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War

Darkest Hour

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Darkest Hour

Darkest Hour is the movie that most fits the bill in 2017 for the title of Important Film; it’s tailor made for awards season, in particular for that most coveted prize, Oscar Best Picture nominee. It satisfies many of the requirements that we often think of when we think about an Important Film. Is the movie about a major historical event or a biopic of an important historical figure? Check. Does the movie feature a powerhouse performance by an actor who undergoes a complete physical transformation for the role? Check. Is the movie a crowd-pleaser, ending on a rousing note that sends the viewer out on an emotional high? Check. Darkest Hour is, to its detriment, a box-checker of a movie.  It’s so focused on these elements that it never does much else to set itself apart.

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Dunkirk

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Dunkirk

“More than 900 little ships came from Britain [to Dunkirk], evacuated the British and French forces and ferried them across the Channel to safety. They were able to rescue thousands of troops over the course of several days. This is often reported as an example of wartime British bravery and comradeship. 

What is rarely talked about is the fact that many troops in the French Army were from Africa, and the little ships refused to take the Black soldiers. They left them on the beaches for the Germans to capture, and many ended up in Auschwitz. Senegalese director Sembene Ousmane mentions this in his film Camp Thioroye, which is based on the true story of a massacre of African soldiers by the French Army during the war.” - From the website ancestralenergies.blogspot.com

The inconvenient facts described above lay the groundwork for the most damning criticism of Christopher Nolan’s otherwise thrilling new film Dunkirk. How much more complex and challenging of an experience could Nolan have presented by simply making a noticeable percentage of the troops desperately trying to get aboard the rescue ships ones of color? Soldiers from India, Senegal, and Morocco (to name but a few) fought in the war to end fascism as part of the British and French empires.

Instead, Nolan and his casting team made the film a 99.9% white affair. That’s not cause enough to junk the picture. On the contrary, there is a lot to praise (which I’ll get to soon) about Dunkirk.

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War for the Planet of the Apes

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War for the Planet of the Apes

War for the Planet of the Apes chronicles more than the struggle for species supremacy. This is the latest film in Fox’s popular franchise depicting a world where apes evolved from men. It gives us an internal war, one which rages within our hero, the ape Caesar. In War, we see a very personal loss, plus the ravages of constant battle, take its toll on the weary leader who was willing to go to great lengths for peace. The brutality that he and his kind face sparks a descent into rage and a thirst for vengeance in Caesar that is both uncharacteristic, yet completely understandable. This film is the culmination of a meticulously crafted character arc; it’s at once mournful and dark, but rich and satisfying. One near fatal tonal misstep aside, every aspect of filmmaking comes together in War to conclude the tragedy of Caesar in grand style.

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Hacksaw Ridge

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Hacksaw Ridge

If all you knew about Hacksaw Ridge was the title, you might think it was a horror movie. That’s what I initially thought before I saw a trailer or even a poster. Hacksaw Ridge sounds like the newest Eli Roth torture-porn entry, or maybe the title of a Rob Zombie film. While it’s not a horror movie per se, director Mel Gibson’s World War II drama does share some of the genre’s iconography. It’s a function of Gibson’s preoccupations with physical suffering. There are plenty more of Gibson’s fixations present here: his hero is a Christ figure, the moral of the story involves being true to your convictions at any and all costs. Hacksaw Ridge is also a deeply flawed film, but one that manages to overcome those flaws through compelling action and a moving conclusion.

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Eye in the Sky

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Eye in the Sky

There is a moral ambiguity to Eye in the Sky that acts wonderfully as a test for each person watching it. Depending on your feelings about the importance of maintaining a moral high ground relative to your enemy, it’s possible to have a very different experience with the film than the person sitting right next to you. Even if you agree with that person on how the so-called “war on terror” is prosecuted, it’s easy to read the message the movie is sending in a wildly different way. That is Eye in the Sky’s most powerful strength. It deftly presents opposing sides to the ongoing debate of the best way to stop terrorists, then forces you to think critically about the issue and pick a side. Dramatically speaking, the film is also an incredibly taut thriller; it’s expertly paced for maximum tension. The picture achieves this by taking the overused “ticking time bomb scenario” and adding an element that complicates what is usually presented as an easy call by films and television shows of this nature.

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Did Whiskey Tango Foxtrot make me Lima Oscar Lima? November Oscar.

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Did Whiskey Tango Foxtrot make me Lima Oscar Lima? November Oscar.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a dramedy that isn’t funny enough to make it memorable as a comedy, and it isn’t moving enough to make it memorable as a drama. It’s muddled, not really sure what it wants to be. The movie suffers immensely from this lack of commitment. It also actively refuses to take any meaningful stance on the issues central to its plot – journalists covering the American invasion of Afghanistan – leaving the picture like a news story that fails to inform or entertain.

The story revolves around real life American journalist Kim Baker and her adventures while covering the war in Afghanistan. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (the military phonetic alphabet translation of the letters WTF, so the title is a joke on the popular shortened version of the expression “What the fuck?”) is based on Baker’s memoir, The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Shepherded through the book-to-screen process by star Tina Fey’s production company Little Stranger, the movie transforms its war-torn backdrop into a self-discovery tale with a splash of romantic comedy. It’s an unlikely setting for such a story, one the filmmakers would have been wise to avoid.

There is a scene in the middle of WTF when an Afghan woman asks Baker what made her decide to travel half way around the world to cover the war. Fey, as Baker, sums up her need to escape her life using the exercise bike at her gym to illustrate her point. Baker tells the woman that one day she noticed an indentation in the carpet just in front of her regular stationery bike. She realized it was where the bike used to sit before a gym employee moved it for one reason or another. In that moment, Baker says, she understood she had spent countless hours on that bike, only to move backward three feet. “Wow,” her interlocutor observes, “that’s the most American white lady story I’ve ever heard.”

It’s a funny moment to be sure, and it’s a sly attempt at winking at the audience. We know exactly what kind of story we’re telling, the movie says, and our effort at being up front about it will hopefully earn us some points with you, the audience. It doesn’t, though, because despite this self-awareness by the filmmakers, the rest of the movie is as predictable as you would expect. WTF is Eat, Pray, Love goes to war, and that’s just as disappointing of an exercise as you might expect.

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