The Wars of '98

I recently had the opportunity to revisit two films from 1998: Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line and Steven Spielberg's blockbuster Saving Private Ryan. It proved to be an interesting study in how personal perceptions change and movies age with time.

Like a lot of people, I was awestruck by the opening battle scene in Saving Private Ryan; like many of them, I was dumbfounded when the film was passed over for Best Picture in favor of chick flick piffle like Shakespeare in Love. I also saw The Thin Red Line in the theater soon after its release, and while I found it beautifully shot and certainly liked it, it by no means left the immediate impression upon me that Saving Private Ryan did. If you'd asked me at the time, I'd have told you that Malick's film simply lacked the memorable characters and exciting plotline of Saving Private Ryan. Looking back now, such a seems not only hasty, but to miss the entire point.

Ultimately, it's not so much that the characterization in Saving Private Ryan is so much fuller, but that we're already familiar with its characters from elsewhere, so it is easy to feel like we "know" them. In truth, after the undeniably visceral opening sequence, Saving Private Ryan turns into a fairly standard buddy/war movie, the whole "picked team of champions" motif we've seen time and again in movies like The Dirty Dozen and The Seven Samurai (the archetype of all films of this sort), but that has its roots in the epic and romantic literary traditions of almost every culture (but instead of the 47 Ronin seeking out retribution for their lord or the Knights of the Round Table searching for the Holy Grail, we get GIs on a morale mission). So what we get are stock characters: the bitchin' tough seargent, the feisty Brooklyn Jew, the REMF pussy, the pious southern sniper who prays bullets home (Spielberg strives for historical accuracy; if Saving Private Ryan had been set in Vietnam, I'm sure he would have cast Cuba Gooding Jr. in this role as the Magic Negro), and, of course, Tom Hanks in the role of Tom Hanks, Capt. Everyman.

Unlike Spielberg, Malick is unwilling to take the easy road. There are no memorable "characters" here (Nick Nolte as a Patton wannabe comes closest), because, unlike Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line isn't a movie about people and their choices, with war serving as a background and a tapestry on which weave a narrative, The Thin Red Line is a movie about war: its nature and the way it imposes itself upon the choices and lives of men. The real "protagonist" of The Thin Red Line is the Battle of Guadalcanal itself, and its character is developed, fully, deeply and with careful craftmanship.

The downside to this oblique approach is lost accessibility. The Thin Red Line rewards the attentive, patient viewer with a quietly brilliant film, but it's not buttered popcorn entertainment like Saving Private Ryan. The latter is a crowd pleaser that avoids hard questions. Its famed opening sequence was a gut punch the first time I saw it in the theater, a visceral, almost physical experience. Now the bouncing hand held camera shots and disorienting cuts seem like pandering artifice, and its naive moral clarity comes across as irresponsibly jingoistic. After witnessing 15 minutes of unremitting carnage inflicted upon American forces, we see the first German killed. When I saw it in the theater, half the audience cheered, which is clearly the reaction Spielberg was aiming for. During the extended periods of hokum between battle scenes, Tom Hanks' character indulges in self-important pop philosophy, but such contrived treacle can't cover up the simplistic moralism that underlies the whole picture. When the Pussy convinces Hanks not to murder a German soldier, the pardoned man appears later in the film just to slowly and sadistically stab one of the team members to death. I guess they should've wasted that Hun, no?

The Thin Red Line is something else entirely. Its power is rooted first in its structural rhythm, built from punctuating periods of suffocating tension (shot at a languid pace, and like Apocalypse Now and Platoon, using the claustrophobic beauty of the jungle to great effect) with the intense terror of battle (in this, mirroring war itself). The battle scenes themselves are constructed beautifully, and, reminiscent of Raging Bull, make a brutal poetry of violence through lyrical camera work. Cuts are kept to the bare minimum needed to convey the chaos of battle and, when closeups come, they don't focus pornographically on eviscerated and dismembered corpses (as in Saving Private Ryan), but on the faces and eyes of the officers and men. The emphasis is on the spiritual and psychological impact of war, rather than its purely physical toll. The final battle culminates in the capture of a Japanese position, and the slaughter of the handful of enemy troops who have surrendered. Malick refuses to justify or condemn this action, instead capturing it with a newsreel-like dispassion, simply documenting the moral ambiguity of war.
mr. turtle

(no subject)

Silent Hill

Silent Hill - Rose DeSilva (Radha Mitchell) looks for her daughter Sharon in a malevolent ghost town known as Silent Hill.

Being a fan of the beloved game franchise for years, I awaited this movie with bated breath. I come off with mixed feelings about it though they lean more towards the positive. I really feel that Christopher Gans captured the town's essence and the feelings of sheer terror found in the gameplay.

Parts of the movie are gross, disturbing, and the film overall is depressing. The monsters are horrifically real and truly inhuman creations. Truly, the movie is in its stride in the middle of the movie when Rose, sometimes accompanied by cop Cybil Bennet (Laurie Holden), is exposed to the various ghoulish creations and environments of the town's rotten core. Never has a film made me feel so terrified and very ill-at-ease. (I heard people laughing at points that seemed to be caused by excess tension that from actual mirth.) Though Johny Cash's "Ring of Fire" is amusingly used, there is very little to laugh about in the film. The rest of the music is taken directly from the games and is well used to cvreate a depressing atmosphere. Either you like it or you don't.

