The King’s Speech (2010)

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“I have a voice,” he says, on behalf of suppressed royalty everywhere.

Royal history is not my strong suit.  I remember some of the big names – Elizabeth I and II, Victoria, some Henrys and Georges and what-not thrown in for good measure – but the order is a bit mixed up.  I tend to forget about the ones who didn’t have eras named after them, and quite possibly never even knew who reigned during the big wars of the twentieth century.  (How often have we heard about Winston Churchill and Neville Chamberlain; far rarer did we hear of the king’s role.)  I’ve also just spent the last twenty minutes meandering through Wikipedia’s lists of British monarchs.  Unsurprisingly, I did not end up on the page for George VI.

This film is in the genre of “moderately interesting historical story where nothing particularly unexpected happens but maybe you learn a bit more about a significant event.”  The plot is quite simple:  king meets speech therapist, king nearly fires speech therapist, king makes speech.

The speech in question is the king’s announcement of Britain’s entrance into war with Germany, live on radio to the entire nation.  Problem is, the king has had a lifelong stammer, and would have been spared the duties of the king if only his flaky brother hadn’t abdicated the throne to run off with his American divorcee girlfriend (another story I knew nothing about until suddenly Madonna made a movie about it).  Spoiler alert:  he makes the speech.

One of the things I’d hoped to better understand after watching a large number of award-winning films was the three-act structure.  I’ve read about it in various contexts, in both screenwriting and other types of stories.  However, I’ve watched movies for years without being conscious of the structure, and even after learning that it exists as a pretty standard structure, I still have trouble recognizing where those acts begin and end.

I’m not sure whether my skill has improved, but this movie’s structure seems pretty formulaic.  Of course, King Bertie first has an antagonistic relationship with his speech therapist Lionel.  Of course, they have a moment where Lionel is revealed to be not what he seemed, thereby threatening the entire relationship.  And of course, the king ends up succeeding in his important speech and sharing a creepy nod across the room with Lionel, before the latter fades mysteriously into the background, like any other Yoda-like figure.

The difficulty with films based on real events is that, even if you don’t know the particulars of the story, you have a general sense that things turned out okay.  We know coming into it that they wouldn’t have made a movie if the speech was a disaster and it somehow made Britain lose the war against Hitler.  Maybe you don’t need shocking twists to stay engaged with a movie, but then again, it’s hard to be passionate about something so bland.  It’s not a terrible movie – even fun in a few places – but neither does it affect me in any deep way.  Now, Hamilton’s King George III – that’s a king that’ll stick with you!

 

Theme:  King

First Time Watching?  No

Final Verdict:   Positively medieval

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From Here to Eternity (1953)

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This is what everyone did in Hawaii before Pearl Harbor.

There’s something about war that goes well with Oscars, like peanut butter and jelly.  If you’ve been around on this blog awhile, you may recall that I devoted an entire month to war-related films and still had plenty left over for other posts – like, for example, this one.  Perhaps it’s because there is some inherent drama in war:  the personal story meets the epic, the constant threat of death offers a natural level of drastic stakes.  I’ve seen a lot of war movies now, and they’re all a little bit different, but they’re also all a little bit the same.

FHtE opens on the arrival of a new soldier to an army unit in Hawaii.  He’s both a bugler and a boxer, and there must be some kind of joke there, but now he doesn’t really do either.  His commanding officer, a douchebag who doesn’t do much and takes all the credit, brought him there because he wanted to win a boxing championship.  Since he refuses to box, most of his peers and superiors make his life difficult with elaborate hazing rituals and punishments, because the time-honored method of getting someone to become a team player is to treat them like crap until they cave and do whatever you want.

Meanwhile, the non-commissioned officer (by the way, if I sound like I’m throwing off vaguely-accurate military terms with confidence, it’s only because I’ve decided to take a stab at it and hope for the best) who runs the show decides the best thing for his career is to indulge in Captain Douchebag’s wife.  If you’ve maybe played trivia and seen a still image from this movie in a picture round, say, it might have been this beach make-out scene.

Also, Frank Sinatra is in this movie.  Because why not?

