21 posts categorized "War"

December 19, 2020

COME AND SEE — THE CRITERION COLLECTION

Comeandsee

Stalingrad-born Elem Klimov's "Come and See" is an undiluted expression of cinematic poetry in the service of an unspeakably turbulent, fact-based, anti-war narrative about the 628 Belarusian villages burnt to the ground along with their inhabitants by the Nazis during World War II. The film is a disorienting vision of a genocide hell on Earth that would pale Hieronymus Bosch's most gruesome compositions.

Klimov derives the film's haunting title from the New Testament's Book of Revelations, The Gospel of St. John the Divine, "And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, come and see."

Comeandsee

An electricity-buzzing stench of death and social decay hangs over the picture's constant volley between neo-realistic, formal, and documentary cinematic styles that Klimov uses to convert as wide a range of specific wartime experience as possible. The narrative explodes in all directions at once. The leftist filmmaker takes the viewer on a quicksilver descent into an existential madness of war through the eyes of his 14-year-old peasant protagonist Florya. 13-year-old (non-professional) actor Alexei Kravchenko's selfless performance as the film's subjective guide encompasses a lifetime of suffering over a period of a few brutal days of the Nazi invasion. His gut-wrenching portrayal is the traumatized soul of the movie.

Elem Klimov and Larisa Shepitko

Born into a communist family on July 9, 1933, Elem Klimov's parents constructed his first name as an acronym of Engels, Lenin, and Marx. In his 70 years, Elem Klimov made only five films: "Welcome, or No Trespassing" (1964), "The Adventures of a Dentist" (1965), "Agony" (1975) and "Farewell" (1981). The death of his much beloved filmmaker wife Larisa Shepitko in a car accident in 1979, eventually robbed Klimov of his artistic desire. Made in 1985, "Come and See" was Klimov's astounding final picture that would establish him as a filmic storyteller of untold narrative depth and intuitive sensitivity. The brave performances Klimov inspired in his actors in "Come and See" are in a class beyond any other.

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For the film, Klimov fashioned a detailed visual vernacular of dialectic cinematic form. His unique, rigorous narrative format compresses the overwhelming heartbreak of Hitler's War as an earth-shattering visceral experience. We feel the war's many jolts, shocks, and horrors with a force that pries into our bones. By the film's end, we witness a young boy's spirit so terribly ravaged by the horrors of war that he resembles an old man nearing the end of his life.

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When Klimov sat down to write the script with his collaborator Ales Adamovich, the ardently intellectual filmmaker crafted an acutely personal story about a peasant boy who goes to fight against Nazi troops occupying his native Belarus in 1943, after joining up with a ragtag army of partisan soldiers taking shelter in the middle of a wooded area.

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Objectively, "Come and See" is Elem Klimov's brave attempt to cinematically compartmentalize and contextualize his own wartime experiences as a nine-year-old boy escaping the battle of Stalingrad in the company of his mother and baby brother by raft across the burning Volga river while the city collapsed to the ground behind them. 

Klimov said of the indelible event, in relation to "Come and See," "Had I included everything I knew, and shown the whole truth, even I could not have watched it."

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Klimov establishes the narrative's peculiar social parameters with an old man holding a horsewhip while calling for two boys guilty of incessantly "digging."

"Playing a game? Digging? Well, go on digging you little bastards," the old man shouts at the boys. Dig they do.

From the distance we witness what seems to be a short, stout military officer carrying a stick and frothing at the mouth with recriminations for the little old man that he approaches with measured steps. We realize that the apparent military officer is, in fact, one of the little boys — speaking in a raspy fake adult voice, playing his imaginary role as a menacing armed forces commander.

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Exasperated, the old man who fathered at least one of the "bastards," gets on his horse and cart, telling his defiant son that if he won't listen to his father then he'll "listen to the cane." Klimov uses the vision of a young boy appearing as an old man to bookend the story as a manifestation of the war's aging effect on its survivors. No one will go unscathed. The once fresh-faced Florya will switch places with his young friend, whose fate falls to Nazi soldiers. Florya's young comrade deliberately chooses to comport himself as a veteran soldier. 

