Monday, November 15, 2010

Passchendaele (2008)

After a long hiatus, I'm restarting this blog.

To begin a fortnight or so of watching films and reading books about World War I, I saw Passchendaele, a Canadian film written, produced, directed by, and starring Paul Gross, one of my favorite actors. I don’t believe this film was widely distributed in the States; I had to buy the DVD, which I seldom do.


Passchendaele, to anyone who’s read a bit about World War I history, is known as one of the most miserable, horrible, and ultimately futile battles of the war. Also known as the Third Battle of Ypres, it began October 26, 1917. British, French, and Canadian troops fought the Germans over a Belgian landscape essentially destroyed by years of shelling and months of rain. (Said landscape was below sea level in the first place, and the complicated drainage system which had made it arable and livable was all but eradicated by artillery fire.) The film Passchendaele tells the story of a Canadian unit that fought heroically against immense odds and saved the day for the Allies. The futility comes a few months later, in the spring, when the land secured with so much loss of life was quickly retaken by the Germans.

Gross had heard about this battle from his grandfather, and who told him about the incident which opens the film. He wanted to make this movie so that young Canadians would understand and take pride in their history. But it is not a jingoistic or simplistic “glorious war” film. Gross’s script shows us heroism and self-sacrifice, to be sure; it also shows the mud, filth, and blood of trench warfare; the anti-German hysteria that gripped Canada as well as the U.S. and made life hell for some German immigrants; the war fever which gave those who were too old and rich to fight license to accuse any young man not in uniform of cowardice; and the insensitive treatment of shell-shocked soldiers.

Sgt. Michael Dunne (Paul Gross), wounded in mind and body in the first scene of the film, is next seen in a Calgary hospital being cared for by nurse Sarah Mann (Caroline Dhavernas). He is immediately attracted to her but she resolutely refuses to get involved for reasons of her own. When Dunne’s physical wounds are healed, he is assigned as a recruiter because of his “neurasthenia” – shell-shock or PTSD to us, cowardice to his commanding officer. Meanwhile Sarah’s young brother, David (Joe Dinicol), who has been turned down for service because of asthma, is in love with a doctor’s daughter. The doctor gives him a letter with a clean bill of health and David enlists. Dunne volunteers to return to the front to watch over David, and eventually we see that Sarah has come to Belgium as a nurse. There is much more to the story, but I will refrain from details to avoid spoilers.

Some will find this film hokey, especially at the end. Others will certainly want to avoid it because of the violence and horror of war which it depicts so graphically. To me, it was a Ripping Yarn, a heartbreaking love story, and not least, a way to experience vicariously a little of what the soldiers of the Great War had to go through.

The DVD includes a documentary, The Road to Passchendaele, which goes in depth into the technical aspects of making a film of this type. Both the narrative film and the documentary are well worth watching. This is probably not the best World War I movie I will see, but I think it does what Paul Gross set out to do with it.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Brother Cadfael Mysteries: The Holy Thief, The Pilgrim of Hate

CADFAEL It’s probably hard for even the most devout modern American or British Catholic to comprehend the importance that medieval worshipers placed on saints’ relics – let alone for an unregenerate Protestant such as me. But Ellis Peters’ first Brother Cadfael novel, A Morbid Taste for Bones, centered on the acquisition of the bones of St. Winifred for the abbey of Shrewsbury. In The Holy Thief (1998) , the first of two Brother Cadfael episodes I watched recently, St. Winifred’s bones are again at issue. Another abbey has been burned down in the civil war between the forces of Stephen and Matilda, and its abbot has come to Shrewsbury with a novice who has had a vision – a vision that seems to require Shrewsbury to give up its most prized possession to aid in the rebuilding of the other abbey. Shrewsbury doesn’t want to let St. Winifred go, but its abbot is a truly holy man who tries to believe the best of others. But there are some monks who will stop at nothing to keep or gain possession of St. Winifred’s relics. When a death and a kidnapping occur, Cadfael must sort out truth from falsehood.

In The Pilgrim of Hate (also 1998), Cadfael encounters a young man who is on a barefoot pilgrimage to Wales, shepherded by his judgmental brother. Cadfael is himself Welsh, and invites the young pilgrim to the abbey so that he can treat his bleeding feet. The abbey is full of pilgrims come to receive blessings from St. Winifred’s relics, and when the body of an old man is found stuffed in a bag among the pilgrims’ luggage, Cadfael must investigate. He discovers that the young pilgrim’s brother, who is preaching a harsh doctrine of sin and repentance through mortification of the flesh, is not all he seems to be.

Both these stories had in common not only the relics but the concept of doing penance by punishing one’s body. The novice in The Holy Thief, it is suggested in one scene, receives altogether too much flogging from his covetous abbot, and in one of the tales Cadfael’s own apprentice is shown flagellating himself because he has confessed some slight wrongdoing. Cadfael doesn’t seem to think much of such activity, not surprising for a healer. I can’t recall whether the books made so much of this theme, but I’ll be looking for it in other episodes I watch.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Festen (The Celebration) 1998

200px-The_Celebration_DVD_Cover Festen (The Celebration) is a Danish film listed also as “Dogme #1.” (Go here for more information on the Dogme 95 film movement.)

