Tag Archives: History

Book Review: Behold the Many by Lois-Ann Yamanaka

beholdthemany

Rating: B/  Behold the Many is kind of a strange book, and one that is hard to summarize and describe, but I’ll try my best to put my feelings about this novel into words. I had never heard of it when I picked it up but I was immediately sucked in by the beautiful cover art, featuring an a black-and-white picture of an innocent-looking Asian girl overlaid with colorful flowers. The image, much like many examples of cover art on the front of novels, has very little to do with the actual story, seeming in this case to have been randomly picked out with little correlation with the plot itself. Continue reading Book Review: Behold the Many by Lois-Ann Yamanaka

Movie Review: Brooklyn (2015)

Rating: B/  This is the kind of movie you sort of have to be in the mood for; a slow-paced, low-key period piece with a vivid sense of time and place. The love story at the center of the film is endearing if nothing spectacular, but the excellent acting and instantly empathizeable heroine make it an enjoyable experience. It’s like a slice of life from days long since past. Continue reading Movie Review: Brooklyn (2015)

Movie Review: 12 Years a Slave (2013)

12yearsaslvae

Rating: A-/ Imagine living a regular, relatively charmed life and being taken from your home, your family, everything you know. Imagine being shipped overnight to a place where you could be both bought and sold as property. It seems so unreal, doesn’t it? But in 1841, it actually happened to Solomon Northup (played here by Chiwetel Ejiofor,) a free black man who was drugged and kidnapped by two con men and sent to the Antebellum South as a slave. Solomon was educated, savvy, everything that was forbidden of blacks during this time, and he soon learned to hide the fact that he could read and write and tried to go unnoticed among the hoards of black faces that passed through insane slave owner Edwin Epps’ (Michael Fassbender)’s cotton fields every day. Continue reading Movie Review: 12 Years a Slave (2013)

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974)

01The_Enigma_of_Kaspar_Hauser

   The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is a very strange movie that raises more questions than it answers, confounds even the most open-minded viewer, and is insistently vague throughout. That said,  it is worth watching for it’s unique portrayal of it’s titular hero and, by extension, the whole of the human race. It’s a secular fable for the cinematically adventurous, written and directed by the king of weird and polarizing art house films, Werner Herzog.

I have to admit, I’m not that familiar with Herzog’s directorial work. I’ve seen a couple of his films, but I mostly know him as the weird guy in Julien Donkey-Boy who chugs cough syrup while wearing a gas mask and sprays Ewen Bremner down with cold water while bafflingly screaming “Stop your moody brooding. Don’t shiver! A winner doesn’t shiver!” As you might have guessed, my experience with Herzog has been strange and surreal, and while Kaspar Hauser does not reach the heights of outlandishness of Julien Donkey-Boy, it’s got plenty of unnerving to go around. It’s allegedly inspired by a real case that took place in the 19th century, very closely based upon a series of letters written on the subject around that time.

Kaspar Hauser (Bruno Schleinstein) is a misfit. He’s spent his entire life in the basement of a man (Hans Musäus) who calls himself his ‘daddy,’ where he is only given a toy horse to play with and is beaten frequently. The only word he knows is ‘horsey.’ He eats nothing but bread and water and is virtually unable to walk or move in a typical human manner. I immediately drew parallels between Kaspar and Nicholas Hope’s character in Rolf de Heer’s Bad Boy Bubby, but poor Kaspar has it even worse than the titular Bubby, having been shackled to a wall for seventeen years.

Even more disturbing is the fact that it is never explained why the man is keeping him there. Is he incarcerated for sexual purposes? Is his captor just batshit insane? Is the sick appeal of keeping a man chained to a wall his whole life a turn-on in of itself? We really don’t know. And that makes the final moments of the movie even more insanely cryptic. But for whatever reason, the man gets sick of having Kaspar around and dumps him in a small German town to fend for himself, standing stock still and without purpose with a letter in one hand and a holy book in the other.

01enigma

When Kaspar is ‘rescued’ only to be placed in a local jail for lack of anything better to do with him, they assume he is both utterly mentally deficient and incompetent. A kind man named Professor Daumer (Walter Ladengast) gets custody of Kaspar for the time being and begins to teach him how to function in society. The irony in this is that Kaspar soon begins to seem wiser and more genuine than any of the hoity-toity high society dandies who superficially observe his story.

