Tagged War

The Childhood of a Leader is One Darkly Vivid View of the Birth of Dictatorship at the Family Level

The Childhood of a Leader. 2016. Directed by Brady Corbet. Screenplay by Corbet & Mona Fastvold.
Starring Tom Sweet, Robert Pattinson, Liam Cunningham, Stacy Martin, Bérénice Bejo, Caroline Boulton, Sophie Lane Curtis, Rebecca Dayan, Luca Bercovici, Yolande Moreau, Scott Alexander Young, Michael Epp, Jeremy Wheeler, & Roderick Hill. FilmTeam/Bow and Arrow Entertainment/Bron Capital Partners.
Not Rated. 115 minutes.
Drama/Horror/Mystery

★★★★1/2
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For a long while now I’ve tracked the career of Brady Corbet. It was perhaps Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin where I first truly noticed Corbet and his talent for quality acting; one of those quiet, subdued sort of actors more interested in the internal workings of a character than any melodrama. He’s worked on countless films as a mere supporting actor, though his talent is absolutely worthy of being the lead. When Simon Killer came around I was extremely happy to see him holding that film up by its bootstraps.
I expected much of his sensibilities to crossover into his directorial career eventually. The Childhood of a Leader is one of the more ambitious debuts of any filmmaker in years. Not simply due to the scope of the story, but in the sense that this is a dark, at times morbid rumination on the nature of power, and how the quest towards it can often turn a person into a monster. On top of that it’s a period piece set around the drafting of the Treaty of Versailles around the end of World War I. So in no way is Corbet making anything easily digestible for the viewer. At the same time, this isn’t a pretentious, contrived bit of cinema either. Corbet shows us what’s underneath the actor’s skin. It is the blood and bones of an artist. The story of the film surrounds the Treaty of Versailles and other pieces of history, everything from Bolshevism to the lack of comprehension of what communism and socialism were in reality. However, the tale of the little dictator-to-be is first and foremost a story of family, of upbringing, of the way in which a boy is shaped by not just historical events during his formative years, but also by the day to day life he leads under the influence of domineering parents.
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The score is absolutely fantastic, from the mind of Scott Walker (Pola X). Nothing emotes better for the suspense of a film like this better than a properly intense score. With the various pieces, each section of the film goes by with maximum tension. Even right off the top we’re drawn in quick by a frantic arrangement of strings that makes you feel like you’ve stepped into a Bernard Herrmann score. In the darker, quiet scenes everything is so mysterious, eerie. You really feel like this is a horror, despite any of its subject matter or themes. Corbet uses his directorial choices and the music to conjure up a genuine feeling of dread. In the last moments there’s this insane piece of music that spins you around with the camera, as if you’re directly in the midst of this history, in the centre of the crowd being thrashed about. So many of these scenes work well and they’re given such weight because of the combination of excellent imagery with the pounding brass, wailing strings, and so on.
Corbet absolutely has an eye for directing. His aide comes in the form of cinematographer Lol Crawley (45 YearsMandela: Long Walk to Freedom). Using what looks mostly to be natural lighting, Crawley evokes the time period in such vivid beauty. The dark corners of the low lit hallways, bedrooms, offices makes for a nice parallel to the darkness of the character development, as well as the story overall being embedded in the despair coming out of the First World War. Corbet’s directing makes the work of Crawley stand out, and vice versa. I hope to see both of these artists make more stuff that’s challenging, as this film is certainly. The techniques and eye of Crawley are wonderful to watch. Corbet allows us lots of enjoyment by weaving all those images into an altogether delightfully horrific piece of art.
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Prescott: “I dont believe in praying anymore

