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?

 

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The Boys in Company C (1978)

Boys in Company C

The Boys in Company C is one of those Vietnam war movies you either like a great deal or not at all. I was surprised to find myself among those who really like it. It isn’t a masterpiece because it’s a bit patchy and the acting is not always stellar, but it has a fittingly pessimistic tone and some great scenes, which I appreciated a lot. Besides it was interesting to see the precursor of movies like Full Metal Jacket.

Vietnam movies are commonly divided into four sub-groups: allegorical-epics, veteran movies, revisionist movies and grunt/ensemble movies. The Boys from Company C is clearly a grunt movie or infantry combat movie. And it contains all the clichés of grunt movies, notably that we get to see a group of diverse people from various backgrounds and that each of them is more like a type than a real character. This is a weakness of the movie but, in a way, it wasn’t important to create characters, as the goal of the movie was another one.

Like a few of the more famous Vietnam movies it has two parts. A boot camp part and a part that takes place in Vietnam. The most interesting aspect is that the same actor, R.Lee Ermey, who plays the evil drill-inspector in Full Metal Jacket plays the drill-inspector here. He’s not as crass as in Full Metal Jacket but he sure is an unlikable character here as well.

After our group of grunts has survived the boot camp at Fort Bragg they are sent to Vietnam. There are a few combat scenes but more than anything we see how surprised our guys are when they realize that things aren’t exactly as they were told.

What are they fighting for really? And is there a justification to this war at all? There isn’t any moment in the whole film in which anyone thinks they are fighting for a good reason. Plus there’s the criticism of the military command. Officers sacrifice soldiers just to get a promotion. They order them to take hills although its impossible. They kill Vietnamese civilians to raise the body counts. The Vietnamese are shown to be just as corrupt.

The ending of the movie is unfortunately quite corny and the football game episode, which is meant to illustrate how futile and corrupt  the war is, isn’t exactly a movie highlight.

Still, this is one of the early films and it’s one of the most unambiguously anti-war. It’s dark and pessimistic. There’s no heroism, no glorifying of any acts. It’s overall very sober, has hardly any feel-good moments, hardly any music. No jungle scenes.

Sometimes I can appreciate a movie for its intentions and for its consistency.This is one of those. In my opinion, while not an artistic highlight, it’s still a must-see.

Marine Raiders (1944)

Marine Raiders

Marine Raiders is a black and white US movie from 1944. I’ve got it with a bunch of other “forgotten” war movies.  Unfortunately, after having seen it, I’m pretty sure I know why it was forgotten. It wasn’t dreadful but it was certainly not very good. Fortunately it’s a very short movie (77 minutes).

The two friends Major Steve Lockhart (Pat O’Brien) and Captain Dan Craig (Robert Ryan) are fighting together at Guadalcanal. Dan shows a lot of bravery when he goes on a “let’s-kill-as-many-of-those-beastly-Japs-as-we-can-rampage” after having seen the cruelty inflicted on one of his buddies.

From Guadalcanal the two men are sent to Australia where Dan meets Lt. Ellen Foster (Ruth Hussey) and falls in love with her. During their date there’s a Japanese air raid and Dan is injured. Ellen is sent away for two days and while she’s gone, Dan is sent back home to San Diego where he and Steve will train new recruits.

Before being sent to an island in the South Pacific, they briefly return to Australia. Dan and Ruth get married before Dan’s sent into battle. The last 15 minutes of the film show intense fighting.

That’s the whole story. A romance bracketed by two major battles. The Japanese are depicted as cruel and vicious, but luckily the Marines win every battle. And there is some tired chow-related humour.

Marine Raiders is still interesting as it’s very similar to the outstanding TV Mini series The Pacific. One could call Marine Raiders an uninspired precursor. So, for those interested in film history, it’s still worth watching. Just keep in mind, it’s not only a forgotten movie, but a forgotten B-movie.

Ballad of a Soldier – Ballada o soldate (1959)

Ballad of a Soldier

Grigory Chukhray‘s movie Ballad of a Soldier  aka Ballada o Soldate is an iconic Russian war movie, which is often mentioned together with another famous Russian movie of the same time, The Cranes are Flying aka Letyat zhuravli. Both films are excellent and combine heartfelt stories with luminous black and white cinematography.

