Midway trailer reaction

Dick Best’s squadron of SBD Dauntless bombers dives toward the Japanese carriers in Roland Emmerich’s  Midway

Dick Best’s squadron of SBD Dauntless bombers dives toward the Japanese carriers in Roland Emmerich’s Midway

A new teaser trailer for Roland Emmerich’s forthcoming historical action film Midway dropped this morning. I first heard about the project last year and, despite a basic reaction of Oh no, decided to reserve judgment. This trailer hasn’t done much to change my initial reaction, but I am still withholding judgment. We’ll see.

The Battle of Midway is a seminal moment in American military history and the course of the Second World War. It deserves a serious, sober dramatization that will convey the seriousness of the Japanese threat, the courage of the sailors and aviators involved, something of the longterm consequences of the victory—and, of course, the terrible cost.

So I’m in favor of a new Midway film—the Charlton Heston Midway, which I’ve never seen all the way through, came out 43 years ago—especially given the potential of modern special effects to simulate something like the incineration of the Akagi.

However, I’m not sure Roland Emmerich is the best person to handle this story. In fact I’m pretty sure he’s not. He’s helmed some of the worst big-budget schlock Hollywood has had to offer for a quarter century. He made the climate change Chicken Little fables The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, the misbegotten historical adventure 10,000 BC, went down the Oxfordian conspiracy rabbithole with Anonymous, and is most famous for his mindless sci-fi crowdpleasers like Independence Day and the American Godzilla. Even what I think is his best movie, The Patriot, is a ridiculously simplistic retelling of the Revolution in the South that’s riddled with falsehood.

So I’m not terribly optimistic.

All that said, like my initial reaction to the first real trailer for Tolkien, I’m just going to list a few thoughts:

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  • After all my negativity about Emmerich, there are some definite wins in the casting, especially Woody Harrelson as Admiral Nimitz. Harrelson was great as Texas Ranger Maney Gault in The Highwaymen, which I loved, so I look forward to him playing a similarly legendary figure again.

  • The first half of the trailer covers a lot of Pearl Harbor ground, with a lot of similar shots—CGI Japanese torpedo planes zipping through battleship row, fighters strafing people on the ground, and even the departure of Jimmy Doolittle’s squadron of B-25 Mitchells for the first bombing of Japan. Two of my favorite historical movies of the last few years—Dunkirk and Darkest Hour, for my thoughts on which click here and here—cover almost exactly the same events but do so in radically different ways. If Midway is going to double up on some of the material Pearl Harbor covered, I hope it’s significantly more different than what we’ve got in this trailer.

  • Aaron Eckhart plays Doolittle, which could be quite good, and some publicity stills show him in China after the raid on Tokyo. But again—just how much does this film cover before it gets to Midway?

  • Lots and lots of CGI, not all of it impressive looking. One doesn’t have to go as far as Christopher Nolan did with practical effects on Dunkirk, which gave that film such a spare, austere look, but some detectable real planes and ships would be nice—and help convince our brains that we’re not watching a cartoon.

  • My wife and I just rewatched Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, which is a real hoot. Nick Jonas looks exactly the same here.

  • This film also features two alumni of my favorite underappreciated historical film, The Alamo—Dennis Quaid (Sam Houston there, Bull Halsey here) and Patrick Wilson (William Barret Travis there, US naval intelligence officer Edwin Layton here).

  • I’m intrigued to get a bit of the personal life of Dick Best, the divebomber pilot who dropped a bomb into the elevator of the Akagi. He’s played by Ed Skrein and Mandy Moore (familiar to me, many times over, as Rapunzel) plays his wife. Done well this could lend some depth to the often anonymous men who fight America’s wars. But given Emmerich’s track record of developing romantic relationships—or any kind of human relationship—I’m withholding judgment.

  • Best’s dive toward the Japanese fleet, which we get snippets of at the end of the trailer, knotted my stomach. So, mission accomplished there.

  • A number of other figures from the battle—ordinary pilots and sailors who did incredible things—are listed in the cast elsewhere online, men like Wade McClusky and George Gay, who survived their flights to attack the Japanese fleet, and Eugene Lindsey, who did not. I hope Midway does them justice.

You can watch the teaser trailer for Midway embedded in this post above. The film comes out November 8, timed for Veterans Day.

Stan & Ollie

Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) making  Way Out West  in 1937

Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) making Way Out West in 1937

When I was a kid, the rainy day entertainment on offer at my grandparents’ house—a disordered stack of clamshell packaged VHS tapes—included Winnie the Pooh, Humphrey the Bear, the Kiefer Sutherland and Charlie Sheen version of The Three Musketeers (strange days for Disney), and an old black and white film called Utopia. This film followed two friends, a dyspeptic fat man and his thin, mostly silent buddy, on a sea voyage gone wrong. They land by accident on an island raised from the sea overnight by an storm, establish their own government, and have to deal with the consequences as adventurers eager to make a buck mob the new island republic. There’s probably a lot going on in the movie that I didn’t get as a kid, but I did enjoy the banter and physical comedy of the two leads—Utopia, which came out in 1951, was my introduction to Laurel and Hardy.

Years later, long after that VHS disappeared, I learned that it was their last film.

