However turgid the storytelling, “Emperor” makes its historic points about a widely unknown 1945 wartime episode that played out in U.S occupied Japan after its surrender. General Douglas McArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) must decide the fate of Japan’s well-loved Emperor Hirohito. Supreme Commander McArthur is shown to be exceptionally sensitive to the enormous implications of his crucial decision whether to bring war crime charges against the Emperor or provide him with a graceful exit. The history seems to be correct on the surface, even if its dramatized delivery is anything but exceptional.
U.S. General Bonner Fellers (respectably played by Matthew Fox in a thankless role) carries on a voice-over narration that keeps the movie tethered too close to shore. The airy noir tone is all wrong for a movie that isn’t, can’t, and shouldn’t try to be “Casablanca.” General Fellers is assigned to conduct an investigation into Emperor Hirohito’s culpability to war crimes. Fellers’s report will inform General McArthur’s pressing decision.
Fellers also has some personal business to take care of relating to his former girlfriend Aya (Eriko Hatsune), a Japanese exchange student Fellers met when the two were in college together in the States. Concerned for her safety, the General searches for Aya who may or may not have been killed during the U.S. attacks on Japan.
The film wisely pins its delayed climax on the meeting between General Douglas McArthur and Emperor Hirohito (believably played by Takataro Kataoka). Although the closing sequence of events doesn’t make up for the film’s clunky descent into over-pronounced melodrama, it does express the theme of cultural respect that the screenwriters intended.
Rated PG-13. 98 mins. (C+) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
Downed Submarine —
Cold War Picture Sinks in the Deep
The cinematic offenses committed by the filmmakers of “Phantom” are varied and many. Whoever thought it was a good idea to have Russian characters speak without a Russian accent has some fundamental lessons to learn about filmic storytelling. You might imagine that a drama set inside the creaking hull of a relic submarine during the Cold War would be suspenseful if not downright claustrophobic. Not this time. Writer-director Todd Robinson (“Lonely Hearts”) has made a movie that suffers from attention deficit disorder.
Ed Harris gets our attention as Demi, a Soviet naval commander, circa 1968, assigned to helm the B67 submarine he served on for most of his military career for one last voyage. Inferring a Russian identity on the Ed Harris’s American accent and gestures is a non starter. The obsolete sub is being sold to the Chinese Navy. It’s up to Demi to deliver it. With his protégé second-in-command officer Alex (William Fichtner) at his side, Demi finds his authority challenged by a team of questionably affiliated spies — led by David Duchovny’s Bruni — on a mission to do global harm. Plot coupons appear and vanish at regular intervals. A cloaking device, which can sonically make the submarine appear to other vessels as a variety of much larger ships, is momentarily presented as a significant plot point before being discarded like so many other narrative details.
The radical spies’ plan involves the sub (disguised as a Chinese submarine) attacking a barely observed U.S. vessel. Blame will be assigned to the Chinese, and the proverbial poop will hit the fan. It doesn’t help matters that the story never expands to show activities on the target ship. The movie exists in an airtight vacuum where the benefit of context is regarded as an unnecessary luxury. The filmmakers rely on a kneejerk crutch of military lingo to falsely energize the action. Characters repeat phrases about things like “sonar con” and “acoustic signatures” with requisite seriousness, but the overall effect is unconvincing before turning into an utter annoyance.
The characters are so poorly drawn that you’re never sure what they're supposed to represent as human beings. Even their objectives are murky. Harris’s Demi initially comes across as an ethically solid Commander. But as he allows himself and his crew to be intimidated by the demands of spies, intent on setting off World War III, it becomes difficult for the audience to know where to place their trust.
The poorly constructed story goes through plenty of obfuscating gyrations before spinning out of control in a melodramatic puddle that takes the cake for soap opera cheesiness. You’d never guess that the story was based on an actual event that pales the Cuban Missile Crisis by comparison. Clearly, there is a fascinating and suspenseful story buried somewhere in the impetus for “Phantom.” However, you don’t see much evidence of it on the screen. Even you happen to be huge fan of submarine movies, “Phantom” is not worth your time.
