Tuesday, June 28, 2011

All for One

"This Ryan better be worth it."

Steven Spielberg forever changed the American war film when he directed Saving Private Ryan. Before this, war movies were shot with the biggest action stars running into open battlefields and killing hundreds of faceless enemies single-handedly. After the battle was over they gave us a speech about the horrors of war and then walked off with the girl. Even films as good as The Longest Day fell into these types of cliches.

From the very beginning of Saving Private Ryan we know that this is unlike anything we've ever seen before. When the first doors drop on the beach at Normandy, carnage is unleashed on the screen in a way that we will never be able to forget. These men are scared, tired and just want to stay alive for one more day. There is no false heroism or bravado. This is war as we should see it portrayed. This is reality.

The plot revolves around a group of eight soldiers, led by Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks), who are given an impossible mission in the aftermath of D-Day. A grieving mother back home has just been told that three of her sons were killed in service to their country; there is still a fourth son alive somewhere in Europe. James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon) is a paratrooper who has landed in an unknown position in South France. News of the tragic loss to this family makes its all the way to the top brass of the military. Moved by the story, orders are given to send a rescue party to find Ryan and get him back home.

"It's like finding a needle in a stack of needles."

From the outside looking in, we see a reason for a rescue mission like this. For the eight men who have been sent to find Ryan, it just doesn't make sense. The men in Miller's command have grown close through battle. They have unspoken bonds, inside jokes and a deep commitment to one another. Then enters a small, cowardly translator. Corporal Upham is a man who has spent the war behind a desk but, now he has been pulled into the chaos. He is unprepared for the crash course and his terror leaves him completely paralyzed. He has no desire to kill, he doesn't even want to be near it, he just wants to survive and go home.

The men set out and begin the long march through occupied France. Everyday they lose faith just a little bit more than the day before. The mission is insane. Miller struggles with the numbers the most. In one conversation he explains how he can justify losing ten or even a hundred of the men in his command because he knows that doing so could save a thousand or more. But Ryan is one man, and he is risking the lives of eight. This is one of Tom Hanks' greatest roles, if not the greatest. Captain Miller is a good man. He loves his men and fights as hard as he can to stay strong for them. He is loved and respected and we get the sense that he and his men have been through hell and back more than once.

It is not until the third act of the film that Miller and his men finally find Private Ryan. He is huddled together with his fellow soldiers trying to defend an important tactical bridge from the Germans. When Ryan receives news of his brothers and his free ticket home, the reaction he has is surprising. He refuses to leave the bridge. The bridge seems to be all that he has left now. The bridge and the men beside him.

"Is that what I'm supposed to tell your mother when she gets another folded American flag?"
"You can tell her that when you found me, I was with the only brothers I had left. And that there was no way I was deserting them. I think she'd understand that."

Saving Private Ryan is an incredible movie. It is a three hour epic that places us right in the middle of one of the darkest parts of human history. As great as Spielberg is, he owes a great deal to his cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. Kaminski takes all of the chaos in the battles and presents it in a way that we can understand. We are able to follow all of the tactics and maneuvering in the battles. The shots are planned out in perfect detail. There are countless scenes that will linger in our memories long after the credits have rolled.

This is not an easy movie to sit through. It's not something to watch for enjoyment. But it will leave you with a deep respect for those who served. The bookends of the movie take place in 1998. An elderly Ryan (Harrison Young) has returned to France with his family. With only a few lines, Young gives one of the most powerful performances of the film. With these two scenes, Spielberg helps us to prepare for the onslaught that is about to begin and then eases us out to reflect on what we have been witness to. The reflection will go on for a very long time.

"Theirs is not to reason why, theirs is but to do or die."

Monday, June 27, 2011

An Ode to the Fallen

This review is a bit of a departure from the usual types of films that I pick. Different in that it has never been in a theater. I watched it the other night on a whim and was captivated from beginning to end. It isn't very long, only 78 minutes and the plot is fairly straightforward. One Marine escorting a fallen soldier to his final resting place. The film is HBO's Taking Chance, directed by Ross Katz.

