Archive for the War Category


Posted in Comedy, War on September 11, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Stripes photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgAll around screw-up John Winger loses his car, girlfriend, apartment and job as a taxi driver, all within a few hours. After seeing an ad on TV, he decides joining the army is the answer. With his friend Russell Ziskey, they go down to the local recruiting center to enlist. Bill Murray and Harold Ramis enter boot camp, make a lot of wisecracks and show off the lighter side of basic training. This American military comedy was a massive summer hit in 1981 and further cemented the popularity of rising star Bill Murray who had previously scored big with both Meatballs and Caddyshack in each of the two prior years.

Director Ivan Reitman would most successfully direct Bill Murray and Harold Ramis in Ghostbusters. Here he keeps things much looser in this meandering comedy that comes across as kind of sloppy in parts. Every major plot thread in the movie is a bit bewildering. To be quite honest, that’s a significant component of the film’s charm. Don’t try to reason why being late to your own graduation ceremony and then giving an utterly unconventional (albeit coordinated) drill display, earns you the accordance of even greater respectability.

General Barnicke: Are you telling me that you men finished your training on your own?
John Winger: That’s the fact, Jack.
Soldiers: That’s the fact, Jack!

Impressed, the General decides these are just the ambitious men he wants guarding a top secret EM-50 Urban Assault Vehicle. Incidentally, it looks like a Winnebago. The men are sent to Italy to guard the weapon. Here’s where the narrative falls apart. John and Russell basically run afoul over there. One thing leads to another and they end up taking on the Communists.

There are segments that make this seem more like a relic than the blockbuster comedy it became. Early in the film, when John returns home, his girlfriend Anita (Roberta Leighton) is casually walking around the apartment topless. Later the boys go to a bikini bar to participate in a mud wrestling match. It’s a protracted scene.  Gratuitous nudity was a hallmark of 80s comedies and this one employed it more than most.  Oh and apparently women are simply putty in the hands of Bill Murray. At one point, he gives his sweetheart (P.J. Soles) what he calls “The Aunt Jemima Treatment”. That’s where he charms her skeptical exterior by throwing her onto a stovetop and shoving a spatula into her crotch. It ends with her admitting that’s she’s “helplessly, hopelessly, deeply in love” with him. Something tells me this would end differently in the real world

It’s odd how a comedy from 1981 can seem more outdated than say one from 1961. Irreverent is the nicest way to put it. That’s not to say Stripes isn’t worth watching. It’s occasionally hilarious. At the time, the film was the third on which Harold Ramis collaborated with Bill Murray, but the first in which the two actually appeared on camera together. The chemistry of their effortless friendship in real life, easily translates on screen. There’s some terrific moments leading up to their arrival at Fort Arnold. The meet-and-greet scene in the Army barracks is a highlight for everyone involved. Ox (John Candy) and Psycho (Conrad Dunn) have amusing introductions. Legend has it that Bill Murray’s “Chicks Dig Me” speech, including the bit about Lee Harvey and the cow, was improvised, Their basic training and on through their graduation feature some extremely funny bits. Unfortunately the dramatic momentum runs out of steam during the final act. Up until then, it’s quite entertaining. Nostalgic viewers old enough to have originally seen it during the 80s should enjoy it even more.


American Sniper

Posted in Action, Biography, Drama, War with tags on November 28, 2014 by Mark Hobin

American Sniper photo starrating-3stars.jpgMovie adaptation of the memoir written by United States Navy SEAL Chris Kyle exists between the taught, tension filled investigation of The Hurt Locker and the overt rah rah jingoism of Lone Survivor. Kyle served four tours in the Iraq War and during that time, he had at least 160 confirmed kills by the Pentagon’s count, but 255 probable by his own calculation. Eastwood touches on his early years but the majority of the picture is devoted to Kyle’s military service, It is an often sobering account of how the most lethal sniper in American military history conducted his business in the Iraq War. As such it is Clint Eastwood’s best film in years.