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Florya's smaller companion walks along the beach to find Florya laughing manically at nothing in particular while crouched down in the bushes. We are introduced to Florya as a child not in control of his behavior. There is already some madness present in his manic laughter. Florya is subordinate to his peer, who orders Florya to get back to work "digging." We, the audience, know already that everything is not right with the boys and their surroundings.

Klimov employs a powerful metaphor of the boys attempting to gain escape from the outside world by digging deeper into the earth. The oddly naturalistic scene exerts a primal human motivation at odds with the noisy warplanes that pass overhead.

Comeandsee

Buried in the sand up to his shoulders, Florya struggles with both arms to pull something from under the sand — it appears as if an unseen monster is swallowing up the innocent boy, attempting to drag him to the depths of hell. After much struggle, Florya excitedly extracts a prized rifle that he believes will give him entree into joining a partisan troop of soldiers so that he can help battle Hitler's rampaging armies.     

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A German recon warplane flies overhead to the sound of German radio-broadcast propaganda. Klimov will reuse the same archive footage of the bomber plane many times over during the course of the film as a repeating motif of deadly menace from above. The authentic historical reference contributes to an unrelenting rhythm of sudden violence and brutal spatial dilemmas that come at asymmetrical angles throughout the film. We are submersed helplessly into Florya's dark journey with an all-consuming involuntary commitment.

Aleksey Kravchenko

The endemic breakdown of family and society is confirmed in the next scene where Florya's frantic mother pleas directly to Klimov's empathetic camera for her son to take the axe that she places in his hands. She begs her son to kill her and her twin daughters rather than abandon the family to certain death at the hands of the enemy. Better to die at the hands of a family member than to suffer torture and death from the Nazis. Florya's peasant mother is disconsolate as she beats him with a bundle of rope, refusing to allow him to leave. But Florya is immune to his mother's panic. He winks at his little sisters while he holds the axe, playing a secret game with them. He still has a fleeting sense of humor that he will soon lose forever. Klimov returns again and again to these formal fourth-wall breaking compositions that incite the viewer to question our own emotional and intellectual connection to the horrible struggle of empathetic characters we relate to more as family members than as mere victims of war.

Two protestant soldiers peer in through the family's window before entering the home to take Florya to join a nearby regiment of soldiers. It is the last time that we will feel any sense of home or normal life in the film. The soldiers' politeness turns abruptly to that of menacing authority figures taking Florya with them as a willing prisoner.

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In the military camp, Florya meets a lovely but deranged teenaged girl named Glasha (disconcertingly played by Olga Mironova). It would be the only film role that Mironova would ever play. The wild-eyed stare of her steel-gray eyes makes Glasha as much of a potential monster as that of a would-be love interest for Florya to gravitate toward. Her sensuality and charisma is undeniable. That Glasha, dressed in a pretty green party dress, is carrying on an affair with the troop's boorish military chief only momentarily distracts from the extent of her mental instability. Inasmuch as we subjectively bestow sanity to the Partisan group's leader, Glasha is already a casualty of war. There is a contagious insanity in the air that infiltrates every character that Klimov introduces. Even nature seems to be in revolt.

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The film's first act closes with a group photograph of the ragtag troop that provides a formal tableau of thick narrative subtext — witness a wounded soldier bandaged like a mummy and a black female cow with "Eat me before the Germans do," written in white on its side. Desperation is the coin of the day.

Upon their departure, the ragtag troop abandons the young boy that the military chief has quietly deemed unsuitable for the demands of battle. Florya's inconsolable anguish at being deserted by his surrogate family boils to a breaking point when he accidentally steps on a nest of eggs, killing the tiny birds in a glimpse of nature made horribly grotesque by his unavoidable human brutality. It's this violent and immediate style of detailed poetic storytelling that grips you and drags at your senses with an inescapable urgency of survival. Klimov's precise use of graphic symbolism will steadily increase to a fever pitch in the film's stunning postmodern climax where a backward moving collage collapses Hitler's Pandora's box of death and the war that determines Florya's survival.