Best of all is the dissection of dictatorship, in a very vague sense. Not that it doesn’t accomplish anything directly. Rather that the vague qualities of the screenplay, its character development tracking the rise of Prescott’s (Tom Sweet) ego into something of megalomaniac proportions as time passes, doesn’t try to lay a ton of exposition on us. This is probably a sticking point for some viewers. They’ll want specifics. They want to see little Hittler, little Benito, someone like those figures. Yet that isn’t what Corbet and Mona Fastvold are trying to do in this film. Yes, at the end there’s a very definitive idea of who they wanted to use as a figurehead for the type of politics Prescott was picking up along the way to his transformation from young sociopath to tyranny; note the hair, the facial hair, the flags and symbols, these all clearly indicate the person in question (click here if you want to spoil yourself). But then you realise that even though that dictator is clearly who Corbet is aiming at, the timelines and the age of Prescott (and obviously his name) do not line up. So again, even with this seemingly definitive answer at the finish, the film is not pointing to a single man.
The basis of this story comes from one of the only short stories philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre ever wrote, right down to the exact same title. Bits and pieces come from that story, though many aspects of Prescott’s life are cobbled together from the childhoods of various mad leaders throughout history. What we’re mainly seeing is the birth of a hideous ego, the development of a scary narcissist whose track in life has all but been predetermined due to his proximity to politics for the better part of his life. While some deride the plot as not having much happen other than act as a view into the tortured childhood of a spoiled child, everything going on around Prescott is building him up into a lad poised for truly bad things. Coupled with the fact he’s a budding sociopath, a young child much too aware of his own blasphemy, the ugliness of his personality shows you a means to his tyrannical end. The most important moment comes when Prescott’s father (Liam Cunningham) finally shows his hypocrisy, being an ambassador working on a peace treaty in public while privately thrashing his own child. Prescott then learns that you can be whatever, whomever you want behind closed doors, as long as the appearances tell a different story; thus is the start of his eventual cult of personality, the case for most of the worst dictators ever to live. There are several poignant, formative moments serving to lead Prescott towards his fate. I think this event with his father makes for the one that has the most impact on Prescott, particularly in regards to his understanding of the boundaries between political and personal life.
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Ada: “Its going to take time. But youll arrive at where youre headed.”
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Although there are a few flaws – no first time feature is perfect, even the greatest – The Childhood of a Leader is one of the best debut features from a director that I’ve seen in a long time, if not ever. The plot slowly unfolds beneath the story of the end of World War I, the period afterwards, all shaped through the lens of a supposedly peaceful time. Or at least a time where there was hope for peace. Meanwhile, underneath all that bubbled the rise of a dictator, of a true monster, as is the case in many places. Young Prescott represents the situation many of these horrifying leaders went through coming of age in a time where young people weren’t exactly free to play; they were burdened by coming to terms with both their changing childhood and lives, as well as the upheaval of everything around them politically and socially. Corbet manages to cover a lot of ground in just under two hours. Not only that he instils the picture with the sensibilities of a classic director. I can only hope he makes more of this innovative, ambitious cinema as a director and writer. He challenges the audience with this audacious first feature film. In a time where a lot of people are caught up in remakes, big film franchises, artists like Corbet are much welcomed in my world. I love a bit of fun, but film, words, images, these can help us dig into and understand subjects that elude us. Maybe there are no answers, though I can’t help feeling this sort of psychological approach to the typical films about war (and the human figures which get caught up in it) is something that can foster better discussion than other work that’s getting vomited out into the Hollywood system.

