Category Archives: movie

A great movie from Macedonia

I’m not sure that “Before the Rain”(“Pred dozhdot), a 1995 Oscar nominee for best foreign-language film, written and directed by Milcho Manchevski, is a good movie, but have no doubt that it is a great one. It is comprised of three episodes: the first two near the coast of Macedonia, the middle one in London. What happens in the third one follows the second one and seems to precede the astonishing opening one… but the second one also temporally follows events in the first one. “The circle is not round” is proclaimed in all three parts and in some ways the movie is more a Moibus strip than a circle. The Balkans is a region in which the past never seems to be past, in which outrages five or ten centuries ago are believed to cry out for revenge.

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Fierce hatred of Greek Orthodox Macedonians and Muslim Albanians bubbles over repeatedly throughout the course of the movie. The kind of ethnic warfare that was going on in Bosnia at the time the film was being shot broke out in 2001. It could have surprised no one who had seen “Before the Rain” before then.

I don’t like to regurgitate plot unless I can do so in ways that comment on it. I think that “plot spoiling” is exaggerated as a crime against readers generally, but in the case of “Before the Rain,” telling pretty much anything of what happens is at least a disservice to those who have not seen the movie — and that is, alas, a far-too-large population!

In the first part of Kiril, a young priest played by Grégoire Colin (Beau Travail), who has taken a vow of silence (getting around the actor not speaking Macedonian) harbors a Muslim (a feral Labina Mitevska whose character’s name is eventually revealed to be Zamira) who is being hunted by the Christians. Colin radiates compassion, which turns out to be a very dangerous feeling in all three parts of the movie.

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The second part is set in London, introducing a Macedonian photojournalist, Aleksander (Rade S[h]erbezija) who has just won a Pulitzer Prize for work in Bosnia. He invites a married (and pregnant) London picture-editor, Anne (Katrin Cartlidge), to accompany him on a return to his native village. She stays to ask her husband for a divorce.

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In the third part, Aleksander discovers “you can’t go home again,” all the more so if “home” was Yugoslavia, and all the more if you want to see the love of your youth who is of a different ethnicity (the Albanian minority in this case). Haunted by what he saw in Bosnia and desperate to prevent similar fratricide (among those who have ceased to consider themselves “brothers”), he takes action, which involves Zamira — who may be his daughter.

The writing is very impressive, the cinematography by Manuel Teran (Savage Nights, Banlieue 13), especially of the first part, is more than impressive. Each of the three parts has a different look. The first part is in the company of parts of “The English Patient” and “Beau travail.”

Katrin Cartlidge (Naked, Breaking the Waves) stands out in the middle section as someone knowingly disappointing both her husband and her lover and pained by the knowledge. As Aleksander Rade Serbezija is tormented by guilt for a prisoner who was shot after Aleksander complained of not having anything to photograph. At “home” after nearly being killed by family members and the son of his old flame, he takes a stand against ethnic violence. Well, more than a stance — he intervenes. That he fails to stop the violence is something anyone with the slightest familiarity of the history of the Balkans during the last two decades knows.

DVD extras

The Criterion edition transfer to DVD is outstanding even for Criterion, which is to say superlative. This was obvious watching the feature, and underlined by watching the 1993 “making of” featurette, which is quite interesting. The disc also includes a 2008 interview with Rade Serbezija about the movie, which paralleled his own experience as an ethnically Serbian prominent person raised in Croatia — and who had just made it out of Sarajevo before the Serbian military began the siege and carnage. Serbezija (whom I remember most vividly as the Greek trickster in “The Truce” and the police inspector in “The Quiet American,” but is probably best known for his mentoring role in “Batman Begins”) recalls people who were fans of his (as the biggest film star in Yugoslavia) and a year later wanted to kill him (Croatians with whom he grew up for being “a Serb,” Serbs for being a “traitor” in condemning the violence). The movie shows, the bonus features tell (the way it’s ‘spozed to be!)

There is also five minutes of miscellaneous videos from the movie’s making, 15 minutes of soundtrack selections, and Manchevski’s 1992 Grammy-winning (black-and-white) rap music video “Tennessee” (the Arrested Development song).