Bradley Cooper handles the role with seriousness and humility. The actor fleshes out a character with pure sincerity. Although Chris remains a bit inscrutable, his devotion to his purpose and why he does what he does, is clear. The Navy SEAL is shown to be a perceptive man who understands the severity of what he does. His actions have grave consequences. Bradley Cooper looks quite different physically here. At 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, Chris Kyle was a large guy. Bradley Cooper sports a beard and packs on 40 lbs of muscle to become the man. With her reddish brown hair and American accent, Sienna Miller is virtually unrecognizable as well in a fundamental supporting part as his wife Taya Kyle.

Eastwood is effective at contrasting the difference between a sniper’s job from the troops fighting on the ground. To be honest, Kyle takes on this duty as well when he cannot be of help on the rooftops. As a sharpshooter, we are presented with the emotionally difficult decisions he must make from a distance. He weighs the importance of what he is about to do with the lasting results. Is this an innocent civilian or a dangerous enemy that threatens American lives? Not every assassin looks like a human killing machine trained for combat. Warning: the most compelling scene that illustrates this is in the trailer.

The negative effects his service had on his marriage is understandable but they’re the kind of well worn issues oft dramatized. Chris Kyle is a career solider. We understand his desire to keep going back to Iraq. He has developed a reputation as a legend and he is driven to contribute to the cause. Meanwhile his growing detachment from domestic life becomes problematic. He volunteers to return for a total of four separate tours and it weighs heavily on his marriage.  If there’s a mission that keeps him coming back, it is the unfinished pursuit of a Syrian marksman (Sammy Sheik) who is his counterpart on the opposite side. But his wife and kids need him too. This dilemma forms a persistent idea in the second half.

American Sniper is a solid well constructed effort that is arguably Clint Eastwood’s best since Gran Torino. I would support that assertion anyway. But it’s also rather predictable. The depiction hits the familiar beats you‘d expect the bio of a dedicated solider to address. Whether the deadliest sniper in U.S. history is a hero is not even a topic up for discussion. It is just presented as fact. The reverential portrait is a tribute that honors the man. The way this affected his personal life is a key aspect. The ongoing effect that war has on an individual’s psyche as well as his family are thoughtfully addressed, but there’s never anything particularly revelatory added to the conversation.


Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Posted in Action, Drama, Science Fiction, War with tags on July 13, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes photo starrating-4stars.jpgThis sequel to 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes continues after the viral-based pharmaceutical ALZ-112 caused the fall of civilization. Most of the human population has died off due to their own engineered drug. Genetically evolved Caesar leads a society of super-smart apes in Muir Woods. A team of remaining human survivors immune to the virus are living nearby in San Francisco. One day someone inadvertently wanders into ape territory. In a tense standoff, one of the chimpanzees is shot which becomes the seed that leads to a growing battle for supremacy between the ape and human worlds.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is politically audacious. The narrative goes deeper than just people vs. apes. There is division even within the ranks of each species. Caesar the more level headed peace-keeping chimpanzee is pitted directly against his own kind in one bonobo named Koba. He’s an angry militant that wants to attack them first, lest they be attacked. To be fair, the humans did kill off one of their own first or should I say, an individual named Carver (Kirk Acevedo) did. He was acting alone but now his violent act is responsible for starting a brewing war among different primate species. On the human front it’s Malcolm (Jason Clarke) vs. Dreyfus (Gary Oldman). Guns complicate matters considerably. So does the apes’ ability to ride horses, which looks very cool by the way.