Kevin Bacon, in a marvelous performance, portrays real life Marine, Lt. Col. Mike Strobl (who penned the script based on his journal entries). He is a man living in conflict with his conscience. Mike has been with the Marine Corps since he was 17 years old and has loved every single minute of it, until the last few months, that is. He has seen the world, been involved in battle and has worked his way to the status of a high ranking officer. Now in his forties, Mike has a family and a desk job in the office staff of the Corps. Every night he searches the list on his computer for names of the deceased over seas. He feels that he should be with his men, in the action. At the same time, he doesn't want to leave his family. Mike is a man being ripped in two directions and both paths are haunting him.

One night, while checking the list, he sees a name from his hometown, Chance Phelps. In the very next scene he asks to be reassigned and be allowed to escort Chance back to his family for the funeral services. His commander allows it but, doesn't understand it, neither does Mike's wife. We get the feeling that she knows it's something he needs to do and she leaves it at that. Mike then sets out on a journey he will never forget.

There are scenes of tremendous power that balance with moments of quiet, inner reflection during the trek across the country. Mike meets several people along the way and they each provide an extra layer to the movie. The first person he meets is the driver who initially picks up the bodies for transport. The two men have a conversation while driving to the airport. This conversation between the two strangers moved me deeply. The script is wonderfully written. A lesser movie would have used a story like this to push an agenda but Taking Chance wisely stays apolitical. This is not a movie about politics or the constant bickering we're forced to endure every day on the news. This film transcends all of the pettiness and focuses on the story.

Throughout Mike's journey we bare witness to the rituals involved in escorting a fallen hero home. I had no idea just what an incredible process it really is. The care and precision taken with every fallen soldier is an exact and painstakingly detailed practice, down to the positioning of the ribbons and shine of the belt buckles. Mike never falters from his duty. At every turn he makes absolutely certain that the dead man is treated with the respect he has earned, even when others don't seem to fully understand his unwavering commitment.

At its core, Taking Chance is a love letter to America and the men and women who live there. We may not always agree with one another and we may not agree on the war but, we all have a deep respect for the sacrifices our soldiers make every day. Scene after scene in this movie is a depiction of the human race at its finest, people putting everything else aside to honor the fallen. Chance's face is never scene in the movie and it doesn't need to be. Chance is more than just one man, he is a representation of all the men and women who have paid the ultimate price for our freedom.

This movie made me pause and reflect on just how blessed I am to be in America. I was proud to see that even as divided as we have become, there are still times when we can all come together as one. We are still united, however fragile that unity may be.

Friday night I hope you will take the time to watch:

Taking Chance

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Feeling Patriotic

Since July 4 is coming up next Monday I thought it would be good to review some patriotic movies this week. I'll probably get at least three reviews out before Friday so grab some burgers, fireworks and a red, white and blue t-shirt and then sit down and watch some classic movies that make us proud to be in America.

If you guys have any suggestions or reviews for some good movies to watch for the fourth feel free to post them on here with a link.

Monday, June 20, 2011

An Exodus into Destruction

I can still remember the first time I watched Terrence Malick's, Days of Heaven. I knew nothing about the movie, I just thought the picture on the DVD case looked interesting (which, by the way, is a risky way to pick a movie). Like the majority of my movie experiences in high school, I watched it late at night, under the covers, on a portable DVD player. Many of the best viewings in my life didn't take place on a huge screen in the theater, they took place on that little red Toshiba. For me, that little 6 inch screen was like a magic door opening up to a new world every night.

Days of Heaven doesn't have a very complex plot, there isn't much action and because of the way it's told, there isn't a great deal of character development. That being said, it is one of the most strikingly beautiful films I have ever seen. The breathtaking cinematography by Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler matched with Ennio Morricone's elegiac score creates a tone few films can match.

The movie opens just before World War I. An incident at a steel mill forces Bill (Richard Gere), his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and his little sister Linda (Linda Manz) to hop a train and flee to Texas. The story is told through the eyes of Linda, and because of that many criticize the film for seeming detached. I disagree with this analysis. When we were that age did we really understand the passions of adults? All of the complexities of the world around us? Of course not, we saw the world as it applied to us at that time, and this is how Malick develops his film. The world is seen through the very small filter of a young girl.

Once the three arrive in Texas, they get work on a wheat field owned by a man we will only know by what Linda calls him, The Farmer (Sam Shepard). The majority of the film is set outside in the awe-inspiring Texas landscape. The Farmer's house is like a Gothic castle towering over the fields far in the background. These scenes are magnificently haunting. The story may be spoken by Linda, but if you look closely enough, the cinematography will show you the true story, and it is a dark tale.