Rated R. 97 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
Co-writer/director Cate Shortland’s brilliant adaptation of a story from Rachel Seiffert’s debut novel, set during Germany’s 1945 downfall, is an audacious depiction of survival and self-discovery. Shortland employs a stark unfettered cinema language to convey the surreality that the story’s namesake protagonist endures. The visual and emotional inertia here touches our central nervous system in a way that few films can.
Saskia Rosendahl gives a mesmerizing debut performance as Lore, a 14-year-old girl charged with leading her four younger siblings across war-ravaged Germany after her SS officer father and pro-Nazi mother are taken away by Allied troops. Days turn into weeks as Lore attempts to walk her three younger brothers and younger sister from their home in the Black Forest to their grandmother’s house — about 500 miles away in Hamburg. Ashes from the chimneys of nearby Dachau blow burned pieces of photographs carried by Jewish prisoners into the forest. Fresh wounds on rotting corpses, arrayed like carefully posed mannequins, that Lore discovers along her journey tell their own stories.
Barely able to take care of her siblings and herself, Lore learns to trust Thomas (Kai Malina), a fellow refugee she meets on the trek. Lore harbors contempt for the ostensibly Jewish Thomas in spite of her gradual realization of the atrocities that her parents contributed to.
A follow-up to Cate Shortland’s impressive debut film (“Somersault,” 2004), “Lore” is an unconventional war film filled with ambiguity, horror, and despair. It relies upon the intuition of its audience to perceive its finely woven layers of information. At once literal yet nimbly metaphoric, “Lore” condenses its extensive subject into a cinematic poem that is easily, if disturbingly, digested.
Not Rated. 108 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
M*A*S*H — CLASSIC FILM PICK
Director Robert Altman’s 14-year-old son Mike Altman wrote the lyrics for the recurring theme song that gives “M*A*S*H” its narrative core. The refrain is especially significant because it carries the film’s theme of wartime alienation much more so than is represented in the explicit dialogue any of the characters, despite the African-American soldier who sings the haunting lyric during the film’s keystone sequence.
Though a Douglas MacArthur intro-quote attributes the story’s 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital unit to the Korean War, there is never any question that Altman's real setting is Vietnam. Army helicopters deliver a constant stream of horribly wounded soldiers. An indicator regarding the film’s leftist philosophy derives from screenwriter Ring Lardner, Jr.’s participation in adapting Richard Hooker’s novel “MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors.” Lardner was one of the few blacklisted victims of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s “Hollywood Ten” to regain an active career in Hollywood, thanks in part to Altman.
“M*A*S*H” ruthlessly satirizes the hypocritical U.S. military, and by extension the U.S. Government, for its systemic barbarism and arbitrary means of doling out draconian punishments to friends and foe alike.
Surgeons Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland), Captain “Duke” Forest (Tom Skerritt), and Trapper John McIntyre (Elliott Gould) form a trio of anti-establishment anti-hero protagonists. Freshly stationed in the 4077th, the medical specialists work long hours tending to American soldiers with critical injuries. Altman takes great care while exploring the bloody working conditions of the mobile Army hospital where limbs are sawed off and uncountable patients never regain consciousness. The casual tone between the doctors and nurses during long operations is muted to a soothing murmur. In order to maintain their sanity amid so much death and putrid conditions, the doctors and nurses seek refuge in every kind of distraction available. Bawdy jokes and sexual encounters help alleviate the oppressive atmosphere. Ritual drinking and elaborate practical jokes take on an inordinate amount of importance in the lives of a crew weeded out by their complementing quirks. Cruel to be kind, the unit’s members indulge in epic humiliating pranks, as when they broadcast a lovemaking session between a religion-obsessed Major (played by Robert Duval) and a newly assigned chief nurse over the camp’s PA system.
Hawkeye and Trapper live by their wits. Their elevated skills as surgeons inform their similarly keen senses of humor. The only thing that keeps them from being hauled off by military police to be court-martialed for their insolent behavior is their ability to beat the system at its own game. It’s no wonder that the film was transposed into one of the most successful television shows of all time.