Dawn pushes the technology of CGI a giant step forward. The visual realism achieved in the rendering of the apes is so extraordinary, I forgot I was watching computer images on screen. A lot of the advances in this field are due to the simulation and modeling software developed by Weta Digital back in 2005 during Peter Jackson’s King Kong. However this far surpasses anything seen in that film. The believability of the apes is helped immeasurably by the motion capture performances of the actors that bring life to these creatures. I’ll cite not only the pioneer in the field Andy Serkis (Caesar) but also Toby Kebbell (Koba) who deserves a special mention. They have the biggest parts, but there are many artists putting in great work here. Although unseen, their actual expressions are incorporated into the visuals at various points. Caesar’s love for his primate family is fully felt just as one would feel affinity toward any flesh and blood family up on the screen. I dare say the writing of these digitally rendered creations actually exceeds those of the human characters. I was completely immersed in the story.

I certainly didn’t expect to get a cogent commentary on the nature of war when I sat down to watch Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but that’s exactly what I got. The script makes a compelling explanation of how the behavior of a few are sometimes extrapolated to everyone in the group. And how a political body might try to justify going to war against, oh I don’t know, let’s say an entire country because of the isolated actions of some fringe fanatics. It makes a strong case that when boundaries are drawn and resources are needed in outlying areas, war is inevitable. There’s plenty of jump-worthy moments to keep action fans entertained as well. I sat there mouth agape on several occasions because the sequences were that thrilling. The quality of Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a nice surprise in the re-introduction of this series back in 2011. Perhaps this production is an even bigger revelation because it’s better and improves upon something that was already quite good. At this rate, the third film should win Best Picture.

The Railway Man

Posted in Biography, Drama, War with tags on May 7, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Railway Man photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgEric Lomax was a British Army officer who was sent to a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in 1942. He subsequently wrote a book entitled The Railway Man. In it he recounted his horrific persecution on the Thai-Burma Railway during World War II.  The same setting detailed in the movie The Bridge on the River Kwai. Remember that film? If not, then go rent that profoundly better movie instead. Seriously. Just go. I command you.

The Railway Man begins in 1980 where Scottish World War II veteran Eric Lomax (Colin Firth) meets pretty Patti Wallace (Nicole Kidman) for the first time on a train in a scene that is meant to be delightfully adorable. Kidman does what she can.  However given her stature, we keep expecting the star to become a more integral part. The underwritten role would’ve benefited form a lesser known actress because it’s more of a accessory than a fully formed individual. They both settle into a comfortable existence together as a married couple, but wouldn’t you know it, trouble looms on the horizon. As biopics are often wont to do, this idyllic life is only presented to contrast with the real point of the story. You see Lomax is tortured by repressed memories of his time spent as a Japanese POW. Cue the flashback sequence, a dependable device to be sure, but the bane of every manufactured biopic that has ever been made.

The Railway Man suffers from erratic pacing. These flashback sequences comprise the bulk of the second half of the film. They’re set at the POW camp with actor Jeremy Irvine portraying Lomax as a younger man. He does what he can with a pretty sizeable role, but there is a disconnect. The disturbing events of the past juxtaposed with the placid view of him as an adult don’t jive well. The back and forth is jarring and doesn’t flow into the overall narrative. He builds a radio which the Japanese Army believes he is using to transmit signals. As a result, he must endure the horrors of an abusive prison which include waterboarding.  I get that it’s told from Lomax’s POV but his captors might as well be cardboard cutouts because they have no depth or personality. They merely serve one purpose, to be the antagonists from which Lomax must suffer.   They’re somewhat given a face in actor Tanroh Ishida as Takashi Nagase, an interpreter.

Languidly paced biography is handsomely mounted and well acted but this period melodrama is inert. Colin Firth exemplifies respectful reverence in his depiction of Eric Lomax as a soft genteel man haunted by the past. His posttraumatic stress disorder continues to weigh on him. That sets the stage for the climax. Lomax learns that that Takashi Nagase is now employed as a tour guide. Actor Hiroyuki Sanada is him as an adult. The Japanese soldier who oversaw his torture in 1942 now works at a museum on the very grounds of the prison camp where the two men first met. In an effort to reconcile his feelings, Lomax re-visits Burma several decades later. On paper the developments sound fascinating, but what is undoubtedly an important account is given a very conventional treatment. The film builds to this meeting as a highlight of sorts. Will he find peace or revenge? Colin Firth’s portrait of restrained passivity is both admirable and frustrating. The biopic engages at irregular intervals but it’s so carefully modulated that it feels like an artifact from a bygone era. The Railway Man is ultimately a positive tale and I suppose it gets some sympathy points for that.


