Friday, October 30, 2009

Big Battle Movies

One of my favorite escapist film genres is what I call the big battle movie, a grand genre popular in the 60s and 70s that satisfies my passion for history and visual epics. The ingredients of the classic big battle movie include a star-studded cast, an emphasis on drama and a concern for visual historical accuracy over factual accuracy, a cast of thousands (as in living, breathing, human soldiers, not CGI-rendered combatants), and the requisite depiction of a big, historical battle.

Recently I was bemoaning the absence from my video collection of a DVD version of Waterloo (1970), one of my favorite big battle movies. Back in the 80s, I was delighted to discover it on VHS, but that version is unfortunately full screen and missing key footage.

Browsing through Amazon’s customer reviews, however, I learned that the Russian edition is playable on all DVD players and, fortunately, comes with an English language option. Not only that, one customer noted that it contains footage missing from the VHS edition. Needless to say, I bought it, and received my copy in its black slipcase, the Cyrillic title above a window revealing Rod Steiger as Napoleon. And, true to customer testimonials, the digital image proved to be dazzling.

From a visual point of view, Waterloo, directed by Sergei Bondarchuk, is my favorite big battle movie. This titanic recreation of the classic 1815 battle involving over 200,000 soldiers employs 17,000 members of the Russian Army, including Cossacks, and a regiment of Scottish Highlanders, to present a broad view of the battle that incorporates a number of extreme long shots that are simply stunning in their beauty and detail.

Christopher Plummer is worth watching as the Duke of Wellington, retorting glibly with the Duke’s famous witticisms. When asked what his battle plan is, he responds, “To beat the French.” “They’ll break every bone in my body," he says when it seems clear that his army can't win.

Meanwhile, Rod Steiger as Napoleon provides solid dramatic presence as the ambitious and egotistical “monster of Europe.” On the battlefield he shows consummate confidence. He never considers defeat a possibility, and when the Old Guard is repulsed and Napoleon’s officers are panicking, Steiger employs his signature emphatic delivery to give resonance to my favorite line: “At Marengo, I lost the battle at five o’clock, but I won it back at SEVEN!”

The rest of the cast is pleasantly functional, and the first half of the film is merely half-hearted build-up, but the battle is what the film is all about. One criticism I have is that it mostly provides a broad, sweeping view of the battle, and rarely a more intimate soldier's view of the combat. Another is that shots of approaching ranks of soldiers build tension but then lead to nothing. (I am aware that even this version of the film is still missing footage from the original release.) But the extreme long-shot widescreen views of the battle are undoubtedly stunning as they capture thousands of soldiers all at one time.

The film achieves grand imagery: an impressive pan across the entire battlefield; the obscuring smoke and bursting bombs (no CGI) of massed artillery; Hougoumont farm engulfed in bright yellow flames; the charge of the Scotts Greys imitating the classic military painting “Scotland Forever;” and the advance of the French Old Guard’s dense single column. But in the film’s most visually striking scene, the wide ranks of the French cuirassiers are followed in an aerial shot as they charge across the battlefield, crest the ridge, and collide with the implacable squares of British redcoats.

From a critical point of view, Zulu (1964), directed by Cy Enfield, is one of the best movies ever made about men in war. With a strong cast headed by Stanley Baker and a young Michael Caine in his first significant screen role, the film is mostly accurate, it incorporates wonderful writing with some nice character development that focuses on the grunt soldier’s point of view of the fight, it includes an impressive army of real Zulu warriors, and it features plenty of gripping, well-staged battle scenes.

Featuring functional performances by Peter O’Toole, Burt Lancaster, Denholm Elliot, and Simon Ward, as well as a more heartfelt performance by Bob Hoskins as a color sergeant, Zulu Dawn (1979), directed by Douglas Hickox, has a rather slow lead-in and the plot is slim, but the whole movie is merely an excuse for a depiction of the 1879 Zulu victory over the British army at the Battle of Isandhlwana that’s a whopping grand battle employing thousands of extras. As epic movie battles go, this one is one of the best staged battle depictions. The location is historically accurate and full-scale; the thousands of Zulu extras convincingly represent the Zulu army of 25,000; the battle movements are accurately depicted and easy to follow; and the view of the battle alternates between long shot sweep and closer, soldier’s eye views of the action.