 

©2009, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

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Pirandellian black comedy set in 1959 Romania

Set in Bucharest A.D. 1959, “Closer to the Moon” (2013, written and directed by Nae Caranfil; released in the US in the spring of 2015,) is a Romanian, Polish, Italian, French, US co-production in English with handsome Brit Harry Lloyd (The Theory of Everything, Wolf Hall, Game of Thrones) as the innocent busboy, Virgil, who observes what is supposed to be a movie of a holdup of an armored car being shot. Except that it’s a real hold-up, and after its perpetrators, old-line (pre-WWII, wartime resisters of the Nazis) Jews, have been condemned to be executed, they are forced to appear in a propaganda film about the holdup they perpetrated. Yes, a movie about a robbery disguised as a movie. There are scenes from the 1960 Romanian black-and-white movie shown during the closing credits.

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Before that, however, Virgil becomes a movie camera operator, and has a last-night fling with the woman of the group of disillusioned communists, Alice Berkovich (Vera Farmiga [Up in the Air, Goata]). The State Security official in charge of making the movie, who continues to investigate the crime even after five death sentences have been passed (Anton Lesser) has ordered Virgil to find out where Alice’s son is hidden and to find out why the robbers did it. The short answer to the second question is that they wanted to show that the state’s claim that crime had been eliminated in the worker’s paradise was false. Virgil goes with Alice when she escapes chaos on the movie set and visits her son, Mirel (very blond Marcin Walewski) but before Virgil can be pressed to provide answers to either questions, Holban is sacked by the minister (Darrell D’Silva).

The organizer of the heist, who becomes de facto director of the movie re-enactment, Max Rosenthal (Mark Strong, who reminds me of Jon Hamm; Strong played Jim Prideaux in the 2011 movie version of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”) was married to the minister’s daughter, which led to an appointment as chief inspector of the Bucharest police. (The other conspirators to ridicule the Romanian state are history professor Yorgu (Christian McKay), newsman Razvan (Joe Armstrong), and astrophysicist Dumi (Tim Plester) who had been liaison to the Soviet space program in the Sputnik era, but had been replaced due to Russian/Soviet anti-Semitism. And Max is the father of Alice’s son.)

There is Pirandellian black comedy throughout the movie, especially in the re-enactment of the heist. The nominal director (Allan Corduner) is passed out drunk every day of the shoot (and, presumably, every day not of the shoot, too). Or, perhaps, it is Jewish gallows humor within a Pirandellian black comedy or is is Mittleuropa comedy?… The whole project is remarkably light-hearted a prelude to real execution, following a kangaroo court in which the defense attorney is barely allowed to complete a single statement or to question witnesses. The satiric comedy of the 2013 movie is definitely set within the tragedy of the Jewish communists disillusioned by the regime they were deeply involved in putting in power (tragedy both for them and for the people of the Socialist Republic of Romania, even before the predominance of Nicolae Ceausecu from 1965-89).

Noting that the Soviets had been able to launch a dog into orbit, but not bring him safely down, Max requested to be sent into space, rather than being shot by a firing squad, but his request is angrily rejected. (So none of the conspirators gets any closer to the moon than Dumi observing Sputnik launches in the Soviet Union.)

An effective soundtrack was composed by Laurent Couson, and Marius Panduru’s cinematography was top-notch, as was the acting, with Anton Lesser especially standing out as an oddly tragic functionary of the Romanian communist government.

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Romanian policier with a conflict of law and conscience

I must be missing something, since I don’t have any difficulty considering “police” potentially to be an adjective, as well as a noun or verb, for instance in “police state” or “police misconduct.” In these examples, it specifies a kind of state, a kind of misconduct, right? And in a very unusual climactic duel between a young police officer and his boss (presumably a holdover from those enforcing the laws laid down by Ceausescu) “police state” is one of the constructions the Romanian dictionary supplies in its “police” entry. The key contested concept is “conscience,” to which I’ll return. But I don’t see anything peculiar or dismaying about the title of the much-acclaimed, award-winning 2009 Romanian movie by Corneliu Porumboiu, “Police, Adjective.

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The pace of the movie is, I think, the slowest of any police procedural I’ve ever seen. Plainclothesman Cristi (Dragos Bucur) follows a Vasiliu high-school student who sometimes smokes hashish but does not sell it. The boy smokes with the agemate who informed on him and an unidentified girl outside the school. Christi’s book (Vlad Ivanov, abortionist of “4Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days”) tells Cristi that criminals use the term “squealer,” not those in law enforcement, while Cristi objects to referring to the boy he’s tailing as a “dealer.”