300: Rise of an Empire

Posted in Action, Drama, History, War with tags on March 9, 2014 by Mark Hobin

300: Rise of an Empire photo starrating-1andahalfstars.jpgOkay let’s see now. Pecs, Blood, Pecs, Blood, Pecs, Pecs, Pecs, Blood, Blood, BREASTS, Pecs, Pecs, Blood, Blood, Pecs Blood, Pecs. That pretty much sizes up the narrative formula of 300: Rise of an Empire. This is the sequel (prequel) to 300, the once cutting edge action/fantasy movie based on the Dark Horse comic by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley. Released back in March of 2007, its innovative visual style borrowed from Sin City, favored the appearance of a comic book. Now almost a decade later, the look has been copied (The Spirit, Immortals) and even parodied (Meet the Spartans) to the point where innovative spectacle isn’t enough. We require a story.

Stepping into Gerard Butler’s leather briefs as the star this time around is Sullivan Stapleton who plays Greek general Themistokles. He’s leading the charge against the invading Persian army. The Persian people are once again represented by Xerxes, the giant god/king. You might remember him from part one. He was the eccentric that looked like he was dipped in bronze, adorned with gold chains and then applied Joan Crawford eyebrows. He’s ticked off because Themistokles killed his father. Xerxes thinks he’s calling the shots, but he’s really just a puppet of Artemisia, the queen/commander of his naval fleet. As portrayed by Eva Green, she is the real star of the show. Following years in captivity after being raped by a gang of Greek soldiers, she is out for revenge. That is a pretty good reason to be upset. So after you hear her side of the events, you’ll switch allegiances and root against the Spartans. As the most memorable character, she rises above the mire with her wickedly scene-chewing performance.

Unfortunately characterization, story and drama are pushed aside solely in favor of a dated style that isn’t innovative anymore. Gushing fountains of CGI blood garnish a scene like parsley on a plate. The super slo-mo sepia toned plasma streams across every battle scene. Oh and there are a lot of battle scenes in this picture. It never lets up. Throats are cut, men are beheaded, women are raped. The amount of slaughter shows no subtlety or justification. It’s merely offered up as entertainment for an audience that might have to pay as much as $19.50 to see this filth in IMAX 3D. And let me tell you, the dichromatic visual palette is dark, muddy and not impressive. So save your money and see it in 2D at a bargain priced matinee, if at all.

There are some hilarious lines however. 300 seemed kind of oblivious to the homoerotic subtext of so many half naked muscular gym bodies in a historical context. Seriously, why don’t these men wear armor? On the other hand, 300: Rise of the Empire seems to not only embrace it, but exploit it. “You’ve come a long way to stroke your c*** watching real men train,” quips Sparta’s Queen Gorgo upon Themistokles’ arrival. Later Themistokles proudly states, “I have spent my life on my one true love — the Greek fleet.“  Naturally he says this right before a most ridiculous sex scene between him and the seductive Artemisia. There is so much punching, choking and hair pulling, it’s unclear whether they’re making love or physically assaulting each other. Once they’re done she deadpans “You fight much harder than you f***” on his performance. Ouch!

The triumph of the few against the many was unquestionably a more engaging plot point in the first film than the ugly tale of revenge on display here. You can laugh at the unmitigated excess of the saga and try to appreciate it on that level. Unfortunately all the carnage without any redeeming value gets pretty mind numbing after awhile. 300: Rise of an Empire is too witless to really enjoy. Surprisingly this became a huge success which proves that an interesting script is not required of a hit.  300: Rise of An Empire did $45.1M in its opening weekend.  Expect studio execs to dust off other 7 year old properties now. Wild Hogs 2 anyone?

