Last Days of Vietnam– The Best and Worst of Us

Last Days of Vietnam (2015), a PBS documentary in the American Experience television series, is produced and directed by Rory Kennedy, and was a 2015 Academy Award nominee for Best Documentary Feature.

Forty-five years ago–on April 29, 1975-the US war ceased in South Vietnam. As North Vietnamese army tanks and troops moved into Saigon, the US ambassador fiercely resisted an evacuation.   But a large number of   U.S. diplomats and military operatives argued for an orderly withdrawal.  With no congressional support, the White House ordered American citizens to be evacuated. The order placed the lives of thousands of South Vietnamese at risk.  US military and government officials on the ground in Saigon faced an impossible decision:  which loyal Vietnamese would leave and who would stay behind to face brutality, imprisonment, or death? Whether to obey White House orders to evacuate U.S. citizens only–or to risk treason and save the lives of  some South Vietnamese citizens (some of whom were family members through marriage)–becomes the major theme of Last Days of Vietnam.

President Ford considered withdrawal, but was refused the budget to support the winding down of the war by Congress, some of whom, along with the Ambasador to Vietnam,  stubbornly resisted the reality of the US losing a war.  With the city under fire, American officers on the ground found themselves faceing a “double-doom”: whether to follow official policy and evacuate only U.S. citizens and their dependents, or to defy the order and save the men, women and children they had come to value and love in their years in Vietnam. At the risk of their careers and possible court-martial, a handful of soldiers took matters into their own hands. Engaging in unsanctioned and often makeshift operations, they waged a desperate but heroic effort to save as many South Vietnamese lives as possible,

Astonishing footage of the evacuation from Saigon with contemporary recollections from both Vietnamese and Americans who were there, Last Days in Vietnam films horrific scenes  to supplement the iconic image of desperate Vietnamese women, children, and elderly hanging off the roof of the US embassy fighting for their lives  to escape Saigon.  For those of us who remember the iconic and unforgettable photo of civilians hanging off the last departing helicopter, we see even more tragic moments inside that helicopter on the desperate faces of  Vietnamese families and the dejected US soldiers. That an orderly evacuation could have avoided the turmoil adds to this shameful display. There is no appropriate emotional response.

This should be a mandatory requirement for understanding this dark and iniquitous period of US history.

Note: ” The Vietnam War” by Ken Burns is  an essential companion piece to Last Days of Vietnam. [See my February 12, 2018 review]. For a fictional masterpiece that tells of one Vietnamese soldier’s escape from Saigon and subsequent life as an immigrant in the U.S.,  read the wrenching Pulitzer Prize winner, The Sympathizer, by  Viet Thanh Nguyen.

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  1. Thanks Diana had no idea. During those years I was developing my own life with no concern of world affairs. Thanks for sharing the information about the book and I will definitely check out the documentary

“Ozark” (Season 3): Narcos in Missouri

Ozark has set itself apart as one of Netflix’s most popular original series, and this season, in my humble opinion, is the best. (See my reviews of Season 1 -September 2017) and Season 2-October 2018)

In this third  season, Ozark has book-ended the journey that began with Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) inventing a plan to launder the Navarro cartel’s drug money in the Ozarks  and evolves into the journey of Wendy Byrde (Laura Linney) inventing a plan to create legitimate businesses.

The Byrdes have finally broken bad.  In Season One Wendy Byrde is primarily the good Midwestern wife following her husband’s plans, albeit criminal in intent, in order to preserve their marriage and keep their children safe.  Now in Season 3 (hinted at in the finale of Season 2) Wendy takes charge.  Her previous marginality–the repeated subtle agonies of a woman knowing she could do better–is no more.

So, what happens when the entire family goes from white-collar  respectability to all-in involvement in a life of criminal activity?  The teenage son and daughter do not push back as they get caught up in their parents’ duplicity.  Season 3 is  devastating: a  witnessing of a nuclear-family-gone-rogue. 

Moreover, the Byrde family is not the only one that is cursed no matter what direction they face.  The Langmores–particularly Ruth–has fought all her life for agency, for a life that she is in control of.  And the  Snells, the local Ozark family who has grown poppies and weed for generations, wants their former power back.