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Maryland: A Post-Modern Analysis of PTSD

Maryland (also billed as Disorder). 2016. Directed by Alice Winocour. Screenplay by Winocour & Jean-Stéphane Bron.
Starring Matthias Schoenaerts, Diane Kruger, Paul Hamy, Zaïd Errougui-Demonsant, Percy Kemp, Victor Pontecorvo, Franck Torrecillas, Chems Eddine, Philippe Haddad, Jean-Louis Coulloc’h, Rachid Hafassa, David Colombo, & Rabia Elatache. Dharamsala/Darius Films/Mars Films.
Rated PG. 98 minutes.
Drama/Thriller

★★★★1/2
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There have been plenty cracks, as of late, at tackling PTSD through cinema. Some good, some not so good. It’s all in the way you go about it. You can show many sides. Each person suffering with the disorder can experience it much differently, depending on the event which triggered the symptoms. Along comes Alice Winocour, writing alongside Jean-Stéphane Bron, giving us Maryland; a film that so deftly handles PTSD with suspense, tension, and a few good thrills.
All the elements are in place here to have made a proper thriller, filled by interesting interpersonal drama and a couple heady doses of action. First, there’s Matthias Schoenaerts, whose talents at doing more with his face, expressions, body language than many actors can manage to do with their entire repertoire. Second, Diane Kruger gives her character more weight than simply being a poorly written female character tossed in to give the plot a feminine angle. And finally you can’t deny Winocour’s talent as a director. Personally, I’ve not yet seen anything else she’s done so far. Shame, really. Because clearly she knows how to make magic on the screen. Not only is there a great look, Winocour combines the visual aesthetic with one impeccable aural feast, from sound design to the soundtrack itself by Gesaffelstein. Honestly it’s one of the better movies of its kind in the last few years. Like I said, the PTSD film has really become more of a thing again since the Invasion of Iraq, and everything soldiers have been mixed up in since. But Maryland offers up a look into that type of mind, one fractured deeply by the horror of war (and perhaps later the necessity for a life filled with violence). We don’t get all the typical moments you’d expect. Rather, Winocour shows us the genre we’re convinced is in front of our eyes, then makes it into something else more interesting.
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One of the immediate elements of the scripts is the paranoia. A technique Winocour uses that we’re given often in a film that leans towards a psychological story is that for the better part of the whole runtime we’re right alongside, behind, near Vincent (Schoenaerts). Sometimes we follow behind him. Others we’re at mid-range, as he talks to others, interacts with Jessie (Kruger) and the various people at the Maryland estate. Further than any of that, Winocour uses the cinematography of Georges Lechaptois to draw us into the sometimes hallucinatory headspace of Vincent. We’re not always sure exactly when reality ends and the PTSD working overtime within Vincent’s poor head begins. In fact, the very final shot has such impact due to the fact we’re consistently drawn into a place where the reality we witness is undermined by Vincent and his penchant for hallucinating. While the major events of the plot are clearly real, that final shot begs to question exactly how unstable is Vincent, as well as whether he’ll ever be able to fully heal again. Or maybe it’s real. You can never be sure. Although my two cents? I think the final moment is a hallucination. Essentially, he retreats into that world inside his mind when he’s all alone. Aside from seeking out violence, or violent situations, because of his time in the war – who knows what happened to him over there – Vincent likely works in security still due to the fact he needs to be near people, he has to have noise to occupy his brain. You’ll notice that while Vincent does have a couple moments of intense stress, most of the party is a distraction to him. It’s only once he gets to a quieter, less populated area of the party does his paranoia get into overdrive. Interesting little distinction.
The music from Gesaffelstein pushes certain scenes to the limit of psychological suspense. A tension ratchets at times until you think either you or Vincent are about to burst. People will pass off the music as “derivative of ’80s synth-pop” (something I actually read online if you can believe that) when it’s just electronic excellence. Plus, as I said, the music then works in conjunction with the cinematography and Winocour’s directorial choices to make the mental state of Vincent a thoroughly visceral experience. That sequence at the beach? The heavy electronic notes ramble until Vincent’s able to calm himself. And that whole minute or so is an exercise in how to draw out a tense scene. This of course leads up to another wild moment, which confirms for sure if Vincent is seeing things or if it’s all real. Nevertheless, on numerous occasions the visual and aural elements of the film combine to make the action and the drama exciting in equal measures.
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Schoenaerts is beyond a good actor. He has all the wonderful energy of a De Niro or a Pacino, a Hackman, a Hoffman (Dustin or Phillip Seymour), a Vincent Cassel or a Jean-Paul Belmondo, anybody you can think of really. He’s got the physicality to play any number of tough guy characters, already proving that in spades through his performance in my favourite film, Bullhead. However, he gets to show even more of his acting chops here (even though I still prefer that one). The way he paves a path into the world of Vincent, that inner paranoid inside the hulking exterior, is fascinating. His vulnerability is always present. He’s this big time security guard, and at the same time he has this gaping wound in his soul that comes out from time to time, piercing the outer shell of his military swagger, that built up, constructed masculinity. Again, as in the aforementioned performance, he taps into that side of masculinity, what it means to be a soldier in modern times/what it means to be a man, as well. It lifts the film up with how deep the performance goes, right to the last drop.
Likewise, Kruger does a pretty solid job, too. She plays a woman wrapped up in something that she doesn’t exactly understand. At first, she’s hesitant to treat Vincent with much more than awkward, casual conversation. Then, as events evolve and change her perception, she’s forced to rely on a man she does not know. Moreover, she has no idea of his real personality, the PTSD he deals with on a regular basis. So to watch her performance along with what we know, it makes for good excitement. Jessie isn’t a character just left helpless, she’s a mother also ready to shield her child from any danger. Added to the fact Kruger doesn’t play her as helpless, nor is she a waif-like woman. The bravery in her comes out after she plunges into a dangerous world with a man charged to protect her against whatever comes next, as she never gives up or hesitates to do what’s necessary.
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I can’t say it enough: Maryland is a god damn amazing movie. I’ve not stopped raving about it since getting the chance to watch it recently. There’s a soft spot in my heart for filmmakers who take a chance on subverting genre expectations. While many think this is a typical story from seeing the trailer, once you get into the mix and let Alice Winocour take you for a pulsing, frantic ride right next to Vincent, the irreparably damaged soldier, you’ll find out this film is something more than its foundation suggests. Schoenaerts and Kruger sell the characters, giving us more to latch onto than any number of recent movies trying to ride off the success of stuff like Taken. This film shows us the tough guy protecting the woman we’ve seen all too often in a different light. The well written screenplay takes on PTSD, using sight and sound to push the envelope. All the while serving up some piping hot action and thrills in the midst of its engaging drama.
And if you don’t find yourself impressed by the surprise of Maryland, you may have an empty chest. Not an empty head; this isn’t a cerebral drama in that there’s anything utterly life altering being presented. But the excitement is such that by that last shot, if you’re like me, you’ll want to watch the whole thing over again to pay closer attention.