Cristi does not trust the informant/squealer and believes the source of hashish is the boy’s older brother whom the boy will not give up. For whatever reasons, the police captain presses Christi to make an arrest at least for possession.

Cristi pushes back that Romanian law will surely change as those elsewhere in Europe (including Prague, where he recently honeymooned) and that it is an affront to his conscience to ruin a kid’s life (even if he only serves half of the seven-year sentence) or place him in the position of regretting squealing on his brother.

This leads to what is surely the longest sequence of reading definitions from a dictionary in any movie. Trust me, this is a dramatic confrontation! Christi’s definition of “something in me that stops me from doing something bad that I’ll afterward regret.” The dictionary has communist residue in a definition of “conscience” as “part of the social system of a particular class, reflecting its condition of existence.” The captain does not insist on that one and fails to register the inclusion of “moral law” in the entry. As in other Romance language, “conscience” in Romanian also includes what is differentiated as “consciousness” in English, which obscures the discussion.

The captain insists that police follow written laws, not their own sense of conscience (moral laws) and will not allow Cristi’s older office-mate (also presumably left over from the bad old days) to arrest the boy.

Earlier, Cristi and his wife have an extended discussion about what a pop song’s lyrics (Mirabela Dauer’s song “I Don’t Leave You Love”) mean and she explains to him that his surveillance report uses a form that was abolished two years earlier by the Romanian Academy (which polices the language as the French Academy does).

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Critical praise has (IMHO) inflated expectations for all three of the Romanian films that have made it onto the art-house circuit (“The Death of Mr. Lazarescu “(2005) is the other). All look drab/verité, proceed slowly, and covertly (though unmistakably!) criticize soulless laws and social systems (past and present: abortion has been decriminalized in Romania). The closest American equivalent to the Romanian film-making (generalized on the basis of three!) is Jim Jarmusch, with drab location shoots of long takes of which not much ever happens and sparse dialogue (it’s not even portentous here).

 

©2010, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

 

Second-guessing the Oscars for 2016

Though I am a fan of long standing of Tarell Alvin McCraney, I think the best picture was the more conventional “Hidden Figures.” Theodore Melfi, the director of the latter was not nominated, so I’d have voted for Barry Jenkins for “Moonlight” if I had a vote.

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The best actor award should have gone to Viggo Mortensen in “Captain Fantastic.” Not that Casey Affleck was bad, but Mortensen was astounding. (Until I saw “Captain Fantastic,” I thought Ryan Gosling should have won the award, rather than Affleck.)

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Isabelle Huppert (Elle) was also astounding; the best actress winner, Emma Stone, merely likeable (which Huppert was not).

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Mahershala Ali was not really a supporting actor in “Moonlight.” It’s just that he was only in a third of the movie. I have the same qualms about Dev Patel in “Lion” and Viola Davis in “Fences.” She was great, but was the lead actress, and the second lead (after Denzel Washington). In the same part she got a Tony for best lead actress. I’d have given the award to Naomie Harris for her chilling performance as the drug-addled mother in “Moonlight,” though especially after her acceptance speech, I’d be very reluctant to try to wrest the Oscar from Davis!

I think that Chris Pine should have been nominated for best actor in “Hell or High Water” (in which Jeff Bridges was very good and was nominated. And I think that Taraji P. Henson should have been nominated for best actress.

Though I don’t buy the rationale that it was adapted (from an unproduced play), I admire the screenplay for “Moonlight”  by McCraney and Jenkins that won the adapted screenplay award. Also Kenneth Lonergan’s one for “Manchester by the Sea,” though David Birke’s “Elle” adaptation deserved and Martin Zandvilt’s original screen play of “Land of Mine” deserved at least nominations.