Bill learns that the Farmer is a dying man, a dying wealthy man. He begins to form a plan. He convinces her to pretend to be his sister and to try and make the Farmer fall in love with her. By doing this, he hopes that the Farmer will die and leave his money to Abby, making him a rich man. Abby reluctantly agrees to go along with the plan and begins a relationship with the Farmer.

The plan seems solid enough until two unexpected things happen: the first, the Farmer just keeps living and, the second, Abby falls in love with him. Malick does not show us the pain through the characters, rather, we feel it through the nature around them. I cannot say enough about the cinematography of this movie. Every emotion is conveyed in the colors, lights and shadows of the fields. The characters were at peace. They had found a home. They were in their own private Heaven.

And then came the plague.

In a scene of Biblical proportions, a plague of locust descends upon the wheat fields and the whole world goes to Hell. The locust plummet to the ground in a dark, foreboding cloud. Soon the screen is consumed by fire and the film comes to a devastating climax. Linda's final words echo on a darkening screen and we are penetrated by her reaction to the events that have just taken place. She had left Hell, found a Heaven and then the people around her took it all away. But she walks away from it, almost emotionless. The world has robbed her of emotions.

This is one of my favorite movies. Days of Heaven is film in its purest form. Images, creating a powerful feeling that resonates with us long after the credits have rolled. It is haunting and sorrowful while being beautiful at the same time. There are many times I wish I could go back and relive some of those magic moments on my little Toshiba. Being swept away by this movie was one of those remarkable little occasions.

Friday night you should be watching:

Days of Heaven

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Happy Father's Day Pop.

I was eight years old. It was a cold, rainy Saturday morning and there was a fire burning in the fireplace. My Dad (Pop as I call him now) was making breakfast for my brother and I when he asked me to turn up the TV because a movie he liked was coming on. I protested a little because I wanted to watch my Saturday morning cartoons but he told me to give it a chance. I reluctantly agreed. Pop gave us both a plate and we settled down in the den to watch his movie. During the two hours that followed I fell in love with two things: basketball and Hoosiers. The movie was made by the now legendary team of director David Anspaugh and writer Angelo Pizzo, the creators of Rudy, and is loosely based on a true story.

The film opens with Coach Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) driving day and night, across the country. The landscape changes as he drives and eventually turns into farm land as he enters into Indiana. He finally pulls into a small high school in the middle of nowhere. Coach Dale makes his way upstairs and finds the principle. Here we learn that Dale has come a long way because he is outrunning a blemished past. This is his last chance.

Hoosiers is a sports movie, but it's also a redemption story. Redemption for a coach with a past, a team so small no one thinks they'll ever have a shot and for the town drunk, Shooter (Dennis Hopper). Shooter is the absent father of one of Dale's players and, fortunately for Dale, is a walking dictionary of the inner workings of Indiana basketball. Dale sees himself in Shooter. He tries to help Shooter by making use of his knowledge and giving him a job as an assistant coach.

This is a movie that truly understands high school sports in a small town. It isn't just a game, it's a religion. The men of the town gather with Coach Dale at a barbershop and discuss man-to-man vs. zone defense like theology professors arguing over the meaning of a passage of scripture. Coach Dale brings change to the team's usual routine and the town isn't ready to convert to the new methods. The setup is predictable but perfect for a movie like Hoosiers.

Coach Dale is demanding, stubborn and committed to his reconstruction of the team. "You are in the army. You're in my army. Every day between three and five," he tells his players. He breaks them down and then rebuilds them from the ground up. At first it looks as if he has no idea what he's doing. The team isn't winning and the town is growing angrier by the day. But, like all great sports movies, the team begins to come around and eventually makes it to the championship.

I can't say enough about the filming of the games. They are crafted so that we are always aware of what's happening on the court. Basketball is a fast moving sport and getting the camera angles to work so well was no easy feat. The cinematographer, Fred Murphy, did a wonderful job.

This is a great movie. Like all great sports movies we cheer for the underdogs and our hearts fill with joy when they overcome the impossible. On my worst days, watching Hoosiers again will more than likely wash away any bad feelings I may have had. It's hard to come away from this movie and feel anything other than a triumphant happiness.

