Testament of Youth (2014)

testament-of-youth

Two years ago, I read and reviewed Vera Brittain’s collection of letters Letters from a Lost Generation. It was one of the saddest, most harrowing books I’ve ever read. After finishing it, I read Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain’s memoir, which was equally moving. Needless to say, I was interested in watching the movie Testament of Youth.

Vera Brittain’s story is really one of the saddest imaginable. Not only did she loose her fiancé, but also her brother and their two closest friends. After the war, she met the writer Winifred Holtby – we see her very briefly in this movie – and they became very close friends until Holtby died at the age of thirty-seven. Besides being a testament to the friendships between Vera and her friends and brother, the books give great insight into the life of a nurse during WWI. Like the men, she joined up early and stayed a nurse until the end of the war.

The movie takes a long time to show us the idyllic pre-war years. Vera has a close relationship with her brother, Edward, who introduces her to his friends Roland, later Vera’s fiancé, Victor and Geoffrey. It is 1914 and Vera, who at eighteen is the youngest, tells her parents she intends to go to Oxford. The parents are shocked and oppose her. They don’t want her to become a blue-stocking. and minimise her chances to find a husband. Thanks to her brother she’s allowed to go to the exams and is accepted. As happy as she is to be allowed a higher education, when the war breaks out and her brother, fiancé, and friends sing up, she becomes a nurse.

The movie shows a few scenes of her as a nurse but it makes it look like she didn’t really do it for a very long time. Nor that she was moving from England  to different front lines in France and Malta. It rather focusses on the death of her fiancé and her brother. We then get to see her briefly after the war and how she meets Winifred Holtby. It’s a very short scene as well.

The movie tries to capture the mood of the era and manages more or less.

I guess, the tone of my review, tells you that I was disappointed. The movie’s neither fish nor fowl. Not a real love story, nor the story of the friendships or her years as a nurse and not very insightful about the war as such. The director tried to cram to much into a short film. It would have been much better if this had been a mini-series. More moving, more realistic. The way it is, it’s not very successful. It’s not dreadful, it’s beautifully filmed, well acted but not very engaging and stays at the surface. This is possibly also due to the rather large cast. It’s impossible to care for so many people in an average length movie.

You can watch it but you don’t have to. Read the books instead. They are some of the best books on WWI.

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Bridge of Spies (2015) Spielberg’s Cold War Epic (Fail)

Bridge of Spies

Before anyone’s going to tell me that I should have known better, I’ll admit it right away—Yes, I should have known better and not even bothered watching Bridge of Spies. It had everything I don’t like about some Spielberg movies: length, sentimentality, hokeyness and Tom Hanks. So, why watch it? You know, it could have been good. Every once in a while Spielberg produces something really decent. And I’ve seen films with Tom Hanks I liked (Saving Private Ryan, Philadelphia, Road to Perdition). And since it was based on true events, I thought it would at least be interesting. And it was.  If only they had cut at least half an hour. And abstained from a super-corny ending.

So, what’s it about. Tom Hanks is an American lawyer, Donovan, who is hired to defend a Russian spy. The US want to make sure that they are perceived as just and fair. Donovan is a lawyer who has no experience in criminal law, nonetheless, he’s giving his best, which isn’t wanted. He soon finds out that no matter how good his defence is, he will never get his client free as the verdict’s been agreed upon a long time ago. It’s a bogus trial.

Donovan is one of those typical Spielberg characters who rise above themselves when they see injustice and don’t shy away from putting themselves in danger. While he isn’t able to free the spy, he’s able to avoid the death penalty and he’s clever enough to make the authorities understand that a Russian spy, if left alive, could come in handy. And he’s right. Very soon they will be able to use the spy to free one of their own.

So far, I liked the movie but then comes the second part, in which Donovan is hired by the CIA to arrange the exchange of Rudolf Abel against a captured American pilot, Francis Gary Powers, whose U2 spy plane was shot down during a mission over Russia.

Donovan is sent to East Berlin to arrange the exchange. It’s 1961 and the wall has just been built. During those chaotic days, an American student is captured because he’s suspected to be a spy. Donovan hears of this and during the second part of the movie, we see him negotiate with the Russians and the Eastern Germans to exchange Abel against both Americans.