Lone Survivor

Posted in Action, Biography, Drama, War with tags on December 26, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Lone Survivor photo starrating-1andahalfstars.jpgLone Survivor is the depiction of a United States maneuver during the War in Afghanistan in 2005. Labeled Operation Red Wings, a group of Navy SEALs are tasked to capture or kill high ranking Taliban leader Ahmad Shah. The story is based on Marcus Luttrell’s 2007 book about the failed mission. First let’s address the elephant in the room. I’d be hard pressed to name a more spoiler heavy title than Lone Survivor. It’s a pretty efficient buzzkill. There’s Death of Salesman perhaps, but then that play had so much more to offer intellectually. We’re introduced to a team of four Navy SEALs played by Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch and Ben Foster. Right from the start there’s this nagging feeling that we probably shouldn’t get too attached to at least three of these guys.

This is a pretty simple plot. Four guys go in. Only one comes out. Basically everything that can go wrong, does go wrong. Director Peter Berg (Battleship) never met a bullet going through flesh that he didn’t want to film in slow motion. The death of Ben Foster’s character is particularly gruesome. As he’s gasping for breath, blood pouring out, we watch as he is hit not once, not twice but three shots with grisly brutality. A veritable pastiche of sound effects highlights detonations, guns shooting, bullets whizzing by. Several scenes show soldiers tumbling down the side of a mountain. This tableau is repeated several times in fact. Their bodies somersaulting like rag dolls with bones crunching against every rock along the way in glorious sonic clarity. In one of the production’s quieter moments, Wahlberg performs surgery on his leg with a knife.

Lone Survivor is a weird mix of jingoism and “war is hell” mentality. The opening crawl of actual training footage feels like a military recruitment film, but then the senseless escalating body count screams otherwise. Our team of four Navy SEALs are robust models of tough American masculinity. Their male bonding, rah-rah, “let’s go kick some Taliban butt” mindset is occasionally interrupted by exclamations of “Muthaf–ka!” and “F–k You!” For the second half, it’s seemingly the only words they know as the action is mainly punctuated by the sound of bodies exploding while bullets pierce their skulls in blood splattering detail. The soundtrack has the audacity to play the quietly solemn beats of a noble drum march in the background as if that makes all the carnage more meaningful. There are admittedly two examples where expectations are subverted and humanity is displayed. In those minutes, we realize what this picture could have been. Then it’s back to bloody business as usual. In the end, the overriding conclusion is that Operation Red Wings was a tragic waste of life and this movie is a tragic waste of time.

The Book Thief

Posted in Drama, War with tags on December 1, 2013 by Mark Hobin

The Book Thief photo starrating-4stars.jpgIn 1938, at the age of 11, Liesel is sent to live with foster parents Hans and Rosa Hubermann in Molching, Germany, near Munich. She has been given up by her mother following her brother’s death. At first, life in the small town seems carefree to her. However the Nazi presence gradually grows increasingly oppressive. Liesel begins acquiring books that the party has deemed forbidden. At one point, the couple also take in a Jewish refugee named Max. She shares her books with Max and they develop a deep friendship not unlike an older brother to a younger sister.

At its most basic genre, The Book Thief is a war drama, but it’s oh so much more. Little Liesel is played by extraordinary French-Canadian Sophie Nélisse. I took note of her movie debut back in 2011’s Monsieur Lazhar. Here the young actress is given the lead and she is outstanding. In addition to the relationship with her foster parents, Liesel also makes friendships with the young man in hiding, a neighbor boy her own age and the Bürgermeister’s wife. These richly detailed connections provide a way for the script to detail the horrors of the Nazi party. It is Liesel through which these interactions occur. Nélisse is positively hypnotic in the role and I would follow her on any adventure. A large part of why the chronicle succeeds is because of her charisma.