Man Behind the Sun Begs the Question: Is It Trash? Or Is It Important?

Man Behind the Sun. 1988. Directed by T.F. Mou. Screenplayby Mei Liu, Wen Yuan Mou, & Dun Jing Teng.
Cast: Jianxin Chen, Hsu Gou, Linjie Hao, Haizhe Jin, Tie Long Jin, Yuanrong Jin, Bolin Li, Pengyu Liu, Xuhui Lui, Zhaohua Mei, Zhe Quan ,Jiefu Tian, Gang Wang, Runsheng Wang, Shennin Wang, Jiang Wen, Dai Yao Wu, Guowen Zhang, Yongdong Zhao, & Rongming Zheng. Sil-Metropole Organisation.
Rated R. 95 minutes.
Drama/History/Horror/War

★★★
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In a quest to try and watch any/all disturbing films out there, good or bad, I’ve heard about Man Behind the Sun (the correct translation, though titled most places as Men Behind the Sun) for many years. At an early age, I saw a clip on a website – possibly eBaum’s, or something similar – though, I never was able to find a copy. Living on an island at the far East Coast of Canada, the horror especially didn’t always find its way to the video stores; many movies as I did get to see, the real cult stuff was that for which I had to wait. So in lieu of actually being able to see this one I dove into the actual history behind Unit 731 – during World War II this particular unit lead by Major General Shiro Ishii committed heinous war crimes testing tactical biological warfare (resulting in small outbreaks of plague and cholera), which includes attacks via airplane on localized areas, later escalating to injecting plague directly into live subjects, among many other atrocious experiments such as infecting Allied POWs with glanders (a disease that primarily affects horses, donkeys, mules), dissecting POWs and other citizens, they even subjected women to rape and forced pregnancies, among too many other hideous things to list.
So straight away, you know Man Behind the Sun is not to be trifled with, neither should you assume it’s not as bad as people say. It is, absolutely. Now I can still sit and watch it, managing to get through. Regardless, this is one of the most horrifying films I’ve ever seen in my life. It is brutish, ugly. You’ll think twice about going on. There’s no shame in not making it all the way. However, I have to say that there’s an almost important merit to this piece of cinema. While I do not condone the use of real corpses (both human and animal; the film’s most controversial ‘cat scene’ is actually a practical effect, albeit an impressive one that involves a real cat covered in honey being licked by rats), director T.F. Mou argues that we must try confronting the past, no matter how disgusting, no matter how bad it feels or looks. There’s an exploitative aspect to the entire film, no doubt. Foolish to say otherwise. Although I can’t discount the merit which lies beneath.
If you do venture ahead to watch, please know – only the hardcore horror hounds are likely to handle what they’ll see. That’s no joke. If you’ve got the stomach, hang for a ride.
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There’s not a whole lot I have to say about the acting. It isn’t much good, at all. Though there are moments. On the whole this film is all about the hypnotically shocking gamut of realistic horror through which it grinds the viewer.
One scene that’s just downright unsettling is the drinking glass. You’ll know what I’m talking about. I won’t spoil it for those who’ve not yet seen the film. Rest assured, as someone who considers himself a hardened horror movie watcher, this even felt nasty to me. Specifically because the actor doing the drinking from said glass plays the moment so well. A creepy, brief scene. There’s not much good acting from here on in, aside from the young boys watching on under command of the General, as well as some of the victims in the experiments.
Later, the scariest element to so much of the horrific imagery we see is the fact these high-ranking men are training a bunch of young boys, they’re having the fact engrained in them that certain people they deem lower are considered not even people, as fodder for experimentation. Despite the graphic, visceral images, the disturbing part is this brainwashing, and if it’s at all possible this actually makes the nasty bits even nastier.
Maybe the most disturbing to me is the frozen arms of the woman, her reaction. It’s of note that those arms are actual corpse arms. Yes, you got that right. Real, dead, human arms. Only person willing to hold them was the director’s own niece. So they really froze them, she held them. It’s insanity. You always hear people rag on Ruggero Deodato for his filming of the natives killing animals, nobody’s over here worried about the dead bodies Mou used for his horror flick. Good lord. There’s one scene Mou claims is actual autopsy footage of a young boy. Not sure if this is true. If so, I’d hope there was some form of consent in order to use that. But then again, I highly doubt it. Turns out that the autopsy is real: the parents signed over consent to let the autopsy be filmed, and Mou dressed the doctors performing up like they were from the WWII era. There are huge questions about morality concerning whether Mou ought to have made the film this way. Apparently the special effects industry in China at that time did not exist, essentially. So partly he had to resort to what was available, which meant using connections of his with local police to inform him of cadavers matching the descriptions he required. Part of me then wonders if this was necessary. At the same time, was that maybe his aim? In confronting actual atrocities committed in the past, does something sickening like real corpse parts in a film about said atrocities somehow make the realism better? Certainly makes it real. Just not sure if it makes anything better. In the end, I’m conflicted.
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Respect must be given to the legitimate practical effects in this movie. Forget the rats and all that controversial stuff. The practical special effects accomplished here are terribly impressive. They’re even able to surprise and disgust someone like myself. For instance, as I wrote this the scene where the guy’s intestine pops out made my eyes go wide. I didn’t get sick or anything, but I mean, it gave me pause. That doesn’t happen often. All I could do was stare a moment, horrified at the scene. They put him in a sort of audio chamber, jam on the high frequency until the guy can’t do anything but lay in pain on the ground, and then BAM – intestine, right out his asshole. I know that sounds cheesy, and rightfully atrocious. It is the latter. Unfortunately, it’s too well executed for me to say it has a cheese factor. The effect is ghastly.
Don’t believe it stops there. So much of runtime is spent in an endurance test as the audience. Rarely do we get time to break from the hideousness and settle our stomachs. Only now and then.
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It’s hard for me to give this 3 out of 5 stars by saying the film is good. In terms of technical aspects, some of what Mou did as director works in the name of realism. In other ways, Man Behind the Sun is purely an exploitation flick, a torrid bit of hardcore genre filmmaking. Again, I’m completely conflicted when all is said and done. One side of me thinks what Mou did, in terms of using real corpses and animal parts, is downright despicable. The opposite side insists there’s value in Mou’s confrontation of a dark period in Japanese (and Chinese) history. Somewhere in the middle of the road lies an understanding.
If you want to test your ironclad stomach, do so at your own peril. Like I said, this didn’t make me sick. It did actually make me question, for the first time in 4,200 films: why am I watching this? Could be awhile before I figure out the answer to that one.

The Wonderful Foolishness and Biting Satire of Dr. Strangelove

Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. 1964. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Screenplay by Kubrick, Peter George, & Terry Southern.
Starring Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Keenan Wynn, Slim Pickens, Tracy Reed, Peter Bull, James Earl Jones, & Jack Creley. Columbia Pictures/Hawk Films.
Not Rated. 95 minutes.
Comedy/War