Apocalypse Now Redux - CLASSIC FILM PICK
In cinema, the war genre is a very crowded field. That Francis Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now Redux” stands among the top 1% is a testament to his film’s sublime collision of literary inspiration — co-screenwriter John Milius loosely based it on Joseph Conrad’s 1903 novella “Heart of Darkness” — and a superlative creative ensemble of actors and production crew. Notorious for going ridiculously over-budget and taking several years to complete, the movie inhabits the terrible madness of The Nam with an unmistakable surrealist sense of absurdist horror and grotesque drama.
Recognized as a masterpiece upon its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in 1979, it took 22 years before Coppola, with the aid of his trusted editor Walter Murch and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, to produce the definitive 203-minute version of his original concept.
Martin Sheen delivers a tour de force performance as Benjamin L. Willard, a U.S. Army Captain turned special ops agent. Willard suffers from burnout fatigue in a squalid Saigon hotel room where he waits for his next assignment orders. He drinks himself into oblivion, smokes endless cigarettes, practices tai chi in dirty underwear, and nurses an abyss of unknowable anguish. His character is a potential predecessor to the Travis Bickle anti-hero of Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver.”
Willard’s orders finally arrive. He transforms into an unflappable assassin in the company of a group of four Navy soldiers assigned to transport him by boat up the Nung River to a classified destination. On the boat, Willard keeps coming back to the dossier of the rogue American military officer he has been sent to dispatch with “extreme prejudice” — Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando).
Like Willard, Kurtz is an overachiever. Corollaries between the two men become increasingly evident. Kurtz’s storied military history paints him as a decorated model commander of exceptional intelligence before breaking with the military to command his own group of rebel troops inside neutral Cambodia. Something has snapped in Kurtz’s brain. He figured out how to fight the jungle war — his personal war — and win, on his own terms. The epic odyssey Willard endures on the river eventually brings him face to face with the soft-spoken Kurtz, who lords over his jungle compound as a noble cult leader whom the natives fear yet worship. Many severed heads of Kurtz’s perceived enemies decorate his cave-like sanctuary that Willard must penetrate to complete his mission. It isn't hard to see the allegory with American foreign policy.
The nightmare of seemingly random wartime vignettes that Coppola layers together form an episodic journey back in time. The manifold filmmaking techniques Coppola employs extend from vérité to formal approaches. “Apocalypse Now” all but ruined Francis Coppola as a director. Yet it remains a staggering achievement of pure provocative cinema.
The Front Line
South Korea’s impressive entry for the 2011 foreign-language Oscar race offers a different kind of war picture in its foreshadowed setting of the blood-soaked front line between North and South Korea during the 1950-53 war. Crafted with profound understanding of the war’s complexity, director Jang Hun makes palpable the wide range of emotions of soldiers caught up in a Sisyphean struggle of repeatedly winning and losing occupation of the strategically important Aerok Hill. The stench of death permeates the area where a strange aura of insanity pervades.
The death of a South Korean commander of the “Alligator Company,” by a regiment pistol, points to the possibility he was murdered by one of his soldiers. Lieutenant of Defense Security Command Kang Eun-pyo (Shin Ha-kyun) is sent to investigate the situation to discover if a mole is operating within the ranks of the beleaguered unit. Kang is surprised to discover that his former college buddy Kim Su-hyeok (Ko Soo) whom he believed killed in action has taken over command of Alligator Company. Other surprises follow. Kang finds that soldiers from both sides of the conflict have been exchanging gifts and notes in a kind of rough-hewn mailbox hidden in the floor of a bunker in the hill. Precisely articulated flashbacks fill in the blanks of Kang’s investigation even as the ongoing war ebbs and flows with unrelenting pitched battles. “The Front Line” emphasizes the theme that war itself is the enemy of all peoples. Being a soldier means committing suicide in an abstract and prolonged way for which there is no reasonable rationale. The film fills in an essential missing chapter in a war that is frequently overlooked.
