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The War Lover (1962)
A Mixed Bag but Good Overall
"The War Lover" isn't the greatest movie ever made, but it has some very good elements. The scenes of airmen inside B-17 bombers are excellent, with very good views of flight uniforms, equipment, flying instruments and the cramped conditions. The fearful aspects of aerial combat are also shown quite effectively. Some of the sound effects are muffled, but the general experience of flying on bombing missions over enemy territory is well portrayed.
Steve McQueen gives an excellent performance. While his character "Buzz" Rickson is often arrogant and amoral, McQueen is mesmerizing. He also nicely shows how Rickson has moments of compassion towards others. Its good to see a character like Rickson depicted in a way that's not completely black-and-white. Robert Wagner does a very good job as McQueen's co-pilot, a man with more decency and quiet character than Rickson, but who is also flawed like all of us. Unfortunately, while Shirley Anne Field is beautiful and shows some charm, she does a poor job of acting.
"The War Lover" is especially good at showing the toll of war, and how men of various characters and backgrounds are thrown together in the military. And it is very frank about the sexual promiscuity that is often a part of war. While the movie effectively shows these things, it does so in ways that are not as explicit as many movies of today might do.
The editing of "The War Lover" is quite poor at times, with a choppy quality, and minor characters sometimes pop up here and there in a confusing way. Overall, though, the film is very worthwhile for viewers who are interested in character studies and war movies.
Apocalypse Now (1979)
A Few Great Moments but Many Poor Ones
"Apocalypse Now" shows some greatness here and there, but its also one of the most over-rated movies. Its a very good illustration of why egotistical directors often need someone to make big cuts in their work due to self-indulgence. Here and there, much of "AN" stretches on seemingly endlessly, with very little compensation in imagery, especially in the longer version. Some of the images and other elements might satisfy those with a taste for the surreal, but that's not a lot to say for such a long movie. And often "surreal" is just a fancy name for pretentiousness.
The whole French episode is silly, and seems pretty pointless except to show that the French once had a presence in Vietnam, and to exhibit the physical attributes of one French actress. Much of the dialog in this segment is unintentionally comical too, including at a funeral. The French episode along with an extended stay with some stranded Playboy bunnies badly break up the continuity of the plot, with very long interludes in which nothing much happens except for some sophomoric humor in the case of the bunnies. On the other hand, an advantage of the longer movie version over the one initially released in theaters is that it includes a few brief clips early on which reveal a bit more about the major characters on the boat.
I'm unimpressed by the characterizations throughout the movie. The characters mostly seem as if they were pulled from a comic book. For those who remember the old Sergeant Rock comic books, AN is sort of like a spacy, cynical, hip version of them. And its fashionable nowadays to criticize earlier war movies for their inclusion of soldiers from all walks of life: the poor kid, the farm boy, the immigrant, the rich kid, etc. AN, for all its pseudo-sophistication, does a 1970's version of this, particularly with the boat crew.
For me, Dennis Hopper and Robert Duvall are by far the best elements of the movie. Hopper as a wacked-out, guru-following photographer is very much like a few 1960's relics whom I've known, and he nicely captures their wackiness, obsessions and paranoia. Robert Duvall is also good as the cocky, driven, combative officer who shows flashes of compassion. He and Hopper were much more memorable than the main characters in the boat, except maybe for the Fishburne character nicknamed "Clean." Brando shows off his weirdness, which is somewhat appropriate for the role of Kurtz. For my taste, it would have been more satisfying to see Kurtz more, but the filmmakers probably wanted to keep some mysteriousness about him, which is legitimate.
Don't watch AN thinking that this is a "Vietnam movie." Please people, remember that you won't get history from movies like this! Sure, AN shows some of the absurdity and horror of that war, but there is absurdity and horror in every war, and in many other major human undertakings. AN does touch upon a few aspects of Vietnam such as the jungle settings, draftees, poor morale in some sectors, and no front lines, but it seems to fit more into some sort of adventure/mythology/noir genre than a realistic depiction of war.