The memory of that rainy, winter morning only grows fonder in my mind with each passing year. There are a handful of movies that have only gotten better with time and this is one of them. It may just be nostalgia but I don't care. Every film lover knows the truly great movies: Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Schindler's List and the others. Then there are the movies that are the greats to them individually. Hoosiers is on my individual list.

This Friday night you should cheer on Coach Norman Dale and his team while watching:


This review is dedicated to my Father. You're a great guy Pop. Thanks for being there from my first basket to my last.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Two Today

I chose to review two very different movies that deal with the same themes this week. The first is the great John Ford Western The Searchers and the second is Martin Scorsese's classic Taxi Driver.

Each of the films deals with a veteran returning back to a peaceful time and realizing that he no longer has a place. They are both plagued by rage and loneliness and they are consumed by a quest they have placed upon themselves. These are both wonderful films but they are not for everyone and I understand that. Some people just don't like Westerns, others just cannot watch something as horrific as Travis Bickle's descent into violent madness. However, if you are interested, these are excellent films and deserve to be seen and studied.

I hope you enjoy.

All Alone, I Break

Not everyone likes Westerns. Not even one as good as The Searchers, and I get that. My wife would rather have a tooth pulled than sit through one with me. So for all of you who just can't bring yourself to ride through the old West this week I'll review the spiritual successor to The Searchers, Taxi Driver, written by Paul Schrader and directed by the great Martin Scorsese.

Taxi Driver deals with the same themes as The Searchers, depression, loneliness, rage and obsession. But unlike The Searchers, this film becomes more of a nightmare than a story of redemption. Still, many of us have a strong connection to the tragic main character. The story is centered around Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), a marine who has just returned from Vietnam and is now working as a taxi driver in New York City.

As Travis drives around the city he is overcome with loathing for everything that he sees and the audience hears his thoughts as he moves through the urban jungles. "Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the street." What is this "real rain" he refers to? We have an idea but we really don't want to know the truth. Travis is consumed by his thoughts, he is a man who has reached such a deeply painful level of loneliness that he loses touch. In one scene we hear him say, "Loneliness has followed me my whole life. Everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There's no escape. I'm God's lonely man."

As the film progresses Travis' loneliness begins to break down the barriers of his sanity. He desperately tries to reach out for another human connection, but he fails at every turn. He tries to take out a very pretty campaign worker (Cybill Shepherd) for a congressman but, inevitably frightens her away. He tries to talk to the congressman himself and causes an extremely tense moment between the two men. He eventually tries to befriend a young prostitute named Iris (Jodie Foster) and then questions her pimp (Harvey Keitel), a man he calls chief (seemingly a reference to the Indian chief who takes Natalie Wood in The Searchers).

Travis tries to convince Iris to go back home and leave New York. Iris tells him that she is happy where she is and doesn't want to leave but he doesn't believe her. Eventually his attempts to get her to leave frighten her away as well. Travis is left alienated and alone again, and reality slips away just a little more. "I get some bad ideas in my head," he tells us. The threads of sanity have begun to unravel.

He goes and buys several guns from a dealer and we then witness one of the greatest scenes ever captured on camera. We are watching the absolute dissolution of a desperate man. Travis stands in front of a mirror with a gun in each hand and begins to talk to his reflection. "You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me?" That is one of the most quoted lines in history but, the most powerful line is often forgotten. "You talkin' to me? Well I'm the only one here." There's nobody else. Just a lonely, damaged man who has completely lost control.

"Now I see this clearly. My whole life is pointed in one direction. There never has been a choice for me."

That direction is to "rescue" Iris from what he believes is her captivity. Does she really want to be rescued? Like, The Searchers, maybe she is content to be left alone where she is. That is no longer an option, Travis' entire existence is now determined by his quest. He has to save the girl.

The ending of the film explodes with the violence that has been just beneath the surface the whole time. There is no redemption here, only chaos. Depression is rage turned inward, but in this scene the rage bursts free and no one, the audience included, will ever be the same.

And yet, we still connect with Travis so deeply that we fall into despair along with him. This is the genius of De Niro and Scorsese, they have created a character straight out of a nightmare but we still feel a connection with him. I can't give a higher compliment.

This Friday night if you can't deal with a Western or want to watch them both, you should slip down into madness with,

Taxi Driver