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The soldiers also abandon Glasha, whose sole purpose was sex. The two adolescent refugees cry into each other's eyes in a heartbreaking expression of raw emotion that Klimov captures with extended fourth-wall-breaking close-ups that intuitively editorialize on their fragile mental states. Florya recognizes Glasha's strange psychosis, but is unable to evade her spell. The pity that the soldiers take on the pair, by leaving them behind, backfires when a rash of falling German artillery shells permanently robs Florya of his hearing. The bombings are especially shocking for their violent realism that arrives suddenly with large swaths of forest ripped apart by earthquaking explosions accompanied by a high-pitched ringing that destroys Florya's hearing with tinnitus and wrecks his conscious mind.  

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Klimov utilizes Florya's sensory deprivation with a twisted soundscape that indoctrinates us into Florya's pain and panic via a claustrophobic sonic space that increases our sense of being badly wounded. The next morning, Florya and Glasha frolic in the rain in a brief reverie where they momentarily forget the impending danger that awaits them. Under the muted sounds of sped up radio music, Glasha does an impromptu Charleston-styled flapper dance atop Florya's rain-soaked suitcase.

Comeandsee

There's a dreamlike quality to the couple's short-lived musical respite before an outlandish pelican-type bird conveys an unnerving omen of unexplained incidents to follow. Wild animal life will play an important part of the image system filigree that Klimov uses to regularly connect the story to its ecological foundation in the rugged landscape of war-torn Belarus. 

Florya and troops

Klimov is commanding in his willingness to create abstract visual motifs, as when Florya returns to his mother's house with Glasha as his partner. He peers at his reflection down in a well while looking for his family. We view Florya through the back end of an organic cinematic telescope through which he sees himself. His sense of personal recognition is all but lost. Florya doesn't see the mangled bloody bodies of his family and neighbors piled high against the backside of what was once his family's home. Glasha looks back and views the carnage as they walk away from the area but refrains from alerting Florya to the horror behind them for fear of his potential reaction.

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Florya runs into a thick muddy swamp that he is compelled to cross, believing that his family is hiding on a small island that he must trudge through quicksand-like mud to get to. Glasha follows Florya into the mud. She holds onto the back of his coat as the young couple painfully make their way through the thick brown sludge. Klimov layers on subdued layers of musical textures and ambient sound to weave a theme of self-flagellation as assisted by Belarusia's uncontrolled topography that threatens to swallow up our protagonist and his mentally devastated female companion.

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Glasha betrays Florya the first chance she gets when a Belarusian peasant helps her escape the mud. The traumatized Glasha loudly explains that Florya's family was killed, and that now he is deaf and out of his mind. Through his muted hearing, Florya hears Glasha's cruel words. He reacts with a pained cry that fully expresses a depth of agony that imprints the film with an indelible image of victimization. Moments later, Florya will be led by peasants to the badly burned body of his friend's father, who speaks his last words about how he begged the Germans that set him on fire to kill him. A crowd of desperate peasants chant under Klimov's soundscape of blowing wind. Florya sees a trench coat-dressed effigy of Hitler with a human skull head that the peasants put clay on to make more lifelike. A group cut off Florya's hair before burying it as part of a cleansing ritual that reinvents the traumatized Florya as a walking ghost. 

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In the film's unpredictable third act Florya becomes a roaming independent soldier with a knack for barely escaping Nazi attacks. Florya's participation in expediting the extermination of a cornered group of Nazis by handing a gasoline filled can to a Nazi collaborator, is as suggestive an act as it is a literal one, for the Belarusian peasants will open fire on the Nazis before the fuel is ignited. Florya gains an historic perspective of Hitler that knows only annihilation. His hatred and fury seeks to eradicate the world of Adolph Hitler and his armies with severe prejudice. With his brain and body irreversibly changed, Florya has become the only thing that he will ever be capable of being for the rest of his life, a horribly disfigured soldier. 