On the plus side, AN serves at times as a pretty good adventure story, or it would if it was drastically cut. Much of the credit for its good story elements and major themes should go to Joseph Conrad, who wrote Heart of Darkness upon which AN is very loosely based. The combat scenes with the Air Cavalry are also pretty well done, and some of the imagery is nice and imaginative, such as the boat floating underneath a wrecked plane. Overall, though, the sophomoric humor and pretentiousness which saturate this movie are big flaws.
Talk, Poignancy & anti-PC
"Metropolitan" is like a little piece of jewelry which is beautiful and a bit ornate, and still unpretentious (maybe someone else described it this way too--I don't mean to plagiarize!). It might not sound like the most entertaining movie to watch, but for me its very enjoyable. It has lots and lots of talk, which isn't everyone's cup of tea, but its also a refreshing change from so many movies which bang you over the head with loudness, violence and graphic sex. And many of its characters are very likable. People like me whose idea of a good time includes an evening with friends playing board games would feel a close kinship with the kids portrayed here.
One of Whit Stillman's many strengths is that he goes against today's Hollywood stereotype of showing all rich people as evil, idiotic or guilt-ridden. From what I've read about him, he is very familiar with the world of the American wealthy, and so he knows what he's talking about. More importantly, he's also very good at showing human nature in general. In his movies, people with lots of money include nice people and jerks, and that's how it is, of course, in all classes of people.
One funny segment shows the big hurdles that the characters Tom and Charley have to overcome when they try to drive from Manhattan to Long Island--most of us wouldn't have as much trouble, but because of Tom and Charley's privileged background they don't have an easy time of it. Yet Stillman doesn't belittle them or turn them into caricatures. They come across as fully human and people with whom we can empathize.
Stillman also includes moral messages in his movies, but thankfully they are unlike the heavy-handed, politically-correct and dreary messages in so many other movies. I don't know if he is a Christian or not, but he shows subtle respect in all three movies for Christian values, which has been a rarity during the past few decades in Hollywood. I doubt, though, whether Pat Robertson would be likely to recommend his films, as they show a wide variety of human virtues and vices without simple black-and-white messages.
In addition to a sort of mini-epic storyline involving Tom, Charley and Audrey, there are several little entertaining side-shows throughout the movie, often consisting of get-togethers amongst a circle of friends. The slightly eccentric character of Nick is especially funny and appealing throughout, and helps tie things together. Charley, Tom and Audrey are good portrayals of nice, bright but awkward adolescents, and although they move in rich Manhattan circles, they go through much of the teenage angst that other less fortunate kids experience, and they serve as sort of "Everyman" characters.
"Metropolitan" isn't as polished as Stillman's other two excellent movies, "Barcelona" and "The Last Days of Disco," but its my favorite of the three because of its characters. There is humor throughout, and lots of poignancy.
Il portiere di notte (1974)
"There Is No Cure"
A controversial and shocking movie? Definitely, and the way some people today profess to be jaded about "The Night Porter" says more about our current culture than about the movie itself. Other persons who experienced the Holocaust first-hand have reacted negatively towards it for its portrayal of a destructive but loving relationship born amidst the Holocaust. Their objections are certainly understandable. There has also been, though, an awful lot of politically-correct garbage and pretentious nonsense written about "The Night Porter," much of which has missed or misinterpreted some of the strongest elements of the movie.
When I first saw "The Night Porter" in the early 1980's, it certainly had the power to shock me and many others, yet at the same time it offered a depth of aesthetic experience well beyond just shock for its own sake. These aesthetic qualities produce a sense of doom and sadness, yet also show beauty and love amidst the hopelessness.