The Book Thief is beautifully adapted from Marcus Zusak’s beloved 2006 best seller. A majority of the action takes place within the narrow world of Himmel Street, the road on which she lives. That serves the plot a unique focus to explore themes that affect a specific time and place. The movie doesn’t shy away from the truth: book burnings, air raids, and violent deaths all contribute to the narrative. It would have been very easy to ratchet up thrills by showing lots of atrocities. Yet the PG-13 family film takes the creative route by portraying the action with a alternative point of view. The portrait examines Nazi Germany through a child’s eyes and what they encounter.

The Book Thief is a real throwback to classic Hollywood filmmaking for the entire family. It becomes more powerful for its handling of a difficult subject in an innovative way. There are moments where the production lags a bit, but the majority of wonderful characters makes up for the occasional lull. These include people like blonde haired Rudy, the 10 year old boy whose Olympic idol is Jesse Owens or Max who paints over the pages of Mein Kampf to create a blank book in which Liesel can write. Sometimes an innocent sees the beauty of their surroundings first and slowly becomes aware of the ugliness underneath. In time, Liesel realizes the Nazi are in fact responsible for her brother’s death and mother’s disappearance. She doesn’t necessarily understand the reasons why, but just that it has happened. She comes to the same conclusions as an adult, but from a different perspective. The Book Thief is an important drama that celebrates freedom of thought and love of humanity from the refreshing viewpoint of a child.

Zero Dark Thirty

Posted in Action, Drama, History, Thriller, War with tags on January 4, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Zero Dark ThirtyPhotobucketZero Dark Thirty is an effective blend of logic and emotion, fact and fiction in depicting the decade long search for Osama Bin Laden. Director Kathryn Bigelow’s follow-up to The Hurt Locker is another drama concerning the military, likewise based on a script by Mark Boal. It starts with a black screen and real recordings of people taken from the World Trade Center on 9/11. Not that we need to rouse feeling for that unforgettable event, it is nevertheless an opening that seizes attention at once. Zero Dark Thirty is the subsequent search for the man behind that terrorist plot.

The thriller filters the saga through the efforts of a young CIA Officer named Maya. Jessica Chastain gives an inspiring performance and one through which the developments are filtered. In this document, we are hit with jargon and technical detail. When she’s first introduced, she appears to be a side character, an observer of Dan, her CIA mentor and Navy Seal, memorably played by Jason Clarke. In a movie where methods are emphasized over personalities, he’s one that stands out. He employs “enhanced interrogation techniques” on a detainee to extract information. As the story progresses we realize Maya is our main protagonist. Her unwavering drive to find the terrorist is her focus. The movie turns into the ultimate procedural, in which various clues must be investigated involving computer work, photographs and informants.

“Enhanced interrogation techniques” is a euphemism that includes torture, specifically waterboarding but also entails tactics such as sleep deprivation and humiliation. I wont debate on whether these methods were used because it’s a controversial question with different answers depending on who you ask.. However I will say they are merely presented without support or opposition. To concentrate solely on waterboarding or other coercive techniques that were used by the CIA is really to discount the many other leads and bits of intelligence that the CIA used in determining the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. That’s a very small part of this story.

The narrative brilliantly uses judiciously placed action to galvanize your outrage. One particularly intense scene involves CIA agent Jessica played by Jennifer Ehle and her discovery of a mole, a Jordanian doctor. The breakthrough develops into something that highlights the constant danger that these CIA operatives were under. Their big break becomes a galvanizing incident for the audience. It furthers the anger that 9/11 provoked. Granted there is a definite desire to stop further attacks, but there’s also an acknowledged element of revenge that the moment stirs within the viewer. It allows us to share in Maya’s defeats and increase our understanding of what drives her.

