Every week, I tell myself that as soon as I watch or read or listen to something cool I am going to sit down and write a few paragraphs about it. Almost every week, I do not do this. If I were to do this, it would make writing this column so much easier. I could simply cut and paste the things I’ve already written into a new, combined document. Instead, I find myself rushing madly on the weekend to pull together coherent thoughts on five different things that I consumed days or even weeks before. One day, I might actually follow my own advice. Until then, here are some rushed thoughts about some cool things I recently watched.
As I mentioned last week, some old college buddies and I have been gathering via the interwebs every Sunday to talk about movies. We pick one movie, watch it at our leisure, then discuss it for an hour or two. It has been super fun and sometimes enlightening. Last week, we watched Stanley Kubrick’s first true feature-length film The Killing.
Based upon the novel Clean Break by Lionel White, the film follows a criminal mastermind (played perfectly by Sterling Hayden) who plans one last score – robbing a race track – before settling down for a life of ease with his woman. He’s meticulously planned everything down to the last detail. We watch as he meets up with various criminals, all of whom have their specialties, and plans out each and every move.
The plot is basically the plot of 90% of all heist movies. Kubrick doesn’t do anything new with it, and he hasn’t really created that signature Kubrick style yet, but what he does he does really well. I do find it really interesting that Kubrick was known for being a director who spent an inordinate amount of time preparing for his movies before he ever shot an inch of film, and for his meticulous attention to detail, and for his first feature-length film he decides to make a movie about a well-planned job that goes all to hell in the end.
The Killing would be a feather in a lesser director’s hat, but with Kubrick, it is considered one of his lesser films. Which still makes it a great film, well worth watching.
Paths of Glory
The Killing did rather poorly at the box office, but gained enough critical acclaim to land Kubrick a job at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. After looking over various scripts and novels, they had purchased the rights to an anti-war book he’d read in his younger days. Kirk Douglas loved the script and signed on to star, giving the film a big boost in the budget in the process.
In the heart of World War I, the higher-ups at French Headquarters decided they need a “win” and push General Mireau (George Macready) to take a well-defended chunk of land so important the locals call it the “anthill.” It is a suicide mission that likely cannot be won and would gain them nothing, but when the general is offered a promotion for it, he promises success. He then calls on Colonel Dax (Douglas) to plan the attack. Dax is reluctant and declares his feelings towards the matter but he’ll follow orders.
The attack is a slaughter with the first wave taking massive losses. So much so, that Company B is commanded by their leader to stay in the trenches. The general orders artillery to be launched at his own troops in hopes this will get them moving. This order is refused. The battle is lost and hundreds of soldiers are dead or wounded.
In the wake of this failure, the general orders one man from each of the three companies to be court-martialed and if found guilty, shot. Colonel Dax agrees to defend them, feeling the whole thing was an act of stupidity and that his soldiers acted admirably.
Paths of Glory is really where Kubrick came into his own. The themes of the absurdity of war and the cruelty of man would stay with him throughout his career and some of the camera tricks he’d use for many subsequent films were used here. There are several long tracking shots (including an amazing one through one of the trenches where the general attempts to give his men pep talks). Douglas is fantastic as a dedicated military man (unlike all the other officers depicted in the film, he actually puts his life in danger, leading the attack on the “anthill”) who nonetheless fights against its absurdities.
It is a brilliant film that digs into the horrors of war, and both the evil and glory mankind is capable of.
All Quiet on the Western Front
After watching Paths of Glory, I was in the mood to watch another film about the Great War. It always feels like World War II gets all the great movies leaving little leftover for the first one. But if you do a little looking around, you can find plenty of WWI movies worth watching. I’d always heard All Quiet on the Western Front was a good one and now that I’ve seen it I’m ready to say it is the very best one. Possibly the greatest movie about any war ever made.
It follows a group of German soldiers from their recruitment in high school through several years of fighting in the trenches. It begins in a classroom with the professor rousing their spirits with a speech about the greatness and nobleness of fighting for the Fatherland (and outside the room a military parade rages sometimes drowning out the teacher).
The young boys all sign up and are sent to boot camp where their disillusionment begins. Their drill sergeant is a man they’ve known their whole lives but their friendliness is immediately driven away when he expects absolute obedience and drives a rigid regiment of training. Soon, they are sent to the frontlines and witness the chaos, the horror, and the mundanity of war first hand.