Stan & Ollie picks up two years after Utopia and tells the story of Laurel and Hardy’s last live tour, a trip up and down the length of Britain to raise money—and the interest of producers—for a their passion project, a Robin Hood comedy. Every incident, every circumstance reminds them that they are past their prime. They draw small crowds in less illustrious theaters and stay in inexpensive hotels. They carry their own luggage and trunks of props from station to station, checking in briefly with their oily promotional agent, whose obsequiousness doesn’t mask his greater interest in the other acts he represents. And they’re aging, taking medicines for their aches and pains and wishing they could have a drink or a cigarette though they’ve given up both.

But the greatest stress on the pair is the unhealed wound of professional betrayal. Years before, Laurel had tried to lead the team out of the studio system, to strike out on their own like other successful comedy acts, but Hardy had not followed. Worse, he went on to make a film—comically but also ominously referred to as “the elephant picture”—with someone else. Even reunited, these old friends step gingerly around this issue—as long as they can. The arrival of their wives, who nurse a cordial dislike of each other, and the revelation that Laurel has not been truthful about their potential Robin Hood deal with a film producer, strain their personal and professional relationship.

These pressures culminate in a tense, painful argument in which the pair air all their old grievances. Seem to have finally split irreparably, Hardy’s collapsing health means a second reconciliation may never come. Worse, their publicity man begins approaching Laurel with offers to work with other comedians to complete the tour.

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Technically, Stan & Ollie is a handsomely mounted period piece with great sets and costumes and some very nice cinematography. The makeup and prosthetics, worn by both leads but most obvious on John C. Reilly, who wears a heavy fatsuit to play the aging Hardy, are the best I’ve seen since Gary Oldman’s transformation into Churchill in Darkest Hour. The verisimilitude is stunning. The writing is also solid, with a well-constructed screenplay that gives us a poignant window in the last stages of a great partnership rather than, Chaplin-style, trying to tell the whole story in two hours. The tone and pace are light and agile and, despite the subject matter, fun. A prologue set on the backlot of Hal Roach Studios during the filming of Way Out West in 1937 is a riot of old Hollywood iconography, as well as setting up all the conflict and backstory for the rest of the film—as well as a poignant bookend. It’s masterfully done.

But none of this would work without the performances, which are the real glory of Stan & Ollie. Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly play the roles of Laurel and Hardy perfectly. These are not imitations or impressions, mere mechanical reproductions of the way the real men performed their sketches, but fully rounded, deft, and subtle performances. Coogan and Reilly’s ranges are perfectly matched, and both handle the broad comedy of the duo’s act and the fine, delicate dramatic scenes equally well, switching from one to the other naturally.

The reception scene in which Laurel and Hardy finally snap at each other is a case in point—anger, bitterness, sadness, regret, and sometimes more than one of these at the same time, all wash through each man’s features. Each is angry, and has a good reason to be; each is hurt, and has a good reason to be; each has the viewer’s sympathy, making their fight all the more painful. It’s excellent.

The entire supporting cast is great, too, especially the wives—Shirley Henderson as the fretful Mrs. Hardy and Nina Arianda as the chronically unimpressed has-been actress now known as Mrs. Laurel. But Coogan and Reilly own this film from beginning to end, not just resurrecting the style and fun of Laurel and Hardy (the comedy bits they reenact are hilarious—I laughed all the way through all of them) but making these icons real flesh and blood men with a real friendship.

By coincidence, just before watching Stan & Ollie I read Kyle Smith’s review of Tolkien, the brand new biopic (which I’ve written about before). Smith begins his review with the observation that, “There must be a hundred films about love for each one about friendship, and yet are the two not equally vital forces in our lives?” Stan & Ollie is a warm, poignant story about not just friendship, but the pains friends must take to remain friends through the difficulties and hurts that inevitably come between people. After their fight and a health scare that threatens to permanently break up the Laurel and Hardy team, the pair begin the process of reconciliation, repairing the trust and respect that friendship requires. Contrary to the accusations they fling at each other at their low point, friendships don’t just happen, and reconciliation isn’t a single magical moment—both come about through purposeful acts of love. So Laurel and Hardy end the film with their priorities reordered: their worldly successes and even their individual health come second to friendship.

Even if the movie weren’t as fun, endearing, and uplifting as it is, the final act makes it worth seeing.

The Highwaymen on City of Man Podcast

Kevin Costner as Texas Ranger Frank Hamer in  The Highwaymen

Kevin Costner as Texas Ranger Frank Hamer in The Highwaymen

 
Used to be, you had to have talent to get published. Now you just have to shoot people.
— Maney Gault in The Highwaymen
 

Last week I sat down to talk with my friend Coyle of the City of Man Podcast. Our topic of discussion was the new Netflix film The Highwaymen, directed by John Lee Hancock and starring Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson. The film, set in Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana in the spring of 1934, tells the story of Frank Hamer (Costner) and Maney Gault (Harrelson), retired Texas Rangers tasked with tracking down and killing legendary spree criminals Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker.

The Highwaymen dramatizes a great true story in (broadly) accurate ways and poses some interesting questions about crime, law and order, the role of force in upholding the law, progressive modern assumptions about crime and civilization, the idolization of celebrities—even criminals—and whether our sins are our own fault or forced upon us by our circumstances. Coyle and I had a great time discussing the film, the history, the themes and questions raised by the story, and more.

The only thing I wish we could’ve dug into deeper was more specifics on accuracy and authenticity. But who knows—I may resurrect Historical Movie Monday for a Highwaymen post somewhere down the road. The Highwaymen is a solid movie and I hope y’all will both watch it and enjoy our discussion of it.

You can find the City of Man Podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, and other fine podcasting platforms. You can find a link to this episode’s shownotes here. I’ve also embedded the episode in a Stitcher player in this post. Please listen in, and I hope y’all enjoy!