★★★★★
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Based on the novel Red Alert by Peter George, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove is easily what I consider as one of the funniest films of all time. I love me a good Farrelly Brothers flick, In Bruges is another one that kills me, Anders Thomas Jensen’s movie Adam’s Apples is a god damn riot. Then there’s stoner comedies like Cheech and Chong among others that give me a kick, some of the Broken Lizard movies are downright hilarious. Point is, I’m not snobbish about my comedy, nor do I think this film in particular is high brow. But I love comedy from any time, any era, any corner of the world.
Dr. Strangelove is so good because it came along at a particular time. In the midst of the Cold War, in a time where extreme ideology certainly reared its head in the U.S. and had people paranoid of communists infiltrating society, Kubrick – along with Peter George himself and brilliant writer Terry Southern – turned the book Red Alert from something sombre into an absolutely knock ’em down, drag ’em out riot. All the same, there’s nothing slapstick about this, and even in its ridiculousness there’s still always a contained feeling; that clinical process that Kubrick seems to inject into almost every one of his films. It’s capable of being incredibly funny while also taking on the concept of nuclear war, completely inept heads of government and more.
I still remember seeing this for the first time. Each viewing since then feels like the first all over again because every joke is still fresh, especially in this day and age where lunatics are all too near the big red button. I’m always laughing just as hard. And for that, I thank Kubrick. So much of his filmography is quite serious, which I love. However, it’s nice to see the funny side of that great director, in no less than one of the greatest comedies – if not THE GREATEST – in cinematic history.
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Sterling Hayden is pitch perfect as General Ripper. There’s no way anybody could’ve given Ripper such a funny turn. When he starts going on about his “essence” there’s no way I can keep a straight face. It is at once frightening and all the same makes you giggle. That’s the overall genius of the film. Certainly when it comes to Hayden’s character. He is just a great actor, whose performances in films like Kubrick’s The Killing and The Godfather are memorable. Although not near as memorable as General Jack D. Ripper. And what a hilariously dark name for his character.
This brings me to the fact of names. Look at a few of them: Buck Turgidson (sounds slightly like turd yet also literally spells out ‘turgid’), President Merkin Muffley (do I need to point out what a merkin is, or what that then means for his last name?), Colonel Bat Guano, Major King Kong (played amazingly by Slim Pickens). Many of the main characters are named with tongue planted firmly in cheek. However, the President himself is most interesting, as his name seems to play into part of the character’s purpose.
One major aspect of the satire in this story is how the President of the United States of America is made out to be the ultimate pawn. Merely a figurehead. The whole fact he’s been overridden when Ripper goes mad and starts the nuclear attack on Russia points to the fact he really has no ultimate power, when it comes down to the wire. The fact the POTUS is named Merkin Muffley suggests a couple things. Mainly, the idea of a merkin – a pubic wig – suggests he is a fake, or a literal wig that hides something, concealing. So Merkin himself, as a figurehead for the government, is just a peon. He’s made to look all powerful when really it’s everyone underneath him, mainly those in the War Room (and obviously General Ripper who overstepped his rank) holding all the real power.
Love when Kong reads out all sorts of materials in the plane, including condoms, nylon stockings, lipstick. Such a farce, yet unless you’re really paying attention you might just pass off this brief moment. That’s another brilliant aspect to the script. There are a number of points where the writing weaves a serious situation through excellent satirical dialogue that you could miss it if you’re not focused. Then in other scenes it’s almost dripping with satire to the point that if you miss it, you’re just not watching the film.
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The actors are all in fine form. You cannot ignore the pure genius of Peter Sellers, though. Three different parts. Each more hilarious than the last. It’s hard for me to even decide which one of them I love most. Mandrake is priceless in his juxtaposition with the perpetually crazy General Ripper ranting on about fluoridation and how Commies never drink water, only vodka, and all sorts of further madness. President Muffley’s conversation with the Russian Premier is one of the film’s highlights, as well as perhaps one of the most prevalent instances of the absurdist satire at play. But you’ve also got the eponymous Dr. Strangelove. He is appropriately the big finisher, giving us an awesomely performed finale to both finish off the film, and also the performance of Sellers. He is one of the greatest comedians to have ever graced the silver screen. Even if you recognize him slightly, each character has their own way of talking, on top of an accent, and they even move differently. All a testament to his impeccable acting talents.
In addition, the great George C. Scott brings General Buck Turgidson to life. Right from the get go he has me laughing. As the scenes wear on and the situations become dire, his comedic efforts and timing only serve the plot even better. One of my favourite moments from Scott is after Turgidson answers the phone and it’s his secretary, the one with whom he’s sleeping; he gives her this great little speech that makes me crack up. Everything about Scott’s performance is stellar, right down to the incessant gum chewing of General Buck.
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There are so many impressive elements to Dr. Strangelove, but above all else it is funny, it cuts deep while also making things laughable. The satire and its execution, from George C. Scott to Peter Sellers in his three roles, is first and foremost what makes things work. As usual, Kubrick makes good directorial choices. There is an ominous feeling even throughout all the comedy, and that clinical sense of direction further seen in his later work is very much at play. All in all, I’m comfortable calling this my personal favourite comedy of all-time. Enough moments make me tear up from laughter that I can easily say that. Never will I get bored of the political commentary and satire jammed into this movie. In my top three Kubrick, which is saying something. If it’s not your cup of tea, I understand. But damn, are you ever missing out if this doesn’t strike you as funny as it does me.

The Third Part of the Night is Horrifying Cinematic Existentialism

The Third Part of the Night. 1971. Directed by Andrzej Żuławski. Screenplay by Andrzej & Miroslaw Żuławski.
Starring Malgorzata Braunek, Leszek Teleszynski, Jan Nowicki, Jerzy Golinski, Anna Milewska, Michal Grudzinski, & Marek Walczewski. Polski State Film.
Not Rated. 105 minutes.
Drama/Horror/War

