L13FC: WWII from 2000 to the Present

It’s Friday the 13th and my lucky day. We get to share thoughts about a topic in the movie industry. Never has there been an event in the twentieth century that has instigated a global outpouring of stories documenting the best and worst in humanity than World War II. The movie industry has had a love affair with making World War II films. According to Wikipedia, over 400 films have been devoted to the event. In timing with anniversary dates, one has come to expect new narrations muscling for a chance to share their perspective. Outside of battles and key events, the Holocaust is a genre of its own. We have a macabre sense of duty to understand the atrocities and mindset of a time where everyday common people were thrust in the way of world domination. Today, let us discuss the cinematic touches that made recent World War II films compelling and effective. 

A smattering of films since 2000. What should be added to the list? Before you criticize me, I think a lot of Hollywood films about WWII are too romantic and silly. For instance, I don’t think Pearl Harbor is a good film overall, but I do think the filming of the attack on Pearl Harbor to be outstanding. So, what SCENE or PERFORMANCE has stuck with you over the last two decades? For me, World War II movies that moved me the most in the last twenty years were the ones involving children.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

 

After watching a few burps (The Sandpiper, The VIPs, Dr. Faustus), Richard Burton’s acting was never finer than in Albert Albee‘s vicious play set to the screen. It was Mike Nichol‘s directorial debut. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) received 13 Academy nominations. Although Richard Burton lost to Paul Scofield in A Man for All Seasons, Elizabeth Taylor won her second Best Actress award (BUtterfield 8 was her first)  and Sandy Dennis won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Other winners included Haskell Wexler‘s cinematography, Irene Sharaff’s costumes, and Richard Sylbert and George James Hopkins‘ art direction. Richard Burton did receive the British Academy Award for his performance of George, the emasculated history professor who rises to the surface to sting his brass and bawdy wife, Martha.

From the sing-song chant of the title, one understands this is a play about games. An all-night party turns carnal as the young academic couple, Nick and Honey (George Segal and Sandy Dennis) fall prey to the daughter of the college president, Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) and her husband George (Richard Burton). The hosts have a lustful appetite for ripping and shredding the mental and emotional selves of their guests and themselves.

The young couple could very well be the future George and Martha. They watch with morbid curiosity. Illusions mask reality. Invention and the dubbing force of alcohol is the playground where George and Martha escape from their trapped lives. George’s dreams of creative authorship are denied by “Daddy”, the president of the college. Martha’s dream of livin’ la vida loca outside the boundaries of the conservative college and her boring husband is denied. Unable to conceive, she punishes herself and her countenance is as sour as her soul. So used to playing corrosive games to spice up their lives, they become dependent upon them and disintegrate.

When George speaks Latin like a priest presiding over the death of their invented son, Martha wails. Under the harsh light of dawn and stripped of their games, will Martha and George survive? The audience is left to speculate without much hope that they will.  “Martha and George,” she chants earlier in the play. “Sad, sad, sad.” Burton and Taylor are a tour de force. It’s exhausting. 4.5/5. 

This is one of my favorite scenes. Burton shows the complexity of frustration and rage.

Out of the Past vs. Lady Bird

I have been thinking about the choices a director makes when making a film. What does a well-made film look like? I watched two films back-to-back on the plane to Italy, Lady Bird written and directed by Greta Gerwig and starring Saoirse Ronan, and Out of the Past directed by Jacques Tourneur and starring Robert Mitchum and the femme fatale played by Jane Greer.

I recognize it’s unfair to compare these two disparate films as one was a coming-of-age story, the other a film noir. One was made just this past year while the other sixty years ago. One was the directoral debut by a female while the other by an established male director. There is nothing similar about these two films.

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Unless you consider the quality of each film as an artistic offering. While Lady Bird was nominated for the top writing and directing awards of 2017, I could not help but scratch my head as to why this was so other than it was a political move on behalf of the Academy of Motion Pictures. I just didn’t think it was an interesting story or directed well. The scenes seemed desultory like mud thrown on a wall with little thought. I wouldn’t have noticed as much if I had not just seen Out of the Past. Wow! What a film. Tourneur took his time to frame each scene. He blocked his characters to take advantage of the space. There was movement. There were silhouettes. The staging was aesthetically balanced. Even the costumes played a visual role–don’t you love how Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) started the film wearing white, but as her devious nature became more apparent, her wardrobe darkened? The characters were interesting–Kirk Douglas was an affable villain. Robert Mitchum as Jeff Bailey was the anti-hero, private detective who you couldn’t help but root for since he tried to leave his notorious past behind and make an honest attempt as a working man and who fell for the girl-next-door. His relationship with the deaf and mute boy (Dickie Moore) revealed Bailey’s goodness in spite of his tough-guy bravado. Every character was interesting and added to the plot purposefully. It was a beautiful film to watch.

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Then there’s Gerwig’s effort. This, a Best Picture contender? It was not structurally interesting. The choppy editing to elicit the passage of time killed whatever emotional investment I had in Lady Bird’s friendships. The only aspect that was quasi-interesting was Laurie Metcalf’s performance as the overpowering mother. The brother and father were a wimpy, wasted pair in a lame plot. I genuinely like Saoirse Ronan as an actress, but her character here in this film was downright boring.

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Out of the Past in 1947 was not nominated for an award but was superbly constructed compared to Lady Bird. Maybe if I had not seen both back-to-back it would not have been so glaringly obvious. If you haven’t seen Out of the Past, I highly recommend it. Watch it for the plot. For what a well-made film should look like. For pure entertainment. For the record, I’m all for women directors. Jane Campion and Julie Taymor know what they’re doing. I just wish they’d pass along some tips to Greta Gerwig.

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