Tolkien trailer reaction

General Erich Ludendorff calls in a favor from Smaug, Spring 1918

General Erich Ludendorff calls in a favor from Smaug, Spring 1918

A new trailer for Tolkien dropped yesterday. The forthcoming film was directed by FInnish director Dome Karukoski and stars Nicholas Hoult as a young JRR Tolkien and Lily Collins as Edith Bratt, his beloved future wife.

There was an earlier teaser that proved exactly that—a tease. That trailer featured almost nothing of consequence but did offer a taste. I watched it and worried that the movie would be pretty cheap looking. This new trailer has allayed that suspicion, featuring an impressive First World War battle scene on the Somme, some impressive Hobbit- and Lord of the Rings-inspired fantasy visuals—like a dragon in no-man’s-land—and what appears to be location shooting in Oxford.

I don’t have a post per se, but here are a few mostly unstructured thoughts based on the new trailer:

  • It looks like the movie will focus on Tolkien’s school days, his courtship of Edith, and his experiences in the trenches during World War I. I’m guessing the film will end with his demobilization and settlement back into Oxford life in the early 1920s.

  • Maybe we’ll get an Inklings sequel? One can only hope.

  • I’m not sold on Hoult as Tolkien. Hoult has a delicacy about him that I don’t get from seeing photos of or reading about Tolkien. It’s hard to imagine him belly-laughing with CS Lewis and Hugo Dyson over a pint and a pipe. But he is a fine actor—and I wasn’t originally sold on Gary Oldman as Churchill either—so I’m keeping an open mind.

  • The Middle Earth visuals imported into the landscapes of the war intrigue me. I’m curious to see how, exactly, they’ll incorporate them.

  • This film could be a good way to bring home the tragedy of the war to people. The group Tolkien is shown joining—”A fellowship,” he says, and one’s heart leaps—was called the TCBS and is seen by many as a schoolboy prototype of the Inklings. Tolkien and Christopher Wiseman were the only members of the group to survive the war.

A few hopes and worries:

  • These were certainly formative, crucially important years for Tolkien, and had direct influence on his work (“The Dead Marshes,” he once wrote, “owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme”), but I hope they don’t overplay it and suggest the kind of simplistic this-inspired-this, this-inspired-this biographical interpretation of his work that some biopics fall into.

  • While he doesn’t appear in the trailer, Colm Meaney is listed on IMDb as playing Father Francis Morgan, the guardian of Tolkien and his brother following their mother’s death. Morgan famously forbade Tolkien any contact with Edith until he was 21 because of a perceived bad influence on his schoolwork and because she wasn’t Catholic, a prohibition Tolkien obeyed. I hope Fr. Francis, whom Tolkien remembered with respect and affection, isn’t situated as a bad guy in the screenplay.

  • That raises two issues in my mind. First, I hope the filmmakers don’t Hollywoodize this romance too much. One of the things I love about the story of Tolkien and Edith is that they were two devout, honorable people who obeyed and waited for each other. Turning them into Romeo and Juliet rebels against the system would be a betrayal. It would also be boring. Who hasn’t seen that movie before?

  • Second, I also—most importantly—hope the filmmakers don’t strip the Christianity out of Tolkien’s story. He was devoutly Catholic in a time when anti-Catholicism was rife through English society, and the religious differences between himself and Edith played a crucial role in their romance.

Like I said, just a few initial thoughts upon watching this new trailer a few times. What do y’all think?

If you’re interested in some of this and don’t think you can wait for the movie, a couple good books covering this ground are Humphrey Carpenter’s authorized biography; Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle Earth, by John Garth; and A Hobbit, a Wadrobe, and a Great War, by Joseph Loconte, for which you can read my review here.

Tolkien comes out May 10 in the US. I’ll be there. Watch the new trailer here or embedded in this post above.

Office Space on the Sectarian Review

Stephen Root as Milton WADDAMS in  Office Space

Stephen Root as Milton WADDAMS in Office Space

Workplace comedy classic Office Space arrived in (a few) theaters twenty years ago this week. To celebrate, Sectarian Review host Danny Anderson asked me to join him and Jeffrey Carter for a quick discussion of the movie: what’s so great about it, why it flopped, why it’s funny, and why it’s real—so horribly, uncomfortably real—even after twenty years. Along the way we discuss our favorite characters, compare the film to “Dilbert” and “The Office,” examine what it is about Mike Judge’s comedy that works so well, and talk about our own experiences roaming with the herd in cubicle farms. We also try, with only partial success, to resist quoting the entire movie.

You can listen in by downloading the episode or subscribing to the Sectarian Review Podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, and other such fine podcasting apps, or via the embedded Stitcher player in this post. Thanks as always to Danny for having me on, and thanks to y’all for listening. Enjoy!

They Shall Not Grow Old

“Mind the wire.”

“Mind the wire.”

Last night I finally got to see They Shall Not Grow Old, a First World War documentary directed by Peter Jackson. It was magnificent—the best World War I documentary I’ve seen. Nothing I can say to recommend the film is as powerful as watching it, so: Go see it.

There are a couple of directions you can take a documentary on a topic as big as World War I. The one I think most of us are used to, courtesy of Ken Burns and the History Channel (once upon a time, anyway), is a God’s eye view, with talking heads by historians, maps, photos and sometimes reenactments and, depending on the subject, real historical footage. This approach mirrors the top-down narrative approach of most historical books on topics this big and historically remote.