Dirk Bogarde gives a really masterful performance as Max, a former Nazi SS man who bears a huge burden of guilt. After World War II, Max works at the main desk of a gorgeous old hotel in Vienna. Here he re-encounters Lucia, who survived the Nazi concentration camps, where she was a victim of Max's sadism. Bogarde's Max, and Charlotte Rampling as Lucia, do not say a word at first during their unexpected postwar encounter in the hotel, yet their understated expressiveness speaks paragraphs. The most controversial parts of the movie show the sort of sado-masochistic relationship which the two resume soon afterwards. While this relationship is very disturbing, with Max's sometimes cruel nature and the destructiveness of the mutual attraction, there is also a kind of love expressed by the two towards each other. Lucia is certainly a victim, yet she also consciously holds a power over Max. The sado-masochism is not glamourized, and I don't see any suggestion that these two lovers are any sort of role models. Yet they also evoke sympathy.
Throughout the movie, Bogarde is able to show a wide range of thoughts and emotions by just a slight movement of the corner of his mouth, or by the raising of an eyebrow. Rampling shows vulnerability and also the power that she has over Max. She sometimes appears like a sleek, sly cat, and at other times clearly like the victim of the camp horrors. Other actors such as Philippe Leroy, Isa Miranda and Amedeo Amodio also do a nice and sometimes subtle job of expressing the psychic state of their characters. Another character, an Italian who survived awful times, appears like a dog who has been beaten and fears another whipping.
"The Night Porter" can be slow-moving, yet this is punctuated by some very vivid scenes. For me, the most striking one is a flashback to a time during the war when Bert, a Nazi associate of Max, puts on a performance for a group of SS men and women, to the accompaniment of some gorgeous classical music. Not only does the scene seem to have a very sinister quality, but Amodio as Bert expresses an emotional longing which has important repercussions. There is also another very eerie flashback showing a musical, cabaret-style performance by Lucia for her SS captors. Something of the corruption, moral bankruptcy and hopelessness of Nazism is conjured up by this scene.
On the downside, some of the minor characters are portrayed in a caricaturish way, the voice dubbing can be off-putting, and some plot elements towards the end of the movie are at times very silly. Through those failures, though, I think the movie still succeeds aesthetically. Partly this is due to the appealing yet melancholy and ominous musical score by Daniele Paris and others, the disturbing magnetism of Max and Lucia, and the cinematography. Throughout the movie the beautiful, fascinating city of Vienna almost seems a character in itself.
"The Night Porter" is certainly not for everyone. In addition to its portrayal of a very disturbing, unconventional love relationship, it has a few brief scenes of graphic sex, and small bits of the ugliness of the camps. For those who don't mind getting through those parts, its aesthetic qualities can be very rewarding. Be warned though that the movie contains much ugliness along with its beauty. As Lucia says to someone who is trying to use pschoanalytical games to avoid his guilt and shame, "There is no cure."
Daniel Boone (1964)
Enjoyable, Kid-Friendly & Refreshingly Non-PC!
The "Daniel Boone" series is uneven in its qualities, but overall its a good program. Fess Parker presents a stoic, humble and admirable Daniel Boone, who fights for fair play. Blood and gore is kept to a minimum, but there is still plenty of adventure and suspense. The acting by lesser characters is sometimes poor, especially in some of the middle and later episodes, but Parker, Ed Ames, Patricia Blair and Dallas McKennon keep things good. And the show is meant to be fun. While it often presents a moral, it doesn't have the dreary, preachy quality that so many shows from the '70s onwards have.
There are historical inaccuracies, such as Eastern Woodland Indians living in teepees rather than wigwams, Whites not always wearing the costumes of the time, a mixed-up chronology, and Daniel having the ability to quickly dash off from Kentucky to the eastern colonies almost at will. And some episodes with historical figures such as Lafayette, Aaron Burr, Beaumarchais and Patrick Henry are fictionalized. On the other hand, the show preserves some of the spirit of the frontier and the period, which is not often seen these days. Also, the real Daniel Boone was a humane, honorable man who was highly respected by many Indians and Whites of his day, as he is portrayed in the series.