The major theme is still hopelessness–even as the main characters struggle with their reality, a denial of how extremely wounded they are.  Each Byrde family  member gives up a piece of themselves until  there is not much remaining to give up.  Each dysfunctional family–Byrde, Langmore, and Snell–is viewed under a psychological microscope:  revealing tortured souls, in ordeals writhing in a house of pain, truth rattling but not being listened to.  Ruth Langmore has few options.  And Darlene Snell is viciously cunning.  We wait for karma  to catch up with her.

Season 3 of Ozark belongs to Laura Linney, who plays the most challenging role:  how to evolve from a mother who is besieged by her husband’s wrongheaded decision to a mastermind of money-laundering for  a Mexican drug dealer.  Jason Bateman is every bit her match, with scenes reminiscent of Ingmar Berman’s classic “Scenes from a Marriage”.  Both chilling and close to home for many viewers!

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  1. I join you in your enthusiasm for OZARK, it has emerged as a Midwestern SOPRANOS. As the characters become more ruthless they also are more and more helpless, caught up in new layers of desperation — which somehow makes us root even more for them, even the worst of them. All the characters are drawn with a drilling down of depth that makes streaming the episodes a mesmerizing experience. The writing, casting, performances, photography, and direction are flawless. And at the core of the show, blending all these elements, is Jason Bateman, who stars as Marty Byrde, and is also the executive producer and frequent director. He has gathered a gifted band of artists. If you haven’t seen it, start at the beginning and take the ride!

“Valhalla Murders”—The House of the Dead

Kudos to Netflix for another great Nordic noir production. In this eight-episode series, Netflix’s first Icelandic co-production, we have a crime thriller about a gruesome serial killer whose murders go back over thirty-five years.  Valhalla Murders is actually based upon a series of murders that took place in Reykjavik.  There is some uneven pacing, but it is over shadowed by the unexpected twists and turns of this Nordic murder mystery.

In the opening scene the main character, Detective Kata, is severely wounded and on the verge of death.  Immediately Valhalla Murders flashes back to twelve days earlier: to the first of a series of brutal murders at a harbor in Reykjavik. Kata should be in charge, but her boss Magnus purposefully overlooks her. Resentment festers.  Magnus calls upon a Norwegian police officer, Arnar, to come back from Oslo to his native Iceland to assist with the investigation.  Kata begrudgingly works with Arnar on Iceland’s first-ever  serial murder case.  The Norwegian police officer’s painful past growing up in Iceland parallels  Kata’s painful relationships with her son, ex-husband, and Magnus.

However, the shocking events of the murders bring the two deeply flawed characters closer together as the  investigation unearths sordid secrets and horrors from decades ago. The deeper they delve into the murders, the more Kata and Arnar respect each other’s investigative skills and relentless commitment to finding the murderer.

The past connection with a state-run boys’ school, Valhalla, importantly leads to controversy and coverup.  As the name Valhalla implies, it is the hall for the heroic dead,  the residence of the Nordic god of war and death, Odin.   But was Valhalla’s home for boys, now closed, ever a safe haven for young boys? 

As the mystery deepens, we see how Kata and Arnar resist the twists and turns thrown at them by those obstructing justice. On fearlessly delving into the  horrifying past, which links the murders to each other,  the two detectives reveal the truth. They both persevere despite the cost of unearthing  unspeakable evil, the monster in the dark. 

Note: Netflix released Valhalla Murders on March 13, 2020 with all eight episodes streaming together.

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  1. Watched all eight episodes in a period of 3 weeks. I could only watch 2 at a time, sometimes only 1 because of the intensity of the characters and the complexity of the storyline. No one was particularly likable, but extremely engaging because there were so many layers to each character.

    A fascinating tale of some true event(s) that takes place in the vast lands around and in Reykjavik. Looked cold, wet and haunting.

    Exhausting and very satisfying television, if I do say so.
    See for yourself!

  2. Love your web page! Valhalla Murders I have not heard of, but I trust your sense of mystery and grisly. Keep well and healthy dear one.

The Stranger–or Estranged

Another series to binge during this C-virus pandemic is Netflix’s The Stranger. 

Produced by Harlan Coben and based on his novel of the same name, this newly released British series opens with a teenage drug fest complete with bonfire and more than a few hints of mayhem.   Part mystery, but most of all, family drama especially between fathers and their children, The Stranger quickly turns seemingly content lives into ones festering with secrets.

