Sunday, November 28, 2021

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008)


                    The novel by John Boyne has become recommended reading for many middle and high school students.  It was natural that it would be made into a movie two years after it was published.  The movie has been popular with kids who read the book and kids who don’t want to have to read it.  I have not read it yet, but I have learned that if you are watching it to prepare for the test or book report, the ending is different.  But otherwise the movie follows the book closely.  The screenplay was written by Mark Herman and he directed as well.  (For some reason, it is the last movie he directed.)  The filming was done in Hungary with a mostly British cast.  It cost $13 million and made $44 million. 

                    Bruno (Asa Butterfield) is the pampered son of an SS officer (David Thewlis).  The family lives in Berlin where Bruno lives the idyllic childhood of an upper-class German before bombs came raining down.  Occasionally his romps with his pals are disturbed by Jews being rounded up, but he is clueless.  The family is suddenly uprooted when his father is transferred to Poland.  They now live in an isolated house near what everyone except Dad assumes is a farm. Bruno is bored, so he goes exploring and finds the farm is surrounded by barbed wire.  He thinks the people wearing striped pajamas are the farmers.  He meets another eight-year-old named Shmuel (Jack Scanlon).  When he asks him what is being burned in the chimneys, Shmuel doesn’t know.  He’s pretty clueless, too.  Even though Bruno is clueful enough to know Jews are to be taunted, he befriends Shmuel and begins to sneak away to “play” with him.  Meanwhile, his older sister Gretel (Amber Beattie) has become a Hitler fan-girl.  Things come to a head when Bruno’s mother (Vera Farmiga) discovers what her husband’s real job is.  This is the first domino that leads to tragedy. 

                    Speaking of those dominoes, some of them strain credulity.  For instance, Shmuel becomes a servant in Bruno’s home for an awkward plot insinuation that Bruno is still a typical German in order to set up his redemption.  But if not for dominoes being lined up, we’d have a lot less movies.  The last domino must have been great for the sale of tissues at the concession stand, but it feels tacked on to balance the rest of the film.  The film is tilted toward Bruno’s family’s life rather than Shmuel’s.  While Bruno’s father plays a prominent role as the evil, amoral Nazi, Shmuel’s father does not make an appearance.  This is the story of how Bruno’s rose-colored existence figuratively goes up in smoke as Shmuel’s stripe-colored existence literally does.  If that metaphor seems tortured, it does reflects the plot.  

                    The plot is a balancing act.  The family is equally divided between the Nazi and Nazi-wannabe and the horrified spouse and her beatific son.  Heck, the grandparents are balanced between Kool-aid drinking grandpa and grimacing granny.  That’s three Nazi characters (four if you throw in their indoctrinating tutor and five if you count Dad’s lackey) and three who stand in for the silent minority.  And on the other side we have one Jewish boy (and a sacrificial lamb of a servant) who doesn’t even know why he is in the camp and what is taking place there.  I guess someone felt we needed a Holocaust movie from the Nazi point of view.  It works better as a bedtime story (or young adult novel) than as a realistic Holocaust story.  And hence the problem.  It was more popular with a younger audience than movies like “Schindler’s List” and it and the novel had a strong effect on many in that demographic.  In some ways, the movie replaced “The Diary of Anne Frank” for Milennials.  Unfortunately, many of the readers (and watchers) thought it was a true story.    

                    This means many viewers were left with the impression that few Germans knew Jews were being imprisoned.  And that it was not unusual for a Jewish boy to have the run of a camp and would be able to befriend a German boy.  And they would be able to interact through one line of barbed wire when all camps had two.  And the camps had poor security that would allow this interaction.  Although it is never specifically named, the camp is clearly meant to be Auschwitz.  It is significant that the museum there has disowned the book.  But no one connected with the movie ever claimed that it was fact, so I guess we can be more harsh with the teachers who assigned the book or showed the movie and allowed students to make it their main source on the Holocaust. 

                    The movie was critically acclaimed, but it is definitely overrated.  While not as egregious as “Life is Beautiful”, it is in that group of Holocaust movies that minimizes the horrors.  In it, the Holocaust breaks up a perfect German family.  Sob.  In the end, we feel more sympathy for them than for Shmuel’s family (who we do not see).  It is meant to be a loss of childhood innocence film, but the true loss of innocence is his mother’s.  But do I need to remind you that she knew she was marrying a Nazi, so there’s that.

                    Place me in that group who found this movie to be problematic.  I would certainly not have shown it in my history classes.  I appreciate historical fiction and this is a movie that is well-made with some very good performances.  I’m done harping on the adverse impact it had on younger viewers, but adults should be offended by the focus of emotions on the Germans.  And if you are like me, you might be put off by the unrealistic plot developments.  The hoops the movie has to jump through to reach its stunning twist ending are head-scratching.  Since I did not need to watch the movie for a book report, I can tell you that this movie is not in the upper tier of Holocaust movies.  Please watch the great ones like “Schindler's List”, “Son of Saul”, “Escape from Sobibor”, and “The Grey Zone” before you watch this.  And if you are a teacher showing it in class, please point out that it is fiction and that the Holocaust had more impact on Jewish families than on German ones.


