swam to safety of the nearby vessel. This amazing accomplishment was narrated by his now grown son who had been seen as one of the young children being dropped out of the Chinook.
There were several moral questions raised by this film. The big question was did the U.S. have a commitment to its ally, South Vietnam when the North Vietnamese broke the Paris Peace Accord and invaded South Vietnam. What was the meaning of the refusal of Congress to provide funds and the failure of the President to send troops back there? Did the U.S have a commitment to the many civilians and their families who had worked for the US and would be targets if they were not evacuated? Were several U.S. officers within the embassy wrong when they disobeyed orders and organized secret “ black opps” plans for evacuating civilians when the Ambassador had not authorized this to be done.? There also was a promise to all those Vietnamese who were allowed to enter the U.S. Embassy grounds for evacuation, that they would definitely be rescued. However once the Ambassador left, after most of the people were evacuated, there were 420 Vietnamese left behind who had been promised evacuation. Finally, is there any lesson here that we can glean that can be applied to the current situation in Iraq and Afghanistan where the U.S. has left and now the situation is deteriorating?
When a documentary film can prevent a fresh view of history and stir up new questions, which even pertain to our current time, we have to view it as a successful endeavor that should be seen.(2014)
The Monuments Men -Guest Review
This is a guest review by Ron Turco, M.D. Dr. Turco is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst from Portalnd, Oregon. He is Chair of the Committee on Art, Culture and Creativity of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis and Dynamic Psychiatry
I read with substantial disappointment David Denby’s shallow and un-insightful review of George Clooney’s new film “The Monuments Men.” (New Yorker – Feb. 17-24, 2014).He compares this film to the old Frankenheimer movie “The Train.” There is no comparison, as the train was not historically accurate and barely mentioned in passing Rose Valland, Temporary Custodian at the Jeu de Paume whose influence was so important in the discovery of looted works in France, at the risk of her own life, that she received the French Legion of Honor and the Medal of Resistance becoming a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters, making her one of the most decorated women in France. She also received a Medal of Freedom from the United States in 1948 and an Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit from the Federal Republic of Germany. It was her book “Le Front deL’Art” that was the basis of the 1965 movie “The Train”, a movie in which she was only briefly mentioned, although she had also received a commission in the French First Army.
The Monuments Men were a group of men and women from thirteen nations, most of whom volunteered for service in the newly created Monuments, Fine Arts and and Archives section (MFAA) of the military, attempting to save as much of the culture of Europe and Western Civilization as possible and were willing to fight and die for something greater than themselves. Some were killed in combat.
George Clooney has done an outstanding job with his film “The Monuments Men” and in reminding us that the story of The Holocaust must be told over and over again in different ways and at different times. He masterfully and in sometimes direct or subtle ways brings out the Nazi horror and disregard for human life. Mr Denby has missed the point entirely in his understanding of these heroes and heroines and mentions that most of the works were returned to private collectors. That is not completely true. The works were returned to the countries of origin or to the Jews from whom they were stolen. In the film George Clooney also does an excellent job in presenting the value and importance of the sacrifices of the MFAA people, a job that was endorsed by Franklin D. Roosevelt and strongly supported by Dwight D. Eisenhower. Many of these people went on, after the war, to make substantial contributions to art and culture. Private First Class Lincoln Kirstein founded the legendary New York City Ballet as one of the most important cultural figures of his generation. Second Lieutenant James J. Rorimer, who worked closely with Rose Valland, was instrumental in founding the Met’s medieval collections branch, the Cloisters. “The Monuments Men” film is very close to the facts (a few minor changes, as with all films, including “Lincoln” and “The Navajo Code Talkers”). The acting is superb and I highly recommend this film, especially to young people who may not have an understanding of the broad ramifications of The Holocaust or the history of these brave people. John Edsel’s scholarly book “The Monuments Men” should be required reading in high schools throughout our country. (2014)
The Book Thief- sp- This is an extremely moving film which captures still another aspect of the inhumane, cruel and evil impact of Hitler and his Nazi followers on the German people. It does this through the eyes of a young girl Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nelisse) who is 12 years old when we meet her as she is separated from her family and comes to live with a German couple in a small town just before the start of World War II. Her new mother Rosa Huberman (Emily Watson) is tough and strict on the outside but we come to see her tenderness and love as the story develops. Her new father Hans (Geoffrey Rush in what could be an Oscar nomination performance) shows his tenderness, love, pain and identification with his new daughter in many complex ways. It is their love of words and books, which they share, which brings them together and helps to convey the story that is being told. Whenever you have a child actress who is carrying the story and the emotion of a film, mainly with few words, the credit for this accomplishment has to be shared with the director, which in this case was Brian Percival. Kudos also for the birth of this film deserves to be given to Fox 2000 a major studio led by Elizabeth Gabler which also brought Life of Pi to the screen. This movie, which