I like the subtlety overall of the film, set in Hawaii in the weeks or months leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Except for one scene, where someone is casually leaning near a wall calendar with the date brightly indicated in red:  December 6!!!  (exclamation points possibly added).

I just read a movie review for Moonlight (even my non-movie-watching ass was intrigued), in which the reviewer likened an actor’s performance to the experience of watching Montgomery Clift act for the first time.  I mean, I guess it was fine and all, once I figured out which one he was, but I didn’t notice anything unusually brilliant.  This is probably why I’m only a blogger and not a professional critic.  Most of my reviews would be one sentence:  Yeah, that was cool, I guess.

 

Theme:  War & Doomed Romance

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Nobody lies about being lonely

Patton (1970)

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Is this America enough for you?

Okay, I’m going to be perfectly honest:  I only half-watched this movie.  I’ve certainly done that before in this project, where I play poker on my phone or fold laundry or something while the movie plays in the background.  I figure, whatever, it’s not like I’m writing a proper review or something, so if it doesn’t grab me, then I might as well do something useful with my time.  But Patton was another thing entirely.  I definitely sat through the whole three hours, but I can’t say I gained anything from it.

If you want to actually learn something about World War II, I’d recommend reading a book.  If you’d prefer to watch a bunch of explosions and see a guy who’s kind of an asshole depicted as a hero, you can watch this film – or, really, just about any war movie from the past fifty years.

Now, I’m the first to admit that I struggle to follow movies with large casts of hard-to-distinguish characters or films that attempt to dramatize a swath of real-life events.  Though I’ve read quite a bit about WWII in my time, I didn’t know much about Patton’s role in the war.  This movie didn’t clarify a lot, except that his big “claim to fame” was that he mocked soldiers he believed weren’t courageous enough in battle, which almost cost him any lasting glory.  The film chose to overlook entirely his expressed views on Jews and blacks (spoiler alert:  not positive).

I don’t often mention topical issues in conjunction with my Oscar project, but I couldn’t help seeing the parallels here between Patton’s near-fatal mistake and Trump.  Patton slapped a soldier in hospital for “battle fatigue” – the era’s euphemism for what we now think of as PTSD – because he considered it to be cowardice.  Apparently, soldiers are meant to be mindless killing machines in his world.  Fortunately, instead of ruining his career, it merely redirected his command to Operation Fortitude, the phantom army at Dover that was meant as a diversion from the real invasion at Normandy.  Most of this I learned from Wikipedia rather than the movie.

There were a couple of interesting moments that sparked my attention.  At one point, someone says, “I shaved very closely in anticipation of being smacked by you,” which sounded startlingly familiar.  I should have guessed it, considering my memory for quotes is limited to those scenes I’ve seen many times.  Turns out, it was used on Battlestar Galactica, when Tom Zarek encounters Laura Roslin in a moment of political rivalry.  Apparently, the writers of BSG really loved this movie, because another line features prominently, as well.  Patton makes an off-hand comment about needing soldiers who are razors, once again echoed in a storyline on BSG.  Admiral Caine apparently has a crossover kinship with General Patton.  Imagine the fanfiction.

My attention to this film project has been flagging a bit recently, probably in part because I have a fair number of films like this to get through that don’t inspire me much.  That’s okay; I’m in the home stretch, and there’s definitely a trilogy or two of movies that I can look forward to binge-watching in the near future.

 

Theme:  General

First Time Watching?  Yup

Final Verdict:  Not as funny as Patton Oswalt

Schindler’s List (1993)

I feel like I’ve learned a lot about the Holocaust in all my years of school, and afterward.  I recall listening to speakers talk about their experiences in concentration camps, old men and women with tiny rows of numbers tattooed into their forearms.  We read Anne Frank.  Years later, I read Maus.  And yet, there’s still so much that I don’t understand, both in how this terrible event came about and why there are still people who subscribe to the Nazi philosophy running around out there today.