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They Shall Not Grow Old takes a different tack, one I’ve appreciated more and more since discovering Sir John Keegan in grad school. In his seminal, discipline-changing book The Face of Battle, Keegan sought to explore not the cause-and-effect relationships leading to entire wars or even particular battles, but instead the “what was it like?” experience of combat. This gives us a grunt’s eye or worm’s eye view, a view in which the concrete details of daily existence—or the end of existence—are the focus, as they were for the people living through it. What was the weather like? How did it feel to be there? How much could you see? How did you sleep? What did you eat? And when? Did your boots rub and make blisters? How did a trench smell? What did it sound like? Perhaps most importantly—who were these soldiers?

They Shall Not Grow Old narrows its focus from the entire war to the lived experience specifically of British soldiers on the Western Front. Jackson, in a special behind-the-scenes feature that played after the end credits at the showing I attended, said his aim was to present “an accurate but generic depiction of combat” for this subset of soldiers. The film is the better for it, I think, in the same way that Dante or Jane Austen have told us so much about the human condition by minutely examining and dramatizing their tiny corner of the world. The effect of a film like this would not have been as powerful had it tried to encompass all the nations that fought.

The big draw is the scrubbed up and colorized footage from the war, and rightly so. Jackson and his team have done something really remarkable here. By slowing the old film’s framerate, stabilizing shrunken and jittery old film prints or negatives, and repairing scratches and dust, the footage ceases to be an artifact and becomes footage again—a view of people, like us, going about their business, like we do. It’s a cliche, but this hundred year old footage comes to life.

Jackson, assisted by foley artists, has also added sound to the film, further enhancing the sense of what it was like. Perhaps the most impressive feat is adding voice to the silent footage. Jackson enlisted forensic lipreaders to discern what, exactly, the men in the footage were saying (my favorite: “Hi, mum!”) and then, in some impressive historical detective work, figured out what regiments the men belonged to and hired actors from those respective parts of Britain to record the dialogue. Mutters, giggles, coughs, exclamations, jokes, and even mundane talk—a sergeant pointing out where to lay down a load, an officer reading a pep talk to his company—all make it real.

Finally, the film features no talking heads by academics or novelists, no narration by voiceover artists, but instead a audio montage of actual World War I veterans recorded during the 1960s and 70s. You’re seeing the world they saw, as much as they saw it as Jackson could manage, and hearing them describe it themselves. It’s a profoundly unselfish way to tell the story, stepping back as much as possible and bringing the audience to the past, not subjecting the past to the present.

The end result is impressive and profoundly moving. Even those of us who have been moved by these photos and jumpy old newsreels have never experienced them like this. Over the course of the film, you feel like you get to know some of these anonymous faces; something of the character, the feel of the British tommy comes through, and when they suffer and die you feel it with them. The audience I watched the film with laughed with the soldiers, chuckled at their antics, cringed at their injuries, and cried when tragedy struck.

This film presents the kind of understanding—of these men, of their lives, of what they lived through—that you can otherwise only get from memoirs and makes it graphically real. Jackson and his team deserve all the praise they’re getting.

They Shall Not Grow Old is a fitting monument to a vanished generation. Go out and see it as soon as you can.

A Night at the Garden

a night at the garden.jpg

This year’s Oscar nominations dropped without me noticing or caring that much. Most of what I liked last year didn’t get nominated, and I’m okay with that. The Oscar ceremony is as meaningful as a given State of the Union address—not very much, and grandiose and overlong to boot.

But as I looked through the nominees in the Oscar categories this morning I was arrested by one nominee in the Documentary Short field: “A Night at the Garden.” I recognized the poster art immediately—a still photo of the stage, complete with American flags and a colossal George Washington, during a 1939 rally of the Amerikadeutscher Volksbund or German American Bund, an organization of Nazis. The Bund held this rally in Madison Square Garden. 20,000 people attended.

While the film is short and clearly meant to suggest Troubling Parallels, the filmmaker wisely lets the images themselves do the talking. (He explains his approach in the website’s Q&A.) This keeps the film from drifting into any of the outright foolishness characterizing our current political discourse. The film will make ideal classroom viewing and should prompt plenty of discussion, from the aesthetics of the rally itself—which worked gangbusters in Germany but mostly attracted curiosity in the US, if not the scorn it did in Britain—to First Amendment protections and the use of force by the police. One could also, if one really wanted to play with fire, start a discussion about why Nazis were fine with the Pledge of Allegiance.

The short runs seven minutes and is available in its entirety on the film’s official website. I highly recommend watching it, and I’m grateful that this is available now. No student that I’ve had in the last six years has known that there was an active and very noisy (if in reality rather weak) pro-Nazi organization in the US before World War II, and when I tell them about this rally they can’t believe it. This footage, paired with a good contextual talk, should come in handy.

2018 in Movies

Tim Blake Nelson as Buster Scruggs in  The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Tim Blake Nelson as Buster Scruggs in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

2018 was not, by several reckonings I’ve read or heard, a great year for movies. There was a good bit of dreck, but a lot more sameness. Even the prestige Oscar-bait movies all look similarly tortured, similarly target the same progressive boogeymen, and look similarly self-congratulatory. And Lord help you if you’re pretty well burned out on superheroes. I’m getting close. I saw Black Panther, which was apparently a civic duty, but couldn’t muster the gumption to see Infinity War until this week. Still underwhelmed.