He’s prone to be a bit of a philosopher, despite his odd appearance and slow halting speech. Kaspar is a delightful character, because he makes all the religious and moral authorities angry by taking all the demands that he be a proper human and a God-fearing Christian at face value. He’s a wise fool, someone whose ignorance actually lends him a less biased, more realistic view of life. He displays a soul by weeping at music that strikes him as beautiful, yet his elders can’t put him in a tidy box or clearly define him.

I have several problems with this movie, including the lead actor being portrayed as a teenage boy. Seventeen years old? More like a middle-aged Hobbit lookalike! (in fact, Schleinstein, a bit of a social outcast himself, was forty-one at the time of filming.) Jests aside, though, Scheinstein gives a effective, if somewhat one-note, performance. I also have to say that I was simply baffled by the ending. It was quite sad and, furthermore, was totally out of the blue. I think I would have preferred an ending that wasn’t so infuriatingly cryptic.

This is my favorite Werner Herzog (having seen My Son My Son What Have Ye Done and Signs of Life, neither of which struck me as particularly outstanding or memorable.) I don’t love this movie, but for better or worse, I think I’ll remember it.

In creating a unique and memorable character in Kaspar Hauser, the movie allows us to see life through an unbiased, unprejudiced lens- a lens truly untainted by worldly experience. Kaspar is like a blank slate onto which other characters try to project their beliefs and opinions, but, as inert and seemingly mindless as he is, he refuses to be a sheep for other people to control. He’s strong in a way that seems unlikely for someone of his kind, someone without influence, experience, or familial love. And we love him for it. Unsentimental and brazen, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is, in essence, an enigma, and one that might warrent repeat viewings. It might not be a particularly palatable film for the mainstream, but it has it’s astonishing moments.

01enigma_of_kasper_hauser

Changeling (2008)

changeling-poster

Not to be confused with the 1980 George C. Scott haunted house thriller The Changeling, Clint Eastwood’s wrenching drama belongs in the category of ‘truth is stranger than fiction.’ Christine Collins (wonderfully portrayed by Angelina Jolie) is a fairly ordinary woman and devoted single mother bringing up a little boy named Walter (Gattlin Griffith) in the roaring 20’s. Of course, in that era single motherhood  wasn’t exactly looked up to, so Christine suffers some adversity from people who think she’s an unfit mom and that little Walter needs a father, but she pretty much keeps on keeping on until her son vanishes from their Los Angeles home.

Hours turn to days turnmonths, and Christine’s fear that she’ll never see her son again turns to abject terror and finally, despair. Then, a miracle (?), a boy matching Walter’s description turns up in another state and is handed over to Christine. But this boy is not her son. The LAPD desperately try to convince her that yes, this doppelganger is Walter, and she will adjust to his somewhat changed manner and appearance; but Christine knows better. And she finds an in fiery minister Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), who is convinced that the Los Angeles Police Department is a corrupt organisation with a multitude of dirty secrets, But what are they hiding from Christine?

You can pretty much count on a film directed by Clint Eastwood to be good, and this movie is no exception. Changeling explores the extent of familial love between mother and son, in the midst of an epic instance of gaslighting of a confused but strong-willed woman. Christine becomes a stronger and stronger character throughout the film, but to the price of her innocence. Angelina Jolie does a great  job here, but I was also surprised by Jason Butler Harner’s inspired performance. I won’t tell you what Harner’s role in this story is for fear of spoiling it, but I will say he has a David Tennant-like flair for eccentricity and villainy (think Jessica Jones,) and proves that incorporating a spark of madness while flirting with being over-the-top is not necessarily a bad thing.

For most of it’s duration, Changeling is as immersive as a good page-turner. It only falters and seems a bit overlong in the last thirty minutes, when it wanders into standard courtroom drama territory. Regardless, it is surprisingly emotionally arresting and tragic, especially considering the lukewarm reviews it received.