The second half of the movie suffered from terrible lengths. The filmmakers tried to make it gripping, accentuating how dangerous the territory was, but they didn’t succeed because the discussions between the involved parties were stiff and slow and full of clichés. I was tempted to fast-forward.

The hardest part to watch was the ending. It was just so painfully corny. There’s a scene at the beginning of the movie, in which a woman on a train looks scornfully at Donovan because he defends a Russian spy. The very same woman can be seen looking at him with great admiration and gratefulness at the end. These are the kind of corny, sentimental scenes that make me shudder.

As I said before, I’m not that keen on Tom Hanks or Spielberg but they have both done great, or at least entertaining movies. This wasn’t one of them.

Meanwhile, I’ve done some digging and it doesn’t even look as if the movie was historically accurate.

Have you seen it? Did you like it?

 

Unter Bauern – Saviors in the Night (2009)

Saviors in the Night

I feel always a bit unkind when I criticise a Holocaust movie based on a true story. Unfortunately though, basing a movie on a true story does not guarantee an interesting result as the German film Unter Bauern – Saviors in the Night, illustrates so well. Saviors in the Night is based on the memoirs of Holocaust survivor Marga Spiegel and while her experience was certainly nerve-wracking, the movie is absolutely tension-free.

The film opens with a bit of back story. We see Menne Spiegel fighting for his country in WWI. Twenty years later, that same country wants to exterminate him and his family because he is Jewish. Menne is a respected horse trader and when the day of his family’s deportation to a concentration camp comes closer, he contacts his former comrades and finds one who is willing to hide his wife and his daughter, while another one will give him shelter. Because Marga Spiegel and the kid are blond and don’t look Jewish, they are hidden in plain sight, while Menne, who’s looking more typical, has to hide in an attic where he goes almost crazy with boredom.

From there the movie meanders from one tension-free scene to another. Whenever the tiniest conflict arrises, it’s immediately resolved. The biggest challenge these former city-dwellers seem to face is adapting to life in the country. Yes, there are a few Nazi’s in the village, but they are too obtuse to notice anything. The daughter of their saviours dates one of them and while she’s at first outraged that her parents are hiding Jews (she believes the Führer who says that the Jews are the downfall of Germany), it only takes one tale about an injustice against Marga and her daughter, to make her change attitude and convictions.

I was surprised to see this film received praise because it’s so dull. Of course, it’s admirable that these farmers decided to risk their lives and hide Marga and her daughter. And, of course, it’s necessary to remind us that there were people who didn’t care about what the Führer told them and simply listened to their own heart and found the courage to help fellow humans. But unfortunately all those good intentions do not make for gripping viewing. Unlike Agnieszka Holland’s fantastic movie In Darkness, which also tells the story of survivors, there are hardly any dramatic elements here.

To be fair, I have to mention that there are a couple of quiet moments, in which Marga and the farmer’s wife engage in a tentative friendship, which are moving.

It’s a movie you can watch, especially when you’re a fan of German actress Veronica Ferres, but you don’t have to.

The trailer makes this movie look intense because it shows all the dramatic scenes, compressed into 1.5 minutes.

 

Edge of Tomorrow (2014) Tom Cruise at His . . . Weakest?

Edge of Tomorrow

Why did I even bother watching Edge of Tomorrow? I had a feeling I wouldn’t like it and I was right. The story as such isn’t bad, though.

A US military officer, Tom Cruise, is brought to London to help in a war against aliens. He clashes with the British commanding officer and while he didn’t want to go into combat, as he’s inexperienced, he wakes up, handcuffed, ready to be shipped to occupied France to fight a powerful enemy. The first episodes are a mix of comedy and action and that’s why I started disliking the movie from the beginning. I’m not sure there really was a need to play it like this. It set the tone wrong as, ultimately, this isn’t another Tropic Thunder and, in spite of the initial groundhog day feel, it would have worked better if it had been darker.

Our officer is shipped to France, in spite of his protests, and finds himself battling the enemy in heavy armour and gear. Next to him on the battle field is the war hero Angel of Verdun (Emily Blunt), a highly trained fighter. She’s killed while he shoots one of the aliens.

And then he wakes up handcuffed again and the story seems to start from scratch.

Since I like some military sci-fi, I think I might have liked this, if there hadn’t been any comedic acting at all. Was that Tom Cruise’s choice, I wonder? It think it’s too bad because when you subtract that you have an action-packed, edgy, dark sci-fi adventure with a great finale.