But there was good stuff mixed in there—and if you enjoyed the things I was just complaining about, more power to you! Seriously. I try not to begrudge people their entertainment, but I do wish we got more movies like the ones below.

Here are the five movies, in roughly ascending order, that I enjoyed most this year, along with a few honorable mentions and—to keep things positive—movies that looked good, that trusted friends recommended, but that I just haven’t had the chance to see yet.

A Quiet Place

John Krasinski in  A Quiet Place

John Krasinski in A Quiet Place

A Quiet Place proved the most pleasant surprise of the year for me. I’m not much for horror—and apparently neither is John Krasinski,* the writer, director, and star of the movie. I think that’s a strength. Krasinski’s entry in the genre emphasizes character over gore, relationships over creature effects, and atmosphere over cheap jump scares, the things a talented outsider can bring to freshen up a genre piece. As it happens, the few horror films I like are the ones that slowly build dread—a more powerful emotion than horror, I think—through character and atmosphere.

It helps that Krasinski has fashioned a classically cinematic movie. With the dialogue mostly stripped out, A Quiet Place has to rely on that ever rarer of commodities—visual storytelling. It’s a spectacularly well made movie, visually and technically, with an excellent sense of place (always an asset in horror, c.f. The Shining), and evocative sound design. But the real strength, what gives the technical accomplishments life, is the performances. Krasinski and his wife, Emily Blunt, portray a committed, nigh desperate couple trying to raise a family in a world controlled by unstoppable monsters with powerful senses of hearing. Krasinski and Blunt are excellent, as are the kids—almost always a weak point in this kind of movie.

A Quiet Place’s depiction of a family also sets it apart. The nameless family we follow through the movie is intact, led by a husband and wife who need and rely upon each other, as stable as can be expected, and attempting to carry on in the face of a situation in which other people would give in to despair. Indeed, we see exactly two other people in the film, one of whom has reached that point. The easy Hollywood route—the cliched route—with a screen couple in a situation like this would be to emphasize preexisting rifts and have plenty of screaming matches, maybe an adultery subplot, but Krasinski and Blunt emphasize—touchingly, movingly—the ordinary: a husband and wife looking after their kids and preparing for the arrival of another in a hostile world. Which is what men and women have been doing since Eden.

I think the film also does something interesting in exposing a philosophical fault line among its viewers. The people who asked, bewildered, “Why would you have a baby in a world like that?” don’t get it. The answer is Because life is worth it, utilitarian arguments be damned. It’s a terrifying and starkly beautiful vision. I’ll refer y’all to this outstanding piece by Sonny Bunch for more.

*I can’t talk about this movie without reflexively referring to Krasinski’s character as “Jim.”

The Death of Stalin

Adrian McLoughlin as Stalin, Jeffrey Tambor as Malenkov, Steve Buscemi as Khrushchev, and Simon Russell Beale as Beria in  The Death of Stalin

Adrian McLoughlin as Stalin, Jeffrey Tambor as Malenkov, Steve Buscemi as Khrushchev, and Simon Russell Beale as Beria in The Death of Stalin

The Death of Stalin could have gone wrong in so many ways, it’s amazing it works so well. Trickiest of all is its premise. This film stages the aftermath of the death of one of history’s greatest mass murderers—a man whose war against reality took the lives of at least twenty million of his own people; who oversaw one of the largest and most brutal concentration camp systems in the world; who led his country first into an alliance with and then in a war against Hitler, a war that killed another 11,00,000+ of his soldiers and as many as twenty million of his own civilians; who enslaved over half of Europe in a campaign of political suppression, ethnic cleansing, and murder—as a comedy.

There is a lot to laugh at in socialism or communism generally and even the Soviet Union specifically—the Russians under the Soviets had a famously mordant sense of humor—but the risk is that turning these events into effective comedy will trivialize Stalin’s unbelievable evil. Astonishingly, the film manages this tightrope walk brilliantly.

The director, Armando Iannucci, is also the creator of Veep, and so knows a thing or two about political satire. His approach to the humor of Stalin’s death is to play it straight—no one in The Death of Stalin is laughing about anything, and yet it is uproariously funny. The absurdity of life under communism, of the violent ideological whiplash caused by sudden reverses of supposedly infallible policy, of the grotesque toadying of Stalin’s subordinates even as the Man of Steel lies in a puddle of his own urine, of the comically self-serving narcissism of virtually every character—all factor into the comedy, not to mention the dark zingers the characters shoot back and forth and the Office-worthy awkward moments that ensue.

That both the comedy and tragedy work is due to the performances, which Iannucci’s documentary-style, improvisatory camerawork and editing allow to shine. Monty Python alumnus Michael Palin is an excellent Molotov, the most self-deluded true believer among the Soviet inner circle. Jason Isaacs (Harry Potter’s Lucius Malfoy) proves a delightfully crass and bro-ish Marshal Zhukov, the man who captured Berlin. Rupert Friend and Andrea Riseborough stand out in small roles as Stalin’s children, Vasily, who surely never forgot that his father refused a chance to exchange for him when he was captured by the Nazis, and Svetlana, who eventually defected to the United States. But the film’s strongest performances are the central three: Jeffrey Tambor as Georgi Malenkov, Stalin’s weak, malleable heir apparent*; Simon Russell Beale as Lavrenti Beria, head of the NKVD and a true devil in his own right, a serial rapist and mass murderer; and Steve Buscemi as a surprisingly great Nikita Khrushchev, a resentful, put-upon brute simultaneously chafing at and fearful of Beria’s power now that Stalin is dead.