The British have a talent for the big battle movie. They certainly have a varied military history that provides some colorful contrasts – those bright red uniforms juxtaposed with desert sands or African savanna. And the British present their history straight, with a minimum of macho bravado that detracts from realism. And although they might depict the virtue of incredible tenacity, they are not blind to the absurdity of war, an element that is caustically portrayed in Tony Richardson’s harshly visceral debunking of Victorian glory in his version of The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968).

Though not purely a big battle movie – you don’t get to the Battle of Balaclava until the end – Tony Richardson’s film is one of the best portrayals of life in Victorian times, and one of the most disturbing looks at British military stupidity and blind courage in the 1800s. Blending in a love affair between David Hemmings (playing the non-fictional Captain Nolan) and Vanessa Redgrave, the film presents the clashes between Lord Cardigan (Trevor Howard hamming it up effectively) and his officers, and shows the pathetic waste of British involvement in the Crimean War – as the alley-rats-of-London turned brightly-uniformed-cavalrymen fall to cholera before they can ever be mowed down in assaults that are the pig-headed blunders of pompous idiots.

The Alamo (1960) is very slow to get going, and the film evokes John Wayne’s vision of legendary American heroism more than it adheres to the facts, but the final battle scene is clearly staged and full of striking images, mounting suspense, and dramatic to-the-last-man fighting. The accompaniment of Dimitri Tiomkin’s superbly rousing score alone makes it a battle scene that remains dramatic after multiple viewings.

For sheer non-CGI scope of setting and battle scenes, 55 Days at Peking (1965), directed by Nicholas Ray, is a favorite of mine for its recreation of the foreign compound in Beijing, 1900, and for its interesting variety of battle scenes incorporating a veritable army of Chinese extras who employ some agile, stylistic acrobatic skills to tumble down ramps or plummet fearlessly off walls.

As expansive in sweep as Lawrence of Arabia, Khartoum, directed by Basil Deardon, is a favorite of mine for its desert battles and massive final assault of Khartoum, 1885, as well as for Charlton Heston’s skillful portrayal of the fervently Christian military leader, Charles Chinese Gordon, one of my favorite figures in history. Heston and Laurence Olivier, as the Mahdi, utter some memorable lines as they bicker over whose God will be remembered more.

As for World War II big battle movies, two of the best are The Longest Day (1962), directed by Ken Annakin and Andrew Marton, and Richard Attenborough’s A Bridge Too Far (1977), both of them wisely based on Cornelius Ryan’s non-fiction classics that incorporate personal, close-to-the-action accounts by men who landed on the beaches of Normandy or engaged in the disastrous blunder of the Market-Garden campaign.

Both are quintessential big battle movies. The battle is the story, the episodes are historically accurate, and the film clearly shows the grim futility of war – the latter much more so than the former. A Bridge Too Far is also notable for the realism of its violence; the visual artistry of a massive paratrooper drop; the visual variety of its battle scenes; its memorable depiction of the fierce battle for Arnhem Bridge; and the touching portrayals by both Sean Connery and Anthony Hopkins, performances that are not lost in a very lengthy star-studded cast.

Though awkward and disjointed at times, Is Paris Burning? (1966), directed by Rene Clement, (screenplay by Gore Vidal and Francis Ford Coppola), is praiseworthy for its artistic black-and-white shots of intense street fighting; its use of Paris locations for its depiction of the liberation of that city; and its beautiful Maurice Jarre score.

Finally, Battle of Britain (1969), directed by Guy Hamilton, is a treat for aviation enthusiasts and history buffs as it employs hundreds of vintage World War II planes and authentic English locations to tell one of the most amazing underdog victories in British history. As you enjoy thrilling dogfights between Spitfires and Luftwaffe planes, you get strong performances by Christopher Plummer, Susannah York, and Robert Shaw, as well as brief appearances by Laurence Olivier, Trevor Howard, Edward Fox, Michael Caine, and Kenneth Moore.

