The Continuous Horror of War (1917, 2019)

1917_PosterHonestly, the trailers for 1917 did not really grab me. War movies are not something I tend to get excited for. But then, I saw all the talk from people whose opinions I trust that it is a must see film, and more importantly worth seeing in the theater.

So, this weekend, I finally got the opportunity to sit down and watch the film in my local cineplex.  I tried to avoid getting my hopes set too high.

And I tell you this much…the film was amazing to watch.  By now, it is pretty well known that it is set up to look like one long and continuous shot, following two young soldiers in World War One given the mission to cross the German front line to warn a general that their planned attack needs to be halted, as it is a trap.

This is how you use a gimmick to tell a story. We stay with soldiers Blake and Schofield as they make their way through the treacherous landscape, which means we never see the dangers or threats until they come upon them.

Blake is more idealistic than Schofield, but both clearly struggle with the weight on their shoulders, the burden of the war.

While the whole film is impressive, the sequence that really blew may away is the night time sequence. Often we only see from the light cast by fires and explosions and flares. This creates a moment of great uncertainty and beauty as the scene brightens and then shadows rush over the landscape.

If you have not seen 1917 yet and it is still at your local theater? Check it out.  It is worth seeing in the theater.

Friendship is Magic (Jojo Dancer, 2019)

Jojo_Rabbit_PosterJojo is a young boy living in Hitler’s Germany.  He aspires to be a great Nazi, to the point that the ten year old’s imaginary best friend is Adolf Hitler. After getting wounded at a Nazi gathering for Hitler Youth, these hopes are dashed. Instead, Jojo has to stay behind and support the Nazis through canvasing with propaganda.

But his life takes an even bigger turn when he discovers his mother is helping hide a young jewish woman named Elsa in their house.

Jojo Rabbit is a fascinating film.  It delivers lots of laughs, of course, in part due to the fact that it falls into a long history of presenting the Nazis as buffoons. Sam Rockwell is the disillusioned military man who has lost his faith in the cause of the Nazi regime. Rebel Wilson is the more devoted but goofy (at one point telling the kids at camp she has had eight babies for Germany).

Scarlett Johansson turns in a solid performance as the rebellious mother of Jojo, who hides her activities from Jojo to protect both him and herself.  She loves her son deeply, and hopes to turn him from his being a Nazi back to her son…a little boy.

Taika Waititi plays Hitler.  And he pulls off a stunning transformation. Early in the film, he is funny and almost sweet. When Jojo is humiliated by some older boys at Nazi Camp-giving him the Rabbit Nickname- Adolf tells him what a brave and noble animal a rabbit is. But as a friendship with Elsa grows, Hitler starts to become more menacing. He is really the dark ideology Jojo clings to, and as Jojo finds himself questioning it, the poison festers and fights to maintain dominance.

Roman Griffin Davis gives a great performance as young Jojo.  He has a sweetness that seems to conflict with his belief in the Nazi ideology, and ultimately, that nature starts to assert dominance. He also has a wonderful chemistry with Thomasin McKenzie. At first, she is abrasive with him as a survival tactic, but more and more their walls break down for each other.

Truthfully, the trailers did not prepare me at all for the film.  Because, yes, it is funny. And it challenges the viewer with uncomfortable moments. But it also is heartfelt and hopeful. And Heartbreaking. There are gut punch moments I was not anticipating. The film is unafraid to acknowledge the horror and evil of the Nazis, even while laughing at them.  And, maybe that is how it should be?

While Todd Phillips complains that comedy is too hard in today’s environment… Taika Waititi on the other hand makes a film that has laughs and heart. It has moments of raw and painful emotion that gets at the center of our conflicts and growing past our ills. Jojo Rabbit looks at us at our darkest and dares to call for hope. It calls on us to dance.

Hope in Retreat (Dunkirk, 2017)

Dunkirk_PosterThe Nazi’s are on the march across Europe.  In the French city of Dunkirk, the Allies have been beaten back.  The British and the French are trying to get out before they are overtaken by the Nazi armies.