While these magnificent bastards kiss butt, comically debase themselves, and jockey for a chance at greater control of the post-Stalin Soviet Union—and, to reiterate, this is all hilarious—The Death of Stalin never loses sight of the horrible, ironic tragedy of the story it’s telling. When Beria orders an end to political executions, one unlucky prisoner is shot after the order to stop is given and his executioner doesn’t quite catch it. While Beria plots against his rivals with an underling in the basement of the Lubyanka, prisoners are shot, tortured, and rolled down the stairs tied to logs behind him.

On a grander scale, The Death of Stalin portrays a system proclaiming peace at perpetual war with itself, that, in its pursuit of pure equality, has created the zero-sum game it accuses capitalism of creating. But it’s not just an indictment of a system, our culture’s current default critique of everything: The Death of Stalin depicts the rot of people, the moral decay of little daily choices, from Stalin and his lieutenants down to radio station managers and the lowliest Red Army privates. Everything in this film—everything—comes at someone else’s expense. It’s a nasty object lesson, but one we need more than ever.

The film does take historical liberties, but this isn’t the place for hashing that out. It’s worth watching, not only as a politically canny satire or historical comedy, but as an indictment against ideology, the abandonment of truth, and the worship of man in the place of God.**

*I watched The Death of Stalin for the second time while reading Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life a week or two ago. Afterward, I read this in his Rule 11: “And if you think tough men are dangerous, wait until you see what weak men are capable of.”

**The reaction of Khrushchev and company to the arrival of formerly exiled Orthodox bishops at Stalin’s funeral is worthy of a gang YouTube comment atheists, a subtle point of satire of its own.

Mission: Impossible—Fallout

Tom Cruise as IMF agent Ethan Hunt in  Mission: Impossible—Fallout

Tom Cruise as IMF agent Ethan Hunt in Mission: Impossible—Fallout

The best action movie of the year doesn’t feature any superheroes. Mission: Impossible—Fallout* is both a great new entry in one of the most consistently excellent series yet running and a solid sequel to the last one.

Since III but certainly since IV (Brad Bird’s Ghost Protocol), the Mission: Impossible series has done two things exceptionally well: stage impressive practical stunts and make them matter to the plot. Far from the extraneous, time-wasting chaos of Transformers or self-indulgent cool of The Fast and the Furious franchises, Mission: Impossible’s action scenes advance the plot and are mostly real, refusing to lean on CGI as a crutch.

Fallout takes this to even greater extremes, with Tom Cruise doing scores of sunset parachute jumps to film the HALO dive sequence, racing against traffic in Paris for a motorcycle chase, doing his own helicopter flying, and actually dangling from a cliff over a Norwegian fjord (standing in for Kashmir) in the climax. The much ballyhooed shattering of Cruise’s ankle comes during a pretty standard footchase through London that, to the producers’, director’s, and Cruise’s credit, is far more exciting than it has to be.

And that’s what sets Fallout—and its predecessors—apart: the filmmakers care. You can’t take that for granted in our era of lazy cashgrabs and paint-by-numbers sequels.

It helps, of course, that Fallout has a good plot, with interesting development of the previous film’s villain (Sean Harris) and femme fatale (the excellent Rebecca Ferguson). Ving Rhames has an expanded role, as does Alec Baldwin, whose sinister bureaucrat from the previous film has an important role to play here. Henry Cavill, with his Justice League-wrecking mustache, is a physically imposing, resourceful, intelligent—and therefore threatening—villain. The film also resolves the Mrs. Hunt situation introduced in JJ Abrams’s Mission: Impossible III, explaining what happened to that hastily introduced and abandoned love interest, both paving the way for Hunt and Ilsa Faust to have something going on in future installments and giving the franchise a bit more of a solid footing, continuity-wise.

Well plotted, solid acting by a veteran cast (even Simon Pegg’s relative newcomer Benji has been in four out of six of these now), and exciting, believable action—you could do a lot worse for pure entertainment.

*They need to find a better way to punctuate these titles. I shouldn’t have to use order of operations to remember what goes where.

Sicario: Day of the Soldado

Benicio Del Toro as Alejandro in  Sicario: Day of the Soldado

Benicio Del Toro as Alejandro in Sicario: Day of the Soldado

I love the last few Mission: Impossible films, but if you want that kind of thrilling action with a bit more real-world gravitas and ethical exploration, Sicario is the franchise to beat. Sicario proved a surprise hit when it came out three years ago, with an intriguing look into a complicated, morally dicey world given life by excellent writing and plotting. The writer, Taylor Sheridan, has emerged as one of most interesting talents in the last few years, with both Sicario films to his credit as well as Wind River and Hell or High Water. The performances were excellent as well, with Josh Brolin’s cagey CIA operative Matt Graver and Benicio Del Toro’s former cartel hitman Alejandro offering black and gray contrasts to the white morality of FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt, outstanding again). Thanks to the writing and performances and Denis Villeneuve’s direction, I’ve seldom been as tense as long as I was when I first watched Sicario.