There are no food or supplies. The soldiers who have been there a while are hard and unaccommodating. Their first patrol ends in the cruel death of their friend. Then the real horror begins. Hunkered down in a dug-out in one of the trenches, the French bombardment begins. Bomb after bomb explodes all around them for days. It is loud, it shakes the earth, there are constant cave-ins. It is unrelenting and drives the men to their breaking point. Then the bombing stops and they must defend the oncoming onslaught. The enemy runs across “No Man’s Land.” At first, they are shot down by machine guns, rifles, and grenades, but they keep coming. And coming. They reach the trenches and hand-to-hand combat ensues. The enemy is defeated and our heroes run towards the other side, taking it. But they have few too many men to hold it so they run back to their trenches. How many lives were lost? For no ground won?
Made in 1930, All Quiet on the Western Front feels completely relevant today. It is beautifully directed (those war scenes feel very modern) and acted. It gives glimpses into every aspect of the war. There is plenty of fighting, but we also see how things are going in the downtime, in the hospitals and back home. It is unrelenting in its message – war is hell – and we are better for its existence.
I haven’t seen this movie in probably two decades. I’ve always loved it, but for some reason it seems to be a film I have no desire to revisit very often. With everybody staying at home these days sucking up all my internet speeds, I’ve been digging through my DVD collection watching movies I haven’t seen in a while. This seemed the perfect time to give Brazil another watch.
Made in 1985, Brazil is Terry Gilliam’s brilliant, hilarious, dystopian movie about a low-level bureaucrat who dreams of being a winged warrior who saves a damsel in distress. When he meets a woman who looks just like his fantasy, everything goes crazily wrong. The story is similar to Orwell’s 1984, the sets are like Fritz Lang’s, and the lighting is straight-up noir. The look of the film has been called “retrofuturism,” blending futuristic technology with old machinery. The computers have tiny screens blown up with magnifying glass screens with typewriters for keyboards. Venting ducts fill every room.
The bureaucracy is nightmarish. Early in the film, a fly lands on a typewriter changing the name of a wanted man from “Tuttle” to “Buttle” which in turn causes the wrong man to be captured and tortured. Over and over, people are turned away from the simplest, common-sense solutions because they don’t have the right paperwork.
Gilliam gives what is ultimately a pretty dark story his particular brand of strange comedy, making the absurdities even more absurd and hilarious. Jonathan Pryce is perfect as the bureaucrat who is happy in his nondescript life until his fantasies become reality. I really don’t know why it took me so long to rewatch this, but I suspect I’ll be seeing it again before another two decades roll around. It is always worth watching.
I’m not particularly fond of Jane Austen nor her many cinematic adaptations. Yet, strangely this is the third adaptation of Emma I’ve watched in the last few years. I can’t say this film will turn my favors towards the author, for I don’t know that I’ll ever truly care about the romantic goings-on of privileged white women in 19th Century England. But this new version by Autumn de Wilde comes about as close as I’ll ever get.
Anya Taylor-Joy is pitch-perfect as Emma and Mia Goth steals the film as the young orphan she decides she will protege. De Wilde fills each frame with bright, beautiful colors, delightful set pieces, and gorgeous costumes. It is a sugary delight. You can read my full review.
I am not, by and large, a Christopher Nolan fanboy. I’ve liked all of his films quite a lot, but never loved any. He is a director made for the big screen and his latest – Tenet about a man who can bend time backward for a few minutes – is slated as a summer tentpole at a time when we’re not even sure if movie theaters will be opening back up any time soon.
As of right now, it is still scheduled for release on July 17 which is far enough away to make me think at least some theaters will be open again (with various precautions enabled, no doubt) but it’s hard to believe that enough theaters, especially ones in major cities hit hardest by Covid-19 sill be showing this film by that date. And a movie like Tenet needs all the screens it can get.
But what do I know? From the trailer, Tenet looks a little like Inception, Nolan’s 2010 film with a similar big sci-fi concept that is difficult to understand but will make perfect sense whilst in the throes of the film. It is exciting enough, and I am a big enough fan of Nolan that it has got me wanting to go back to the theater for the first time in months.