Friday, April 27, 2018

SHOULD I READ IT? Pretty Village, Pretty Flame (1996)

                “Pretty Village, Pretty Flame” is a Serbian film about the Bosnian War.  It was directed by Srdan Dragojevic.  It was very popular in Serbia. It is based on a true story and attempts to explain why groups of Serbians turned against each other.

                The movie opens with the dedication of a tunnel connecting Bosnia with Herzegovina.  The ribbon cutter slices himself and bleeds profusely.  Rather crude foreshadowing, no?  Nine years later, two best friends stand in front of the abandoned tunnel entrance, but refuse to go inside because they are afraid an ogre is inside.  A metaphorical ogre, yes. Milan is a Bosnian Serb and Halil is a Bosniak Muslim. Would you believe they end up on opposite sides of the conflict?

                The plot is nonlinear, but is structured around Milan and some comrades being trapped in a tunnel under assault from Bosniak Muslims that include Halil.  The movie flashes back to life in Yugoslavia before the conflict and forward to Milan in a hospital.  The tunnel scenes are basically of the frontier fort under Indian attack variety.  Milan’s comrades are a heterogeneous lot.  They include a criminal, a druggie, a teacher, a family man, and a female reporter.  Apparently, Serbian filmmakers are aware of small unit tropes.  Naturally, this dysfunctional group gets picked off one by one.

                “Pretty Village, Pretty Flame” is an interesting little movie.  It effectively depicts the insanity of a civil war.  Neighbors turn against each other.  Best friends can end fighting each other.  War is hell and civil war is especially hellacious.  The movie is well acted and the dialogue is realistic for soldiers in their situation.  The nonlinear structure works fairly well.  There is some character development through the flashbacks.  What keeps the movie from being better are the unreal tactics.  Much of the incidents in the tunnel defy reason.  For example, the trapped group do not flee deeper into the tunnel and the attackers do not attack after dark or use the RPGs that they clearly have.  But hey, what fun would it be if the defenders were wiped out quickly?
                Should you read it?  Don’t put it high on your TBW list, but get around to it someday.

GRADE  =  B-

Tuesday, April 17, 2018


1.  What movie is the picture from?

2.  What movie is this quote from?

Private: "Why us?"  Color Sergeant: "Because were 'ere, lad, because were 'ere".

3.  What movie is this?

It was released to coincide with Operation Torch. It is based on an unproduced play entitled “Everybody Comes to Rick’s”. Shockingly, several writers adapted it, which flies in the face of multi- writers signaling problems. Many of the extras were Jewish refugees. It was filmed at the studio. The Production Code Administration had all direct references to sex removed from the script. (Note to current television writers, it is possible to be sexy without beating the audience over the head.) It won three Oscars (Picture, Director, Screenplay) and was nominated for Actor, Supporting Actor, Cinematography (how did it lose that one?), Editing, and Music.  There was only half-hearted talk of a sequel.  Times change.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

CRACKER? The Pianist (2002)

       How many Holocaust movies are there?  Always at least one more.  Thank goodness most of them are above average.  “The Pianist” is considered to be one of the best.  It was nominated for Best Picture and won for Best Director, Adapted Screenplay, and Actor.  It won the BAFTA for Best Picture.  It was awarded the Palme D’Or at Cannes.  “The Pianist” was directed by Roman Polanski.  He put some of his own experiences into the autobiography by Wladyslaw Szpilman.  When he was a boy Polanski was in the Krakow Ghetto.  He barely escaped being sent to a concentration camp.  His mother died in Auschwitz and his father was taken to Mauthansen.  He escaped the liquidation of the ghetto and was sheltered by Polish Catholic families until he was forced to roam the countryside until the war ended.  After the war, he was reunited with his father.  Obviously the movie meant a lot to him.  He had the ghetto faithfully recreated on a backlot in Germany.   He auditioned 1,400 actors with no satisfaction.  Polanski decided to ask Adrian Brody to take the role.  Brody was all in.  He lost 31 pounds and gave up his apartment and car to get into character.  He also stopped watching TV.  Method acting.  The movie cost $35 million and made $120 million.

                The movie opens in Warsaw in 1939.  Szpilman (Brody) is playing piano for a radio station while artillery fire hits the building.  His family is optimistic because Great Britain and France have declared war.  They celebrate and decide to stay!  No this is not a comedy.  Queue German soldiers marching through the streets.  Star of David badges.  Bow to officers.  Walk in the gutter.  All preparatory to movement to the ghetto.  His family and others are walled in.  Wladyslaw plays piano in an upper class restaurant.  This is well below his talent, but it is surviving.  Things will get worse, of course.  In 1942 his family has a date with cattle cars, but a loathsome collaborator decides to pull Wladslaw out of line and assign him to a slave labor battalion.  He joins the resistance, but is living in a nice flat provided by some Polish friends when the uprising starts.  He is merely a spectator at the repression.  Eventually he is on the run.  He makes the acquaintance of a humane Nazi.  Capt. Hosenfeld saves Wladslaw’s life.