★★★★★
POSTER Andrzej Żuławski first wowed me with Possession, and after being completely, morbidly enthralled by its wonderfully sickening plot I knew he was a director whose work I’d have to seek out further. He’s gone on to do a lot of different things across several respective genres. However, nowhere is Żuławski more powerful than when trafficking in the realm of horror, whether psychological or otherwise. Of course much of his horror comes out of war, periods of turmoil and upheaval in society, even evident in bits of Possession.
Never is the specter of war and destruction so resonant, so obvious and heavy as it is in The Third Part of the Night. With the invasion and occupation of Poland, the Holocaust and the Nazis, all of World War II raging on just outside the door, this is a film about many things. But chiefly, Żuławski’s dramatic, psychological horror set in wartime concerns the existential damage suffered under the horrible strain of war, and the lengths to which a human will allow themselves to go all to escape it.
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The Third Part of the Night is a haunting, harrowing illustration of survivor’s guilt. With the looming figure of WWII and the Holocaust, our main character is left with the guilt of having survived his family. Not only does he try helping everyone else in an attempt at atoning for what he considers as the sin of failure (to protect his family), he continues to see his wife after her death. She appears to him as the pregnant woman, even a couple other times in brief little flashes. The survivor guilt he feels doesn’t allow him to forget the face of his wife, superimposing her memory onto the faces of others. The horrors and depravity of war have driven him to mental illness.
Finally there is a lesson here that history repeats itself; if we do not learn from our mistakes, the same events, or those similar in impact, will continue to transpire. Just as Michal sees the doubles of his wife, then later one of himself, the perpetual nature of a horror like that experienced by the Jewish people during WWII is inescapable if we do not learn something from what’s happened. Slowly, Michal finds that he’s slipping into the life of another man only to later see a vision of himself as this very man. The presence of doubles/doppelgangers is a recurring theme in the work of Żuławski, seen again in both Possession and The Public Woman. Here this aspect serves less of a Hitchcockian-type of narrative device, more like an unsettling element to this story’s surrealism.
Then there’s the end.
Revelation 9:6 “and death shall flee from them” – to me, this is a statement about how the horrors of war, specifically the Nazis and their reign of terror culminating in the Holocaust, drove the Jewish people to such extreme lengths of physical and mental torture even without directly playing a part. Indirectly, many Jews would go in for such jobs as working in a factory like the one in which Michal uses his body to produce vaccines, involving lice, all so they could have a work card that said they were basically guinea pigs letting lice infest them, and that would have the Germans saying MOVE ALONG. In a way, this degradation of the self and the body was a way of them fighting back, but in a twisted sense as it was only doing them harm in the end. Such were the lengths many would go to ensure they didn’t die at the hands of Mengele or some other sadistic Nazi bastard. So that end quote from Revelation comes to represent how the Apocalypse has essentially been brought about through WWII and the Nazi Party, as pestilence and famine and death and war all reign down (Four Horsemen) on Europe, in this case Poland specifically. At the same time, “death shall flee from them” is almost a statement about the Jews, as they’ve become so hardened in body and psyche by the terrifying nature of this brutal war that the Nazis – in this case having people infected with lice working in these places – would rather let them be than to possibly infect themselves. In addition, there’s an absurdist element at play. The fact Michal, as well as others, are driven to working in such places all to avoid the Nazis – who, yes, would bring upon them a worse fate – is a Kafkaesque body horror. With an ending such as this, it’s hard to pinpoint any one aspect the director was trying to get at. All the same, these are my best explanations. To my mind it works well with the plot.
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Cinematographer Witold Sobociński is fascinating. His work here is one of the only two films I know/have seen of his, which includes Roman Polanski’s 1988 film Frantic. In this film, Żuławski has him going hard on the handheld cinematography. Which is great because Sobociński is steady. Not just that some of the angles and techniques they use works well with his adeptness for handheld camerawork, including unexpected, fresh shots that leap off the screen and grab us. Also, a heavy blue filter casts everything in a doom-and-gloom perspective throughout the film’s entirety. Added to that is the general style of Żuławski, one you can see throughout most his work; notably in another great bit of horrifying cinema he provided us with via Possession. There’s an unbalanced feel to things, but not because of any amateur efforts. Merely Żuławski likes to keep the mental state of his viewer questioning things constantly, trying to see what’s behind the imagery. Above anything else, Żuławski’s style is dizzying and raw in that even the surreal moments are incredibly honest. We’re brought into his film and story through the visceral qualities of its atmosphere and the overall look/tone. There’s this wild feeling whenever blood appears onscreen, as the camera takes us flitting around the scenes, almost how one might if they were squeamish. The camera sees blood and quickly it disorients the audience, reacting much like a human being.
Aside from the look, the sounds of this movie help its atmosphere a great deal. The music is haunting, often giving off the air of ominous things to come. Other times it’s a little grating and heaps itself onto the viewer without hesitation.
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Arguably one of the greatest feature film debuts by an director, ever, The Third Part of the Night introduces many of the directorial sensibilities Andrzej Żuławski would go on to make a core part of his personal style, epitomized thoroughly and in even more fully realized form in his films Possession and The Public Woman a decade later. While I’ve given my own personal interpretation of the film, its horror and the surrealism elements, part of Żuławski’s experience here is meant as disorienting. Just like Michal the audience is thrown down the rabbit hole. After that initial event with his family being slaughtered, his mind gradually melts, and the effects of war drive him into a spiral. So though many of us will try and impose our meaning on this piece of cinema it is also inherently undefinable.
And that’s part of this movie’s trouble, as so many try to pinpoint on exact thorough plot with little explanations for every last thing along the way. That’s just not what this work of art is about. It evokes a strong feeling in the viewer, watching an unemotional, unsentimental picture about WWII and the Holocaust that foregoes the telling of heroic/against-all-odds stories in lieu of something absurd, existentially horrific, and at times borderline psychedelic. Żuławski is an important filmmaker whose work ought never to be passed over with a glance. This man and his films deserve close attention.

Cotillard & Fassbender in a Properly Haunting Macbeth

Macbeth. 2015. Directed by Justin Kurzel. Screenplay by Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie & Todd Louiso; based on the original play by William Shakespeare.
Starring Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine, Lochlann Harris, Lynn Kennedy, Seylan Baxter, Brian Nickels, Hilton McRae, James Harkness, Ross Anderson, David Thewlis, Sean Harris and Elizabeth Debicki.
See-Saw Films/DMC Film/ACE/Film 4/Creative Scotland/Studio Canal.
Rated 14A. 113 minutes.
Drama/War