This year’s sequel, originally simply titled Soldado, further complicates the world of the first film, first by expanding its scope, with events driven by terror attacks in middle America and Graver operating as far away as Somalia, and second by removing the first film’s conscience, Kate Macer. This film revolves around Graver and Alejandro, with side stories following an aspiring teenage sicario (Elijah Rodriguez) and the spoiled daughter (Isabela Moner) of a cartel don the US government has decided to take down. I don’t want to explain much more about the plot, but its tense blend of immigration politics, the war on drugs, government corruption on both sides of the border, the power of money, and the personal stakes involved in this kind of amoral Realpolitik challenge the characters to deal with the consequences of their actions. Even in a world already driven by revenge, Graver and Alejandro rely more and more on force—the only tool left to them, the laws all being flat. They ultimately choose different paths. I’m not sure either ends up happy about it.

Sicario: Day of the Soldado features a new director (Italian director Stefano Sollima) and cinematographer (Dariusz Wolski, replacing the legendary Roger Deakins) but the film is perfectly matched stylistically and especially tonally to the first one. If you’re looking for an engaging action drama that poses some hard questions about chaos, the line between good and evil, and our relationship to a government that increasingly solves its problems by killing people, Soldado is the next film you should check out.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Zoe Kazan as Alice Longabaugh in “The Gal who Got Rattled,” the fifth story in  The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Zoe Kazan as Alice Longabaugh in “The Gal who Got Rattled,” the fifth story in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is my favorite film of the year. Hilarious and moving, beautiful and bleak, eerie and warmly romantic, this film shows Joel and Ethan Coen at the height of their powers, masters of the film medium. And they not only demonstrate their virtuosity technically and artistically, but they show that, coupled with their storytelling skill, they have something to say. This is not just art for art’s sake.

This film is an anthology, a collection of six short stories—presented literally so, with a hand opening and turning the pages of an illustrated book of Western stories as the film progresses. Each is markedly different from the others in style and tone. The first, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” is almost a self-parody—intentionally so. Its verbose, aw shucks protagonist wends his way across a stereotypical Old Hollywood Western landscape, singing and engaging opponents in banter that shows off his vocabulary but that almost immediately descends into comical violence. The cherry on top is a country musical number with a tinge of the supernatural.

“Near Algodones,” about a hapless bank robber who isn’t hanged for a crime he committed but is for one he didn’t, is essentially an extended joke, complete with punchline, but it features a pinch of pathos at the end that prepares the way for the later stories. “Meal Ticket,” the bleakest of the set, is a mood piece. It follows a pair of traveling performers, an armless man who recites long passages from the classics (Harry Melling) and the man who cares for him (the great Liam Neeson, in an almost wordless performance). The story creates such a powerful sense of pathos and sadness, such a keen sense of the long years of this pair’s sad routine, that there’s almost no way it could have ended satisfactorily. It’s the most overtly tragic and least humorous of the six.

My two favorites come sandwiched in the middle. “All Gold Valley,” based on a short story by Jack London, tells the story of an old prospector (Tom Waits) seeking out and, despite some rather serious obstacles, finding a rich vein of gold. In this story the Coens show off their underappreciated skill of making people going through processes—just working on stuff—not only interesting but gripping (c.f. Llewellyn and Chigurh preparing their motel rooms in No Country for Old Men).

The longest, “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” based on a short story by Stewart Edward White, is the most sincerely moving. The story of a star-crossed man and woman on the Oregon Trail, it carefully builds a warm and involving relationship between two lonesome people who find, in each other, hope for something more. The landscapes—western Nebraska prairie—are stunningly shot and flat out beautiful. The performances by the leads—Zoe Kazan as Alice and Bill Heck as Billy Knapp—are wonderfully subtle and understated, as is that of Grainger Hines as Mr. Arthur, another in the Coens’ fine lineage of taciturn men who, when the crisis comes, get crap done. And Alice and Billy’s dialogue, in a sincerely presented religious conversation, introduce what I think is the heart of the whole film: the uncertainty of the ephemeral, fleeting world we travel through (what better image could you hope for than a wagon train?), an uncertainty that means our only hope can come in the world of the transcendent. The story tragically and movingly underlines the point at the very end.

The final story, “The Mortal Remains,” uses the Coens’ skill for humor and dialogue to cast the themes of mortality and the brevity of life in pretty stark relief, showing us out the door—quite literally—with a pair of closing doors, not to learn what happens on the other side in this life.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs offers not only a great set of varied but thematically unified stories, but it’s also a cinematic delight. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, working with the Coens for the second time (after Inside Llewyn Davis) composes the vast deserts and grasslands beautifully. Look for the lone trees on the horizon in “Near Algodones” or the beautifully untouched, Edenic “All Gold Valley.” The standout is probably “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” with its gorgeous twilight wagon circle (see above) and a genuinely exciting and terrifying action scene—comparable to Rooster’s showdown in True Grit*—at the end. Carter Burwell’s score is also excellent, incorporating folk songs and western motifs while being wholly original and appropriate to the tone of each short.

I can’t speak highly enough of this one. If you haven’t seen it, go out and watch it as soon as you can. If you’ve already seen it, watch it again—it rewards reviewing.

2018 may not have had a lot of good movies, but its good ones were great.

*There are a couple of True Grit Easter Eggs—such as an appearance by Mattie Ross’s boarding house nemesis Grandma Turner—sewn throughout Buster Scruggs. It’s a lot of fun.

Honorable mentions:

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First Man—A solid, unexpectedly emotional depiction of Neil Armstrong’s journey to the moon. I saw this film with several other dads and there wasn’t a dry eye among us at the end. The depiction of mid-1960s NASA is great and should deepen our appreciation for the men who flew to the moon on the power of vacuum tubes and reel-to-reel tape, and Ryan Gosling’s intensely interior performance is Oscar-worthy. Ignore the completely fabricated controversy—something I hope the trolls who ginned it up will suffer consequences for—and watch this when you get the chance.