I should say "nothing intentionally written for you to laugh about" because a few bits of dialogue are kind of clumsy or unnecessary and caused me to grin slightly. I would've expected better of Roger Avary, writer of Pulp Fiction, but he probably gets tired of everyone comparing his stuff to that film.

The acting is mostly strong, and when it isn't, it sticks out like a big ol' sore thumb. Mitchell does well as Rose. Always showing concern for her daughter, never screaming too much or overacting. Holden plays good support. Sean Bean is completely wasted on the sidelines as Christopher, Rose's anxious husband desperately looking for her while the real story goes on. Why couldn't they have saved him for the sequel? I could almost see him almost yearning to do have some big part in the story. Instead, as it happened in North Country and Equilibrium, he is thrown away. Alice Krige is suitably creepy as Christabella, and Tanya Allen just sucks as Anna. Why did they include her? She brings down the quality of whatever scene she's in. Thankfully, she gets killed off. Unthankfully, it's one of the most gruesome things in the movie.

The secodn half of the movie doesn't hold up to the first half, and I really dislike that so many people are around the "ghost town". In the games, there were at most 6 people total in the town. Here, there's maybe 30. It really brings down the quality.

The movie ending (and hell, the entirety of the movie) is likely to be confusing for most and depressing for all if they figure it out. In any case it's a bloody good scare and a must see for horror afficionados. For Silent Hill fans, a mixed bag. I'm still unsure where I stand on Gans interpretation. There was a lot he did I like and some that I really didn't like. I might appreciate it more with repeated viewings.

This gets a B/B-
mr. turtle

Lucky Number Slevin

Lucky Number Slevin – A case of mistaken identity lands Slevin (Josh Hartnett) into the middle of a war being plotted by two of the city's most rival crime bosses: The Rabbi (Ben Kingsley) and The Boss (Morgan Freeman). Slevin is under constant surveillance by relentless Detective Brikowski (Stanley Tucci) as well as the infamous assassin Goodkat (Bruce Willis) and finds himself having to hatch his own ingenious plot to get them before they get him.

Wow! This is quite the clever movie. One of the things that attracted me was the dialogue. It is quirky, brainy and quick-witted. Josh Hartnett, who I enjoyed in the widely ignored Hollywood Homicide, delightfully displays this verbal black belt in karate that sadly does not extend to his physical fighting skills. He gets the crap beaten out of him quite frequently. He keeps the movie going with charm and our sympathy for his being in such a crappy situation. Anymore about him would be spoilers, but suffice to say it’s very entertaining. Lucy Liu plays his love interest. Her scenes with him are about 10 times as entertaining as the entirety of Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle. Though that doesn’t say much at all, I grew to care about their relationship.

Another thing I was quite grateful for was the presence of Morgan Freeman. His sultry voice is, for once, not acting as narrator or warm support to the lead. He plays one of the villains, and does so with silky menace. I was also glad to see Ben Kingsley in something of quality for a change. After Thunderbirds, Species and (ugh) BloodRayne, I thought he’d finally given up on doing anything worthy of his skills. He didn’t have anything too too challenging to do, but I enjoyed his little monologue near the end. Bruce Willis is…. Bruce Willis. If you like the persona he brings in his films (I enjoyed his young cop a little more than his old cop) this is it with a heavy mystique added. To be fair, he was a wild card and was completely unpredictable.

Of course, completely unpredictable could be the name of this movie. Without revealing anything I can tell you that almost everything said and done comes out of left field. The story is so good and the exposition is skillfully prepared, (by director Paul McGuigan) so the lags are minimal and any confusion felt is momentary. If you like your suspense…..suspenseful, than this is for you. My only real critique is that I can’t imagine anyone would want to see the movie more than once. Also, if you’re looking for any depth or greater meaning, aside form its layers, there is none. But it’s an excellent and what’s more, intelligent movie. And that deserves notice.

Lucky Number Slevin gets an A-
mr. turtle

V for Vendetta

V for Vendetta - World War III has come and gone, and the mistakes of the past have come 'round full circle. The people of Great Britain, in fear of the plague and chaos that resulted in the "States", have handed their rights away to the church, and a Hitler-esquire ruler (John Hurt) for protection. But not all hope is lost, for an anarchist has come to save us from ourselves. His name is V (Hugo Weaving) and he has not forgotten "freedom" and it is not just a word to him.

This is an excellent movie. It hits hard the problems of today. As we find ourselves being robbed of our civil liberties by a pack of sniveling fear-mongers. As we find ourselves in a world where our religion has quickly become the only thing that matters, and crimes committed by those that claim to be heads of religion are allowed to get away with horrid crimes. As we find that the line between "hero" and "villain" is quite easy to cross, if it exists at all.

Hugo Weaving deserves an Oscar nomination at least. He won't get it, but someones got to admit that it's pretty damn hard to act and show emotion and charisma inside a mask. He is a formidable presence as the charming and devilish anarchist V. Natalie Portman isn't quite as good, but she's still very convincing as the vulnerable, but not too vulnerable Every.

As one of my earlier comments might have indicated, I was grimly satisfied at the inclusion of a pedophile priest. SOMEONE had to include it in a movie sometime.

The effects are spectacular and the dialog is too. I enjoyed the brutal hard hitting fight sequences quite a bit.

It will be snubbed all around, but V for Vendetta is an amazing movie with numerous references to our own situation with George W. Bush, the 1930s syphilis testings, the the Nazi rise to power and the Holocaust (all four of which could occur over and over again).

Who knew one of the most important messages could come in a comic book movie? V for Vendetta gets an A.