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“Elle” should have been nominated for best foreign-language film along with “Land of Mine.” I’d have voted for the bewitching Vanatau movie “Tanna” and, if not it, the harrowing “Land of Mine,” rather than “Salesman.” I thought that writer-director Asghar Farhadi, second Oscar-winning film failed to consider (let alone show!) what Rana (Tareneh Alidoosti) was thinking, just as in the earlier Farhadi-helmsed (misnamed) “About Elly,” also starring Shahab Hosseini. Having Rana and Emad (Hosseini) playing in an amateur production of “Death of a Salesman” seemed pointless to me. (Yes, I know that Miller’s play is about a man’s humiliation, but the basis and the difference in characters’ ages makes it and Hosseini’s character’s frustrations not very comparable.) I also thought it unbelievable that the assailant of Rana left behind both his cellphone and his keys, and, thus, the van AND that Emad was so slow to track down the assailant with such evidence (and then got it wrong…). I had difficulty with the final deliverance in “Land of Mine,” but thought it more harrowing and more cinematic. “Tanne” is plenty harrowing and very cinematic, too.

The other two, “A Man Called Ove” (from Sweden with a Iraqi female lead and her son) and “Toni Erdmann” (from Germany, though mostly shot in Romania) have outsized, flamboyant older male leads (Rolf Lassgard and Peter Simonischek, respectively). The latter film is less predictable than the former. Both touch on larger issues (as, of course, do “Land of Mine” and “Salesman,” and in a remote contex, “Tanne”).

 

I can only provisionally approve the cinematography award going to Linus Sandgren for the often artificial “La La Land,” not having seen three of the other nominees’ work.

The best documentary feature choice, “O.J.: Made in America” is solid, with strong competition from “13th.”

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

A Beautifully Wrought Memoir of Traumatizing Losses and Dislocations

The Betrayal: Nerakhoon” (2008) began with Laotian refugee Thavisouk (“Thavi”) Phrasavath tutoring anthropologist Ellen Kuras in Lao during the mid-1980s. She videotaped him and his family some then and later shot some more interviews with him. He got involved in editing footage of an interview of his mother.

Kuras felt that the movie needed footage of Laos. Since the US government is still attempting to deny it fought a war in Laos (dropping more bombs there than the total tonnage the US dropped during two world wars), film shot from the Nixon era, when Thavi’s father worked with the US military remains classified.

In the 21st century Thavi was able to revisit his birthplace and track down the two sisters who were left behind. (They were at her mother’s when the human-smugglers came and said “We’re leaving now.” Thavi had swum across the Mekong earlier. His father was taken away for “re-education.) There is some poetic footage of rural Laos both in the movie and in a DVD bonus short, and footage of very emotional reunions of Thavi and his sisters (one was 18, one three when he left, and the younger one was adopted and take far north within Laos).

Thavi recalls someone in his hometown asking where he’s from and not believing “I was born and grew up here,” though, unfortunately, that was not filmed.

Most of the documentary (which was nominated for an Oscar) was shot in the US. The denial of the war in Laos continues to justify any benefits for the Laotians who were left behind when the US pulled out (any similarity to Hmong who fought with the Americans is completely not coincidental).

The wife of the Royal Laotian colonel/liaison to the USAF and the eight children who made it to Thailand were eventually granted asylum in the US, taken from the refugee camp in Thailand, and dumped in a crack house in Brooklyn. Not an easy adjustment in their second relocation, with physical safety much less than in the refugee camp.

As the eldest, Thavi had to try to father his younger siblings in an unfamiliar and dangerous environment. And Thavi resented having to father a brood he did not create, etc. There’s a very major surprise that I don’t want to reveal. It is perhaps surprising that there is only one funeral in the movie’s story, but it was filmed very revealingly, both for showing the cultural tradition and the family dynamics.
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Though not obtrusive, I realize that the editing by Thavi is really, really good. He may not have known what a jump-cut is, but without any technical training, he brought out dramas in what Kuras shot. Howard Shore provided music with some gentle chanting and poignant string-playing that enhanced the images and very candid interview footage.

The betrayal of the title is the US government’s betrayal of the Laotian officers who worked with(/for) it, but there is at least one other major, heartbreaking one shown. (And, perhaps, Col. Phrasavath’s targeting US bombs onto the part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in eastern Laos [there is no question that Laos’s neutrality was massively violated by North Vietnam troops and supplies moving along it]).