The general dearth of big battle movies nowadays keeps me browsing the Internet for DVD releases of the classics. 55 Days at Peking sorely needs a digitally re-mastered DVD edition playable on American machines, and my dream is for a fully restored Waterloo.

In the past twenty years, the best that more or less fill the criteria of the big battle movie have been Black Hawk Down (2002) and The Alamo (2004). Though not purely a big battle movie, Glory (1989) stages the Battle of Fort Wagner with gripping, visually striking style, as the blue coats of the Massachusetts 54th “Colored” Regiment appear in bright contrast against the white sands of South Carolina. Ted Turner’s Civil War epics Gettysburg (1993) and God and Generals have depicted famous battles vastly but blandly, while Pearl Harbor (2001) stages a dramatic depiction of the famous attack that is lost in a bloated story.

Meanwhile, I applaud any director who takes on the risk of staging an historical epic, especially one with a big battle. Although historical epics are a risky venture, state of the art CGI technology has the capacity to depict any battle in the whole history of human folly without employing extras.

In a remarkable closing image in Waterloo, we see Wellington after the battle is over, riding exhaustedly amidst windrows of dead bodies. When he stops to survey the carnage, Plummer as Wellington intones the famous line “Next to a battle lost, the saddest thing is a battle won.” Yes, it’s undoubtedly sad either way. Nevertheless, the number of books and films that depict battles suggests that we can’t resist a fascination for this tragically destructive side of the human condition.

(A note about the video montage: The first clip from Zulu Dawn includes the excerpt from Elmer Bernstein’s score used in Inglourious Basterds when Marcel approaches the pile of film reels and gets ready to set it on fire. Also, for better results, allow the video to buffer before playing.)

Sunday, October 25, 2009

A Few Thoughts on Amelia

Come Oscar night, I doubt that Hilary Swank will be winning her third award for Best Actress. If she gets nominated, I’ll eat my hat. It’s not that her performance is bad. It’s just that her performance is not enough of anything, much like the film she stars in, Amelia, directed by Mira Nair.

First of all, bad title. Sounds like a Disney Channel movie. Second, the supporting performances by Richard Gere as George Putnam and Ewan McGregor as Gene Vidal are serviceable, but the actors don’t get much to do. George begs Amelia not to fly around the world. Gene and Amelia have an affair that does little else but make George gloomy and tight-mouthed for a couple of scenes.

Thus, in a film with so little story and conflict, it’s amazingly irritating for us to hear Amelia and Gene repeatedly calling his son’s first name, “Gore… Gore… Gore,” just so we have time to register that this boy, whose presence in the story is totally unnecessary, will grow up to be the famous writer.

Nevertheless, I found this little film rather pleasant. The flying scenes are stunning, especially when the film taps its inner Out of Africa to fly over giraffes and jungles. These scenes carry you away; there’s something very pure and beautiful about a propeller-driven plane. But for a film about a woman’s passion for flying, we don’t get to spend enough time off the ground.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Where Your Feelings Are Hurt: Where the Wild Things Are

When I was growing up, my family never had a lot of children’s books lying around – for whatever reason. Nevertheless, I clearly remember my father telling me bedtime stories. He told a great story full of adventure about an English rabbit named Tom Tippet who sails away from home on the back of a whale to a desert island where Tom eventually gets tired of eating bananas and pines for home and carrots.

My wife and I, however, read countless children’s books to our daughter and son – some titles countless times – and we accumulated massive collections stuffed into multiple bookshelves, but not one of those books was Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. It’s just not a book that had touched our childhoods, and it was never a book our children demanded.

Thus – and this is the truth, however hard to believe it is – when I went to see the popularly anticipated film adaptation directed by Spike Jonze last night, I had never read the award-winning children’s bestseller by Sendak.