Ballad of a Soldier begins with a scene showing a woman looking into the distance. The road we see is the only one leading to and from the village in which the woman lives. She doesn’t expect anyone to come. Her son has died during the war and nobody will ever know what would have become of him. The movie then rewinds to a famous scene on the Russian frontline and we see her son, nineteen year-old Alyosha, a young signalman, blowing up two German tanks on his own. This heroic act would bring him a  medal but he’d rather be granted a leave to visit his widowed mother and fix her roof. The general in charge, one of a few kind officers, allows him to take a five-day leave.

Russia is a huge country and travelling by train would always take a long time, but during a war it’s almost impossible. Alyosha’s trip quickly turns into an Odyssey. Because he’s kind and helpful, he misses his train more than once. At first he helps a soldier who has lost his leg, then he assists a young girl and the two young people fall in love. Later he helps people after the train is hit by a bomb. When he finally arrives at home, he has only time to hug his mother, exchange a few words and has to leave again immediately. Since we know that he will die during the war, this scene is all the more poignant.

The movie shows how everyone is affected by war, even those who don’t fight. In focussing on someone as kind as Alyosha, someone who genuinely cares for other people the movie makes a powerful anti-war statement. Much more than his heroic act of the beginning, his humanity and kindness make us sad and we deplore that he will never return to his mother, nor get a chance to find the girl he fell in love with.

Something that struck me was that all of the Russian officers, and most of the soldiers in this movie are depicted in a positive way.

Like in The Cranes Are Flying, many shots focus on the faces of the actors who are very expressive. While the first film sticks more to the point of view of a woman, this is told mostly from the point of view of a young man, which makes them great companion pieces. The scenes between mother and son are short but still I’d say it’s one of the most touching portraits of a mother/son relationship. After all, it’s his love for his mother, that makes Alyosha persevere on his journey.

I’d like to recommend this movie. It stands out and makes a powerful statement.

If you’d like to watch other Russia war movies – here is a list: 12 Russian war movies you must see

Hilde (2009)

Hilde

I owe thanks to Howard who made me aware in a comment that the biopic Hilde, which is based on the life of  the German actress and singer Hildegard Knef, was a valid choice for this blog. Since I like Heike Makatsch who plays Hilde I wanted to watch it anyway. Now that I’ve seen it, I agree, WWII is quite prominent in the movie. What surprised me even more than this fact was to find Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey fame star as Hilde’s second husband David Cameron.

Hildegard Knef was often compared to Marlene Dietrich because they both were from Berlin, both had some success in the US, and they both had very deep, sonorous voices which they used successfully as singers or rather performers, which means they were talking, rather than singing. But that’s about all there is in terms of similarities and that’s one of the aspects that the movie looks into. While Dietrich was born in 1901 and left Germany in the 30s, the far younger Knef, born 1925, not only stayed in Germany but had an affair with an Nazi officer, whom she followed towards the end of the war into battle. She was part of the battle of Berlin, or, to be more precise, took part in the defence of Schmargendorf. She was captured by the Russians and sent to a prison camp.

Germany wasn’t too keen on her as an actress after the war. During the war she starred in a propaganda movie, which was never finished, and the fact that she had an affair with a Nazi officer didn’t help either. She finally left for the US. She was under contract in Hollywood but never got to film and in the end, returned to Germany where she starred in the  notorious  movie Die Sünderin – The Sinner. She played the role of a prostitute and appeared naked, which caused quite a scandal. The movie Hilde shows nicely how much this scandal disgusted her as it was rooted in German double standards. She couldn’t understand how her country that had exterminated so many Jews, could react so hysterically because of her naked breasts.

The later part of the movie focusses on how she discovered that the true Hildegard Knef wasn’t only an actress but a singer/songwriter. Until her death in 2002 she was always equally admired and despised.

While I love Marlene Dietrich as an actress and a singer. I have never seen any of Knef’s movies and her songs, although witty, are not my cup of tea at all. But her life was interesting. The movie focusses only on the early years, until she meets David Cameron, her second husband. I would have liked to see more.

I think the movie is interesting because it doesn’t try to make her any better than she was. She never even questioned the fact that she had an affair with an Nazi officer. She fell in love with a man, and that was that. She also never tried to hide that she wasn’t political and that she, like so many others, just watched passively. It’s not admirable. Far from it. But it’s what it is.