Crazy Rich Asians—Romantic comedies, as a genre, have been in rough shape, torpedoed if not completely sunk by the deconstructive, improvised Apatow comedies of a decade and a half ago. Crazy Rich Asians stands to revive the genre. It’s light, fun, and follows interesting characters in an interesting and unusual locale. Its subtle explorations and affirmations of family, marriage, and fidelity are also welcome.

The Incredibles II—A worthy follow up to the original. If it lacks somewhat in freshness that can only be because of the flux of superhero movies that have arrived in the intervening years—something these characters probably helped make possible.

Outlaw King—The okayest historical epic in years. I eagerly anticipated this one and liked it, but couldn’t overlook some of its glaring problems, particularly in terms of pacing and characterization. And while it does have a few serious historical blunders, the film has its heart in the right place and is a more authentic depiction of the medieval world than we’ve gotten in years, and so I still appreciate it for what it is. You can listen to Coyle and I discuss the movie on City of Man Podcast here.

Ant-Man and the Wasp—Here’s my nod to Marvel. Ant-Man is a curiosity to me: I never look forward to an Ant-Man movie, and so far I haven’t made it to a theater for one, but I enjoy them a lot when I finally see them, and I enjoyed the heck out of this year’s Ant-Man and the Wasp. Maybe the low expectations are the key.

2018 films I missed but hope to catch in the new year:

  • Ralph Breaks the Internet

  • Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

  • BlacKkKlansman

  • Annihilation

  • Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

  • Der Hauptmann (The Captain)

And finally…

Older movies I just saw this year:

Here are a couple of solid movies I saw this year and want to say a word or two of praise for. They are, by pure coincidence, all World War II movies, but pretty drastically different from one another.

1944—Perhaps the most unusual movie I saw this year, 1944 is an Estonian film that depicts both sides of the war, changing sides and perspectives completely at the halfway point. Estonia, one of the small, vulnerable Baltic states, was the object of Soviet aggression well before World War II, and when the Nazi-Soviet alliance broke down Estonian volunteers found themselves in both the Red Army and the SS. The film explores one of the war’s side stories—how a small country caught between two evil superpowers picks its poison. It’s a moving, unromanticized look from the vantage of a nation that will be defeated no matter who wins.

Talvisota (The Winter War)—One of the best war films I’ve ever seen. This is the story of a fictional squad of Finnish reservists called up to defend their country against Soviet invasion during the Winter War of 1939-40. Harrowing and unromantic. I wrote a lengthy Historical Movie Monday post on this film if you want to know more.

Darkest Hour—This technically came out last year, in late December, and I’ve already blogged about it, but I’d like to get one more good word in for it before the year is out. It’s great—a brilliantly cinematic drama with powerful performances. Watch it if you haven’t.

Looking ahead

I hope y’all have had a great year and a blessed Christmas holiday, and that you’ve enjoyed some good movies along the way. Thanks as always for reading, and I hope y’all have a happy new year!

Hallmark Xmas Movies on the Sectarian Review

Merry Christmas! Earlier this week, I sat down for a chat with Danny Anderson of the Sectarian Review Podcast, his wife Kim, and fellow guest Chris Pipkin. This week’s topic: the Hallmark Christmas movie phenomenon. We had a real blast talking through our own histories with Hallmark, the rise of the Christmas movie machine, how we pass the time while enduring these movies, what these movies do and do not do well, and, perhaps most importantly, what these movies are trying to say—if they’re trying to say anything. I had a great time recording this and hope y’all enjoy listening.

So drop your snooty big city fiance, head to a small town that’s planning its annual Christmas event, wrap up in a tasteful and modestly priced scarf, bake something, decorate something else, and listen in while you wait for the inevitable third-act snow!

You can find the episode embedded below, or at iTunes, Stitcher, and other fine purveyors of podcasts.

With the Marines at Tarawa

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75 years ago today, the US Navy landed Marines on Betio, the largest island of Tarawa Atoll. The Japanese defenders had heavily entrenched themselves in sand and palm log bunkers and enormous bombproof dugouts. Though the island was just over a square mile in area it took the next three days to secure, with constant heavy fighting all the time. Over a thousand Marines were killed, and two thousand were wounded. Of the more than 2,600 Japanese defenders, seventeen were captured. The rest died fighting, along with over a thousand Korean forced laborers.

With the Marines at Tarawa is an Oscar-winning documentary short about the battle. Much of the footage was shot by Marine combat cameraman Norman Hatch—who just died last year aged 97—and who steeled himself for the project by pretending the assignment was just like any other. The film is an achievement, an unflinching, powerful depiction of modern war in all its terror, glory, and awful consequences. And it offers no false promises of easy victory, only a reminder that it will get worse before it gets better.

But as remarkable a film as With the Marines at Tarawa is, it almost didn’t come to be. Wartime censorship prohibited the depiction of dead Americans’ bodies, and so the producers of the film had to seek an audience with FDR himself in order to get permission to show the grisly footage of the battle. Roosevelt, moved by the footage and informed of the disconnect between what American troops were living through and what the folks back home were imagining—a disconnect explored in print by embedded reporter Robert Sherrod in his excellent Tarawa: The Story of a Battle—granted it.

I show this film to every US History II (1877-present) class that I teach. Despite its age, it always makes an impression. Take the twenty minutes to watch it today if you’ve never seen it before—and even if you have.