Its very striking how different "Daniel Boone" is compared with current-day movies and TV shows. In "Daniel Boone," Daniel and his half-breed friend Mingo are definitely heroes. Mingo, who was taken to England as a boy and educated at Oxford, has a deep love for classical European literature, music and philosophy. The goodness of the American Revolutionary cause is assumed. While some of the enemy British soldiers and Indians are treacherous, several of them are also shown as being decent and honorable. Daniel and many of his friends believe in and fight for freedom, private property, law and civilization. Some of the white frontiersmen are bad, but some are good, and many are just trying to find a better life in Kentucky for their families.
If "Daniel Boone" was produced by the politically-correct and supposedly "open-minded, enlightened" Hollywood people of today, Daniel would be a psychologically-conflicted man, continually fighting his rapacious urges that stem from his white culture. Mingo would decide to go completely native and would be continually ashamed of his British education. Daniel's Indian enemies would be shown as wholly noble and innocent, and they would never commit any atrocities unless in retaliation for worse ones done by the Whites. The American Revolutionaries would get their only legitimate ideas from the Indians. And the worst villains of all would be the English, since in today's Hollywood the pre-Socialist English are considered the world's worst villains ever. Anyone who has closely studied history knows that these politically-correct stereotypes are far from the truth, but its shocking how prevalent they are today.
Therefore, with its flaws, "Daniel Boone" still presents entertaining stories, admirable characters, and some of the fighting spirit and concern for fair play of the past, and that's enough for it to earn good marks with me.
I Want to Live! (1958)
Does the Empress Have No Clothes?
Contrary to what many have said, I believe that Susan Hayward's performance in this movie is way over the top in the sense of over-acting. For me this detracts from the movie. She certainly is effective at times in portraying a tough, passionate character, but I wouldn't call it a realistic portrayal. Often, her melodramatic outbursts are unintentionally funny.
I also resent the way the movie strongly suggests that her character was innocent of murder, since the known facts seem to be present a much more uncertain case. Granted, movie-makers should have some license to present things as they see fit, but they should also be called on the carpet when their interpretations are questionable.
The movie does contain some well-done elements, such as the frenetic, jazzy score, and the suggestiveness of the sleazy side of life.
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Yes, "Saving Private Ryan" has very graphic action scenes which are more realistic than the average war movie, but there are other aspects in which it fails in being authentic: the attitudes, behaviors and values of the people in the time period which the movie depicts. In particular, some of the major and minor characters of "S.P.R." exhibit very self-absorbed characteristics which would have been very uncommon among regular troops during World War II. Sure, people have some of the same feelings and other characteristics throughout history, and soldiers frequently grumble and are cynical, but the people shown in this movie tend to reflect much more what 1990's guys were like rather than 1940's men. For a war movie which does a better job of showing 1940's troops, try "Battleground."
Like many others here, I like war movies to be authentic in depicting things like uniforms, equipment and tactics, and "S.P.R." is successful in some of this, but to me it is more important for a movie to be accurate in depicting character, attitude and the actual events that occurred, and in this "S.P.R" is very lacking. It does a better job of demonstrating Spielberg's 1990's limousine-liberal biases. This is especially seen in the character depictions. Another kind of example which is comparatively minor is how the German troops' haircuts in "S.P.R." tend to look more like those of late-20th Century skinheads than what German SS and Wehrmacht troops usually wore.
Also, I think that the reviewer James Bowman makes a good point about movies such as "S.P.R." and "Flags of Our Fathers:" "...perhaps showing too much respect for the suffering is not to show enough respect for the man. For if we suppose, as some of us still do, that these men suffered for something to wit, their duty, their honor, their country don't these thing deserve just a little bit of respect as well?..."
To get an idea of what the Normandy Campaign was like, you would be much better off reading non-fiction accounts of it, and listening to comments by actual men who were there. It takes much more than gushing blood, flying body parts and the message "War is hell" to constitute a great war film. If you want to see cinematic movies which do a better job than "S.P.R." of depicting some of the general look and feel of war, and the characters and attitudes of people of the World War II period, try "Talvisota" and "Der Untergang." Also, "A Bridge Too Far" is very good, especially for a blockbuster-type movie. "A Bridge Too Far" has a few very minor inaccuracies, some composite characters and some simplifications of the real events, but it does an excellent job of showing the characters of troops and civilians, and it is mostly factual. "The Longest Day," while it includes some Hollywood flourishes, also is very good. It doesn't have the special effects and combat realism of "S.P.R.," but it is almost completely based on facts, which counts for a lot with me, and for which I rank it much higher than "S.P.R." "The Longest Day" also has one of the most impressive large-scale depictions of combat in any movie, showing the storming of a German position by a Free French unit.