 GRADE  =  C+

Friday, November 26, 2021

King of Hearts (1966)


            “Le Roe De Couer” is a French film directed by Philippe de Broca.  It was not a critical or box office success, but it became a cult classic in the U.S.  This was partly the result of numerous midnight showings similar to “Rocky Horror Picture Show”.  A movie about lunatics in war was appealing to college kids during the Vietnam War.  Go figure.

            The movie is set in a French town in the closing days of the Great War.  Before the Germans evacuate the city, they set up a booby trap that will blow up the town.  The residents flee, including the staff of the local lunatic asylum.  And they leave the gate open.  The inmates take over the town.  A British general “volunteers” Charles Plumpick (Alan Bates) to go in and check for explosives.  The general is the typical buffoon that inhabits WWI comedies.  And Plumpick is a stereotypical sad sack.  He is on the opposite side of royalty.  Queue the irony.   When he meets the lunatics, they crown him the “King of Hearts”.  Hilarity ensues.  If you are a college student who is drunk or high at a midnight showing.

            Some cult classics hold up over the years and some don’t.  “King of Hearts” is in the second category.  It bludgeons the audience with its theme of “who are the insane in war?”  Surprisingly, the most believable aspect of the movie is the behavior of the inmates.  The cast that portrays the lunatics is good.  It’s the sane characters that bring the movie down.  They are played too broadly.  Plumpick is joined by three idiots to make the crazy people seem sane.  It’s the kind of movie that gets increasingly desperate for laughs.  There are not a lot of those.  The movie is more whimsical, as indicated by the music, than hilarious.  It gets increasingly silly as it rolls along.  This leads to a stupid, but predictable ending.  By this time, hippies in the theater were probably asleep.  Of course, it doesn’t hurt if your potential viewers forget they saw the movie and come back every Friday. 



Friday, November 19, 2021

Gangs of New York (2002)


                    “Gangs of New York” was a dream project for Martin Scorsese.  It is his first and only war movie.  I do classify it as belonging in the genre, but it is better labeled as a revenge flick or a gangster film.  The movie was twenty years in the making.  Scorsese was inspired by Herbert Asbury’s “The Gangs of New York:  An Informal History of the Underworld”.  It took many years to get the financing and then when the cost ballooned from $83 to $100 million, Scorsese had conflicts with producer Harvey Weinstein.  Most of the dispute was over length and the final cut went from 180 minutes to 168.  Most of the filming was done at Rome’s famous Cinecitta studios.  A painting by George Catlin was used to create the Five Points neighborhood.  Casting was difficult.  Tom Hanks was offered the role of Cutting, but he was committed to “Road to Perdition”.  Due to delays, Robert De Niro and Willem Defoe had to drop out.  Leonard DiCaprio made the first of his numerous films with Scorsese.  Sarah Michelle Geller (who was busy with “Buffy”) had to turn down the part that went to Cameron Diaz.  The release was delayed because of 9/11.  It was critically acclaimed (making many top ten lists), but did not do well at the box office.  It was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, including Picture (losing to “Chicago”), Director (winner -  Roman Polanski for “The Pianist”), Actor (Day-Lewis losing to Adrien Brody of “The Pianist”), Original Screenplay, Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design, Film Editing, Original Song (“The Hands That Built America”), and Sound.  It did not win a single award.  It was nominated for a BAFTA for Best Film and Daniel Day-Lewis won for Actor.  Scorsese won a Golden Globe for directing and the song won. 

                    The movie opens in 1946 New York City.  Two gangs are in conflict over the Five Points neighborhood.  It may be the armpit of America, but they are willing to kill over it.  The Protestant Confederation of American Natives (a fancy name for Nativists) are led by William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting.  He actually is a butcher, which means he is adept at his last name.  Their opponents are called the Dead Rabbits.  They are Irish Catholic immigrants.  They are led by “Priest” Vallon (Liam Neeson).  The ensuing melee is frenetic and bloody.  The Dead Rabbits live up to their name and forfeit claim to the turf.  Vallon’s son vows revenge.  When “Amsterdam” (DiCaprio) gets out of reform prison in 1862, he has a plan to worm his way into Cutting’s confidence since Cutting does not know who he is.  By this time, Cutting is wealthy, anti-immigrant, anti-Lincoln, and pro-slavery.  His followers are upset that the Civil War is resulting in freed slaves taking their jobs.  Just like those damned immigrants had been doing. 