                I have seen a lot of Holocaust movies for this blog.  I am not particularly a fan of the subgenre, but some of the best war movies deal with the Holocaust.  My 100 Best War Movies will include several.  “The Pianist” will not be one of them.  I know I will probably catch Hell for this analysis, but I think “The Pianist” is very overrated as entertainment.  It is good as a reenactment of Szpilman’s war experience and the story is a significant one.  He was a famous pianist, he survived the liquidation of the Krakow Ghetto, and he had the remarkable relationship with a Nazi soldier.  The memoir was ripe for movie treatment.  Polanski handles the material deftly.  Brody is fine in the lead, but he certainly did not deserve the Best Actor Oscar.   It should have gone to Daniel Day-Lewis for “Gangs of New York”.   The problem is the script is not special.  I know I complain a lot about lack of historical accuracy, but some of the best war movies take reasonable liberties with the truth to make the movie stand out.  I am not suggesting that Polanski should have “enhanced” the story.  I like the idea that there was admirable fidelity to the truth.  I am saying that the script did not engage me.  There is little suspense, partly due to the fact that you know he will survive.  The movie has a habit of taking you to the edge and then fizzling.  For instance, Wladslaw is part of the resistance until the uprising.  Then he (and we) are merely bystanders.  There is little action in the movie other than Wladslaw bouncing around with a few close calls that are less than pants-pissing for the audience. There is a redundancy to his movements.  If I had not known it was nonfiction, I would have found it boring as opposed to questioning its realism.  The interplay between Szpilman and Hosenfeld is too hokey for fiction.  The movie avoids your stereotypical Nazi villains, but substitutes a suave, cultural Nazi savior.  As far as it being a Holocaust film, it is quite micro.  There is very little of the big picture.  It is sprinkled with horrors, but they are not sustained.  You won’t learn much about the Holocaust from this film.

                If you want to see a good movie about Wladslaw Szpilman, watch “The Pianist”.  But if you want to see an outstanding movie about the Holocaust, there are several better choices.  “Schindler’s List” may not equal it in historical accuracy, but it blends truth with fiction in a much more entertaining way.

GRADE  =  B-

Saturday, April 7, 2018

SHOULD I READ IT? White Tiger (2012)

                “White Tiger” is a Russian movie that was the nation’s selection for the 85th Academy Awards. It did not make the cut.  It was produced, directed, and co-written by Karen Shakhnazarov (a male, by the way).  The source material was a novella by Ilya Boyashov.  The movie is set during the Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany. 

                It is the summer of 1943 and a nearly dead tank driver is pulled out of a destroyed tank and taken to the hospital with 90% burns.  He makes an amazing recovery, but he has amnesia.  He is given the name Naydanev which means “found”.  He finds that he has the ability to speak to tanks.  He is the “tank whisperer”.  His goal (obsession) is to get even with a mystical German tank called the “White Tiger”.  He thinks this demon destroyed his tank, and a crap load of others.  Naydenev is supposedly given a super tank but to tell the truth it doesn’t look any different than a regular T-34.  He sets up an ambush, but the White Tiger escapes into a swamp.   Later, after it singlehandedly decimates a Soviet tank assault, it escapes into a fog.  Mother Nature seems to be a Nazi.  Eventually Naydenev gets his duel and a village takes the brunt of it.  The movie ends with Adolf Hitler ranting about war being the natural human state.

                The Russians have made some good war movies.  “9th Company” and “The Fortress of War” come to mind.  Unfortunately, “White Tiger” is not one of the better ones.  It starts with an intriguing premise.  But instead of going down the surer route of steering toward horror territory, it decides to get all metaphorical on us.  As best I can figure, the White Tiger represents war and Naydanev is the desire to end it.  I could be wrong and the screenwriters could have just been hacks.  I do know that by the end of the film, it is easier to make a case for Naydanev being bat s*** crazy than believe that he is some avenging angel.  The whole movie is perplexing.  I don't think intentionally.  It might have worked as a camp fest, but Shakhnazarov appears to have taken the material seriously.  For that reason, the combat is not over the top.  The White Tiger is pretty awesome, but not even close to invulnerable.  In fact, it does a lot of running away in the movie.  I can only imagine what the South Korean film industry could have done with the premise.  There is nothing about the movie that takes your mind off the script flaws.  Vertkov is not the Russian Brad Pitt.  The real star is the White Tiger.  We don’t get to see its interior, but Naydanev’s tank’s interior is appropriately gritty and cramped.  There is some POV from the interior and overall the cinematography is fine.  It could have been a much better movie.  Pity.  What a waste of a great title.