With all of its technical flash, the 1993 "Stalingrad" movie is very disappointing. Before watching it I had read non-fiction accounts of the Stalingrad campaign and had seen a lot of documentary footage and photographs of the actual battle and its participants. I don't think that any movie can really succeed in depicting the titanic struggle and suffering that actually occurred, but I still wanted to see what a relatively recent German movie production would be like. While there are a few good elements of this movie, overall it is a failure. To me the worst aspect is that it includes substantial anachronisms, and also some very contrived and clichéd elements, most glaringly in some encounters between a German officer and a Soviet woman.
Also there are some ideological elements in the movie which result in very distorted perceptions, including what amounts to a caricature of a German chaplain, some overblown class-warfare messages, and problematic depictions of "good" vs. "bad" Germans. Certainly the German Armed Forces of World War II included men who were able to maintain some decency throughout the war, and others who did very bad things, but the attempts in the movie to show this contrast are very simplistic and childish. I give "Stalingrad" credit in the sense that it doesn't completely portray German troops in the simple demonic quality which is the stereotype that many people now have, yet the movie includes stereotypes of its own, such as an almost too-good-to-be-true infantryman who has attitudes more akin to the 1990's than the 1940's, and two completely evil infantrymen and a rear-echelon officer.
Some recent movies such as "Stalingrad" and "Saving Private Ryan" are frequently praised for their "authenticity" in depicting graphic scenes of combat, yet these same movies are deeply flawed and distorted in their depictions of the attitudes, values and behaviors of 1940's soldiers and civilians. "Stalingrad" and "S.P.R" have major and minor characters who lack the unselfconscious stoicism that was common among regular people during the World War II period. Certainly soldiers throughout history have been notorious for their frequent grumbling and occasional cynicism, yet the self-absorbed, talky and touchy-feely characters in both of these movies are something else, and are much more prevalent in our world of today than they were in the 1940's. While many people these days like to denigrate war movies from the 40's and 50's which present more patriotic messages and aren't as graphic about combat, many of those earlier movies such as "Battleground" are much more accurate in their depictions of typical soldiers' attitudes, and they are often successful in showing the horrible effects of war in more indirect ways.
One well-done part of "Stalingrad" is a battle between German infantry and Soviet tanks, which does a reasonable job of capturing some of the horror and confusion in such combat.
"Stalingrad" does a poor job though of showing the common look of the frontline soldier. Part of this might be due to the difficulty in finding thin, haggard-looking extras in our pampered and well-fed America and western Europe of today. Also, too many of the German troops in the movie don't wear their uniforms and equipment properly, and don't display the professional bearing that was common in the German Wehrmacht even during the years of German defeat. If you want to get a good idea of how the actual German troops looked, I recommend the following documentaries which contain footage of the Stalingrad campaign: "The World at War," "War of the Century" and "Russia's War." Also the books "Operation Barbarossa in Photographs" by Paul Carell, "Stalingrad" by Geoffrey Jukes and "Stalingrad" by Paul Carell contain a great many helpful photos. Books written about the battle by Antony Beevor and William Craig are recommended also, and the latter one is especially good about the common soldiers and civilians on both sides.
Relatively recent movies which, in my opinion, are much better than "Stalingrad" and "Saving Private Ryan" in depicting attitudes and characters of persons during World War II, and the general feel, look, horror and grittiness of that war, are "Der Untergang" ("The Downfall") and "Talvisota" ("The Winter War"). While "A Bridge Too Far" and "The Longest Day" cover events on the Western Front rather than in the East, they are also excellent war movies, and stick very close to factual accounts. The latter two movies lack some of the grit that is more prevalent in more recent films, but they compensate for that lack with their other strengths, including truthfulness.