Adam Price (Richard Armitage), one of several main and deeply flawed characters, is approached by a beautiful stranger  (Hannah John-Kamen) and told  a shocking secret about his wife, Corinne.  Over the course of eight episodes, the stranger reveals more unimaginable secrets to a number of unsuspecting family members.  Each episode rewards the viewer with a more complicated plot, with additional characters and their secrets exposed. The stranger threatens to make public deeply personal and shameful events and insinuates  extortion.   Detective Johanna Griffin (Siobhan Finneran), soon to retire and contemplating divorce, has become both emotionally and professionally obsessed with solving the series of criminal acts that unfold each episode .

The blackmail initiated by the Stranger sets off a chain of unfortunate and suspenseful events.  By the end of the series we know why the stranger blackmails.  And we have assented to following unsympathetic characters to the end of the main story, with most of the subplots resolved, but not all.  For some viewers this will result in several  twisty plot threads unwinding not completely to their satisfaction.  While I applaud the complexity of characters which adds to the suspense, some are more a distraction than a contribution to the main plot, dragging down the fast pace and momentum.

I’m hopeful that a Season Two will resolve some  unanswered questions and loose threads.  The imaginative twists that happen primarily to Adam Price, the Stranger, and the detective Johanna Griffin who stalwartly attempts to resolve the murders,  are definitely worth watching during this “settle in place” mandate around most of the country!

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“Earthquake Bird”—An Unpredictable Flight

Based on the titular novel by Susanna Jones,  Earthquake Bird was released in November 2019.  A psychological thriller with film noir features reminding this viewer of Alfred Hitchcock,   Earthquake Bird is all about guilt and the insidious nature and burden of carrying it.  More slow-paced with a scene or two reminiscent of Memento, this film captures the day-to-day life of guilt and jealousy, pulling back the curtain on what damage and unpredictability can do.

In 1989 an American woman is discovered dismembered in Tokyo.  Lucy Fly (Alicia Vikander), a Swedish expat who is a translator and interpreter for  corporations and government, is taken into custody for questioning.  Lucy admits she knew the victim, Lily Bridges (Riley  Keough), but offers little else in terms of facts or other background information. Though she isn’t talking, she’s remembering.  Flashbacks — and flashbacks within flashbacks — tell the story of how she met and fell in love with Teiji Matsuda (Naoki Kobayashi), a strange and handsome street photographer.  Later,  at a nightclub, Lucy  meets the free-spirited Lily, a young woman who has just arrived in Tokyo to find work and an apartment.  Reluctantly pressured into helping Lily settle into Tokyo’s hectic urban life,  Lucy slowly forms a symbiotic relationship with Lily that complicates Lucy’s relationship with Teiji, the photographer.

Unable to  forget painful , deeply traumatic memories that have damaged her, Lucy is losing her grasp of reality.  The pivoting of character arcs leads to the resolution of the murder with surprising twists and psychological redemption offered by  a minor character.

The Japanese setting also adds a cultural dimension to Earthquake Bird, giving more complexity and suspense to the story.   This is an oddball film with a constant undercurrent of subtle tension. Earthquake Bird – in both Japanese and English—is  intriguing in  its ability to plumb the depths of childhood pain, guilt, and family betrayal.  The drizzle-gray cinematic shots of Tokyo and the notable, reflective performances of all cast members, particularly Alicia Vikander’s as a young Japanese-speaking woman, are unforgettable.   (Vikander also speaks Japanese in a fluent, albeit foreigner’s, accent.)  Earthquake Bird may be a challenge to understood and rejected by those who cannot adjust to the pacing and somewhat abrupt ending of this film.  For the rest of us Earthquake Bird is definitely worth watching!

Note: Available on Netflix

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  1. What an interesting movie it is indeed!
    Coming home to Pacific Grove from Sierra Madre on the train, I had downloaded a few films to watch during the 9 hour ride.
    One of those movies I downloaded was “Earthquake Bird”…
    Lucy Fly (Alicia Vikander) fits right in with the Japaneseness of the film – she is an outsider that is comfortable with the strangeness of the foreign culture she has chosen. It takes the whole movie to understand why she is in Japan and why she embraces so much of the ways of the country.
    It begins as kind of a charming story of this young woman making a life for herself in this lovely world of Japan. As she adds new people to her life to trust and love, she discovers emotions and feelings, both old and new, that challenges her to face her old fears that threaten her future. The movie then becomes more of a psychological thriller that ends with a very tragic but satisfactory ending (at least that’s how I felt.)
    I agree with Diana that it ends a little abruptly but it is a film worth watching…I may even watch it agin!