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"Come and See" won the Moscow Film Festival's Grand Prize in 1985. Afterward, Elem Klimov was elected as first secretary of the Soviet Filmmakers' Union. During his two years on the post, Klimov oversaw the release of more than a hundred previously banned Soviet films. Elem Klimov went on to struggle with the idea of creating a film version of Bulgakov's "The Master and Margarita," and with making a film adaptation of Dostoevsky's "The Devils." However, in 2000, he gave up filmmaking because he felt that he had done "everything that was possible." The visionary Soviet filmmaker died on October 26, 2003 of cerebral hypoxia.

Elemklimov

Elem Klimov left behind a war film that accomplishes everything possible in cinema, and in so doing reinvents it. It eclipses every other war film by such a wide margin that there is no reason or impetus to watch any other. Come and see.

I first saw "Come and See" at the 1998 San Francisco Film Festival on advice from a pal who informed me that it was Sean Penn's favorite film. I can certainly see why Sean Penn feels the way he does about this brilliant movie.

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Criterion's stunning 2K digital restoration on Blu-ray gives "Come and See" the beauty that this remarkable 142 minute film deserves. The disc includes interviews and documentary films that shed further light on "Come and See." It is truly a must-own Blu-ray for cinephiles and movie lovers alike.

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Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.

February 12, 2020

MODEL SHOP

Model_shopSomewhere between Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time In Hollywood,” and Andrew Slater’s essential Laurel Canyon music scene documentary “Echo In The Canyon,” sits Nouvelle Vague reject Jacques Demy’s time-capsule of the romanticized, and sexualized, Viet Nam War era of Los Angeles, circa 1968.

“Model Shop” is a subtle anti-war film for the ages. L.A. might be sunny, but the filter of War turns the brightest colors gray. This is a movie you can dream into, even as nightmare glimpses of American sexual repression and capitalist culture of greed and war come and go.

Model shop

Hitchhiking, pot smoking, and a handsome lead throwing around a green-and-red 1952 MG convertible like a scattered rug, contribute to Demy’s uncanny study of shifting cultural moods that the city inspired before 1969 came crashing down on hippie culture like a mousetrap. Watergate finished the job a few years later.

Model-shop

Jacques Demy exhibits poetic affection for the sprawling beachside town where an oil rig sits only a few feet away from our rudderless protagonist George Matthews’s ramshackle bungalow that he shares with a shameless would-be actress Gloria (Alexandra Hay). Gloria wants to break up; George (Gary Lockwood) isn’t surprised and doesn’t care. Gloria wants to build a family, George wants to build a career, but doesn’t want to wait the 15 years it will take to develop a reputation that will have him designing gas stations. Then a draft notice arrives for George.

Nouvelle vague-inspired Leos Carax’s 1984 “Boy Meets Girl” shares “Model Shop’s” sense of existential dread for young male characters whose pending military duty colors their emotional interactions with the women they fall in love in short circumstances. Forget “meet-cute,” this is meet-horny-and-depressed, in that order. 

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The “Model shops” of the film’s title offer men an opportunity to pay to take Polaroid pictures of women in, or out, of their negligées in the privacy of a gaudy-colored room in a shady district of the Sunset Strip. Want to know more? I know you do.

George gets along much better with his male friends than he does with the fairer sex. In one of the film’s most inspired scenes, George visits the Laurel Canyon home of a musician pal. The two friends go into a home studio where George’s friend plays the music for a song he’s writing on a piano while his wife takes care of their baby elsewhere in the house. George silently grooves while sitting peacefully listening to his friend’s work-in-progress. However, when comes to communicating with women, George isn’t socialized nearly as well.

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When George sees a lovely woman in white (Anouk Aimée as Lola), he’s inspired to follow her. Discovering that Lola works at a model shop doesn’t dissuade him. Commodification of sexuality can’t be all bad, can it? George takes the bait and takes photos of her in a frilly nothing gown. Once home with the erotic photos and a joint in his hand in bed, George’s live-in girlfriend interrupts his would-be masturbation session. George can’t get a break but on this day of all days, he really needs one. Demy makes George’s inevitable sexual release a suspense element that increases in tension as the picture goes along.