Monday, April 2, 2018

CRACKER? Alatriste (2006)

                I finally got to see one of my great white whales.  “Alatriste” (also known as “Alatriste:  The Spanish Musketeer”) is a Spanish film based on the literary character Captain Diego Alatriste.  He is the main character in an ongoing series of novels by Arturo Perez-Reverte.  the author began the series after being appalled that his daughter’s history textbook had very little about Spain during its Golden Age of the 16th and 17th Century.  That is surprising since that period was the last time Spain was a consequential power.  I would have thought those centuries would have gotten a lot of coverage and the textbook would have ended with them.  Perez-Reverte decided not to go with the other obvious choice – a conquistador.  Instead, Alatriste is a musketeer fighting in the Dutch War of Independence (or the Eighty Years’ War, as the movie calls it).  The movie was directed by Agustin Diaz Yanes.  Yanes and Perez-Reverte co-wrote the screenplay and they must have been told there would be no sequel because they included incidents from the first five novels in the series and foreshadowed events from future novels.  The movie was the second most expensive movie in Spanish cinema history.  It underperformed at the box office.

                “Alatriste” is set in the 17th Century.  Spain is powerful.  King Philip IV rules a large empire that is supposed to include the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg.  The Dutch have been in revolt since 1568.  Diego Alatriste is a Spanish soldier fighting in Flanders in 1622.  He and his men are wading in a river with their muskets over their heads.  Diego blows on his match occasionally to keep it glowing.  They are conducting a camisado which is a tactic involving a night attack on a hopefully sleepy enemy position.  In this case, they are attacking a fort to spike the cannons.  The ensuing melee is intense with stabbings and musket fire.  It’s a great opening.  Very atmospheric.  Who are these guys?  What are they fighting about?  It turns out that Diego is a mercenary/assassin/soldier.  And an adventurer and ladies’ man.  And he wears the coolest hat in war movie history.

                “Alatriste” follows several arcs.  Diego is a father-figure for young Inigo.  Their relationship evolves into that of comrades-in-arms.  Diego has a romantic relationship with an actress named Maria.  It’s a roller coaster ride.  Inigo has his own romance with a femme fatale named Angelica.  And there is something going on between Diego and a man in black.  Malatesta is a Sicilian hit man (like every other Sicilian male in cinema).  He and Diego remind of Tuco and Blondie in “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”.   Another arc gets Diego entangled in political machinations.  The Inquisition makes an appearance.  Diego and Malatesta are sent to assassinate the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Buckingham.  Diego is sometimes a pawn, but he’s a dashing hero.  Actually, he’s an anti-hero, but with a conscience.

                The movie is episodic.  As the arcs play out, we get set pieces like the siege of Breda and the Battle of Rocroi.  There is also an intense scene involving robbing gold from a ship.  The action is graphic.  The movie has more stabbing than a slasher film.   Breda and Rocroi are rare movie coverage of the Thirty Years’ War.  At Breda, Diego endures the rain and mud in the trenches (they had them back then!).  And snipers!  He and his men are sent into a tunnel that reminds of “The Great Escape” without the rollers.  You don’t see medieval-style mining much.  The movie finishes strong with Rocroi.  We get to see the Spanish tercio (similar to a Greek phalanx) in action.  Pikemen and musketeers, plus a dose of cavalry.  Diego and Inigo use swords, of course. 

                “Alatriste” is an epic.  It even has the Hans Zimmer type music.  The sets are grand and two scenes are staged to resemble Velasquez paintings.  Nice touch!  Velasquez is mentioned in the movie.  And one of the characters is the poet Francisco de Quevedo.  This cat deserves a biopic of his own.   Look him up.  Alatriste deserved his, too.  And Viggo Mortensen was perfectly cast as him.  He is outstanding as the war and political weary protagonist.  The rest of the cast is average and the facial hair will make you wish they had hired the make-up artist from “Gettysburg”.  In fact, a little more facial hair variety might have helped in identifying the characters.  The ones that I could identify by face were well-developed.  Malatesta, for instance, is intriguing.  It was hard to tell whether I was supposed to hiss every time he hit the screen.  The two lead females are not prim.
                “Alatriste” is slow moving at times and the action scenes are high quality, but low quantity.  The movie tries to cover too much ground.  At one point it jumps ten years.  Overall, Diego goes from a swashbuckling lothario to a grizzled geezer.  His hat wears better than he does.  You’d age too if you had to deal with the Inquisition and regular Spanish politics.  Those politics involve dueling, naturally.  The sword play is realistic, not showy.  Hell, Diego even loses one.  The wounds and deaths are appropriately gritty.  The two battle scenes give the history fan a taste of what 17th Century warfare must have been like.  Where else are you going to see a rendition of the Battle of Rocroi?  That battle is recognized as one of the most important in history.  It marked the end of the dominance of the Spanish tercio and coincidentally the greatness of Spain.  While not a particularly accurate depiction, kudos for bringing it to the silver screen.

                The closest equivalent to “Alatriste” is “Barry Lyndon”.  Both are epics that mix sexual and political antics with a war scenario.  “Alatriste” is much better entertainment.  Both are too long, but it has some dynamic action scenes along with a more appealing main character.  Plus, Alatriste would kick Lyndon’s ass any day of the week.

GRADE  =  B+