is narrated by the voice of death, is a fast moving two hours and five minutes and there is nothing that we would suggest should be cut from it. Although we both very much enjoyed the world wide best selling book upon which it based, one of us (MB) had some reservations about the book and the motivations of the author (see http://www.bookrap.net/?s=Book+thief) We both agreed the screen play by Michael Petroni was true to the book by Markus Zusak and the few changes were inconsequential. The music score, which captures the mood, and emotion, which exists throughout the film, was done by veteran award winning composer John Williams. When you think about it, our understanding of important historical events such as the rise of Hitler, Nazism and the Holocaust often comes from the great films on these subjects, which become imprinted in our minds. The Book Thief will be one of the films, which will play this role with the moviegoers of today. (2013)
Sands of Iwo Jima- nf – I first saw this movie as an 11 or 12 year old boy and the memory of it has vividly stayed with me to the point where I exactly remembered the tragic ending. I could not resist watching it when it was unexpectedly offered to me as I was checking my email and I just happened to have the time to see it. It stars John Wayne who was nominated for an Academy Award for this movie. He plays the tough Marine Sergeant Styrker who has the task of whipping a bunch of recruits in shape to fight the Japanese in World War II. By now so many parts of the storyline can be considered cliché but they were very real when the movie was made and shown just four years after the end of the war. There was the soldier not getting a letter from home, or getting one, the marine who was son of the tough Colonel who had died, the recruit who tried to disguise that he was 17 and lied to get into the Marines, the USO dance when the marines were on leave, accidentally dropping a hand grenade during training and a hero intervening to throw it away, a marine being made to do extra practicing of his bayonet skills, hitting the beaches under attack, being ordered to “ lock and load “ as they got off the landing craft, marines being shot as they charged on the beach, calling for “ Medic” and a Jewish marine reciting the “Shama Yisrael” prayer before he died after being shot, which of course hit home to me. To a young kid of my generation this movie was typical of the war stories with which we identified and wondered how would we have faired if we fought in the Great War. There were no computer-generated images in this black and white movie. There was actual footage of the real assault on Iwo Jima and I read that there 2000 real marines used as extras in the movie. The actual flag raised on Iwo Jima was used in the scene which reenacted the famous raising of the flag on Mount Suribachi which was captured in the iconic photograph by Joe Rosenthal. I also read that two of the marines that were there in the photograph participated in that part of the film. So for me the visit to this film was a great piece of nostalgia and meaningful history. (1949)
No Place on Earth – sp Just as you think that you have seen every type of Holocaust film, a movie such as this one comes along. It not only tells the story of the survival of a group of Ukrainian Jews who hid for 511 days in the world’s deepest caves in the Ukraine but it will push all your buttons when several of them, including a 91 year old energetic gentleman, return with their grandchildren 67 years later to visit the their old, darkened, dingy home which in some places was over 50 feet underground. Film maker Janet Tobias, who has been a producer for 60 Minutes and Prime Time Live, learned about this story when a colleague showed her a National Geographic article that Chris Nicola, a New York State Investigator who has a serious hobby of exploring caves all over the world, had written. Nicola, during one of his vacations, explored this unusual deep gypsum cave in the Ukraine and came across some human artifacts, which included a shoe, a cup, and some buttons. He returned to the area for the next couple of years asking the local people if they knew about where they had come from. Most did not, but one person said it might have something to do with the Jews. Nicola embedded key words in his web sites meant to attract people searching for their genealogy related to the Holocaust and these specific caves.. This ultimately led him to make connections with the actual survivors, most of who were living in Canada. This included Esther Stermer who wrote a book about her experience titled “We Fight to Survive” She said she wrote this book so her grandchildren would know about what they had been through during World war II. Little did she know, thanks to Ms. Tobias and this film, she would actually accompany her grandchildren back to this hidden cave and watch her granddaughter descend into the deepest depths to visit this special place in her family history. This film is actually a modified docu-drama. Part of the film includes getting know several of the survivors as they narrate the film in an articulate at times emotional manner giving us a feel for their fortitude, determination and even their sense of humor. We see how the decision is made by the family matriarch to pack up as much of their belongings as possible and flee to avoid deportation (which would have ultimately led to their extermination). We feel the experience through the eyes of a 70-year-old woman as a 4 and 5 year old. Interspersed with this narration, we witness a reenactment by Hungarian/Ukrainian actors, adults and children as they crawl through barely lit crevices and help us understand what it was like to live there, interacting with each other and risking their lives to bring food to their hiding places. There is one close call after another along with heroism, good luck but most of all the will to live. This combination of a documentary with actual actors was quite an accomplishment to effectively pull off. We knew the people narrating the story survived, but we were still on the edge of our seats. We didn’t quite anticipate the emotional reaction we would have when we saw this band of elderly people return to these caves with their families and could show their grandchildren a place that was truly like no place on earth and their most remarkable survival experience. (2013)