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Gary Lockwood (he played Dr. Frank Poole in “2001: A Space Odyssey”) carries the same world-weary vibe of Robert Forster’s news cameraman in character Haskell Wexler’s similarly timed drama “Medium Cool” (1969). The two men look enough alike to have been brothers. Like Brad Pitt’s stunt double Cliff Booth in “Once Upon a Time In Hollywood,” Gary Lockwood worked in Hollywood as a stunt man. And similar to Leonardo Di Caprio’s Rick Dalton character, Gary Lockwood was a would-be leading man relegated to doing supporting roles on television.

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When he made “Model Shop,” Jacques Demy lived in L.A. with his wife, the great French New Wave maverick Agnes Varda. Overlapping storylines from Demy’s previous movies enter into the narrative at key points. Demy allows his personal history with French filmmaking to weave into the story at hand. Social commentary arrives via LA’s west side locations and streets, such as Santa Monica and Sunset Boulevards, that hold aromatic nostalgic importance for a pre-internet world when you didn’t have a cell phone crutch to rely on for information, human interaction, and social guidance. The war that rages in Viet Nam reverberates through L.A. like an invisible gas. America’s militarized corporate structure have put George in a maze full of dead-ends. At least he can appreciate the beauty and promise of Los Angeles for all of the good it will do him.   

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Rated PG. 97 mins. (B+) Three Stars

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Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.

July 03, 2018

SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO

Sicario_day_of_the_soldadoScreenwriter Taylor Sheridan cut his teeth on this film’s unimpressive prequel but his slack effort with a mucky melodramatic sequel is still no bueno.

Anyone looking for an equal amount of truth as you get from an episode of Hugh Laurie’s television-pleaser “House,” will be disappointed. This is agitprop junk politics in the interest of normalizing hellishly violent acts, frequently involving children, in the context of America’s raging border war against immigrant refugees. Exploitation is the genre at play, but not the cool one (see "Faster, Pussycat Kill! Kill!" for that). 

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Soldado is Spanish for soldier. You can guess which of this film’s four ostensible leading characters (Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Isabela Moner, Elijah Rodriguez) is the subject of the title. Keep in mind that two of the four are teenaged children.

Naturally, it is Josh Brolin’s square-jawed mercenary Matt Graver whose “day” involves kidnapping a teenage girl (Isabela Moner), dragging her through a series of grotesque episodes of war violence because that’s just how Matt rolls, deadly style. Never mind that the poor girl will probably never be able to speak again. That’s normal. Or so this movie wants you to believe.

Soldado

Don’t go looking for continuity between this movie and the first film. Any matching details are purely coincidental. In this nightmare view of the ongoing real-life nightmare of America’s self-imposed border crisis, U.S. President James Riley (Matthew Modine) is a warmonger nut job. President Riley has a sit-down with Josh Brolin’s roid-rager mercenary Matt Graver that births a plan to kidnap the teenage daughter of a prominent Mexican drug lord, sticking the blame on another cartel, and letting shite hit the fan. Stupid is as stupid does. War is the goal, endless wars and the fat military, mercenary, and prison price tags that come with it.

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We’re in an age where it’s a given that the U.S. Government deals strictly in corrupt activities. Suicidal body-bomb terrorists from New Jersey are rebranded as Cartel terrorists so the U.S. military can have carte blanch, as if they didn’t already have it before. Just to be clear, Mexican drug cartels are supposedly transporting Islamic terrorists across the border to the country that Mexico’s desperate immigrants are seeking safety within.

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Graver and his team (including Benicio Del Toro’s Alejandro) kidnap Isabela Reyes in the false flag operation.

Miguel, a start-up teen gangster (played by Elijah Rodriguez) is looking to come up fast in the local cartel when he spots Alejandro after nearly being run over. Miguel’s memory later sparks a shark-jumping double climax that lets its audience know this drawn-out melodrama of lawyers, guns, and money has its tongue firmly in cheek. Sure, there’s even a bloody hole in the cheek, just to prove it.

Sicario

Rated R. 122 mins. (D) (One star — out of five / no halves)

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Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.

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