Tuesday, May 30, 2023

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Directed by William Wyler

Written by Robert Sherwood (adapted the Mackinay Kantor novella Glory For Me)

Starring: Myrna Loy, Fredric March, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright, Virginia Mayo, Cathy O"Donnell, Harold Russell

A highly revered classic, The Best Years of Our Lives evoked a specific moment in time in a way few Hollywood movies have ever achieved. The story follows three soldiers returning from the Second World War and follows their readjustment into civilian life. Directed by William Wyler, the film won nine Oscars, including Best Picture. 

The story begins with three returning veterans catching a flight back home to Boontown, USA (modeled on Cincinnati, Ohio.) They get to know each other and form close bonds. Frederik March stars as Al Stevenson, a banker with a wife and family. Dana Andrews plays bombardier pilot Fred Derry who comes home to find his wife Marie cool and distant (Virginia Mayo), Harold Russell earned an Oscar as Homer Parrish, a sailor who lost both his hands in an explosion. Worried about his family and whether his fiancĂ© Wilma (Cathy O'Donnell) will accept him, so he seeks solace with his fellow veterans. 

Myrna Loy (famously Nora Charles from the Thin Man series) got top billing as Al's wife Milly, a model of steadiness and good sense during the time he was away. Their daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright) works at the local hospital and is ready to begin her life. It's not just a story about the men per se, female characters in the film are there to provide reassurance but are often the stronger ones in the relationships.

Robert Sherwood's script handles all the relationships and conflicts that arise with great sensitivity. The homecoming scenes are especially moving, as Homer's parents fight back tears at seeing him with no hands. Small moments are used to great effect to illustrate the transition to civilian life. It captures both the relief and sense of familiarity with returning home, but also the alienation of returning to a mundane life with people who don't understand what they experienced. 

With so many young people absent during the war, there were concerns about unemployment and the economy, even a return to the Depression. In one of my favorite scenes, a man confronts Homer and Fred about their service and that they fought for a bad cause, arguing the U.S. should've sided with Germany, reminds me of certain twitter trolls.

The Best Years of Our Lives communicates both the hope and uncertainty of the immediate post-war years. Atomic power is obliquely mentioned, the Cold War was barely on the horizon. Everyone realized the world was changing at a rapid pace, in the midst of trying to find stability, in their case, through community and family. Changing gender dynamics and the higher expectations that all Americans shared in the post-war years are all present. 

Unfortunately, Hollywood movies in the coming decades did not provide an inclusive view of the post-war experience. There were so many more stories to tell. I think that's why The Best Years of Our Lives endures as a classic, for its realist approach combined with the honesty and compassion running through the entire picture.

Friday, May 26, 2023

Red Heat (1988)

Red Heat
is a Glasnost era buddy cop movie teaming up Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Belushi. The plot involves a drug trade connection between the USSR and the United States. Directed by action impresario Walter Hill, the film barely manages to meet genre standards, but is helped along by moments of wry humor and topical political commentary. 

Hill recycled the buddy cop formula that worked so well in his 1982 film 48 Hours with Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte. In Red Heat Arnold is Captain Ivan Danko working for the Soviet military police on the trail of a Georgian drug lord who eludes capture and makes his way to America (after an opening sequence at a bathhouse featuring a nude fight scene). Danko is sent to Chicago to follow a lead and partnered with Detective Art Ridzik (Belushi), the prototypical cynical American cop. One thing the film does well is plays on the contrasts between them: Arnold the ultimate physical specimen and chain smoking/chili dog scarfing Belushi whose only skill is making wisecracks. 

Red Heat relies on the tired formulas of the genre. We meet a parade of repugnant drug dealers. There's a climatic bus chase. Supporting players Larry Fishburne, Peter Boyle, and Gina Gershon aren't given much to do. Neither is there much depth to the two leads, Schwarzenegger is in stentorian mode the entire time, while Belushi seems uncertain if he's in a comedy or drama. The two share a nice moment at the end discussing baseball, but the script eschews complexity in favor of action tropes (the script was constantly being revised during filming). James Horner's score bordered on grating. 

If there's an underlying message at all, it's that America and the Soviet Union shared a common enemy in drug dealers. Red Heat was in line with many films of the era capitalizing on the Cold War thaw, usually through both sides opening the lines of communication. It would be curious to imagine a sequel with Ridzik going to Moscow. An artifact of a specific moment in the 1980s, the film will inevitably disappoint but does provide an unusual blending of genres. 

Thursday, May 25, 2023

A Trial in Prague (2001)

Directed by Zuzana Justman

As an addendum to my recent post on The Confession, I watched the 2001 documentary A Trial in Prague. The film's director Zuzana Justman interviewed family members and victims who experienced the purge and the show trial firsthand. The narrative closely parallels the narrative of the Costa-Gavras film and provides some details the film left out.

Participants talked about their reasons for joining the Communist Party during the 1930s. Many viewed the movement as the only viable defense against fascism and many fought for the Popular Front in Spain. Others saw Communism as the prescription to end the global depression and the excesses of capitalism. One participant spoke of what seemed like a rational solution to inequality quickly became irrational. 