The British are waiting for ships to arrive and bring the troops home.  But they are facing regular air barrages from the Germans.

The Allies recruit boats from local small boat captains.  They go on their way to try and retrieve the soldiers, and at the same time, a small group of British pilots try and provide the boats cover.

The film starts with breaking down the story into three parts.  Earth (where the soldiers wait), sea (following a boat on it’s way to Dunkirk), and air (following three pilots).  When you see the immense number of soldiers waiting for rescue, it becomes clear why Nolan made this choice.  On the ground, we follow Tommy and Gibson, two very young soldiers.  They are trying to get on a ship, and end up getting bumped to the front of the line when they risk their lives carrying a wounded soldier on a stretcher to a medical boat.  But the soldiers face a horror as German planes bomb the ship and they can only watch as a ship full of wounded men sink into the sea.

We also get to see the concerns of the top officers who are trying to get their soldiers out.  While they are making every effort, they are given some instructions that trouble them.  Specifically, they are told to leave the French soldiers behind.

The sea focuses on a small vessel driven by Mr. Lawrence, Peter and George.  Early on, they pick up the only survivor of another ship that has been sunk.  This soldier (Cillian Murphy in a role credited only as “Shivering Soldier”) is terrified when he finds out they are going to Dunkirk.  We never see exactly what he has witnessed, but he is adamant they return to Britain.

Air is focused on pilots Farrier and Collins.  They are two of three planes trying to shoot down as many Germans as they can and save as many soldiers as possible.

On it’s face, Dunkirk seems like an odd choice of World War 2 Events,  Most World War 2 films seek to focus on the great victories, especially against great odds. And, certainly, there is an aspect of that here.  But Dunkirk was a moment in which the Allies faced a defeat and had gone into retreat.

However, it is clear to see why the British see this as such an important moment of their history.  This is about finding hope and unity in moments of great defeat. It does not shy away from the cruelty of war, even though it is never as graphic as say, Saving Private Ryan.  Nolan looks at the demons of war, but also sees where humanity can shine.  We see men, both soldier and citizen uniting to survive.  To get back alive and rebuild.

Nolan’s use of audio, both in sound and the music, are in top form here.  The intensity is constantly building as music blends with the sounds of ships and planes.  Much of Dunkirk was actually filmed on the beach of Dunkirk, adding to the reality and weight of the film.

Nolan has created a powerful epic that looks at the destruction, both physical and emotional, war will do…and sees where humanity can triumph in the face of that adversity. And he manages this looking at a moment when the good guys were facing a resounding defeat.

Stress (Land of Mine, 2015)

Land_of_Mine_PosterSet in Denmark after World War II, the Danish Government realizes their beaches are covered in deadly landmines.  Rather than risk their own people, they choose to use the German POWs that are so despised.

The film introduces us to Sergeant Carl Rasmussen as the Germans are being marched out of Denmark.  He is a man consumed with rage, and sees a German carrying a flag, and assaults him.  Rasmussen is assigned several German POWs to clear a local beach of landmines. The POWs are actually about fifteen to eighteen years of age.  They really are boys who seem to not understand what they were fighting for.

There is a scene early on in which several of the boys became sick.  When it is discovered they stole pig feed from the local farm out of desperation, it is realized they ingested rat dropping, causing the illness. The woman who owns the farm laughs, telling Rasmussen that she got some Germans after all.

And this is the movie’s big risk.  These boys were Nazis. But they are young boys, and it makes it harder to just be callous towards them.  And much of Land of Mine is about Rasmussen’s journey from anger to sympathy.  His concern that his superiors are being as cruel and as unkind as the Nazis were.

It is an intense film, where a cough can bring the unexpected end to a life.  You watch as these boys risk life and limb, and one careless moment can leave the viewer gasping.  This is a powerful film film, low on physical violence, but emotionally jarring.


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