“The Front Line” emphasizes the theme that war itself is the enemy of all peoples. Being a soldier means committing suicide in an abstract and prolonged way for which there is no reasonable rationale. The film effectively fills in an essential missing chapter in a war that has wrongfully been eclipsed in history books by the war in Viet Nam.
Not Rated. 133 mins. (B+) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)
Steven Spielberg puts a sunny disposition on World War I in this shamelessly old-fashioned (read sentimental) rendering of Nick Stafford's stage play, which was based on Michael Morpurgo's 1982 children's novel. The horrors of the famously brutal war get mashed through a Disney filter toward a cinematic experience not unlike the feeling you get from a Howard Hawks western.
From a filmmaking perspective "War Horse" is stunning. Every shot is an exquisite composition to be revered. From a narrative perspective, things get dicey. Character development comes across as a flat line for a young man named Albert (Jeremy Irvine) and the charismatic horse his father (Peter Mullan) over-leverages the family farm to purchase in spite of the horse’s dubious capacity for pulling a plow. As the title predicts, Albert's newly procured horse “Joey” is conscripted for battle use by the British cavalry from the family’s rented pastoral farm home in Devon, England. A greedy landlord (wonderfully played by Daniel Thewlis) waits with baited breath to foreclose on the property. Joey gets shipped into battle in France before being captured by the Germans. Naturally, Albert enlists in the army in spite of his underage status in order to get back his much-loved equine possession. Sadly, Peter Mullan, and the family matriarch Rose (Emily Watson), get relegated to third-class supporting character status.
For all of its soft-peddled nostalgia “War Horse” methodically hits every mark of emotional degree with surgical precision. Still, the movie remains a lightweight rendition of war wherein a horse is the ostensible hero. Crocodile tears will almost certainly be shed by audiences who go along for the ride.
Rated PG-13. 146 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Character study, history lesson, and bloody war story, "Ironclad" adds up to the sum of its violent parts (though just barely). The film fills in blanks in the year 1215, when King John of England (played with scene-chewing amusement by Paul Giamatti) reneges on his signing of the Magna Carta. Refusing to relinquish his royal prerogatives, John dispatches a mercenary army to kill off the barons who agreed to sign the historic charter
Brian Cox's Baron Albany is not one to suffer a fool such as King John gladly. He gathers a group of 20 warriors to seize the strategically important Rochester Castle, from which they can hold off King John's troops while awaiting military aid from the French. The physically contained story shows how 20 men were able to keep an army of a thousand troops at bay for many weeks.
Director Jonathan English ("Minotaur") stages his brutal 13th century battles for all of their brain-splattering fury. Arms are severed and bodies are split open. Templar Knight Marshal (memorably played by James Purefor) wields his mighty Crusade-proven sword in battle when he isn't being romantically drawn out of his religious shell by Isabel (Kate Mara), the wandering-eye wife of castle-keeper Baron Cornhill (Derek Jacobi). The audience is left to ponder the lengths to which a few men went in order to protect something that America decided to throw away in recent years, democracy and individual rights.
Rated R. 98 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Went the Day Well? - Classic Film Pick
John Maxwell Edmonds's elegant World War I epitaph sets the tone for the film that would allow Brazilian director Alberto Cavalcantis to graduate from making documentaries to features in 1942. Loosely adapted from Graham Greene's short story "The Lieutenant Died Last," the plot centers around a peaceful English village infiltrated by a platoon of Nazi paratroopers disguised as British soldiers. As an effective work of surreptitious World War II propaganda, "Went the Day Well?" is instructive on many levels.
Produced at Britain's Ealing Studios in 1942, this determinedly unsentimental war film was made with a strong sense of social realism in spite of its fictitious elements and stock British characters. None are immune to death. In the complacent village of Bramley End women gossip, a man poaches rabbits, and a wedding approaches. The story takes place over the period of a springtime weekend. Four male members of the town's Home Guard go on a training exercise in the countryside just as the Germans arrive incognito under the complicity of the town's "fifth columnist" mayor, Oliver Wilsford (Leslie Banks). As much a German patriot as an English traitor, Wilsford helps the position the German troops in strategic strongholds with handshakes and cups of tea.
