This is a quick roundup of some of the things that I have been watching or reading lately.
This is a great story made into a very mediocre movie by the female half of the Brangelinas.
The story is the life of Louis Zamperini, a child of immigrants back in the days when disadvantaged people still believed in working for a living, instead of just voting for it. Zamperini overcame great adversity to become an Olympic athlete and then even greater adversity to survive World War II.
Director Angelina Jolie somehow manages to turn this rousing tale into two hours of tedium. The dialogue is sparse and uninspiring – shame on the Coen brothers; they know how to write better than this – and the story development is linear and predictable. The characters never really come alive and their relationships never become believable, complex or moving. The relationship between Zamperini and Watanabe, the sadistic Japanese prison warden, stays at the depth of a comic book; the camaraderie between the prisoners never becomes inspiring. The weakness of the movie is probably best shown in the climactic scene when the greatly weakened Zamperini defies Watanabe by holding aloft a heavy wooden beam for an impossibly long time, reducing Watanabe to impotent anger and weeping. This “triumph of the human spirit” moment goes completely flat.
In short, if you are looking for this type of film, stick with Bridge on the River Kwai, the 1957 David Lean classic that covers much of the same ground with much greater effect. And I would recommend that Angelina Jolie sticks with her day job of acting, except that she’s rather crap at that, too.
But the release of Unbroken does serve one useful function. It shines a light on the deplorable behavior of the Japanese during WWII, which the current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seems to be even more intent to ignore and distort than his predecessors. Although lesser known, the Japanese during the 1930s and 1940s did everything the Germans did during the Nazi era, although on a slightly smaller scale. Starting aggressive wars? Slaughter and rape of civilians? Medical experiments on prisoners? Racially motivated genocide? Abuse, starvation and murder of prisoners of war? Yes, all of the above, plus a few more that not even the Nazis thought about, such as the enforced prostitution of thousands of Korean and Chinese “comfort women” and an attempt at biological warfare that was only foiled when the ship carrying the infected fleas was sunk.
But there is one way in which the Japanese and the Germans have differed, and that is in their post-war response to these atrocities. One can argue that the Germans can never atone for the actions of the Nazis, but if you are willing to admit the possibility of forgiveness, then they certainly have earned it. Reparations, restitution of property, multiple and sincere apologies, a concerted hunt for and prosecution of war criminals, the banning of pro-Nazi movements and propaganda, and, most important of all, a thorough and very public reflection and scourging with the intent of insuring “never again”.
Japan has done none of this, and instead has continued to deny, in both private and official circles (such as the national curriculum), the country’s deplorable past. This is a national disgrace and it remains a major source of resentment against Japan in places like Korea and China. With the growing tensions and territorial disputes between Japan and China, Japan would be well advised to come clean on the historical record. As we all know, these types of festering historical resentments can easily take on a life of their own at a time of international conflict.
(And if Japan finally does the right thing, this will leave Austria as the lone holdout. Thanks to Cold War politics, when Austria was on the front line between the Soviets and the West, and The Sound of Music, Austria has largely escaped responsibility for its actions in WWII. In fact, far from being the unwilling victims of German militarism portrayed by Disney, the Austrians were probably the most enthusiastic Nazis of all, going right to top with Hitler. This is just wrong.)
The Black Book
This is a 2006 film written and directed by Paul Verhoeven, the Dutch director otherwise known for schlock such as Robocop, Basic Instinct and Starship Troopers (even though this last one makes it onto my list of great schlock, alongside movies such as Con Air, Vertical Limit and Warrior.) Produced in Holland and performed with Dutch and German actors, this movie shows that there probably is something to the belief that Hollywood air addles the brain.
This is another WWII movie, this time focussing on the Dutch resistance movement. The interesting twist in this story is that the action takes place in late 1944 and early 1945, when everyone, including the Germans, knew that the war would soon be over and then the reckoning would commence. The Germans soldiers are making one last attempt to feather their post-war nest and the Dutch opportunists are walking a tight rope between their soon-to-be-departing friends, a vengeful local population and the arrival of the new Allied regime. This makes for some solid drama, aided by great performances by Carice Van Houten (playing the Dutch, Jewish resistance fighter) and Sebastian Koch (playing the German officer with a conscience, and who was so brilliant in The Lives of Others).