I was impressed by how well this TV movie tells the story of the 1966 kidnapping and related events. I was a small child when the actual events happened and so I only had vague memories of them, but "Cry in the Wild" seems to mostly stay true to the factual accounts that I've read, including newspaper articles and the book Deadly Pursuit. Even some of the dialog is factual.
I also especially like how it tells the story without sensationalism, especially compared with over-the-top movies and TV programs that are so commonly seen these days. At the same time the plot moves along well. There are a few fictional elements that might have been added, but they seem relatively minor. There's also some forced, unrealistic dialog that "sets the scene," but that seems mostly confined to the beginning. The characters are treated with respect, and in some cases some depth. From what I read, Peggy Ann was pretty level-headed and perceptive for her age, and that comes through in the portrayal of her. The kidnapper evokes fear and also pity. The dedication of FBI agents, PA State Police, other lawmen, family and others who helped out in the case also comes through well.
Excellent, Haunting Documentary
This is a tremendously moving documentary about suffering and sacrifices in the Soviet Union during the Stalin years. It includes little-seen film footage of the pre-World War II years, and striking images throughout. There are also interviews with survivors of the Gulags and World War II, and with some individuals who were directly acquainted with Stalin. The musical sound track nicely enhances the program, and I think that Nigel Hawthorne's dispassionate narration is very good--much more effective than a melodramatic reading would be. While the program is very educational, I also found it to be emotionally and intellectually gripping, and artfully done throughout.
Some of the marketing of "Russia's War" misleadingly suggests that it is entirely about the World War II years. While the program covers the war on the Russian Front in-depth, it also contains significant portions that describe the years before and after the war. This includes Stalin's consolidation of power, his attempts to establish a Communist industrial power, the purges and many other crimes committed by the Communist regime during his rule, and the end of Stalin. Sadly, many people outside of the former Warsaw Pact nations are much less acquainted with the atrocities of the Communists than with those which were committed by the Nazis. One of the reasons for this might be the relatively small amount of film footage of the Gulags and other Communist camps that has been shown in the West. "Russia's War" presents haunting images of persons being tried in Communist show trials, transported to labor camps, and working in slave labor projects (Anne Applebaum's book Gulag offers a useful history of the Gulag system, in case this documentary encourages you to read further). Also, watch for some film footage showing an assembly of Communists who are desperate to show their devotion to Stalin--it is a small yet clear example of the absurd level which Communist totalitarianism reached.
Much time is also spent on the World War II years, including the experiences of all levels of the military and civilians. Interviews are included with servicemen and women of various branches, resistance fighters, and several civilians. The major campaigns are covered, such as the opening of Barbarossa, the German drive towards Moscow, the Siege of Leningrad, the battles of Stalingrad and Kursk, and the Soviet advance towards Germany. Some lesser-known incidents are described also, such as the self-sacrifice of some very young Soviet soldiers in front of Moscow. Pictures of these soldiers are shown while Hawthorne describes their fate, briefly but very movingly.
A little-known element of the war which is explored is the relationship between civilians, Soviet partisans and other resistance groups. Some resistance groups fought both the Nazis and the Soviets, and many civilians were also caught in the middle. While the Soviet partisans accomplished much against the Germans, many of them were far from being the heroes which Soviet propaganda claimed.
Other aspects of how Soviet civilians survived and died in the countryside and the cities are investigated, including the massive suffering of Jews under both Hitler and Stalin.
The program does not include interviews with Germans who were involved in the war and occupation in Russia, although this is to be expected because of the focus of the documentary. "Russia's War" does include a wealth of film footage showing the German military in action, and scenes behind the German lines.
It also presents one of the most haunting images of misery that I have seen: the face of a Soviet soldier who is wearily eating while on the march, and who looks towards the camera. Sadly, this program presents many other images which are comparable. At the same time, along with all of the misery and oppression that is documented, there are stories included that are deeply inspiring.