    Changeling plays on the human fear of not being believed, of being thought crazy and incompetent. When the corrupt cops lock Christine in a mental institution for not heeding their words and keeping her mouth shut, a hospitalized prostitute with a proverbial heart of gold (Amy Ryan) tells Christine that women are naturally assumed to be a bit insane, irrational and unstable, and what’s to keep them from taking anything you say as a sign of unreliability and keeping you there forever? That’s the catch-22 Christine finds herself in- if she plays it safe and insists she’s well, the doctors will try to draw tell-tale signs of insanity out of her. If she stands by her story, she’s fucked. If she goes either way, she’s fucked. Unless she can be stronger than she’s ever been in her life and find a way to fight the corruption ensnaring her.

changeling14

’71 (2014)

71movie

Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) is having a bad day. A  British soldier stranded in Belfast as the Troubles reach their zenith, he is inexperienced in the ways of war and has no idea who to turn to and as night falls, his fear turns to utter panic. The Irish are out to kill him, and, as it turns out, the British have a bone to pick with him too when he witnesses something in a Protestant bar he shouldn’t have.

Determined to go back home to his little brother Darren (Harry Verity,)  Gary must be willing to power through a night in hell and even kill for the first time if he is to survive. But Gary finds some unexpected friends in Bridgid (Charlie Murphy) and Eamonn (Richard Dormer,) and Irish ex-military medic disgusted by the senselessness of war and his daughter.

There is scarcely a dull moment in ’71, an intense and realistic wartime drama that chronicles Gary’s frenzied  attempts to simply survive the night.  The film captures a atmosphere of chaos and ongoing panic like nothing else I’ve seen, creating a world where the foggy motives of both  Irish Catholics and British Protestants seem to meld together into one incomprehensible mass.

’71 is fair to both political sides of a messy, tragic conflict, and although I didn’t like Jack O’Connell in the 2008 horror-thriller Eden Lake, I thought he was excellent here. Far from being an action hero, Gary is green as can be. His inexperience mirrors that of another character, a teenage Irish Republican terrorist named Shaun (Barry Keoghan) who pauses helping his younger sister with her homework long enough to grab his hidden assault weapons and heads out, evading his mother’s watchful gaze.

The movie asks the question; what makes us so different that we have to continue hurting and killing each other in bloody, senseless wars? We are taught in times of conflict by the omnipresent propaganda machine that our adversaries are different from us, vile, unrelenting in the savagery.  At one point, Eamonn, Gary Hook’s good Samaritan, says that war is nothing more than ‘posh cunts telling thick cunts to kill poor cunts.’ For me, this was the high point of the movie. Has war ever been more aptly described in a more concise mannersince the first person who spoke the famous adage, “War is Hell?”

What makes us so damn different? We want the same things; financial security, our family’s unconditional love and acceptance. We feel the need to matter. And even if there are those few human beings that are irredeemably, utterly evil, why should political doctrine choose our enemies? People who, in other circumstances, could even be our friends. Had it not been for the long-standing hatred between the Northern Irish and the British Militia, Sean and Gary probably could have sat and had a drink together and bore no animosity for each other.

The only complaint I have about this movie was that it was quite confusing, I was puzzled as to who many of the side characters were and what they wanted with Gary. There was at least two similar looking characters  on different  political sides with rather large mustaches, and I’ll be damned if I could tell Mustachio #1 and Mustachio #2 apart on a dark set when all hell was breaking loose.

Besides that, all I can say is I recommend this movie to people who are interested in war films and historical periods, particularly the Troubles. It is realistic, humane, and fair-minded, and while it is not for the particularly sensitive, it would be great to show to mature high school students to explain to them how things went down in Northern Ireland at that time. Finally, we are left with the question of Gary; will he escape? And if he does will he ever be the same?

71

The Great Escape (1963)

great escape

For top-notch wartime action and intrigue, look no further. Even if the ending is a bit of a bummer.

250 men, one elaborate plan; to get the hell out of dodge. The Great Escape is set in a P.O.W. camp in 1943, where hundreds of American and English soldiers are being held indefinitely in the clutch of the  Luftwaffe, a organization originating from Nazi Germany. The men are restless; they are surviving under passable conditions, with livable (if meager) accommodations, but they want to see their families, their wives, their children. moreover, they want to raise some Hell and their refusal to live the servile existence of cattle costs them dearly in the long run.