Three adult children, one with a family, return home to the hotel-restaurant their father owns to celebrate his 60th birthday with a crowd of guests. It soon becomes evident that there are stresses in the family – one brother finds there’s no room reserved for him because he misbehaved on a previous occasion; the other brother is asked to speak about his twin sister, who is dead; and when the remaining sister discovers that she’s been given her dead sister’s room, we learn that the dead sister was a suicide. Before the film ends, the family will be cracked and broken, and no one more so than the father, as one son reveals a shocking secret and the other children, at first resistant, come to believe him.

Having married into a Danish-American family made the film’s setting and characters seem quite familiar to me. Some of the songs the guests sing were songs we too have sung at birthdays; the faces and names of the characters looked and sounded like people who might be part of our extended family. This made the shocking and terrible parts of the film even worse for me (my daughter had a similar reaction).

Festen (The Celebration) was made under the strictures of Dogme 95, but I can’t say that I noticed much different from other films or that this made it difficult to see the film. I of course watched with subtitles (annoyingly, they were cut off a bit at the bottom by my television or just by the DVD). I left the sound audible and did not notice any problems with that either. After looking at the “rules” of Dogme, I did realize that the songs that were sung at the party were the only music, but it wasn’t a glaring omission that I noticed during the film. This was a very good film, well-acted and photographed, and though it’s obviously not one for children or young teenagers, I’d recommend it to others.

A History of Britain, Discs 4 and 5

Now I’ve finished watching Simon Schama’s BBC series, A History of Britain. The episodes on Disc 4 cover the years from William and Mary to the Regency, George IV and William IV. (The latter get short shrift.) In the earlier part of the century, the Jacobite rebellion which attempted to install Bonnie Prince Charlie as King in lieu of the Hanoverian George I is shown, with the conclusion that its failure may actually have ended up improving the lot of the Scots. The American and French Revolutions, and how Britain dealt with the former and avoided a replay of the latter figure largely in the history of the later part of the 18th century. Schama discusses William Wordsworth’s journey from radical to Romantic at some length, and of course, also deals with the Napoleonic Wars.

The final disc contains three episodes which take Schama’s history from Victoria through Winston Churchill. As in the preceding episodes, we see Schama’s belief that an excessive emphasis on trade and business compromised British ideals of liberty, particularly during the glory days of Empire. Heartrending photographs of Indians who starved to death as Victoria was being made Empress of India illustrate his point all too well. Oddly, he seems to skim over both the Boer War and World War I with very little discussion.

In some ways I felt that the final episode, The Two Winstons, was the best of all. One of the strengths of Schama’s work is its interdisciplinary focus, and in The Two Winstons he allows himself to emphasize that focus. The first Winston is, of course, Winston Churchill; the second is Winston Smith, the hero of George Orwell’s 1984, and by extension, Orwell (Eric Blair) himself. Comparing Churchill’s life and that of Blair/Orwell gives Schama an opportunity to tell the history of Britain in the first half of the 20th century in a fresh new way. (Churchill’s participation as first a cabinet member and then an officer in the trenches of France is pretty much the only mention of WWI). I also learned something that I don’t think I’d heard before – that when Churchill became Prime Minister in 1940, the members of the Cabinet were very close to trying to negotiate some kind of peace with Hitler – a terrifying thought. As usual with television histories of this type, my appetite for reading a bit more history has been whetted; I own at least the first volume of Schama’s companion history and will probably be dipping into it before long.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

A History of Britain (Disc 3)

Ever since childhood days in Connecticut, watching New York channels 11 (I think – it was sponsored by the school system or education department) and 13 (WNET, PBS before there was PBS), I’ve had a nagging fondness for “educational television.” So from time to time I sample some on DVD. I like a varied diet of film, so it’s quite a while since I watched Discs 1 and 2 of Simon Schama’s series. Disc 3 includes The Body of the Queen, the last episode of season 1, plus The British Wars and Revolutions, the first two in season 2.

A History of Britain (2000 and after) is a good, and reasonably entertaining, introduction to British history, mingling Schama’s visits to famous places with reenactments and artifacts from the period to keep the viewer interested. Occasionally the reenactments were so realistic that I had to close my eyes. And then there were the times that my eyes closed on their own. To be fair, that was partly physiological and partly because, having taken an excellent course on Tudor and Stuart history, there was little new information for me in these particular episodes, which span the period from Elizabeth I to William and Mary. I do enjoy seeing the places where things happened. And the music that accompanies the series is lovely and haunting. I’ll be watching the rest of the episodes some time in the not-too-distant future.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Confessions of a Shopaholic (2009)

I’ve read, I think, three of the four Shopaholic books. (Yes, I admit it, I like a trashy novel now and again.) I am often disappointed in movies of books I’ve read, and Confessions of a Shopaholic (based on the book of the same name and its first sequel, Shopaholic Takes Manhattan) was no exception to this rule. First off, the setting was changed from London to Manhattan and the quite British Becky Bloomwood of the book became an American (although Isla Fisher, who played the part, is also British). I could be wrong, but my dim memory of the book also tells me that Becky was a fairly successful financial journalist when the book opened, and that made her credit problems more ironic. There are various other plot points which were changed, not for the better, that I won’t bother going into.