The disappointment in the liberators (American, then Pathet Lao), the anguish of trying to get by in Thailand and less-than-welcoming America is somewhat familiar to me from the poignant autobiographical novels by T. C. Huo, Thousand Wings and Land of Smiles; and the difficulty of holding a large Southeast Asian family together in an American slum from Andrew X. Pham’s luminous memoirs Catfish and Mandela and The Eaves of Heaven; Uyen Nicole Huong’s trilogy Daughters of the River Huong, Mimi and Her Mirror, and Postcards from Nam; GB Tran’s graphic novel Vietnamerica; and Andrew Lam’s memoir Perfume Dreams and  collection of stories Birds of Paradise Lost. Perhaps such background, and other refugee stories such as “The Lost Boys of the Sudan,” made it easier for me to understand “Betrayal,” though what Thavi and his mother felt at various times over the 23 years of the movie’s gestation is probably clear enough. The DVD includes some newsreel footage on the US air war, a trailer, a stills gallery, and a commentary track.

©2010,2017 Stephen O. Murray

 

The best movies about the US in Vietnam

My list of he best movies in English about Americans warring in/on Vietnam includes some that are not “about” combat. I’ve mostly excluded portrayals of blowback (heroin trafficking, PTSD of survivors). I have not seen any Vietnamese movies about repelling the marauding would-be conquerors (French or American) and Vietnamese (allies or enemies) are rarely characters in the American movies about the stresses and discombobulation American soldiers experienced in a misconceived military intervention.*

Go Tell the Spartans (1978), directed by Ted Post

Set in 1964, it manages to provide a remarkable cross-section of the difficulties faced by American soldiers in Vietnam. Burt Lancaster is the star, as a grizzled major who has survived two wars to take up a command that “thankless” does not begin to sum up. Evan C. Kim is also notable for vividly portraying a very complex ARVN interpreter who is a sadist, but also a brave and effective leader. (Post was a tv director whose only other remotely notable movie was the Clint Eastwood vehicle “Hang ‘Em High.”) The title alludes to the defense of Thermopylae, but that mattered to the course of the Greek/Persian war, while this doomed stand (like those portrayed in “Hamburger Hill” or the Korean War “Porkchop Hill”) had no real strategic importance.

I think that “Wholl Stop the Rain? (1978), directed by Karel Reisz, based on one of the best books focused American soldiers in Vietnam, Robert Stone’s Dog Soldier,s is the best Vietnam blowback movie, though including some combat in Vietnam, too. It has one of the best performances from Nick Nolte and one from Michael Moriarty, and shows paranoia as well as heroin “coming home” to these United States.

I like both adaptations of Graham Greene’s prescient 1955 novel The Quiet American a lot. The black-and-white 1958 version, shot by Robert Krasker (The Third Man), with Michael Redgrave and Audie Murphy belies the rap against Joseph Manckewitz as uncinematic or visually deficient. Greene’s critique of dangerous American innocence/willful ignorance was less watered down in the 2002 color remake, directed by Phillip Noyce with Michael Caine taking on the cynical long-term resident Thomas Fowler and Brendan Fraser taking on the gung-ho American newcomer know-it-all Alden Pyle role (showing Americans’ dangerous —to themselves and others — ignorance about the world, before the buildup of US troops in Vietnam).

Casualties of War (1989) directed by Brian De Palma, shows stressed-out American soldiers running amok and then attempting to cover up their atrocities. It has compelling performances by Michael J. Fox and Sean Penn.

Rescue Dawn 2006 Werner Herzog’s expansion/enactment of his 1997 talking-head documentary “Little Dieter [Dengler] Needs to Fly” is more survivalist epic than a war movie, though it starts on an aircraft carrier and follows downed US flyers escaping a Viet Nong prison, played superbly by Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, (there is another pair going off separately). More a survivalist tale than a “war movie.”

 

Platoon (1986), written and directed by Oliver Stone, based on his experiences as an infrantrtyman in Vietnam. College dropout army volunteer Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) and other soldiers in his unit are torn between the idealistic pothead Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe) and the cynical, hardened Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger). It includes execution of a civilian, and murder of one sergeant by the other. Both Berenger and Dafoe were nominated for Oscars. Neither won. Stone won the best director award and the movie won best picture, plus best sound and best editing (Claire Sumpson) Oscars. Along with some late-60s soul music, the soundtrack employed Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” to haunting effect. Speaking for Vietnam veteran Stone, Taylor (a character pretty like Michael J. Fox’s in “Casualties of War”) concludes that “t he enemy was within us.”