In a narrative sense, stories about the Holocaust are difficult to make dramatically interesting.  It’s pretty clear (to most of us, anyway) who the bad guys are, and overall it’s hard to create a complex character out of an SS officer.  On the side of the Jewish victims, there are two real stories – the tale of survival and the tale of not making it through.  Notwithstanding the very significant difference of actual people living or dying, in terms of story, there’s a pretty clear path forward.  Basically, it’s difficult to think critically about how a tragic story like this is told without appearing to criticize the end result.

All that is to say though, that Schindler’s List both falls into the “obvious story” trap and manages to transcend it.  We have our clear villain in Ralph Fiennes character, the gleeful Nazi who has no qualms about shooting Jewish prisoners in the concentration camp.  And of course, our hero Schindler, who privately rescues a group of his factory workers.  Yet, each is complicated by a mitigating factor.  Fiennes’ Amon is in love with a Jewish girl (though not so deeply that he bends over backward to save her from certain death).  Schindler comes off as a little self-serving, though I suppose it’s his maneuvering to employ Jews in his manufacturing plant at a discount rate that affords him the opportunity and money to protect them later.  It’s a complicated problem, doing something so subversive under watchful eyes.

Here we are, in America and Europe today, witnessing evidence of prejudice and discrimination against Jews, and Muslims, and so many other minority groups around the world.  You’d think we’d have learned our lesson by now.  Maybe that’s why stories about World War II still fascinate us, because we see it as a big victory – the ultimate victory – for freedom and democracy everywhere.  The Holocaust gets that capital letter not just because it’s the worst thing we’ve ever seen in history, but because we like to think that it’s the last time such a thing will ever happen.  Genocide:  that key vocabulary word in World War II units in school.  The only problem is, it’s not the first or last time a large population has been wiped out by a stronger power.  We haven’t figured anything out yet.

I visited Lithuania a few years ago, a place where Jews once thrived.  Now there are few left, though many Americans I’ve met can trace family roots back to Lithuania before the war, before they escaped.  There was a recent article describing the archaeological studies of burial pits outside Vilnius.  I’ve seen that pit, stood along its rim.  It’s covered in grass now, these seventy-plus years later, a quiet place in the woods.  You’d almost never know something so terrible happened there.

 

Theme:  Anti-Semitism

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  The list is life

The English Patient (1996)

It’s really weird how the sand dunes formed the shape of a couple kissing behind my head.

Despite his prestigious career, I know Ralph Fiennes mostly as Lord Voldemort.  And let’s be real:  He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named isn’t the sexiest romantic lead.  This movie is strangely prescient, given that Ralph spends half the film in prosthetics that are not totally dissimilar from the Voldemort snake-face.  That says something about him as an actor, or maybe about me as a viewer.

But where are the ladies? you might be asking.  Yes, my month of ladies is winding up.  But why am I having more difficulty finding solid women leads as I get closer to the present?

In fairness, I do like both of the women characters in this film:  Hana, the war nurse who isn’t very busy tending to a single mysterious patient (that’s Ralphy, post-burnt-to-a-crisp-conveniently-amnesiac); and Katharine, wife of an archaeologist on expedition around Cairo just before World War II breaks out.  The fact that the film fails the test because the two main ladies exist in two separate time frames and so never have a chance to talk to each other shouldn’t discount that they’re interesting people.  Also the fact that their primary existence is as a love interest for a male character.  And the fact that we see naked breasts all over, but somehow the idea of bare man-parts is apparently scandalous.

Instead of the main love story, I actually found more intriguing the burgeoning romance between Hana and Kip, the Sikh minesweeper who camps outside the monastery Hana’s tucked away in.  It wasn’t a romance fraught with drama and jealousy and adultery, which is probably why it didn’t get as much screen time.  There’s a touching moment, after they part, Kip off to defuse a bomb while Hana realizes the horror of caring about another person she’s doomed to lose.

As I’ve probably said here before, I’m a bit of a sucker for a good framing device, and this one worked pretty well – working through the puzzle through snippets of the mysterious unnamed (until he is) man.  Overall, I enjoyed the mystery of this film, in figuring out how it all came to a papery-faced man who had given up all hope in life.  Maybe not so different from ol’ Voldy, after all.