Naturally the struggle to find bin Laden was a 10 year objective that encompasses hundreds of people. Maya is important because she gives the fight a face with which to identify. When she finally feels she has a solid lead on bin Laden’s actual location, she urges the military to strike with an elite force. But the argument of whether they can follow that revelation is a measured discussion rooted in the possible uncertainty that could have dire repercussions if they’re wrong. She’s relatable because she doesn’t seem superhuman, although she has the resolute strength of her convictions. We completely understand her motivation in making these terrorist acts stop immediately. There’s a running gag where she writes the number of days elapsed since they’ve extracted this vital information and nothing has happened. Her frustration is understandable and so we are drawn to her. She’s human and likable.

History has already shown how this mission ends. Yet that doesn’t lesson the tension or excitement. It’s telling that despite the fact that we know this was a success, we are still fascinated by the way it unfolds. Through a blending of action sequences interspersed with data gathering and policy, we get a nuanced portrait. Zero dark thirty is a military designation for an unspecified time after midnight but before sunrise. Here it refers to the time in the dead of night that the raid of Navy SEALs invaded Bin Laden’s Pakistan compound.  The final third of this procedural culminates in the pulse pounding depiction of that raid on the building . It’s an incredibly satisfying ending to everything we’ve watched leading up to that point. This is a movie not a documentary. As with a subject that is shrouded in a high level of secrecy, one must approach the film with a healthy level of skepticism. CIA officials have admitted to conferring with film-makers on the project but insist that the finished picture is a dramatization as opposed to a historical record. And while Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t quite delve as deeply into personalities, the thriller’s information based structure is endlessly entertaining in presenting this fascinating story.


Posted in Drama, Romance, War with tags on June 3, 2012 by Mark Hobin

You might think a science fiction special effects extravaganza would be the best representation for the definition of a Blu-ray Disc. Yet the 70th anniversary edition of Casablanca that I received complementary from Warner Bros. Entertainment is a stunning example of the quality of the medium. The picture has been painstakingly remastered one frame at a time. Matinee icons Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman have a clarity as if the movie had just been released. Who knew that glorious black and white could be more vivid than a color movie? It doesn’t hurt that the story is considered by many to be the greatest ever filmed.

THE classic romantic drama set in early December 1941 during World War II . Our story concerns “Rick’s Café Américain”, an upscale nightclub and casino. The hangout is the setting for the wheeling and dealing of various public officials and refugees desperately trying to get out of Northern Africa to the more friendly atmosphere of America. The establishment is run by Rick Blaine. Humphrey Bogart is a jaded American expatriate who is beholden to nothing and no one. That all changes when into his joint walks Ilsa Lund and her husband Victor Laszlo, a renowned Resistance leader and idealist. A fugitive who has escaped a Nazi concentration camp, he is seeking “letters of transit” which would allow he and his wife to leave for America where they can continue his patriotic work.

The characters elevate Casablanca to the very epitome of supreme sentiment. Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and Paul Henreid form a love triangle that consistently engages the emotions from beginning to end. One can almost see themselves in the narrative structure. It’s a film about falling in love, making difficult choices, and doing what’s right. Despite Bogart’s stated indifference, his actions betray some profound feelings. Ingrid Bergman is the woman torn between two lovers, but with a detached personality that’s a bit challenging to read at times. Claude Rains as Captain Louis Renault is a rather self serving fellow. As Vichy France’s prefect of police in Casablanca, he’s unscrupulous and corrupt, cooperating with the Germans who happen to be in charge. “I blow with the wind, and the prevailing wind happens to be from Vichy.” Yet his friendship with Rick appears sincere. Renault shows signs of being a decent man at heart. Conrad Veidt portrays Major Heinrich Strasser with distinctive restraint as the chief Nazi villain and Victor Lazlo’s foil.