The town's women are the first to take notice of irregularities in the visiting troops' behavior that point to something fishy. A grandmother takes umbrage at the way a German soldier abuses a boy and quickly reprimands the soldier before complaining to his commanding officer. A piece of scrap paper used by Germans to keep score for a card game reveals sevens written in the "continental" style. A chocolate bar from Austria is another giveaway. Indeed, the townswomen support the film's theme of communal resistance as much, if not more, than the male characters.
Originally titled "They Came in Khaki," "Went the Day Well?" was designed to remind British citizens of the ongoing need to be ever vigilant against foreign invasion. The idea that the very authorities employed to protect its citizens could be malicious occupiers brings up relevant questions about military-imposed oppression as it exists around the world. Retaliation is vital, the film seems to say. But how can you tell the enemy when they are dressed as patriots?
Closely Watched Trains - Classic Film Pick
It's near the end of World War II and Germany is losing its grip on Europe. Evidence of the Third Reich's weakening powers are exhibited by shabby army supply cargo on "closely watched trains" passing through a small-town railway station. Young Miloš Hrma (Vaclav Neckar) follows in the footsteps of his family's notoriously indolent patriarchs by choosing to work at the station, where little effort is required. Though lazy, Miloš desperately wants to become a man. He wears his new train station uniform with pride. Meanwhile, the stationmaster is content to let the pigeons he raises poop all over him.
Menzel's empathetic camera takes a documentary-like approach. Inside the station, Miloš befriends a womanizing train dispatcher, Hubička (Josef Somr). Hubička takes his low impact job as seriously as his effortless gift for seduction. His use of official rubber stamps on a young telegrapher's behind sets off a scandal sparked by the girl's outraged mother, who demands justice. Naive Miloš misses a golden opportunity for sensual conquest at the hands of an amorous young train conductor, Máša (Jitka Zelenohorská). His failure to perform sexually sends him on a tricky path to self discovery and even martyrdom. The film's often breezy tone belies a dark examination of the country's subjective sub-consciousness during the Nazi occupation.
Like his celebrated filmmaking peer Milos Forman, Jiří Menzel graduated from the State film school in Prague. His sense of comic incident in a naturalistic setting coincides with a sincere fascination for sensual expression. "Closely Watched Trains" won the 1967 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Although Menzel's presence as a key player in the Czech New Wave renaissance was diminished by the Soviet invasion of 1968, he continued to act in the theatre and make films in Prague. In 2006, he once again proved his keen sense of satire and sensuality with his divine, picaresque film "I Served the King of England," which was also based on a novel by his frequent collaborator, Bohumil Hrabal.
Battle: Los Angeles
This assemble-the-troops sci-fi war flick is all bark and no bite. Relative newbie director Jonathan Liebesman ("The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning") isn't even sure of where to put the camera. An orchestrated global military attack by alien forces have left seven international cities decimated. But since this is a Hollywood movie, we're only concerned with Los Angeles. Screenwriter Chris Bertolini doesn't miss a single cliché trope. Career Marine Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart) is in the process of retiring from the military when a series of meteor attacks off the L.A. coast draw him back for one more tour of duty. Rumors about a past mission that left Seargent Nantz's soldiers dead, with him as the sole survivor, swirl among a group of gung-ho Marine corporals. The stereotyped soldiers are assigned to go into a bombed out area of Santa Monica and extract civilians before U.S. air forces makes their own scorched-earth attack just three hours later. The meteors contain alien soldiers with weapons surgically attached. They want our water. The film's funniest scene involves a grotesque search for the exact spot on an alien to kill it. "Just to the right of the heart" is the sweet spot, as if that information has any bearing when our oh-so-sincere gang of soldiers happily blast away at their despised targets. There's no context to the grand spectacle violence on display. Pass-around-the-ammo-and-blast-away is the only theme to this complete waste of CGI technology.
Rated PG-13. 116 mins. (D) (One Star - out of five/no halves)