I liked that it used imagery and battles of former wars – Verdun – D-Day landing etc. That gave it an almost creepy, and certainly chilling element.

The Edge of Tomorrow isn’t bad, it’s just not consistent. The mood’s a huge mess, in my opinion. It should have been consistently dark. It’s still watchable but not Tom Cruise’s best performance. I’d even say it was the weakest I’ve ever seen. At least Emily Blunt’s surprisingly at home in this role. Nonetheless, if you like action-packed Sci-Fi, you might enjoy it.

The trailer is one of those that makes you expect a very different movie.

Northmen – A Viking Saga (2014)

Northmen

So, yes, the Swiss/German/South African co-production Northmen doesn’t fare too well on IMDb and similar places. And, after the first ten minutes, I almost stopped watching because the acting wasn’t good but once the story gets going you forget that easily. And, frankly, can you resist a movie that bears a resemblance to King Arthur? I can’t and considering that most similar movies are either way too gory, or try too hard, this one does a pretty good job. It’s action-driven but not gory. There’s a love story but it’s not in your face. And it has a lot of surprising moments. If, like me, you love to cheer when a small group of men manages to fight an army thanks to their resourcefulness, then you’ll enjoy this.

The story is summarized quickly. A group of Northmen who have been outcast by their people, land behind enemy lines. They want to cross enemy territory to get to another friendly group of Northmen who might accept them. As soon as they land, they are under attack. They manage to overpower a much stronger group of soldiers. When those soldiers flee, they leave a carriage behind in which the Northmen discover a young woman who is very obviously from a rich background. They hope that in taking her along, they’ll be able to ask for a ransom and safe passages. Unfortunately she’s the king’s daughter and the king doesn’t negotiate. He would rather see his daughter dead. Helped by a monk with special fighting skills, they flee across the land.

If you like movies in the vein of King Arthur or The Last of the Mohicans – minus the history -, you might really enjoy this. Just bear in mind that the acting during the first ten minutes isn’t very good, but you’ll soon forget about it because the story and the plot work well, the characters are interesting enough for an adventure film, and the imagery is stunning. Give it a try and let me know how you liked it. I think, for  B-movie it’s pretty good.

True Blood fans will be delighted to see Ryan Kwanten starring as the monk Conall.

American Sniper (2014)

American-Sniper

Clint Eastwood’s latest movie American Sniper  is based on the true story of Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle who was called “the most lethal sniper in the U.S.”.

Every time I watch a movie based on a true story I find it difficult to write about because ultimately I have to write about two things: the movie as such and the story it’s based on. Very often I like the movie a great deal but I’m highly critical of the story. Like in this case. I admire Eastwood for the way he tells Chris Kyle’s story but I’m not sure I can admire someone who killed so many people, although I admire his skills.

The movie starts in Iraq. We get to witness two of Kyle’s most problematic kills. A boy and a woman. There is never a doubt— they are not collateral damage. Kyle takes them out on purpose. With good reason as they were about to blow up a tank. Nonetheless these two kills are problematic for him as we can easily deduce.

After these initial scenes, the movie switches back and we see a few scenes from Kyle’s childhood. How he was a great shot as a small boy already, taking out a deer. This seems to be a typical sniper movie feature. I can’t remember one in which we don’t see a small boy killing an animal, which already shows he’ll be a gifted sniper.

Kyle first works as a cowboy but it doesn’t work out for him and, being a patriot, he finally joins the Navy SEALs and becomes a sniper. One evening he meets his future wife Taya; shortly after their marriage, right after 9/11, he’s sent on his first tour to Iraq.

The movie then tells us chronologically all the important things that happened during the tours and the growing unease when he’s back home. Kyle is quickly turning into a legend. The most deadly sniper the US ever had and he’s also a wanted man. The Iraqis will pay a great deal of money to the person who can kill him.

Back home, Kyle tries to “return” but he fails. He never seems to leave the war zone. He keeps on hearing gunfire; he almost kills his own dog, thinking he’s attacking his kid; he’s withdrawn and distracted. His wife suffers but stands by him. In the movie we’re led to belive she has no idea her husband has taken so many lives. There’s even a scene in which she asks him if he’s ever killed someone.