By 1948, with Soviet support, the Communist Party took total control in Czechoslovakia and brutal crackdowns followed. Stalin was obsessed with dissension from within the Party and ordered anyone that was suspect must be removed. This led to the arrests of 14 high level Czech officials including the second in command of the government Rudolf Slansky. 

Family members speak of the uncertainty and terror they experienced. Antisemitism also figured in the arrests. The film never goes too far into Stalin's persecution of Jews, suggesting he held them suspect because of their time with the French Resistance. Most of the suspects were executed in secret, and it's especially tragic to hear family members talk about their lack of closure. 

A Trial in Prague provides a powerful and factual account of the political climate in Central Europe during the 1950s. The testimony from those who lived through it are especially moving. 

The Confession (1970)

Directed by Costa-Gavras

Written by Jorge Semprun (based on the the Artur London memoir)

Starring: Yves Montand, Simone Signoret

In 1970, Yves Montand starred in Costa-Gavras's follow up to Z, The Confession. Told mostly though flashback, the film takes place in 1952 during the Slansky trials in Czechoslovakia. Montand portrays a foreign affairs minister who is accused of treason and put through several months of physical and psychological torture at the hands of the secret police. Based on Artur London's memoir, the film is a harrowing examination of the machinations of totalitarianism. 

The methodical pacing of the film allows the viewer to experience the Kafkaesque nature of the captivity Ludvik must endure. At the start he begins to realize he's being followed, and is eventually taken into custody. Meanwhile Ludvik's wife Lise (Signoret) is forced to leave her job as a radio broadcaster and to work in a factory. 

Gavras directs the film mostly from Artur's point of view. When first brought in his clothes are taken away and he's stripped of his identity. He's put through sleep deprivation as he goes through hours of interrogation with various bureaucrats. They employ a "good cop, bad cop" routine with some officials constantly screaming threats (there's a mock execution at one point) to a fatherly interrogator offering food and reassurance. 

Historians agree (it was obvious at the time) the sudden crackdown on Czech officials was driven by antisemitism. Ludvik's put through endless questioning about his time with the French Resistance and supposed contacts with American intelligence. Clearly innocent, he's coerced into signing several confessions, while being told he'll never see his family again. Eventually Ludvik faces trial with the other defendants in a darkly comic staged event made for the cameras. Ludvik received a life sentence, most of the defendants were executed, and eventually due to changing political tides after Stalin's death in 1953, he was freed.

Few films have placed the audience into the totalitarian mindset so effectively. It's like a bizarre equation. Loyalty to the state and ideology appears to reign above all else, but it's slippery. Such systems allow sociopaths to flourish and lead otherwise decent people into debased acts. It's something like a cult, but Stalinist regimes were more complicated, to survive one almost needs to hold two opposing thoughts at the same time, basically Orwell's doublethink. To go against ideology is unthinkable and may spell total loss of freedom or worse, yet survival and promotion may entail going against the rules. 

The Confession posits basic questions on the individual's relationship to the state, the use of torture, and ultimately human rights. Article 5 of United Nations Declaration of Human Rights prohibits torture yet states continue to use it, always in the name of national security. Totalitarianism, today the term illiberal is often used as a stand in, is based on dehumanization and The Confession illustrates the abnormal psychology of such a system. 

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3

With James Gunn returning as writer and director for the third entry of the Guardians of the Galaxy series the trilogy is brought to a bookend conclusion. The MCU has floundered a bit since hitting its apogee in 2019 with the conclusion of the Infinity Wars saga and Guardians III marks a return to form. The pandemic disrupted the release cycle and a stream of hit and miss movies followed. The MCU leaned into TV content on Disney+ and has continued to steadily build its billion dollar brand.

Guardians III plays like a greatest hit record with the return of the entire gang and Gunn's retro needle drops. The story this time centers upon Rocket Raccoon, voiced by Bradley Cooper, who the Guardians must rally together to save. The strongest parts of the film deal with Rocket's backstory, recalling heavy going 70s/80s children's films like Watership Down, The Plague Dogs, and The Secret of NIMH. The '80s nostalgia, an area where Gunn is quite adept, goes into overdrive with references to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Return of the Jedi.

All the returning characters are familiar and welcome by this point: Chris Pratt leans into Quill hitting middle age, Zoe Saldana reprises Gamora (alternate version of the character), as usual Dave Bautista gets the best laughs as Drax, Karen Gillian and Pom Klemenntieff are back as Nebula and Mantis. Gunn's gift for witty banter and the chemistry of the cast keeps the film engaging.

At times one can sense Guardians III straining too please a bit too much. At 150 minutes the film goes for the big epic conclusion vibe, when a tighter, more contained story seemed like the better direction to go. Satisfying all the arcs starts to feel more like a burden in the final section. 

Overall, a buoyant kick off to the 2023 summer movie season, Guardians III taps into all the best aspects of the MCU.