★★★★★
POSTER You either love Shakespeare, or you haven’t got any time for him. That’s just the way it goes. I’ve never met anyone who says “Oh yeah I read a bit now and then”. You read Shakespeare plenty or don’t give a shit. Honestly. He’s one of those acquired tastes. I’ve always enjoyed his work because of the death, the mystery, intrigue, all the murder and deceit and disguises. Shakespeare wrote such wild and exotic stuff, it’s just hard to crack through some of his dialogue if you don’t study it. And that’s why I think you either love him or hate him. Bottom line.
Justin Kurzel came on with an amazing debut, Snowtown, which is based on the real serial killings of Australian murderer John Bunting. That was one macabre yet compelling films. It almost dulled the violence and atrocity to a point where, by the end, you’ve nearly become bored by it. Yet somehow the story, the people involved and those caught up in Bunting’s whirlwind of murderous impulse, it all keeps you interested. So here in Macbeth, there’s a certain aspect of the titular character which parallels that whirlwind feeling. Not in the same way. But the play is of course called Macbeth. We can’t forget about Lady Macbeth, whose power is almost without rival, as well. It’s the attention paid to the characters themselves, which Kurzel did so well in Snowtown, that makes this Shakespearean adaptation thrilling and worthy of respect. The look and feel of the entire film is amazing, the acting even better. But best of all is the resonance Shakespeare’s words still have today, on film, and how Kurzel manages to give us a wonderful take on the source material with a simultaneously beautiful and grimly captured vision of that fearsome Scottish play, so they say in the theatre.
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Macbeth (Michael Fassbender), Thane of Glamis, receives a prophecy from a trio of witches, which tells him one day he will become the King of Scotland. Succumbing to his deadly ambition, his own manifest destiny, and driven to action by his equally power hungry wife Lady MacBeth (Marion Cotillard), he murders the current King, Duncan (David Thewlis).
However, after the deed is done Macbeth becomes wracked with paranoia, guilt, fear. He slowly starts to unravel, right from the beginning. Likewise, Lady Macbeth finds herself similarly plagued as her husband. Their murderous, power mad impulses don’t stop there. Later on, she takes to sleepwalking, a living effect of her and her husband’s crimes. Their lives become that of a King and Queen, but their climb to the throne is marred with blood and stained with betrayal.
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The atmosphere of the film all around is incredibly well crafted. Immediately the battle scenes take you into a world torn by war. Those sequences are wrapped in fog, slow motion moments which wrap you up inside them before moving to a different, exciting shot. Another aspect of this film I loved: the editing. Specifically I thought the way they did the coronation scene was perfect. Macbeth switches back and forth between observing the people chanting for him and the night where he stabbed King Duncan to a bloody death in his bed; on top of that, Fassbender looks almost sickly already with paranoid guilt, which makes things all the more powerful. There are a ton of instances where editing provides us with that kind of impact. Editor Chris Dickens has done a few solid movies like Slumdog MillionaireHot FuzzShaun of the Dead, but I would say this is absolutely his best work to date.
Then there’s the combination of an epic score from composer Jed Kurzel, whose best work is found in Snowtown and Dead Europe, along with gorgeously captured cinematography by Adam Arkapaw who has done impressive things on True DetectiveTop of the LakeLoreSnowtown and Animal Kingdom. I love how the cinematography captures both the exteriors so vividly and in a sort of morbid light, then all the interiors are in the depths of the darkness, only lit up rarely. Films always impress me when they seek a shadowy look and tone while also keeping that quality throughout, not just in the literally shadowy scenes. It isn’t easy, but Arkapaw has a talent for that quality.
These two elements together, beautifully composed shots with a grim tone and a score that goes from an ominous lull to a crashing roar, fuse into what becomes a shadowy nightmare of paranoia, guilty thoughts, and plenty of brutality. These are masters at work. Jed Kurzel’s music haunts us in certain scenes; always lurking, sometimes crashing down on our heads and ripping us from our moorings. The visuals Arkapaw help Justin Kurzel direct us through a heavy, brooding adaptation of Shakespeare.
Macbeth: “I am in blood, stepped in so far.”
I read a review recently that said Michael Fassbender was boring as Macbeth. Serious? The frailty, the fragile nature of the character which he brought forward is stunning. In similar fashion, Marion Cotillard also conveys the madness of Lady Macbeth so well. They’re each fitted for the role. I don’t see how Fassbender was boring, nor can I see anybody complaining about Cotillard. For his part, Macbeth comes across as violent, ruthless and full of mixed emotions, but he is essentially a puppet. Not saying Lady Macbeth is the root of all the problems, she didn’t literally make him kill Duncan. But Macbeth is not the strongest one. Lady Macbeth is. She has all the ambition, it simply has to flow through Macbeth himself. They’re both fragile, but Fassbender brings out the weakness of Macbeth strong and evident, which allows us to see the power of Lady Macbeth, relegated to the title of his wife. She is the one in charge, because she has to be. Macbeth is almost a statement on these war weary souls who live only to fight, to become King, to rule with power; they’re all fuelled by their ambition, but through a stronger outlet. Often, it is their significant other. For Macbeth, it is the Lady Macbeth who fuels his quest to power. They both do themselves in, she only started things out with their private talks. She feels the guilt just as much. If not more. Fassbender and Cotillard bring to live to well-worn stage characters, transforming them into dreadful, amazing film characters.Macbeth
For me, a flawless adaptation of Shakespeare. It doesn’t have to have everything the original had because this is version of that Scottish play. But this 5-star film has Justin Kurzel directing the hell out every last frame, giving us a view into the paranoia and guilt of both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth with intensity, savagery at times. The entire film is a haunted portrait of madness. Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard are both engaging, as well as powerful in their own respect. And there’s also Paddy Considine of whom I’m a big fan, he brought his talent to the table here in an unsettling way.
Old scenes are given brand new life in this retelling of William Shakespeare’s (arguably) most famous work. The atmosphere and mood of the entire piece is so thick, so rich you could cut it through with a knife. Absolutely a Shakespearean adaptation worth seeing. Can’t wait to snatch this up on Blu ray.

AMERICAN SNIPER: Making a Murderer

American Sniper. 2014. Directed by Clint Eastwood.
Starring Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, and Kyle Gallner. Warner Brothers. Rated 14A. 132 minutes.
Action/Biography/Drama

1/2
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First of all, I have a family member who served in the Canadian Armed Forces. Second, I know others who’ve gone over to Iraq, et cetera, several people I knew well growing up. So I’d like to just say I have respect for those who choose to defend their countries. The smaller people who are the ones that actually go to war aren’t those making the big decisions – you can’t fault someone for wanting to be a patriot if they’re being just as misled by their government as us civilians. All that said, I’m really against some of the modern wars over the past 30 years America has involved themselves in. That’s no fault of the men fighting on the front lines. One such man is Chris Kyle, played here fabulously by Bradley Cooper, who is the most accomplished marksman, as far as I know, in the history of the American military. The guy served as a sniper during the Iraq invasion of 2003 onward. He is no doubt a tough soldier.