When a RAF Squadron Leader by the name of Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough) with a staggering number of escape attempts under his belt arrives in Stalag Luft III, the P.O.W. camp to end all P.O.W. Camps (guaranteed to contain even the most uncontainable prisoners,) he and stoic resident troublemaker Virgil Hilts (Steve McQueen) set about quick to forming an escape plan. They and a mass percentage of the prisoners begin to dig a massive hole that will hopefully bring them into the forest outside the camp, and then, hopefully, to freedom. But escape turns out to be harder than they had anticipated. And then there’s that one guy Danny (Charles Bronson) who’s Kryptonite is enclosed spaces; a really inconvenient affliction for a man who’s going to crawl through a long, impossibly tight tunnel to escape captivity to have. On the up side, he’s got his right-hand man and inseparable bosom friend Willie (John Leyton) (though they appear to be more than friends, if you ask me, but that’s just me picking up on subtext *wink*) to help out.

   The Great Escape is almost three hours but it’s still worth watching, just pick a time to view it when you don’t have any other engagements for a good while. What makes it such a good movie is partly that they find important jobs to do even for people who seem initially useless. Take Colin Blythe (Donald Pleasence) a adorably British birdwatcher and tea drinker whose vision is quickly failing. Turns out mild-mannered Blythe is a pretty good forger and when his sight completely fails, leaving him blind and helpless in a wartime situation, his good friend Hendley (James Garner) takes up the reigns for him and helps smuggle him out of the camp. But even as Hendley leads the virtually sightless Blythe around German towns and landscapes, Blythe is not a burden, because no one would have gotten past square one without his clever forgeries. Everyone, even the men with challenges or who seemingly have nothing going for them, become an asset to the collective.

The movie also has an excellent ensemble cast and seems relatively short at about two hours forty minutes. It’s not as good as Pulp Fiction in that regard (… Fiction being the only movie over two hours I can sit and watch again and again and that will seemingly be over in no time at all). In a world where some eighty minute movies feel like they’re going on for interminable hours, The Great Escape just zips by due to it’s great writing and compelling plot. There is also some actual thought put into the characters (a rarity in adventure films) and they come off as distinct and fresh. The Nazi characters aren’t cartoon villains; there was even one (Robert Graf) who I felt quite sorry for at times (!)

The majority of them are doing their best with the roles given to them in a long, bloody war, they just happen to be fighting for the wrong side. There’s a moment when Graf’s character, Werner, says regretfully that he was taken out of the boy scouts, which he thoroughly enjoyed, to join the Hitler Youth and you are reminded that not every person fighting on one side of a war is a crazy extremist. Think the Confederates in the Civil War were a bunch of slave-owning racists and the union soldiers were saints? Think again! It’s emotionally dishonest to claim any one ‘side’ in a war is the devil incarnate. The Great Escape respects that in that for every evil Nazi in this movie there is another dude who wants to go home almost as much as the P.O.W.’s do.

Although The Great Escape is an old movie, it hasn’t aged a bit since it’s release in 1963. Some films start feeling old or irrelevant in their handling of themes (Hitchcock’s films are a great example, for me anyway) but The Great Escape kept people on the edge of their seat then and it will still keep people on the edge of their seat now wondering how these guys will turn out. There’s that harrowing iconic scene with Steve McQueen riding a motorcycle over a barbed wire fence and lots of suspenseful moments (like Pleasence and Garner attempting to escape from the soldiers by airplane.)

The only reason I can think of that people really wouldn’t like this movie is that society has very short attention span nowadays. It’s quite a long movie. Don’t watch it if your in a rush to just pop the DVD in, see the movie, and then pull it out in ninety minutes flat. It’s got a big, multi layered story with a ton of characters (I couldn’t even identify some of the main characters by the end of the movie,) it’s meant to be absorbed, taken seriously. Apparently this is based on a true story; I can’t think of a better way to honor the men who participated in this elaborate escape than the making of this movie. And considering all the biopics that exploit their subject matter, that is saying something.

great