“Mr. Sunshine” (2018): Jane Austen meets Downton Abbey

Viewers are treated, in this 24-episode series, Mr. Sunshine,  to a glimpse of  Korean history that few outside of Korea will be familiar with .   Screenwriting legend, Kim Eun Sook, has created an  intricate historical romance set in 1871, when a US military ship docked in Korea, wishes to expand into Asia for the exploitation of natural resources and land.  We first are introduced to Mr. Sunshine , Eugene Choi (Lee Byung-hun), as a nine-year old Korean boy born into a family of slaves.   In a dramatic turn of events, the little boy runs away with an American missionary  to New York City.  Thirty years later, as a U.S. military officer, Choi is sent to Joseon (Korea) and  unexpectedly falls in love with a beautiful  aristocrat’s daughter, Go Ae-sin (Kim Tae-ri), a member of the class which enabled the slavery of his parents.

Jumping ahead thirty-four years to 1904, Japan breaks off relations with Russia, President Teddy Roosevelt says publicly that he would “maintain the strictest neutrality” between Russia and Japan but privately he writes: “The sympathies of the United States are entirely on Japan’s side.”

Go Ae-sin

In this complex political backdrop, Roosevelt cuts off relations with Korea, setting up a US “legation” and approving the annexation of Korea to Japan. This is the stage for Mr. Sunshine

U.S. army captain, Eugene Choi , is seen at the White House meeting with President Theodore Roosevelt.  His main mission as deputy consul is to maneuver among the four colonial powers –the US, Russia, China  and Japan–looking to exploit the newly independent Korea.  Slavery is slowly being abolished, a small middle-class is emerging, and Western customs are finding their way into a proud nation.

Mr. Sunshine has a complicated roster of characters,– both villains and protagonists—who, at times, fuse into bromance and arch-rivals for the love of the exquisite Ae-sin .   This series has a delightful comic tone between the three major male characters simulating peacocks in posturing before Ae-sin.  Yet there is a slapstick vibe to other comic scenes which are ill-fitted, at least for a foreign audience.  Maintaining a Jane Austen-type romantic tension over twenty-four hour-long episodes requires a meticulous attention to plot and dialogue, something the screenwriter does in  surprisingly inventive plot-points.  

Few of these actors will ever become household names in our Hollywood film industry, but their talents are as good as  any iconic Hollywood performer.  Lee Byung-hun as Eugene Choi delivers a riveting performance full of subtle conflict (for example, between the land of his birth and the country he calls home)  and emotions that are revealed on his face.  It’s difficult for this viewer to take her eyes off him. The quiet nature of his character makes those rare intense outbursts of rage and grief even more effective.

Mr. Sunshine will appeal to selected audiences  for its visually stunning and melodramatic episodes as well as its unique portrayal of a lesser-known historical period for most American viewers.  Others may  relegate Mr. Sunshine to the level of soap opera in costume but to do so would be to miss out on a romance with historical underpinnings.

Note:  Available to stream on Netflix.

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The White Ribbon [Das Weisse Band]

            [Guest reviewer  Barbara Artson, author of the novel Odessa, Odessa ]

Director Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon (2009) opens in total darkness. We see nothing but hear only the elderly voice of a narrator:  

“I don’t know if the story that I want to tell you is entirely true. Some of it I only know by hearsay, and after so many years it remains obscure today, and I must leave it in darkness.”

And so the schoolteacher narrator, now an old man, begins his rendering in a series of flashbacks, depicting the mystifying and horrific happenings that transpired in his youth .  There is indeed something rotten in this pre-industrial, ruthless Lutheran culture in a small, agrarian German village shortly before the start of World War I.  .

We encounter the Pastor, his wife and children glumly seated at their dining room table.  They are arbitrarily sent to bed without dinner, but not before being forced to beg their brutal authoritarian father for forgiveness.  A special punishment, ten strokes of the cane, will be meted out and   after their penalty “purifies” them, the pastor informs them that their mother will attach a white ribbon for them to wear, only to be removed when they have proven their trustworthiness. 