However, my problem with this film is not exactly with Kyle himself. The problem I have is mostly with the entire situation of the Iraq War, and some of the decisions made by the United States government during that period. My major issue is that here we’re asked to empathize with a man who has killed women and children – one of the early scenes shows Kyle making a split-second decision to snipe a little boy, who was given an explosive device to throw by his mother, and then just afterwards also killing her. I know a lot of people will make the argument that the kid would have killed American soldiers – absolutely, he would have. On the other hand, should Iraq have been invaded? Was it invaded for the right reasons? I’m not one of those people who is out preaching that the war was started for oil, I’m just saying – a foreign government sends troops into a strange place, people are threatened, everyone there is assumed to be a villain. Are we to expect people aren’t going to say “get the fuck out” and start fighting? Maybe the woman was a part of a terrorist group. Perhaps. We’ll never know, and that’s for sure.
AMERICAN SNIPERBradley Cooper does a great job with this role. I don’t have any problem whatsoever with his performance. Particularly, his Southern accent was absolutely flawless, to my mind. He did excellent work playing Kyle physically and vocally, as well as in the way the man was, no doubt, highly intense. I don’t have any problem with the acting in this movie. However, aside from Kyle there aren’t many characters with much room to breathe. I know it’s centered on him, clearly, but I mean a lot of this story is supposed to be about how Kyle was affected by the war, what he did over there, et cetera. We really don’t get to see enough of anyone else, from Kyle’s wife to his brothers-in-arms, to really latch onto any other character development or anything which gives us enough of an idea about the pathology of his trajectory. There are a few typical scenes with Kyle and his wife, one in the hospital as Kyle visits an injured soldier, and other than that it’s pretty much the Cooper Show. It’s a fun show, just not enough to justify the messages Clint Eastwood was shambling at with this movie.
AMERICAN SNIPERThis brings me to my final point about American Sniper. I’ve read lots about the Iraq War, in particular a really great book called Ghost Wars, which was a great dose of history tackling everything from the invasion of Iraq back to the 1950s and 60s, and everything in between. I am by no means an expert. No more than the regular person interested in history, war history in particular, and a love of books/reading. So, what I’m saying is, I realize there are plenty of situations where seemingly normal people in foreign countries might later reveal themselves to be enemies – however, Eastwood goes way too hard headed at this angle. It seems like Eastwood decided “I’m not going to show that there are two sides to these situations” then proceeded to put scene after scene in to really nail the point home. Every Iraqi is an enemy – this is his message. Even one scene where Kyle sees a young boy about to pick up an RPG launcher, after the man holding it takes a bullet from the American Sniper himself – Kyle is talking to himself, begging the little boy not to pick the thing up – finally when the boy opts to drop it, the sniper sighs heavily in relief. Even here Eastwood is almost saying “well the kid wanted to shoot and kill some Americans… he just couldn’t lift the damn thing!” I mean, it’s a bit ridiculous at a certain point. Even the nice family who take Kyle and his team of soldiers in for a nice dinner, sat around the family table – they turn out to be, gasp, insurgents or belligerents, or whatever the U.S Army/media decide to call them these days. I just found it really preposterous. I know that even Kyle in his book apparently says some fairly tough minded things about the people in Iraq, even going so far as to admit to looting houses after people fled them in Fallujah, but Eastwood could’ve at least tried to look as if he were aiming to show two sides of a disturbingly murky part of American war history. To me, it was just nonsense. Constant reiteration of “every Iraqi is a possible terrorist.” Film version of ignorant patriotism – there is a way to be patriotic without looking foolish.
american-sniperI’ll give this a 0.5 out of 5 stars only because I really enjoyed Bradley Cooper’s portrayal of Chris Kyle – regardless if I admire the man as a person or not. I know a lot of Americans probably don’t want to hear this sort of review about one of their heroes. I am in no way trying to disrespect people who serve in the military. Once again, as I said in the beginning, I do have a great respect for those who give up their lives, their safety, their comfort to defend the country they call home. Even if their government is sending them on a wild goose chase – I admire anyone willing to walk into the danger zones of a country foreign to them. But this movie is just Clint Eastwood’s Republican love song, honestly. I used to really love him, both as an actor and director (one of my all-time favourites is actually Mystic River plus a ton of his older acting performances). Nowadays I feel like Eastwood is just sinking into mediocrity. Letting his political views get in the way of good film making. This is just too much of a heavy handed political movie. I know it’s about a very political topic when it comes down to it, but above all it’s meant to be a character study of Chris Kyle. I didn’t get enough of what the film should have been. Instead, it’s a mix of a decent war movie, and a lot of ignorant perspective on the Iraqi war and the Iraqi people. Further than that, there’s no questioning of Kyle’s legacy whatsoever. I’m not saying I want this guy dragged into the mud – not at all. His family would want his memory preserved. But still, there are various accounts Kyle has talked about which are not verified. In this film you basically get a love letter to America and Kyle, without any inward reflection, though, it presents itself in a light many believe does show some sort of reflection. I don’t see it. Plus, the movie could’ve easily had a half hour or so chopped out with no difference made – too long for the purpose it attempted to serve. Many other, far superior, war movies at this length and less that impressed me more than this one. I don’t recommend this. See it only to admire Cooper’s work ethic and ability as a great actor, which I do believe. One of my least favourites from 2014. Clint Eastwood needs to reevaluate his dedication to film making, and whether or not it’s solely based on making money while telling lies. This was a bad movie. There are a lot of great war films, such as even the recent David Ayer film Fury, however, American Sniper will never ever be close to that or any other excellent movie centered on war.

William Friedkin’s THE HUNTED – A Retrospective Review

A look back at an underrated William Friedkin film.

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