 

Theme:  Ladies on Film

Bechdel Test:  Nope, unless you count that nurse in the beginning who borrows money from Hana right before her jeep blows up.

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Too many men, just like this house.

 

 

 

Mrs. Miniver (1942)

 

Based solely on the title and the fact that this movie is set during World War II (set and released), I decided that it must be about a Rosie-the-Riveter type of woman who worked in a factory in support of the war.  I thought, Oh, cool, my grandma did a Rosie-the-Riveter job during the war.  Which then prompted an evening-long venture through Google genealogy to research my family history, and which I’ll be happy to delineate in careful detail now.

Oh, wait.  Movie.  That’s right.  Well, anyway, though Mrs. Miniver is a war movie, it is unfortunately not about Rosie the Riveter.  It’s not even set in the United States.  The film was actually created to encourage Americans to support the Allied effort (even the end credits implore you to buy bonds!).

The title Miniver is your typical upper middle class lady who likes shopping and buys overly expensive hats (women, amiright?), which turns out to be okay because her Don Draper-esque husband just blew some cash on a new car.  Somehow, Mrs. Miniver ends up admitting she’s wrong about something while her husband calls her fat, and then they go to bed in neighboring twin beds.  Then the war starts.

You might wonder why a war movie is named after a woman.  Here’s the twist:  by the middle of the picture, there are actually two Mrs. Minivers.  The elder Mrs. M’s son, Vin, meets the daughter of the local baroness, and despite the fact that Vin introduces himself by man-splaining something about social consciousness, they fall in love.  In a weird side plot, the baroness hosts a flower competition in the village, except that nobody has ever attempted to compete against her… until now!

How might the Bechdel test have fared in a movie from 1942, even one that apparently focuses on the life of a woman?  Not well, as a matter of fact.  I’ve interpreted the Test to mean that two women characters must be in a scene alone to qualify, and it’s a good hour into the film before we even see the two women alone together.  Instead of dialogue, they sit gaping in shock at something war-ish.  I don’t think that counts.  Later on, after Vin enlists in the air force, the ladies Miniver end up discussing at length how much it will suck if Vin dies in combat, but that, at the end of the day, they’ll figure out how to move past it.  I won’t ruin the ending.

The moral of this movie, if you could say such a thing, is that war – and particularly this war – affects the lives of everyone, including the women who wait at home for their loved ones to return safely.  It’s not an especially novel message, but an affecting one nonetheless.  While watching, I found myself marveling at the very idea of making a movie about the war while it was going on, without knowing what its result might be.  Especially in 1942, when the U.S. had just barely got into the game, and everything seemed to be running in Germany’s favor.  For some reason, World War II remains in many ways the favorite war to depict on film.  I wonder whether and how the war will carry on in our memories long after our grandparents and their own memories have faded into history.

 

Theme:  Ladies in Film

Bechdel Test:  Total failure

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Gentlemen don’t propose when they’re eating.

 

The Sound of Music (1965)

This is one of those films that everyone seems to know intimately well, having watched it regularly since childhood.  I regret to inform you that I did not have that childhood.  Instead, my childhood was marked by a toy consisting of a pair of kittens in a basket that, upon turning a key, would play a tinny-sounding “My Favorite Things” while the kittens swayed in unison.  They were so well synchronized because they were part of the same metal frame fused together, I discovered after investigating underneath the basket.  I also learned that the music played on a metal cylinder with holes drilled at appropriate intervals, though I didn’t realize the tune’s origin until many years later.

Up until watching The Sound of Music this past weekend, all I really knew of the plot came from moments recreated on Family Guy.  And I suspect a significant chunk of the movie ended up in parody form at some point; I almost convinced myself that I’d seen the movie before because of the familiarity of the final scenes at the concert and the cemetery.  Who knows?  Maybe I have.

Like most romances, this one begins with the dude acting like an asshole because the woman is being herself.  The free-spirited Maria can’t hack it as a nun, so they send her to manage a brood of children under the tyrannical leadership of their naval officer father, Von Trapp (who is surprisingly resistant to the tyrannical leadership of Hitler).  Somehow, with the help of a few show-stopping numbers, everybody gets along (except for Hitler).  That pretty much sums up the film.  I suspect most people reading this know far more about it than I do.