Haneke’s films are not easy to watch, nor are they easy to understand. They confront the observer with aging, infirmity, and death (Amour), sexual perversity (The Piano Teacher), a critique of the media and the ways in which we avoid self-reflection (Cache), and hypocrisy (The White Ribbon). Hypocrisy knows no bounds.

The children,  some twenty or twenty-five years later, will return as the Fascists and Nazis of World War II.   They might have asked the forgiveness of their callous, fathers, fathers who perpetrated psychic mortification and corporal violence,  but the seeds of repressed hatred will break through.  

 Heneke maintains that his film is not an explanation for the roots of Nazi terrorism, but the schoolteacher’s claim that his tale “may clarify some of the things that happened in this country,” asserts otherwise.  It seems plausible that Haneke, who grew up with the shame that plagued many of his generation, wrote under the spell of unconscious survivor’s guilt. 

The film, nevertheless, can also speak to us, who, are left in darkness. And weep.

Note: Available on Netflix.


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“For Sama”—A Letter to My Daughter

For Sama is the most searing  documentary about war that I have ever seen.  Nominated this year for an Academy Award for Best International Film, For Sama presents some of the most unflinching war coverage and remarkable and courageous footage.   A love letter to her infant daughter Sama,  born in Aleppo,   For Sama is a Syrian mother’s  first-person account of the bombing of her beloved homeland over a period of five years.  Aleppo, at the time, was one of the last strongholds resisting the Assad dictatorship.

Waad Al-Khateab is the Syrian producer, cinematographer and  hero of this documentary. She and her equally heroic husband—a surgeon—stayed in Aleppo through the worst of the battles, although their gut reaction was to flee the war zone with baby Sama. It is a young family’s love story set in the terrors of hell. While her doctor-husband saves countless civilian lives, Waad documents the heart-wrenching horrors that civilians—young and old— experience.   

It is difficult to  pretend there is no place in the world where human beings are being routinely slaughtered after seeing For Sama.  A testament to human resilience and sacrifice for the sake of a community, For Sama is highly recommended in order to understand what really happens in war as we bear witness to pain and unimaginable suffering, both physical and mental.

I challenge anyone to watch this film and not be deeply moved. 

Note:  This film is available on Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.  There are intensely disturbing images of severely wounded civilians, especially young children.

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  1. Thanks for your post and bravery to witness a film with such horrific content. The things that are happening in this world and suffering and pain that go along with these situations are unbearable for me to even think about.

“Clemency”–No Mercy or Absolution

What’s the psychological and moral cost to a society that administers the death penalty?  That’s the question raised in Clemency, the winner of the Sundance drama award last year. 

So much more than a “death-row drama” ,  Clemency shifts the lens to the impact of  bureaucratized human cruelty:  a scathing portrait of the toll the process of administering an execution has on prison staff. We see how they are not executioners but bureaucratic cogs in a horrible machine of death.

Sixty-something Bernadine (the remarkable African American actor Alfre Woodard in an Academy Award-worthy performance) prides herself  on  her professionalism in presiding over a dozen lethal injection executions. But the compartmentalization of her professional and emotional life is beginning to unspool.  The first half of Clemency focuses on a perfectly impassive blankness and rigidity that masks Bernadine’s emotional self.

She’s experienced something no human should– a dozen times.  The unnerving and opposing forces wrestling inside Bernadine’s mind begin to be magnified as we witness her heartbreaking need for redemption, etched on her face as if her feelings are surfacing for the first time. Something has broken in Bernadine.   And her  marriage to empathetic schoolteacher Jonathan (Wendell Pierce) is lost.  She can no longer process her world separate from being a warden.

Clemency‘s central plot includes a death-row inmate’s perspective–Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge in a career-defining performance)–who has been in prison for fifteen years:  accused and convicted of killing a police officer during a robbery.  As his appeals for clemency filed by his deeply committed lawyer (Richard Schiff) have been denied,  Anthony Woods is also complicated and emotionally shut down.    Both Bernadine and Anthony Woods are  maddeningly emotionless  and flawed.   Bernadine’s womanhood and blackness are inextricable from her sense of professionalism, but she cannot be reduced to either.   And Anthony Woods,  a young black man, never rages about possible injustice. The viewer wonders:  Who needs the clemency more?  The warden or the prisoner?  Maybe it’s both.