Postscript: If you are interested in some of the untold stories of survivors of the Holocaust I recommend that you consider reading a remarkable book which I reviewed about a year ago in my Psychiatry Blog as well as in BookRap.net
The Train-nf We decided that were going to view this classic black and white film from 1964 directed by John Frankenheimer and starring Burt Lancaster. We believe we may have seen it at the time but we didn’t remember the details. The setting is in France just before the end of World War II and it was obviously filmed about 19 years after the war ended. Somehow that seems much closer to that war than we had felt it was at the time. The plot is relatively simple. The Germans know that the war is coming to the end and the Americans are set to liberate Paris. A high-ranking German officer wants to transport the great trove of priceless French paintings that they have captured back to Germany. The French underground, led by the character played by Burt Lancaster as a French train expert, has decided to prevent that train from getting back to Berlin. We now realize the story is much more complicated than it may have seemed to us at the time. Lancaster’s character is obviously quite ambivalent about whether it is worth risking and losing any more French lives as the war is drawing to an end. He, in fact, has never appreciated art in the first place although in the words of another character who says that this art which are boxes of Renoir, Picasso, Miro, etc etc, “is an essential part of the French people and their heritage.” This important question surfaces throughout the movie including at the dramatic conclusion when he faces down his German nemesis played magnificently by Paul Scofield who asks him among, all the death and destruction surrounding him, if he really knew what he was fighting for? In fact, we wonder what would have happened if the Germans got the art back to Berlin. Wouldn’t the allies have probably found it anyway? The movie is much more than this philosophical question; it is a classic action thriller filled with suspense, even if you think you know how it is going to work out. There seems to be plenty of what today seems to be computer generated action except there were no computers and very little special effects in the 1960s. The supporting cast are leading French actors of the time who all spoke English while playing natives of their country. This includes the famous French movie star Jeanne Moreau who gets a hug from Lancaster, which is as far as the romance, went in this movie. The screenwriters Franklin Coen and Frank Davis were nominated for an Oscar.
If you want to get double your value for the Netflix version, watch it another day with the commentary track of the director John Frankenheimer (also known for Birdman of Alcatraz and the Manchurian Candidate) who certainly deserves a good part of the credit for the success of it. He says that while the film cost about 5 million dollars to make at the time, it would cost over 75 million “today” ( meaning when he did the voice over and he died in 2002) He also reveals that Burt Lancaster did all the stunts himself ( and there were a number of them ) as well as at least one stunt of falling off a roof for another actor. He explains how they actually blew things up and how Charles de Gaulle’s son was a consultant and helped them with the movie. For any budding movie makers he sometimes calls the camera shots stating which was a dolly shot and would be a steadycam shot today or why they used this lens or that lens for good depth of field. He even gives some insight into the dialog explaining in one important scene how they were concerned that the audience wouldn’t believe it if Paul Scofield (the German colonel) who was known to be a Shakespeare talking actor could outfight Burt Lancaster who had played all these tough guy fighting roles in other films. (1964)
Emperor –sp If you are a student or a fan of WW II history or are old enough to have some memories of the first 20 or so post war years, you may have wondered why the Japanese Emperor Hirohito wasn’t punished for war crimes? Well, he wasn’t and in fact was allowed to continue to be the revered reigning monarch until his death in 1989 while his war time prime minister Tojo and other military leaders were executed by the victorious Americans. This is the main focus of this movie, directed by Peter Webber, starring Matthew Fox as Bonner Fellers the American Brigadier General tasked with deciding whether to put Hirohito on trial and perhaps hang him and Tommy Lee Jones as his boss, General Douglas Mac Arthur, along with some of today’s leading Japanese actors. The script by David Klass and Vera Blasi has taken some known historical facts and also weaved and constructed a love story between General Fellers and a young Japanese woman he met in college in the U.S. before the war, effectively using flashback techniques. The result is a fascinating if not gripping story, which might color our view of this piece of WWII history. We see a Japanese leader remind General Fellers that history is filled with terrible deeds during war including those done by the British or even the Americans although he acknowledges the Japanese “ lost their humanity in WW II. ” Through the tender love story and empathy that General Fellers has for the Japanese people we are led to consider that the Japanese at this point in history were not as bad as they have been depicted to most of us. Perhaps Hirohito didn’t really favor the war in the first place and didn’t know about all the atrocities . Also, apparently it was his request to the Japanese people, despite the resistance of his military leaders, that led to a peaceful surrender (after the dropping of the atomic bomb) which saved 100,000s of American lives which would have been lost if we had to invade the Japanese islands. We disagreed on whether this was an overtly sympathetic point of view (of a culture that still doesn’t teach the history of WW II to school children) or it was simply shinning a light on a piece of little known history. We do agree it was an outstanding film, worth seeing. (2013)