In terms of the 1960s decade, there’s a relative dearth of war pictures, and there’s probably a good reason for it.  World War II was distant enough by that point that it didn’t hang quite so heavy on people’s lives, and by the time the Vietnam War dominated the news, it’s understandable that people wanted to avoid thinking about it in their entertainment.  The closest you get is this, which is more romance than drama, a little too upbeat to really delve deeply into the horrors of war.

Admittedly, The Sound of Music is an unusual choice for a war-themed series.  While the threat of war looms heavily on the story, particularly in the later moments, it’s not really a “war movie” per se.  Then again, nothing says war like Nazis.  I thought it would be interesting to include regardless, as a contrast of sorts to the other angles we’ve seen of war thus far:  the cold monotony of trench warfare, the recovery of soldiers back home, the drudgery and adventure of troops and commandos.  Here is a pleasant family life spoiled by war.  The story of The Sound of Music suggests more to me of the lives of Jews in Germany and throughout Eastern Europe, forced to uproot their lives to escape the Nazis.  I don’t know enough about the making of the film (or its original musical) to determine whether the story of this family is meant to reflect the struggles of oppressed peoples, or if it’s just that so many of the stories of refugees were similar.  Except maybe the part with the singing kids.

I didn’t expect to enjoy this film, being all cool and cynical, but I mostly did.  Not having seen it, I still recognized so many of the songs, which have percolated into popular culture (and creepy children’s toys).  As a kid, I remember getting bored in the musical numbers of movies, wanting them to just get on with the damn story already, and I feel a little of that here, too.  Fortunately, these days, I have a smartphone to distract me.

 

Theme:  War

Which War?  World War II (Anschluss)

First Time Watching?  Yes.  For God’s sake, yes, I’ve never seen it before!

Final Verdict:  How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?  I mean, will it just sit there, or do you have to wrap it up in your fist, or what?

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

 

I’m going to expose my lack of World War II knowledge and confess that I didn’t realize Burma was a part of the Pacific theater.  I’m going to further expose my ignorance by admitting that I had to look up where the movie took place, even after having watched the film.  Maybe I’ve been tainted by too many Vietnam war movies, so that anything tropical and war-y would seem to take place there.  (Okay, I knew it wasn’t Vietnam, but I was thinking Thailand for a while.  Or maybe the Philippines.)

As Eurocentric people (referring specifically to white Americans, I suppose), we tend to focus so much on the German side of the war, and forget far too easily what happened in the Pacific.  If not for Pearl Harbor, we might not have bothered getting involved in that particular conflict at all, leaving Japan to run rampant throughout China, Korea, and apparently Burma.  Of course, when I think about it, Burma was a British colony at the time (which I know primarily thanks to George Orwell, who wrote many essays on his experiences in the British Foreign Service).  I’ve just explained a lot to myself.  Thanks for bearing witness to my learning.

All of this is sort of beside the point.  I’m supposed to be talking about a movie here.

Bridge takes place in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, where a new group of British POWs is induced to build a bridge spanning the river Kwai (hence the title).  The big conflict, though, is not over whether the soldiers will be forced to build the bridge – that’s a given.  The question is whether the officers will join in the labor, against the rules of the Geneva convention.  Alec Guinness is great as Colonel Nicholson, the stodgy officer who stands on principle in defiance of the Japanese prison camp commanding officer, Saito.  You pretty much alternate between admiring his grit and wanting to pound his head against the wall for refusing to back down even at the risk of death.  His troops all admire him, too, perhaps because they don’t realize that they will not be spared hard labor no matter what the result of Nicholson’s last stand.  Nicholson is even principled enough to order his men to build the bridge right, rather than intentionally sabotaging the job as they’d done outside of his influence.