 

Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), directed by Barry Levinson, is set in Saigon (ca. 1965) with a bravura performance by Robin Williams as Adrian Cronauer, an insubordinate Armed Forces radio dj, who goes to entertain troops (without the riot of the Playboy bunny show in “Apocalypse Now”), and makes connections with some Vietnamese, one of whom (Tuan, played by Tung Tranh Tran) he learns is a covert Viet Cong operative (and who saves Cronauer’s life twice).

Apocalypse Now (1979) directed by Francis Ford Coppola has a lot of delirium and befuddled American troops. I think that the mission portrayed is preposterous, and the bloated Brando’s (Green Beret Col.) Kurtz as an independent warlord also preposterous, but there is some amazing stuff in the movie, including the more believable PT-boat crew (as disparate as units in Hollywood WWII and Korean movies).

Full Metal Jacket (1987), directed by Stanley KubrickThe stateside, basic training of Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 movie’s first half is superbly disturbing (also see Robert Altman’s “Streamers,” Coppola’s “Gardens of Stone,” Sidney Furie’s “The Boys of Company C,” and Joel Schumacher’s “Tigerland”), the Vietnam combat second half shot in the UK not great.

Heaven & Earth (1993), Oliver Stone’s movie about a Vietnamese woman is not a “war movie” in the sense of being about combat. Also it follows her to America. (It is also runs 140 minutes.) If it is disqualified, the harrowing battle movie “Hamburger Hill’ (1987), directed by John Irvin, can be substituted to fill out the list, though half of it is also away from combat.

Aside from being set in Cambodia, “The Killing Fields “(1984, directed by Roland Joffe, with an Oscar-winning performance by Haing S. Ngor), mostly takes place after the war, during the genocidal misrule of the Khmer Rouge.

There are also many worthy and interesting documentaries. In chronological order of their release dates, I’ll mention

The Anderson Platoon (1967)

I Was a Soldier (1970)

Hearts and Minds (1974)

The Soldier’s Story (1981)

Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997)

Regret to Inform (1998)

Sir, No Sir! (2005)

Oh, Saigon (2007)

Indochine (2009)

Soldiers of Vietnam (2016)

*I think that after WWII the US should have continued to work with and try to influence Ho Chi Minh. It is certainly possible that he would have established a Stalinist state in the 1940s, but after all the blood shed between then and the mid-1970s, the North Vietnamese overlords inflicted one on the South Vietnamese. The Truman administration’s support for reestablishing French colonial (or the attempted restoration, one that fizzled at Dienbenphu) rule was IMO a mistake that was exacerbated by the US (Eisenhower administration) blockage of the plebiscite it had agreed to in Geneva, and the support (JFK and LBJ) for unpopular South Vietnamese governments with more and more troops on the ground winning battles while losing the war (ye olde “hearts and minds”). Without the secret bombing of Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge would almost certainly not have come to power. (Not that Sihanouk was a saint, but had he been supported rather than destabilized by Kissinger et al., Cambodians would surely have suffered less.)

©2017,  Stephen O. Murray

I’ve also posted lists of what I think are the best movies about WWI, WWII, and the Korean War.

Werner Herzog goes back to the jungle for “Rescue Dawn”

Christian Bale has recurrently gone far out on limbs in portraying a range of characters and taking physical as well as emotional risks. I guess that Steven Spielberg saw the resiliency of a survivor in Bale when he cast him as the lead in “Empire of the Sun”(1987). Batman is also a survivor, and Dieter Dengler, the German-born US Navy pilot who was shot down over Laos in 1965 and was one of very few Viet Cong POWs who did not sign the standard propaganda letter denouncing imperial aggression and is said to be the only one who escaped captivity and survived, provides him a role as a survivor of extreme hazards.

Especially given the availability of Les Blank’s great documentary “Burden of Dreams,” anyone signing on to go to a jungle with Werner Herzog to make a movie about survival has to be very brave. Bale and his costars, Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies, signed on and starved themselves before showing up in Thailand to make “Rescue Dawn.” Because the American POWs needed to look more emaciated as the story went on (and because radical weight loss should be done slowly with medical supervision), they showed up for work in a weakened, very thin condition, and had to shoot the scenes in reverse order, which obviously makes development of character considerably more difficult than shooting in an approximation of beginning to end.