A lot of performances get praised for subtlety that are merely wooden or impassive. Alfre Woodward is a phenomenon to behold!  With the subtlest of facial movements, she conveys not only what she is feeling but how it feels to be feeling what she has to feel.  In a camera close-up lasting over three minutes, her face held this viewer in a way both unforgettable and unimaginable.   Alfre Woodard is the reason to see Clemency.  She simply possesses the space, the screen, every scene…and your heart.

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The Report—An Exposé for Us All

Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (EIT)—is the focus of The Report, a provocative Amazon political thriller.  A Senate staff researcher, Daniel Jones (Adam Driver) is assigned by Sen. Diane Feinstein (Annette Bening) to investigate  detainees held by the CIA in “black sites”.  A shameful chapter of American history unfolds , where torture was re-introduced as a legitimate tool in pursuit of national security. 

The Report  employs flashbacks of “enhanced interrogation techniques” that are frightening and harrowing. Flashing back to 2001 immediately after 9/11, the anxiety and deep fear of another terrorist attack incites George Tenet to ramp up the Counterterrorist Center at the encouragement of President George W. Bush.  Tenet hires two psychologists, Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell, to design torture methods without calling it torture.    The CIA’s intention is to elicit information to capture possible terrorists.   Although both men are psychologists, their educational background, professional training and experience have nothing to do with military interrogation.  Not surprisingly, little useful information was collected.

Nonetheless, the CIA was impressed with the  “menu” of twenty enhanced techniques including waterboarding, sleep deprivation, “stress positions,” stuffing prisoners into small boxes,  and slamming them into walls.

After political maneuvers, attempts at cover-up and threats of countersuits by the CIA,  the Senate intelligence committee releases part of its report in 2015,.  As expected, the Department of Justice tried to table the report.  This time portions of the more comprehensive investigation, totaling 6 million pages, become public.  Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman,  concludes that “under any common meaning of the term, CIA detainees were tortured.”

Adam Driver and Annette Bening, under the direction of Scott Z. Burns (“The Bourne Identity”), deliver truly outstanding performances with gripping pacing rivaling the best action thrillers.

Note:   John Rizzo, CIA acting general counsel at the time of Jones’ report, described in his book Company Man, that the techniques were “sadistic and terrifying.”

On October 13, 2015 the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against James Mitchell and Bruce Jensen with regard to the EIT methods they designed,  claiming their  conduct constituted torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment and war crimes.  A settlement was reached before trial in August 2017.

None of the major government officials were ever indicted and the subcontracting psychologists who earned $81 million for EIT development and consulting were indemnified by the US government. Some reviews have considered The Report polemical and politically one-sided, but transcripts of the investigation available online speak for themselves.

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1917—This Great War Is Not So Great

The multiple award-winning 1917  is inspired by “American Beauty” writer-director Sam Mendes’s great grandfather’s experience during World War I.  Almost everything you’ve ever seen in a war film is here in 1917. There are  several homages to the classic Stanley Kubrick film, “Paths of Glory” (1957), including the technique of tracking a long take, seemingly a continuous single-shot with no cuts, of the brutal trench warfare that cost 9-12 million soldiers’ lives.  (The calculus for civilian deaths would double the total.) It is as if we’re in the trenches ourselves.

Recent British intelligence has discovered that the  German army has set a trap that will slaughter  an entire British battalion.  To prevent the massacre we travel  through the trenches with two young and inexperienced corporals Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean Charles Chapman).   With the radio lines down, Blake and Schofield scramble through enemy territory, intent on saving 1600 lives. 

It’s a grim spectacle.  Swamps of floating corpses  lie everywhere–sometimes half-submerged, sometimes hanging from barbed wire. With flies buzzing around horse carcasses and rats scurrying over soldiers’ corpses, the faces of the soldiers are all nibbled away. It’s a waking nightmare, no less so because of the unforgiving daylight. No mood lighting required. That comes later.  Master cinematographer Roger Deakins really lights a bombed-out town in sepia tones reminiscent of Rembrandt. There are some staggering landscapes in 1917 conveying the  hell of war..  Director Sam Mendes wants us to to see and feel the carnage in a way that is raw and traumatic, with viscous blood on our hands too.

1917 feels stylistically contrived, however, and not nearly  as immersive as Mendes’s technique wants us to feel. Format and technique are  front and center.   Despite 1917’s mission,  it is essentially a string of action scenes, with unbelievable escapes from barrages of bullets by the young soldiers.  MacKay and Chapman are perfect for their roles, both convincing and immensely likable. However, there’s barely any backstory.