The movie starts out with the delightful, Puck-faced Max Records as Max, a boy who suffers a number of frustrations that lead to his wild rampage. He’s playing alone; his single mother obviously works late. His older sister, abandoning Max as she transitions into adolescence, ignores him too, and her friends wreck Max’s igloo. His mother – played by Catherine Keener who has totally perfected the role of the loving but sort of neglectful single mother who must have been a hippie in her younger days – has a boy friend (Mark Ruffalo) over for dinner that night.

Now Max is so starving for attention he bites his mother, races down the street, finds a sailboat and a sea in the middle of the city, and crosses the tumbling waves to the land of the Wild Things – which turns out to be a world that’s kind of like a Sesame Street episode taken over by the members of a hippie commune who talk like college students sitting in a café discussing the ills of the world. There’s less adventure than morose expressions of hurt feelings. There’s less whimsical fun than preachy lessons about friendship, acceptance, and not hurting people’s feelings. The film’s tone is as bland and moralistic as an episode of Davey and Goliath.

I have to say I was really glad when Max jumped into his sailboat – the seascapes are breathtaking – and got away from those downer Wild Things.

After leaving the theater, I went over to Barnes and Noble and read the book for the first time.

The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another his mother called him “WILD THING!"

Punished, Max watches in amazement as his room turns into a jungle and he embarks on a journey that is more whimsical adventure – albeit a subtly symbolic one – than brooding moralistic lesson about friendship and acceptance.

There’s nothing wrong with the film’s message. In fact, I praise the film for providing sound lessons that most likely will reach children of all ages – a film that is the antithesis of those loud, vapid, ludicrous kids’ films with talking dogs and cats whose humor includes mention of poop, smelling butts, and hairballs. I don’t mind a moral. I just could have done with more whimsy and adventure in a story that promises to go where the wild things are.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Paranormal Activity

You remember The Blair Witch Project hype back in 1999 (ooh – tenth anniversary!). The fake but rather captivating web site: “In October of 1994 three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods," and so on. The creepy symbols made out of wood. Then the movie with that shaky handheld video camera that becomes our point of view for the entire film – kind of irritating, but it gets quite scary. The eyes, forehead, and ski cap of Heather Donahue, saying, “I am so scared.” I didn’t feel the same way about the dark woods behind our house for quite a while.

Now comes Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity - right when you’re thinking that the last thing you want is another shaky handheld video camera horror movie. Thus, the hype: “What happens when you sleep?” proclaims the slug line; exclusive viewings in select cities; a web site where you are told, “First-ever major film release decided by you. Demand it. Hit 1,000,000 demands and it will open nationwide.” Critics rave. I'm intrigued, the film comes to Boston-area cinemas, and I drive off Cape to see it.

In Paranormal Activity Katie (Katie Featherston) has been haunted by a demon all her life, so her boyfriend, Micah (Micah Sloat), suggests setting up a time-lapse video camera to see what happens while they’re sleeping.

The film plays on that sense of vulnerability we feel when we’re lying in our bed at night, and on those fears we may have had in childhood when the sounds we heard suggested a demon stomping up the stairway or opening the creaking door, and we might have feared a monster in the closet or under our bed.

The film’s tension builds very gradually, perhaps too gradually, with a little too much girlfriend-boyfriend affection and friction between the tense and distraught Katie and the rather obnoxious Micah who seems to be aggravating the situation by setting up his camera and getting a ouija board, against Katie's wishes. They do what couples do, they eat Chinese food, and Micah keeps fooling around with the camera. "Turn that thing off," says Katie but, of course, Micah never does.

Fortunately, we are spared that shaky-camera-induced nausea that afflicted many viewers of Cloverfield, since Micah sets up the camera on a tripod at night - and night (usually around 3:15 a.m., for some reason) is when strange things happen. And that is when the film is at its best, haunting you with the possibilities of what lurks outside the bedroom door in the darkness at the end of the landing or what might ascend the stairway from the blackness below.