Heike Makatsch does a pretty amazing job in playing her Knef and Dan Stevens was convincing as her second husband. In any case, it’s a movie well worth catching.

For those interested in watching Hilde, Howard told me that there is a Hong Kong version with English subtitles available.

I couldn’t find a trailer with English subtitles, so I’ll leave you with the German one.

Lore (2012)

Lore

What a pleasant change, I’ve actually watched a movie and really, really  liked it. I’d say it was certainly the best wartime movie I’ve seen in a long while. Lore is a German/Australian/UK co-production. Spoken in German, with German actors and subtitled in English. It’s based on Ruth Seiffert’s highly acclaimed novel The Dark Room. Or, to be more precise, on one of the three interlinked stories in the book.

Lore is the eldest daughter of a prominent Nazi functionary. Indoctrinated with the ideology, she blindly loves her father and the Führer, follows every order without questioning and takes everything she’s ever been taught to be the absolute truth. The movie begins at the end of the war. Her parents are in distress, something has happened but they won’t tell their children. The family flees to a holiday home in the country where people treat them aggressively. Lore has no clue what is going on. She knows her parents are hiding something. The father leaves them, and shortly afterwards the mother leaves too. She is giving herself up and goes to prison unsolicited. Before she leaves she tells Lore that the Führer is dead. Everything is lost. Lore has to take her four siblings, one of them is just a baby, and walk in direction of Hamburg where her mother lives.

The movie follows the children on their difficult journey towards Hamburg. It shows how difficult and dangerous it is for them. They risk starvation, rape, being killed or captured. They have to cross three different sectors, the US, the Russian and the UK sector. Even though they are only children, they are suspected and interrogated. At one point a young man starts to follow them. He carries papers and pretends being their older  brother. This makes all of their lives easier.

Lore is more than a road movie, it delicately portrays the total disenchantment of a young girl. On their journey they are not only confronted with severe deprivations but they learn the truth about their beloved father and the Führer. Everything Lore believed in was built on a lie.

I’ve never seen a movie, which focussed on the children of high Nazi officers. I never wondered what became of them after the war. The movie shows what a long and painful process it was to learn the truth.

The story as such is quite gripping and the way it was told was masterful. I haven’t seen any  of Cate Shortland‘s other movies but she’s a film director I’ll keep in mind. Lore was beautifully filmed and the score, written by Max Richter, enhanced the gloomy atmosphere of the film. The atmosphere and the mood was probably what I liked best: lyrical, melancholic and gloomy.

I’m not surprised Lore has won so many prizes and been nominated for many awards. I’d say it’s the first 5/5 movie I’ve seen this year. Don’t miss it.

Has anyone seen the film?

A Very Long Engagement – Un long dimanche de fiançailles (2004)

Very Long Engagement

It’s entirely the fault of movies like A Very Long Engagement that this blog lies dormant most of the time. Who wants to write about a film like this?

There are movies that I call “darlings” of the public. Everyone goes “oh” and “ah” and “oh so wonderful” just upon hearing the title. Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Améelie is one of them, and – not surprisingly starring the same actress, Audrey Taoutou – Un long dimanche de fiançailles is another of those “darlings”. The fact is that most of the time these are precisely the movies I cannot stand. I watched Un long dimanche de fiançailles for the second time, hoping I’d succumb to its charm – but that didn’t happen. On the very contrary. I liked it even less. Why though? I’m not sure. It’s particularly sad because there aren’t all that many WWI movies.

A Very Long Engagament tells the story of two young lovers separated by WWI. Mathilde and Manech fall in love just before the war breaks out. They are still almost children. Both are outsiders. She because she is limping, he because he seems to be a bit simple-minded.

When he doesn’t return from the war, Mathilde swears to find him. It is said that he was court-martialled together with four others. The five men shot themselves in order to be sent home.

Mathilde acts a bit like a PI, interrogating people, following every lead. Although everyone tells her that Manech has been shot, she is convinced that he is still alive. Their connection is strong, she would feel it, if he was dead.

A Very Long Engagement is a typical Jean-Pierre Jeunet movie. His films often look like old sepia-colored photos and have a vintage feel. The trench scenes are not bad and from a purely cinematic point of view it’s a beautiful film but I always have a problem with his characters and find many of them off putting. I would still like to read the book by Japrisot.

Has anyone seen it? Did you like it and if so why?