There was some pretty funny stuff in the movie, especially the scenes with the 12-step program for compulsive shoppers. But there were too many things that didn’t ring true, or were not explained. For example, Alicia, the character played by Leslie Bibb (a tall blonde) whom Becky sees as a rival and who acts quite proprietary to Luke (Hugh Dancy) – at some point Luke just says “Oh, we’re not together” with no explanation of why it looked that way. Becky gets out of her financial troubles by holding a big sale where she sells all the stuff she’s bought for enough to pay off her debts. Hello? Credit cards for shopaholics are a bad idea because (a) you aren’t just paying for the item, you’re paying interest and (b) clothing, like cars, begins to depreciate as soon as you take it home. Even if (unlikely) she sold everything for the price she paid for it, she’d still have been in the hole for the interest.

But really, what spoiled the film for me was the clothes themselves! Despite her passion for shopping and her wish to enter fashion journalism, the Becky in the movie not only has bad taste, but doesn’t seem to know what looks good on her. Each outfit is crazier than the next and makes her look short and dumpy. Perhaps that was supposed to make the audience identify with her, but I don’t watch light romantic comedies for socialist realism.

I did enjoy the performances of Joan Cusack and John Goodman as Becky’s parents, and Wendie Malick as the hard-nosed Shoppers Anonymous facilitator. If you like this type of movie and it comes your way without much effort, go ahead and watch it, but it’s no Bridget Jones nor does it do justice to Sophie Kinsella’s “not-so-trashy trashy novels.”

Thoughts on JFK (1991)

JFK poster This film should have been called “Garrison,” since it is really about Jim Garrison, the New Orleans DA whose theories on JFK’s assassination director Oliver Stone shares. Unlike in Stone’s later Presidential films, Nixon (1995) and W. (2008), no actor portrays the President – we see him only in newsreels at the film’s opening and as necessary later on. (Well, I’m not sure about the autopsy scenes – special effects? And there are two "doubles" listed in the cast list, but they don't have any lines.)

I have a lot of memories around JFK’s assassination: the PA announcement during sophomore English class; scurrying around after school, reporting for the student newspaper; the flags at half-staff throughout our small military housing area for the Commander-in-Chief; watching the funeral on television. In my social studies class that year, we kept journals -- “Intellectual Diaries,” Mr. Strauss called them. I remember writing about not knowing much about Lyndon Johnson, wondering whether he was up to the job. (Yes and no, would be my answer now.) But I also remember this: before all the Lee Harvey Oswald/Jack Ruby story was broadcast, most of the people I talked with believed the assassination would turn out to be the work of the John Birch Society, the Ku Klux Klan, the American Nazi Party, or some other far-right person or group. Yet as far as I recall, we believed the initial reports as well as that of the Warren Commission. I think most people still believed the U.S. government and whatever Cronkite or Huntley-Brinkley told us on the news, at that time.

Several years later, when I was in college, when we no longer trusted the government (or anyone over thirty except maybe Pete Seeger), when LBJ’s great achievements (civil rights, Medicare) were all but forgotten in the firestorm of Vietnam, a lot of people were reading Barbara Garson’s Macbird. My memory is that it was provocative, designed to shock, and implicated Johnson in Kennedy’s assassination. At about that same time, Jim Garrison’s court case against Clay Shaw was in the news. I was aware of it, but there was a lot of other news going on and I don’t think I focused on it much.

All this is to say that I don’t really feel qualified to judge the legitimacy of the claims Oliver Stone makes in this film, based in part on Garrison’s book as well as another by Jim Marrs. I can say that JFK was a compelling film that kept me glued to my seat for 3 1/2 hours (!). I gather that the version shown in theaters was not quite as long as the Special Edition DVD. I can say also that the evidence Kevin Costner, as Jim Garrison, presents is frighteningly believable. I’ll have to think about whether I want to read Garrison’s book or do further research. I know that for some years, many liberals believed that everything would have been fine had Kennedy not died, but more recently I’ve heard that some revisionist scholars looking at the Kennedy presidency weren’t so enthralled with him, and felt he mightn’t have done any better than Johnson. Yet Stone’s film asserts Kennedy had a plan for a quick exit from Vietnam, which encouraged the military-industrial complex (including Johnson associates Brown-Root – the Halliburton of the Vietnam War) to conspire in his assassination. Will we ever know the truth? Not sure. But I do believe this film was worth the time I spent on it and that I’ll be thinking about it for quite a while.