Meanwhile, there’s an American POW (who is, incidentally, a bit like Don Draper) in the camp who is far less eager to help his captors.  He manages to escape and is then enticed by a guy who looks remarkably like Doctor Who and Sherlock writer Stephen Moffat to return on a mission to destroy the bridge.  While the battle of wits between Nicholson and Saito is probably the more interesting conflict, character-wise, it’s hard to resist an exciting commando mission.

Sorry, Sherlock season 4 is delayed while I go blow up a bridge.

I’m a sucker for juxtaposition, and I love the scene where the two commandos are setting up explosives on the base of the bridge while the prisoners are inside celebrating its completion with pantos in drag (such a British thing to do).

It’s really interesting how each of the war movies I’ve watched so far has approached it from a completely different angle.  This one is almost more of an adventure story that also happens to have a war as a backdrop.  Being a POW is no walk in the park, and the movie sort of brushes past that fact, but otherwise, it’s an entertaining film.  I did think that it was about an hour shorter than it actually was, so I had to pause in the middle when I started falling asleep, picking it up the next day.  But that’s not really a criticism, except in my own planning.

As the Brits might say, “Good show.”  And I’m not talking about the panto.

 

Theme:  War

Which One:  World War II (pacific theater)

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Bridge to a T

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

I will admit that sometimes I think of old movies as being unsophisticated.  That they don’t manage to capture the emotional complexity of our lives, at least not as well as we can do today (but, to be fair, don’t necessarily do in every superhero movie).  I don’t know why I think this way – it’s not a bias I have against literature or music of a different era.  Maybe a part of it is that I’ve seen the signs of a medium in its early years, as filmmakers figure out what they can do with the equipment and what the censors allow, and either I don’t understand it or I’m not impressed.

All of this lead-up is to say that I don’t see a lack of sophistication in this film.  The story focuses on three characters, returning home to their small town at the end of the war.  All have encountered some degree of suffering, though it’s not really a film about what happened to them in the war so much as what happens after, and how these men re-adapt to civilian life.

Homer Parrish probably has it hardest:  he lost his hands.  Though he seems to have adapted surprisingly well with a set of prosthetics (which seem to my eyes to be exceptionally advanced for the era), the difficult part is seeing himself as something more than a burden on his family and his one-time sweetheart.  What’s particularly impressive is that the actor himself lost his hands in a training accident during the war, and so provides the audience with a realistic portrayal of what remains after armistice.

The other soldiers have wounds less visible, but troubling nonetheless.  Post-traumatic stress disorder was not named yet at that time, but Fred’s night terrors and paranoia certainly fit the profile.  Fred hopes to find work doing something other than working as a soda jerk at the local pharmacy, but finds that everyone else who’s returned home is looking, too.  Worst of all, he’s now working as underling to the dweeb who once assisted him but stayed behind during the war.

Finally, the older Al returns to a family that doesn’t seem to have much use for him anymore.  His kids are nearly grown and much more independent.  He returns to his old job as a bank manager, and gets reprimanded for offering loans to fellow ex-servicemen because they’re deemed too high-risk.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a story without a romance.  By the end, nearly everyone has a happy ending, which is certainly a welcome improvement over many of those who served.  At the same time, though, I don’t think the storyline is unrealistic or has a Hollywood ending.  I’m surprised at how willing audiences were to see a story like this so closely on the heels of the war, particularly because it does portray the more unpleasant aspects of soldiers at home.  It’s not a victory parade, not a story of heroism on the battlefield.

There’s an odd scene toward the end of the film where a customer in the malt shop argues with two of the servicemen.  He takes the unpopular view (and to my ears, entirely unheard of perspective until now) that America picked the wrong side during the war, and should have fought with the Germans.  I literally have no idea how this character could represent anything other than a straw man for Fred to beat into a pulp.  I’m sure there were some who expressed that opinion early on, but who would say that after the Allies had already won the war?  Nazis, that’s who.

Fred’s parting words to the guy could have been the final lines of the film (and were better than the actual last lines, which seemed as if they’d turned off the recorder a few minutes too early):  “I gave up the best years of my life, and what have you done?”

 

Theme:  War

Which War:  World War II

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Nervous out of the service