Then things get uncomfortable: a thump in the night, a door opening by itself, footsteps on the staircase, a psychic (Mark Fredrichs) who senses a demonic presence. (The psychic, firmly confident in his belief in the presence, lends strength to the film's tension; unfortunately, his appearances are brief.) And then…

Don’t worry. I’m not going to tell you what happens. NO SPOILERS HERE. But is Paranormal Activity as scary as critics say it is? I suspect that depends on the viewer. Was I scared? I found it to be a scary concept: a demon following Katie over a period of many years; and it's not the house; it doesn't matter where she is. It follows her. What does it want? A nifty allusion to the demonic possession case that inspired The Exorcist, shown in an article that includes some fleeting but creepy images, illustrates exactly what the demon wants: Katie. And as Katie seems to be losing the will to resist the demon, we know something bad will happen - just like we knew it would in those dark Maryland woods.

CAUTION: Comments may contain SPOILERS.

Monday, October 5, 2009

What They're Saying About Zombieland

IF your faithful movie blogger Hokahey went man-on-the-street on Main Street in Hyannis and IF he interviewed people about Zombieland, the new movie directed by Ruben Fleischer, here are some comments he'd like to hear.

“This is the best zombie comedy ever made.”

“Woody Harrelson, as avid zombie-slayer Tallahassee, deserves a nomination for Best Actor. Whatever he says is hilarious. And with the Oscars pumping up the number of Best Picture nominees to ten, Zombieland has a good shot at being nominated for best picture.”

“Emma Stone is hot as Wichita, the savvy female survivalist who can watch out for herself. I mean, she’s just as sexy as Megan Fox but she can act.”

“I loved all the cahs they get to drive.”

“Jesse Eisenberg plays Columbus, an obsessive compulsive, paranoid young guy who hangs onto his early 20s hang-ups even while he shoots a wicked double-barrel shotgun and survives by means of a hilarious list of survival do's and don't's illustrated by clever depictions of what happens when someone doesn't follow a guideline.”

"Jesse Eisenberg is wicked cute."

“The opening montage of slow motion shots showing various zombie attacks creates a frightening tone and really makes you feel that zombies have taken over the whole country.”

“I loved all the shooting - and I like how it's a guiltless pleasure watching it. I mean, for Chrissake, they're frickin' zombies! Who cares about them?"

“What’s with all end-of-the-world movies this year? Knowing, Zombieland - and The Road and 2012 coming up? Are things that bad? Whatever, this addition to the genre actually cheers you up! It’s the feel-good movie of the year! No, I’m not kidding. I mean, everybody except these four people is a zombie or a zombie “Happy Meal,” but you feel good cuz it’s such a no-nonsesne well-made little movie and you really get to like the four friends who stick together no matter what.”

“I didn’t know Abigail Breslin has such range. She usually just plays those Little Miss Sunshine type roles, but she can shoot a gun, too! It's great to see her branching out.”

"Like, I loved it when Abigail Breslin is trying to explain Hannah Montana to Tallahassee, and loved it when she doesn't know who Gandhi was. Uh, like, who was Gandhi?"

“The Pacific Playland sequence is side-splitting and suspenseful at the same time! One of the best action sequences filmed this year!”

“I loved the scene when they blow off steam by smashing everything in an Indian trading post gift shop called the Kemo Sabe. I’m a Mashpee Indian and I find those tourist gift shops to be tacky and demeaning to Native American culture. Great slo-mo photography.”

“If you don’t like this movie, you must be a frickin’ Yankees fan!”

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Not-So-Brave, Not-So-New World: Surrogates

The amazingly brilliant and frightening aspect of Surrogates, the cheesy, derivative, blandly performed sci-fi movie starring Bruce Willis, is that if the surrogate technology depicted in the film were available today, many Americans would definitely buy it and use it. Just think how many people would rather stay at home and send a handsomer or more beautiful, sexier, more athletic surrogate body out to do the errands, go to work, and pick up dates! With half-hearted CGI, boring action sequences, and a skimpy, unimaginative plot, Surrogates is another one of the year’s flops, but its basic premise got me thinking about all the ramifications of life in a world with this sort of technology – even though this shallow film leaves most of these ramifications unexplored. (The best science fiction stories create a detailed new world whose workings are clearly fleshed out.)

(Here there be spoilers.)