It’s clear why this has become the standard by which all romances are judged. Casablanca is a script of Swiss watch precision. It breezes by in a brief 102 minutes. Not a single moment is wasted, not a solitary misplaced word. It’s surprising that this drama set during World War II contains no battles, no extended fist fights, and no reliance on any physical action whatsoever. The one altercation that erupts in the bar is quickly ended by Rick. What we do have is one famous scene after another. Just try and not feel a tinge of French patriotism when the cafe patrons sing La Marseillaise drowning out the Nazi’s rendition of Die Wacht am Rhein.

What still fascinates is the depth of emotion that emanates merely from the written word. The script, which won the Academy Award, is amongst the greatest of all time. The writing is a treasure trove of classic lines that are some the most recognizable ever written. That climax at the airport is the perfect culmination of any plot ever committed to celluloid. It feels so right. Perhaps the freshness of the scene is somewhat lessened by the familiarity of the dialogue. But that’s merely a tribute to how enduring those phrases remain. Casablanca is an original that single handedly justifies the importance of the film medium.

War Horse

Posted in Drama, War with tags on December 26, 2011 by Mark Hobin

Deeply poignant war drama about a magnificent stallion named Joey and his experiences in the midst of World War I. Right from the opening scenes of the rolling hills of Devon, England where a mare gives birth to a young foal, we can feel the director laying the groundwork for an emotional journey. I think human beings have an innate desire to love horses anyway, so it’s not like we need to be convinced of that. However that doesn’t stop Spielberg from laying on the sentiment. His philosophy is to recall pictures of yesteryear with a mixture of stunning panoramas, a lush soundtrack and old fashioned heart. Spielberg pulls out all the stops and his command of cinematic exposition is incredibly effective.

This is stirring stuff and he expertly wrings emotion from both the environment as well as gorgeous music. Absolutely stunning cinematography emphasizes sprawling vistas of rural England and sequences across the battles of Europe to stirring effect. Polish cinematographer Janusz Kaminski has photographed all of Spielberg’s works since 1993 and he’s in fine form here. The landscapes are bold and saturated with color. Scenes are bathed in an ethereal warm glow and shot with an eye for nostalgia. And then there’s that score!  The sweeping orchestration is courtesy of none other than legend John Williams who contributes a suitably majestic soundtrack that perfectly complements the action onscreen.

War Horse is Spielberg’s first effort in tackling World War I as a subject. He skillfully presents British author Michael Morpurgo’s novel with all the discretion befitting a children’s novel. Spielberg has dealt with the subject of war before: Empire of the Sun, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan. War Horse is not as punishing in subject matter as those forays in the genre. Still he doesn’t pull back from the fact that this is picture about war. As the plot progresses we’re treated to little vignettes as Joey passes hands from an auction to his owner, who subsequently sells him to the British military only to accidentally fall into the hands of the Germans later. There Joey befriends a larger black horse and their friendship is as affecting as any human one. But Spielberg’s touches aren’t all saccharine. He presents the story’s more harsher passages in a masterful way that is powerful and yet never bloody. We’re introduced to tender human characters that we bond with only to have them executed before us. The actual killing covered by the blade of a windmill as it turns. In another serious scene, Joey’s untamed sprint across a war torn battlefield has painful consequences and the scene made me wince as much as anything I saw this year. Be warned, if you’re an animal lover, it will be hard to watch.

Spielberg’s War Horse is a grand saga in the classic Hollywood vein. His picturesque vision recall classics like The Yearling or Shane. Even Gone with the Wind is suggested in the closing silhouetted shots. At the center is a remarkable stallion that gives a heartrending performance. Everything essentially revolves around him as he changes various hands during World War I. It’s a rousing document and one has to actively resist Spielberg’s admittedly calculating style to hate this movie. War Horse is anecdotal in nature, a tale of perseverance from the point of view of a plucky animal. I pretty much ate most of it up, but I’ll admit the picture’s charms are rather blatant. There are instances where it verges on mawkishness. But I’ll forgive Spielberg for that. War Horse is a venerable epic from one of our greatest filmmakers working at his manipulative best.