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The rapport beween Bale and Zahn had to be at its most poignant in their first scenes shot. Moreover, the scenes of escaping barefoot through the jungle had to be filmed when they were weakest. In the making-of feature, they make abundantly clear that Herzog did not ask anything of them that he did not ask of himself. Indeed, he invariably went first, showing them what he wanted. What he wanted, as Herzog recognized, was taking risks and meeting physical demands far beyond what movie stars typically do.

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In the commentary track and the making-of feature, Herzog speaks of wanting the audience believe it could trust what it saw (not CGI effects or stuntmen). Bale chowed down on maggots and underwent tortures, including being hung upside down and spun, submerged in water, and dragged behind a water buffalo (and running through dense jungle barefoot). The physical demands of being at the forefront “Rescue Dawn” for Bale and Zahn were extreme, apart from having to create characters and relationships (backward).

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I think they are completely convincing: Bale as the savvy flyer determined to escape, Zahn as the follower whom Dengler kept going and protected as best he good. Their trek across Laos (impersonated by Thailand) during the rainy season, with basically no food, is arduous. Its impetus is war, but only the frame of “Rescue Dawn” is a war movie (on an aircraft carrier in the Gulf of Tonkin, and the secret bombing of Laos). The middle is half survival in a prison-camp and half trying to get to the Mekong River and into Thailand.

Dengler’s optimism was not shared by the other prisoners (two Americans, two Thai) with whom he was incarcerated, but by force of personality and resourcefulness, he convinced them to attempt escape with him. From Herzog’s documentary about Dengler, “Little Dieter Needs to Fly” (1997), I knew about Dengler’s background. That he was inspired to become a flyer by brief eye contact with a US pilot coming in low and shooting up his childhood home in the Black Forest during World War II gets into “Rescue Dawn,” along with the story of his capture, incarceration, escape, and eventual rescue. Knowing the story did not get in the way of my admiring how the events (and Dengler) were portrayed in the film. There was considerable interpersonal and physical tension, abetted by the musical score that was varied and not over-insistent (as war movie music so frequently is!). (Klaus Badelt has also scored Gladiator, The Pledge, Constantine, and Curse of the Black Pearl)

The cinematography by long-time (including “Little Dieter Needs to Fly”) Herzog cameraman Peter Zeitlinger was outstanding. Herzog spoke of having to curb Zeitlinger’s inclination to make every shot beautiful, but Herzog, throughout his career, has shown the harsh beauty of various kinds of wilderness. There are striking shots of the scenery in “Rescue Dawn.” More remakrable still, is Zeitlinger’s shooting of Bale and Zahn going through dense (very real!) jungle. Even Herzog expresses astonishment at how the camera got in there.

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Both Bale and Zeitlinger report that Herzog focuses on the scene as a whole, and Zeitlinger figures out how to shoot it (though the hands-on director seems to look through the camera, too).

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Herzog has made some films I strongly dislike (Heart of Glass, Even Dwarves Started Small), but is a fascinating raconteur who always has interesting things to say about making movies. I think that the movie “Rescue Dawn” is outstanding. Herzog’s commentary track and the extensive making-of feature (with additional insights from Zeitlinger and the actors) make for a five-star DVD for anyone interested in how movies are made (on location with anticipated and unanticipated problems). Unusually for Herzog, there are also some deleted scenes with clear explanations of why Herzog did not include them.

And, returning to Bale, he shows Dengler’s charisma and ability to solve whatever problem comes his way. His matter-of-fact discussion of the role and what he did in Thailand on the making-of feature show an intelligence to match the courage (and that he has a sense of humor and good comic delivery!). He and the other actors playing Viet Cong prisoners underwent grueling location work at what looks like dangerously reduced weight (as Bale did for the less worthy project of “The Machinist”).

The only qualm I have to offer is that Herzog, as in “Lessons of Darkness,” has a fascination with fires and explosions that I think aestheticizes viewers to their horror (as with John Woo). I also have to note, again, especially after “Lessons in Darkness” and Herzog’s many statements over his career of not caring about distinguishing documentary from fiction that there is something dubious about his wish to allow the audience to believe what it sees. (Hereon, he makes the distinction between a feature film based on Dengler’s story and the documentary of Dengler telling his story and revisiting Laos with Herzog. And his recreations are certainly not “faked.”…)

©2017, Stephen O. Murray