                    Amsterdam’s undercover efforts are successful at first, but his romance with a petty thief named Jenny (Diaz) complicates matters.  His best buddy Johnny (Henry Thomas) wants her too.  Eventually, Amsterdam revives the Dead Rabbits and we look forward to a rematch of the gangs and the inevitable duel between Cutting and Amsterdam.  In the meantime, political boss William Tweed gets involved as Amsterdam makes a deal to get him the immigrant vote for his candidate Monk McGinn (Brendan Gleeson).  Cutting doesn’t take this lightly, as you can imagine.  One of the reasons the movie can be classified as a war movie is the Civil War intrudes on what is basically a gang warfare movie.  The epic gang battle takes place at the time of the infamous Draft Riots.  Believe it or not, we get a naval bombardment. 

                    “Gangs of New York” is a sprawling movie, even though it takes place mostly in one neighborhood.  The set is amazing and worth the watch alone.  The other big draw is the acting.  It’s no surprise Daniel Day-Lewis is outstanding.  Cutting is one of the great cinematic villains.  He is mesmerizing when he is on screen and he gets to interact with all the main characters.  His loss to Adrien Brody for the Oscar is perplexing.  He did his usual staying in character (and accent) which means he must have been a dick off set.  Speaking of accents, a lot of effort was put into getting them right.  So you accent-Nazis will be pleased.  DiCaprio was perfectly cast as Amsterdam.  The rest of the cast is strong.  You know you have a surfeit of talent when you can exit Liam Neeson after the first act. 

                    The movie is a tutorial on life outside the textbooks.  You’ll be shocked at how crude that life could be.  If you lived in the Five Points neighborhood, you probably would be affiliated with one gang or another.  Crime was rampant and the movie is basically about crime and corruption.  Or so you will left to believe.  (See my historical accuracy section)  The movie does a good job of incorporating “Boss” Tweed to dabble into big city politics.  If you think politics is rough today, at least it’s only verbal.  And if you think America is divided today, this movie is full of versuses.  Natives versus immigrants.  Protestants versus Catholics.  Democrats versus Republicans.  Rich versus poor.  Whites versus blacks.  On second thought, the movie is a mirror.

                    History buffs will love the fact that the movie throws in details like a scene where fire departments rush to a fire and then fight to see who will put it out.  Meanwhile, people loot the building.  An “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” play is interrupted by vegetables thrown by pro-slavery supporters.  Two of the characters are based on real people – Cutting and Tweed.  In the end, the draft results in the riots that are awkwardly intertwined with the final gang fight.  Those nifty historical nuggets are overwhelmed by a largely fictional tale.

                    And this is the main problem with the movie.  The ending is a letdown.  Setting the climactic confrontation between Cutting and Amsterdam in the midst of the mayhem of the riots was a mistake.  Anyone familiar with the history of the event will be face palming.  Once again, we have a potentially great war movie let down by the last act.  “Gangs of New York” joins “We Were Soldiers” and “Cross of Iron” in that respect.  Still, like those movies, it is certainly worth the watch.

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  The movie is far from a documentary.  Asbury’s book is partially to blame.  The book sensationalized the Five Points situation and was full of inaccuracies.  Sounds like good source material for a movie.  There were numerous gangs like the Bowery Boys and the Dead Rabbits, but they were more like political clubs that “influenced” the way people voted.  There might be a little violence on election day, but the movie greatly exaggerated the fighting.  By the 1860’s murders were uncommon.  And by then the neighborhood was less like a slum than in 1846.  Most people were not crooks or prostitutes.  They were regular people with regular jobs.  There were no gang wars.  The battle that opens the movie was fictional.  There was a fight in 1857 between the Bowery Boys and the Dead Rabbits in 1857, but it was not the violent brawl of the movie.  As far as the dynamics of the movie, actually in Five Points the conflict was between various Irish gangs.  The film makes the neighborhood more diverse than it was.  For instance, there were few Chinese immigrants at the time.

                    The one thing the movie gets especially right is the setting.  Historians praised the fidelity of the set.  Fortunately, the movie was not in smell-o-vision because the neighborhood was famously rank.  But then you could probably guess that from the visuals.  Naturally, the set designer had to enhance.  In this case, there were no catacombs.

                    All of the characters are fictional except Cutting and Tweed.  Cutting was based on William Poole.  He was a bare-knuckled boxer who did own a butcher shop.  He was a figure in the Know Nothing movement which was noted for its anti-immigrant platform.  However, he was not from the Five Points area and he was assassinated in 1855.  He was not proven to have murdered anyone.  Boss Tweed is accurately portrayed as a power in New York politics.  He became the symbol of corruption through graft and ballot box stuffing.  The movie makes reference to the court house that he built with massive kickbacks. 

                    The Draft Riots are close enough.  When Lincoln started the draft, it caused an explosion of resentment, especially by the Irish in NYC.  They were already upset with the poor employment opportunities and low wages, which they blamed on the influx of freed slaves.  Now they were being asked to fight and die to end slavery?  That did not go over well.  The rioters targeted the rich and blacks.  It got so bad that the army had to be brought in to restore order and soldiers were forced to open fire on rioters.  But it is ridiculous to have the navy bombarding Five Points.  Nothing remotely like that occurred.  And the same could be said for the final gang encounter.