Taking a break from WWII and historical drama, this is the story of Lou Bloom (played by Jake Gyllenhaal, who proves once again why he is one of the best and most adventurous young American actors) who makes his living by videotaping crime and disaster scenes and selling the results to a fading local TV broadcaster (played by Rene Russo). In this blackist of black comedies, Lou is driven to increasingly risky and illegal behavior in order to “scoop” the competition, all the while spouting management-speak gobbledygook out of a never-blinking face. This ranks up there with In Bruges and Killing Them Softly as great recent examples of the genre.
This one is painful to watch, which is a testament to the quality of the performance by Steve Carrell. Based on a true story, Carrell plays John Eleuthère du Pont, a very disturbed and incredibly creepy result of upper class inbreeding and upbringing. Du Pont decides, for reasons which are never fully explained but with suggestions of homoeroticism, to sponsor the US Olympic wrestling effort at his Foxcatcher estate in rural Pennsylvania. Du Pont uses his wealth and power to make this happen, building a program around Mark Schulz (played by Channing Tatum, also, like Carrell, showing an unsuspected flair for drama), a former gold medal winner looking to repeat. What follows is a tale of corruption, decay, madness and death as Schulz and the rest of the Foxcatcher Team become the playthings of du Pont, in a way vaguely reminiscent of the pre-revolutionary decadence of Les Liaisons Dangereuses.
One of the major purposes of this blog is to promote a free market economy. This movie reminds me of one of the most difficult parts of this self-appointed task: the fact that a great number of wealthy people are, frankly, disgusting. I must periodically remind myself that, as The Black Book and The Gulag Archipelago show, people like this would likely climb to the top of any dung heap and, in general, they can do less damage in a free market system than in any other. I also note that wealth is often the result of government favor and there appears to be a correlation between the more “crony” the capitalist and the more reprehensible the behavior. But above all, and contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church, I must always try to “love the sin but hate the sinner.”
When I saw this movie in the cinema, I was impressed, particularly by the authenticity of the battle scenes, which easily rivalled the benchmark set in Saving Private Ryan. I was impressed but I was not overwhelmed, especially since I expected great things from the director and writer David Ayer, previously responsible for the superb End of Watch and Training Day. But then I started watching the movie again on a streaming service introduced to me, like all technological advances (particularly the borderline legal ones), by my teenage children.
It is only when you get away from the battle scene pyrotechnics that you realize just how good this movie is in many small, subtle ways. Watch carefully the scene where the war- and world-weary Don “Wardaddy” Collier (played by Brad Pitt) casually orders the execution of a young SS zealot responsible for the hanging of German children who refuse to participate in the pointless end game. Even better, watch the scene where Collier arranges the deflowering of his protégé, Norman Ellison, with the German niece of a mature woman. Your initial reaction is that the focus of the scene is the young lovers, but in reality they are the light backdrop to the sexual tension and unspoken communication between Collier and the older woman, both of whom are wondering if they will ever be happy and innocent again.
This is a movie worth seeing. And then seeing again.
The Gulag Archipelago
Just to show you that I don’t spend all of my time watching movies, I have, after years of procrastination, also recently read The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Well, not the whole thing, which runs to three volumes and almost 2,000 pages, but the already-weighty abridged version of about 500 pages. This is a great and surprisingly lighthearted and witty book. But, above all, read it above all if you want to be reminded how barbaric humans can be, particularly when they are motivated by an irrational and all-encompassing ideology. Or you can simply pick up the newspaper and read about the latest actions of the religious fanatics, on all sides, who are ruining our world.
Roger Barris, London
I Wish That I Had Said That…
“Try being informed instead of just opinionated,” as seen on a bumper sticker in California