The parts in Iraq are gripping. Especially since we have a “Enemy at the Gates”-situation. There’s an Iraqi sniper who is almost as good as Chris Kyle and the two try to take each other out. I’m not sure whether it’s based on a true story as well or whether this was added/embellished for dramatic purposes. In any case, it works because it gives the movie a plotline that is suspenseful.

As I said, I admire Eastwood for the way he told this story because it never felt manipulative. I didn’t think he was glorifying Chris Kyle or condemning him and whoever watches this will be able to make up his/her own mind.

Since I’m not American I wasn’t all that familiar with his story. I knew the name and that he wrote an autobiography called “American Sniper”. While watching the movie I had no idea how it would end, that’s why I’m not mentioning it here. If you don’t know yet, let me just tell you that it’s a pretty ironic and surprising ending.

One aspect that I found extremely interesting is what the film says about killing. Or rather – how we get to experience different ways of killing. If you shoot randomly in a battle and kill people, it’s clearly not the same as when you aim carefully and see them fall. A sniper’s kills are much more personal. I could image they weigh more heavily on the conscience than when you’re not exactly sure whether or not you killed someone. In a war like the war in Iraq there’s also the huge problem of civilians taking part. No matter how hardened a sniper is, it will be difficult for him to shoot a kid.

While I find that Chris Kyle is a highly problematic figure – his patriotism is more than a little annoying – and I really can’t glorify or applaud someone who shot so many people (160 confirmed kills, 250 probable kills) – I thought this was a terrific movie. Well done, thought-provoking and the acting is surprisingly good. I’m not exactly a Bradley Cooper fan so I was wondering whether he was a good choice, but I have to admit, he did a great job. And Sienna Miller works extremely well as his wife. I highly recommend the movie. 4.5/5

 

The Bridge – Die Brücke (1959) A German WWII Classic

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I finally got a chance to watch Bernhard Wicki’s famous anti-war movie The Bridge – Die Brücke, in which a group of sixteen-year-old high school students fights to keep a bridge. Fighting for – or destroying – bridges is one of the great war movie tropes. Unsurprisingly so, because, like hills, they are strategic points of highest importance. There’s quite a large number of movies showing battles for hills or bridges, none of these however show such a futile attempt as the one depicted in The Bridge.

It’s the end of the war and the Americans are approaching from all sides. Germany, in a final, desperate attempt to win the war, is drafting even young boys. While many of the grown-ups do not believe in winning the war anymore, a group of high school students still hopes to get a chance to fight for their country. Many years of indoctrination have left their mark. They don’t listen to any of the grown-ups who want to talk them out of it.

The movie takes a long time, far over an hour, to introduce us to the characters. There’s the boy whose father, a major, died in battle and who is living alone with his mother on a huge estate. There’s the boy whose father is a Nazi and who flees when he feels the end of the war is approaching, which fills his son with shame, determining him to join up. Then there’s the boy who is in love with a girl but seeing all his friends join, he cannot stay behind. There are more characters but unfortunately – and this is the movie’s biggest weakness – they are not very distinct and even look so similar that even at the end I had no idea who was who.

The last half hour of the movie is the best part and quite powerful. Basically we see a series of mishaps and misunderstanding which lead to a great tragedy. Very often the defense of a hill or a bridge is the last straw and commanding officers order it in many a movie because they have no clue what else there’s left to be done. Not so here. The bridge is meant to be destroyed and the boys are only sent there to wait because nobody really knows what else to do with them. Filled with a feeling of importance and left alone by their superior officer, they think they have to fight to the last when the Americans turn up. This senseless battle costs the lives of many of the boys, of civilians, and American troops alike.

Admittedly my expectations were very high, so it’s maybe not surprising they were not met. The biggest problem, as I said before, was that I couldn’t really tell the boys apart and felt they remained clichéd and flat. When a movie takes more than an hour to introduce and characterize the protagonists that’s a major flaw. The last part was powerful but the acting was over the top, so that I found it not as tragic as it should have been. It seems that this story is based on a true story and as such I think it’s a story that was worth telling, only not this way.

Usually I’m not for remakes but in this case, I think it would be worth to do a remake. The story is tragic and symbolic. Better acting and better defined characters would have made this great. And color would certainly improve it. I like black and white but it must be treated differently. The images don’t have a lot of definition and depth, which may be another reasons why I couldn’t tell the guys apart.