Some fascinating thoughts:

Peters, the female detective partner of Tom Greer (Bruce Willis), has selected the beautiful Radha Mitchell as her surrogate body. Meanwhile, the real Peters is a withered, gray, crippled woman. This led to all sorts of thoughts about how people would definitely use the surrogate technology to escape reality, but many would use it to overcome barriers that prevent people who are unattractive or obese or agoraphobic from succeeding at many sorts of jobs or being accepted socially.

Of course, the down side is that the technology would allow people to be lazy slobs, and enable them if they are obese or reclusive. The sad thing is that there are so many people who want the easy fix. The surrogate technology is definitely the easy way out, and the scary thing is people would love it.

Of course, the greatest benefit of this new technology would be for the physically handicapped. A quadriplegic could walk, run, dance, climb mountains, whatever he or she wanted to do. Someone born with genetic defects could inhabit a normal body.

As it turns out, the sleazy woman that Canter’s son picks up at the night club turns out to be the surrogate body of a man. This is an interesting element. This technology would make gender crossovers a cinch - for the rest of one's life or for short periods of time. Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be the opposite sex - not forever, just for the experience? Well, surrogate technology gives you that chance.

The surrogate technology would be like living in a video game. Just look at all the people who already live in video games. So, you could experience the thrills of climbing El Capitan without the risk. If you fall, you buy another surrogate body. (Surrogate body shops would do a booming business in Yosemite Valley.) In the same way I enjoy a ride at Disneyland, I might be tempted to try this form of alternate reality. I’m not a gamer, so I wouldn’t do it that often. But look at all the people already addicted to the sham worlds of video games. The route to Mount Everest would be hopelessly crowded with surrogate climbers.

The military is already using remote-control scouts that go into buildings before the real soldiers do. Here in this film, we see soldiers training with surrogate bodies and a huge auditorium of soldiers in control chairs running their surrogate soldier selves on a “peace keeping” mission. This premise is explored in Joe Haldeman’s novels The Forever War and Forever Peace. As described on the jacket cover, wars are “fought by ‘soldierboys’ – remote control war machines run by soldiers hundreds of miles away.” Of course, the enemy would have this technology too and, as explored in the film, a device (it looks like one of those hand-held computers the UPS guy uses) that could zap the user along with the surrogate would be a much sought after invention.

A final thought – and this is reflected in the film’s best scene – as more and more people use surrogates, you’re going to feel really weird if you go to work without a surrogate – I mean, really go to work. It would be a creepy experience. As Greer is walking down the street, he starts freaking out when he sees that all the lifelike surrogates around him are lifeless automatons. Like, what if you had to spend the whole day with the animatronic characters from Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride?

Just creepy –

Jet-set surrogate users have parties in which their surrogates zap each other with a device that looks like a transparent penis with a vagina in it. This, apparently, causes a highly addictive, orgasmic sensation. Creepy but hilarious! Remember the orb of pleasure in Sleeper?

Problematic –

There are all sorts of plot loopholes in this film, but the biggest stretch of your imagination you are expected to endure is its climax. After the most ridiculous scene ever filmed involving a lethal computer virus aborted in the nick of time, Greer shuts off all the surrogates in the country (actually, in the world, but let’s just focus on the U.S.). All the surrogates fall down. We see a few car crashes. Later, we learn there are no human fatalities. This is preposterous! The amount of traffic accidents all across the country would be apocalyptic! And what about busses, trains, and airplanes? You mean, nothing crashes into a house where a user is lying in his chair?

And then, I thought, how sad. What about all the handicapped people who were using surrogates? Well, maybe new regulations allow surrogates to be used in special cases. With a sketchy movie like this that does little to develop some very interesting elements of its world, you can imagine whatever you want!

A related story:

On June 21, 2008, my wife was strolling through downtown Boston. (She remembers the exact date because she had taken our son and his friend there for Go Skateboarding Day.) Turning onto a side street, she saw what she thought was the aftermath of an accident: cars piled up and people lying around on the sidewalk. Then she looked up and saw the cameras and film crew. Guess what film they were shooting?