After a strong first half in which the two corporals  are heroically fighting for each other’s survival, 1917 becomes more like an X-Men comic book drama or a video game. The thrills and spills border on ridiculous, the action in service of the testosterone-driven pacing. There is little complexity in character development and even less dialogue.   Yet,  there is no questioning the cinematic skill in immersing the viewer (as if in  a 3-D film) in breathtaking, heart-pumping combat scenes. 

Some scenes are jarring for being disconnected from the  forward momentum of alerting the British battalion.  The most irrelevant scene involves a young French woman and her baby.  In the only scene with a female character, the viewer is left wondering if she will reappear later on.  Otherwise, why was she there in the first place? 

The film becomes plot-driven, not character-driven, but 1917 is supposedly a young hero’s journey.  Then,  what inspired the almost unbelievable courage of an inexperienced young soldier where others failed?

The emotional journey of Schofield should be  layered as deeply as  the horrific trenches of  war.   A strong story, interesting characters, or a reason for their motivation besides dodging bullets to survive allows us to care more about the characters than the battle.  In 1917  the story is pretty inconsequential. It’s about being there in the moment with them. Sitting through 1917 was like watching someone else play a video game.   For some viewers, where war is played like a game, this might be an appealing movie.

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  1. An honest disagreement: I thought “1917” was an outstanding film. But let me add a bit of background to the discussion. Several critics have compared this film to “Paths of Glory” because of the World War One subject matter and the extended tracking shot through the trenches and ensuing battle that follows. But this is only a small (but vivid) part of “Paths of Glory” — which focuses most of its attention on innocent soldiers being scapegoated and ultimately executed to cover up the blunders of the generals. “Breaker Morant,” an Australian movie about the Boer War, actually is much closer in structure to “Paths of Glory” than “1917.” I’m also reminded of the Mel Gibson starrer “Gallipoli,” which more closely resembles “1817,” not to mention the grand-daddy of ’em, Oscar winner “All Quiet On the Western Front,” with its study of a young soldier (German in this case) suffering through the hells of war.

    Jerry Ludwig

    1. Thank you, Jerry Ludwig, for your thoughtful comments with excellent comparisons with other films. As a retired screenwriter, your analysis of movies we both watch with a gimlet-eye are especially enjoyable to read!

“Parasite” –Living Off Your Host

Parasite

This Korean  multiple award-nominated, SAG Globe winning movie, Parasite, has captured the critics’ minds as it delves into the income gap, greed and class discrimination between the  “one-percenter” wealthy Park family and the destitute, marginally employed Kim clan.  The theme of the competitive, desperate search for wealth at one end of the income spectrum versus the  content, oblivious upper-class entitlement at the other end permeates South Korean director, Bong Joon-ho’s films  (“Snowpiercer” and “Mother” in particular.)  This difficult theme is unusual to tackle, let alone devote one’s film career to different genre for portraying the inviting and repelling ways in which humans are not aware of each other’s choices and behavior.

The wealthy Park family live the “lux life”, mainly due to a retinue of servants and staff who allow them to pamper their daughter and son, entertain while a flood leaves many low-income residents homeless, and believe that no one wants to do them harm.  The low-income Kim family has to fight their invisibility. [While Parasite does not deal with ethnic strife, it resonates with Jordan Peele’s films “Get Out” and “Us”.]

Parasite burrows deep into the dream world of the rich and the poor: for the rich, there are no problems that money can’t solve, or at least improve.  For the poor, their ambitions pave the way for dreams that almost certainly cannot come true, denying that they are living off the breadcrumbs of the very rich whose lives are supported and enabled by them.  And both families live in a wormhole of interwoven, interdependent lives.  The characters—in their respective bubbles—can’t truly be tricked unless they want to believe.  And they all do. Parasite, however, does not evoke the many shades of gray that need to be addressed.

This is an important film, because it focuses on a theme that others fear to tackle. Jordan Peele is a notable exception.  My hope is for more provocative, better films in Bong Joon-ho’s future.

Note:  Snowpiercer (see my August 4, 2014 review) is more memorable and soon to be made into a TNT mini-series releasing in May.  Dealing with climate change as well as unconscionable income inequality, Snowpiercer’s ending takes no prisoners and has no answers.

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