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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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.

The Imitation Game (2014)

The Imitation Game

More than one person I know felt that the Academy Award for best acting should have gone to Benedict Cumberbatch for his role as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game and not to Eddie Redmayne. But even without such praise I would have been keen on watching The Imitation Game as I think code breaking is such a fascinating topic, and, after having watched it, I’d like to visit Bletchley Park.

The Imitation Game is hard to review. Movies based on true stories are a bit like classic novels. Many people know the story and you can’t spoil it for them, but those who don’t might get a little upset if you are too explicit. On the other hand you can hardly say anything meaningful without spoiling it. Quite the dilemma.

The Imitation Game tells the story of Alan Turing, an eminent young mathematician, who was hired by Bletchley Park to help decoding the famous German Enigma machine, which was said to be unbreakable. Not only did it have an almost infinite possibility of codes but the machine was reprogrammed daily.

Turing soon understood that humans wouldn’t be able to decipher the workings of such an advanced machine. Only another machine could do it. In order to get carte blanche and the necessary founding for his project, he needed approval from high command and the assistance of his fellow code breakers. Unfortunately, Turing was a difficult man. In his youth he had a best friend but later he was never capable of having real relationships and friendships. I was wondering at times if he wasn’t autistic. Judging from the movie, he certainly had some form of OCD. In any case, he wasn’t capable of empathy and took everything people said so literally it must have been a true burden to communicate with him. Still, he was a genius and as soon as he had people’s trust he was capable of extraordinary things.

If Alan Turing had only been the man who broke Enigma, this would have been an exciting movie about a genius, but since the movie also focusses on his homosexuality, it was also extremely tragic.

I knew, of course, that homosexuality was illegal, but I tend to forget how dire the consequences were when someone was found out. I must admit I ignored that Alan Turing was gay, and, so, the end really got to me.

****************************Spoiler************************

It’s hard to believe that the man who helped save millions of lives was forced to take hormones to “cure” his homosexuality and finally killed himself in 1954. This might be one of the saddest things I’ve ever heard. Not that I would have found it any less tragic if someone who was not famous would have been forced to take such heavy medication. Sixty years don’t even seem all that long ago. It’s hard to imagine things like that were legal. But then again, so was lobotomy and electroshock therapy, and many other dreadful things.

***************************Spoiler End*********************

Cumberbacth is a great actor and in this movie, he’s surpassed himself. He’s very convincing and subtle. It’s a role in which many actors would have been tempted to overact, but he doesn’t. Too bad Eddie Redmayne was nominated this year as well. Any other year, Cumberbatch would have won.

I didn’t say anything about the pseudo-love story with Joan Clarke, played by Keira Knightley, although it’s an important role insofar as it shows that the society was just as hard on women as on gay men. They still were not considered capable of the same as men and not taken seriously. I wished they had chosen another actress. I thought she was rather dreadful in this film.

I really liked The Imitation Game. The cinematography is beautiful. The pictures are very crisp, very defined. The acting is great and the story is amazing and tragic. Don’t miss it.

 

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

Screen Shot 2015-01-04 at 17.04.27

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.

 

 

Das Boot (1985) TV Version

Das Boot

I love this movie. I can’t believe I didn’t rewatch it earlier. When I started this blog I wrote a Top 10 favourite war movies list and Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot was one of them. I’m glad to say that after rewatching it, it’s still among my Top 10, even among my Top 3. I don’t think war movies get any better than this. Or, I’d even say, movies don’t get any better than this. I’ve watched the longer TV version. I’ve not seen the Director’s Cut, so it’s hard to compare but I really love the slow build-up of this version.

Das Boot starts in 1941, in La Rochelle. We see a U-Boot crew leave the harbour. They are cheering, singing and looking forward to their mission. The crew members are mostly young, in their late teens and early twenties, only their captain is thirty years old. This time, they have a war correspondent on board, Lt Werner (played by German singer/songwriter Herbert Grönemeyer). He’s a lieutenant but inexperienced in combat, as it seems, and has never been on a U-Boot. We see a lot of the story through his eyes, and, as usual, when we have a young journalist/writer character like this among the crew, the movie is to some extent about the loss of innocence, the futility of war etc. But that’s the topic of many war movies, what makes Das Boot so outstanding is how carefully it’s been filmed, how accurate it is. After watching this, without ever having been on a U-Boot, you’ll have a good idea of how claustrophobic this must have been and of  how helpless the crew must have felt at times.

The first half of the TV series doesn’t do much more than introduce the characters and the daily activities on a U-Boot. Most of the characters are complex and likable and not exactly Nazis. The U-Boot gets in the line of fire of a destroyer but other than that it’s relatively quiet. The worst thing that happens is a three-week storm. And that is awful. Most of the time the U-Boot doesn’t dive and in a storm it’s even shaken more badly than many other ships. The captain lets them dive occasionally for an hour or two, just to give the men some rest.

The second part of the series, is much more action packed. They encounter destroyers and are shot at by planes. When they think they can finally return to La Rochelle after a few weeks, they are sent to Vigo in Spain, to resupply, and from there to Italy. The most exciting part is when they have to pass the straits of Gibraltar, get hit and sink rapidly. The fight for the boat and, ultimately, for their lives, is one of the most gripping scenes in war movie history. But as suspenseful as this is, there’s another scene I like even better. It takes place just before they leave Vigo. The captain and his officers are invited to dine with the officers stationed in Vigo. Spain is neutral territory and those stationed there have probably not seen any combat. They are well-groomed, well-fed and beyond clueless when it comes to the battle in the Atlantic or what the crew has gone through. Without ever being openly aggressive or rebellious, the crew sabotages the nice little dinner event by just being themselves— gruff looking, outspoken and past niceties. I loved how this showed the hypocrisy of those officers who were true to the regime but not willing to actually fight for their country.

Most of the action takes place inside but we occasionally see the U-Boot from outside, see how it silently glides through the waters, like a predator. Those shots are dark grey, almost like black and white shots, and I couldn’t help thinking of a wolf, before I remembered that the U-Boots were called grey wolves. Showing this like that is such a minimalistic approach but it works well. Even if you don’t know, your subconscious is going to register it. The music underlines the different elements and changes accordingly.

Sadistic officers abound in many war movies, luckily Das Boot is an exception. The movie gives us one of the strongest positive commanders I’ve ever seen in a war movie. I couldn’t think of a better actor than Jürgen Prochnow for this role.

According to a text following the opening credits, only 1 out of 4 U-Boot crew members survived, which means over 30,000 died. That’s a huge loss of lives. But not only are they in constant danger but they also have to put up with a lot of other dificult things: confinement, lack of space, air and fresh food. No wonder the men look far less cheerful and aged when they finally return to La Rochelle.

If you haven’t watched Das Boot yet, you should do so as soon as possible. It’s one of the very best (war) movies ever made.

For those interested: I’ve attached a music videos of Herbert Grönemeyer under the trailer. He happens to be one of my favourite German singers. His lyrics are simply brilliant.

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-instructor 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.