Capsule Reviews

by wjw on January 9, 2009

Brief takes on some media I watched over the holidays.

Tropic Thunder: Not only very funny, particularly if you know anything about Hollywood, but the best vehicle for Tom Cruise in ages.

Note: the movie got condemned by the politically correct for use of the word “retard.” If this offends you, be aware that the word “retard” is deployed frequently in this film, along with a whole lot of other offensive words. (This is a Ben Stiller film, after all.)

13 Tzameti: Meh. I seem to be the only person who’s seen this film who isn’t raving about it. I thought that, for a film made in France on a budget of what seems to be a couple hundred bucks, it wasn’t bad.

It’s about a young man, Sebastian, working to restore the house of a man under police surveillance. His employer dies, leaving him (a) in the lurch financially, and (b) to find a mysterious letter giving even more mysterious directions to a hidden rendezvous. Scenting money, Sebastian takes his employer’s place, and follows the directions.

This was a decent noir-ish beginning, if a little slow and borrowed from Antonioni’s The Passenger (which wasn’t slow, but glacial). I figured our hero would get involved in a complex, Hitchcockian plot, but instead he finds himself in a . . . wait for it . . . russian roulette ring! Most of the movie then follows the russian roulette game, in which twelve or thirteen candidates blow each other’s brains out over the course of maybe an hour.

The film is very straightforward. There aren’t a lot of surprises past this point. You know that Sebastian’s going to end up in the finals. There’s a twist at the end that isn’t very surprising, either.

I kept comparing it in my head to the knotty little film I would have made from the same premise, and finding it not very interesting.

Little Miss Sunshine: Three generations of a desperately unhappy family head West in order to watch the youngest member of the group compete in a children’s beauty contest. Each family member has a different philosophy of life— I particularly liked the teenage boy who reads Nietzsche and has taken a vow of silence, and Alan Arkin as the hedonistic, heroin-snorting grandpa.

Funny, but the humor is very, very bleak.

Only Angels Have Wings: I read a Cary Grant biography recently that offered the theory that Grant was the first big male star without macho, thus paving the way for actors like (say) Johnny Depp. Whoever offered the theory hadn’t seen Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings (1939), in which Cary Grant out-machos a whole squadron of hard-boiled pilots. (Hawks, come to think of it, made something of a specialty of showing macho characters in ways that weren’t offensive.) Set in South America, the film involves the suicidal hazards of flying the mail over the Andes. Jean Arthur plays the love interest, and there’s also a nice part for a young Rita Hayworth. If you like Thirties melodrama, you’ll like this.

Army of Shadows: This 1969 film about the French resistance was made by a director who actually served in the French resistance. Perhaps that accounts for its slow pace and the fact that no one in this film outruns a massive explosion or transmits vital Nazi secrets to FDR or is played by Tom Cruise. The film has a near-documentary style, and eschews melodrama whenever possible. I was never very excited by the film, but on the other hand I had the idea that it was very possibly true.

Anonymous January 10, 2009 at 5:00 am

Though I’ve not seen it in a long time, ARMY OF SHADOWS left its mark on me, mainly because of its bleak outlook. Freedom-fighting becomes a deshumanized way of life: witness the two friends who have joined the R√©sistance without telling one another (the need for secrecy, you know); some time later, one has to flee to Britain and the other one takes him on a rowboat. Since this takes place at night and they’ve been ordered not to say a word, neither realizes who the other is. A true movie moment.

dubjay January 12, 2009 at 1:08 am

Yes, the film was clearly the most authentic resistance film I’ve come across. I liked the low-key aspects a lot.

Have you seen =Lucie Aubrac?= I heard Claude Berri turned it into a romance.

S.M. Stirling January 12, 2009 at 5:34 am

Though it does fall at least a little into the common habit of overestimating the importance of the French Resistance.

Prior to D-Day it was barely even a nuisance to the Germans, and before the winter of 1942/43 (when it became obvious even in occupied Europe that the Germans were going to lose the war)it wasn’t even that. Most of “the Maquis” were just guys hiding out to avoid the forced-labor program.

In fact, the French generally supported collaboration and Vichy; overwhelmingly, as long as it looked like Germany would win, and in surprising numbers even later.

The intial wave of collaboration included nearly all the most prominent intellectuals, including most of the ones who became famous after the war, and the Communists, (until June 1941, of course).

In 1940 most of the French actively hoped the British would be beaten too.

After 1945, the French in general and the Gaullists in particular needed to promote a myth of “self-liberation” for obvious reasons.

The truth — squalid, spiteful, self-serving submission — was just too painful.

dubjay January 12, 2009 at 7:29 am

Steve, I think you may be remembering the wrong movie. The thing I most liked about Army of Shadows is that in this film the resistance actually seems to accomplish very little. No towns are liberated, no armies of Germans killed, and no Vital Secrets are carried to London. They rescue one of the two comrades captured by the Gestapo— the other one is tortured and dies— and they execute the man who’s betrayed them, and that’s sort of the whole thing.

And the movie’s paced rather slowly. Even though the characters are underground, they still have to get through the day somehow.

The scene where they’re killing the traitor, by the way, is relentless. They’ve forgotten to bring the silencer for their pistol, and so they have to strangle the guy with the curtains. It takes a long time, even though the victim is doing his best to cooperate.

Ethan January 12, 2009 at 10:48 pm

I thought it was funny that Tropic Thunder got criticized for using the word “retard” when the word’s use was, in the film, part of a satirical criticism of Hollywood’s often exploitive portrayal of handicapped people.

dubjay January 12, 2009 at 11:11 pm

Let’s just say that the politically correct are among the irony-deprived of this world.

S.M. Stirling January 17, 2009 at 1:50 am

The thing I most liked about Army of Shadows is that in this film the resistance actually seems to accomplish very little.

— there’s an unspoken assumption that they’re doing something -important-. The whole concept of an “army” as in the title tends to reinforce that.

Though I suppose people engaged in it did have to -think- it was important, since it actually was very dangerous.

The problem with French Resistance movies is the same as with most Holocaust movies — even very good ones like Schindler’s List.

Or the new Craig flick, “Defiance”, likewise based on a pretty well true story.

The Holocaust movies tend to be about resisters and survivors; and while there was resistance and survival, the Holocaust as a whole is not about that.

It’s about death, not life; defeat, not survival.

Mostly it’s a story of ordinary helpless unresisting people getting killed in enormous numbers in a system which accomplished its basic lunatic purpose — making Europe largely “Jew-free”.

Which in comparison to the situation in 1939 it is. In that year, 10% of the population of Poland were Jewish; today, you could live your entire life there without meeting a Jew.

Likewise, Resistance movies tend to be about “resistance”, while the real story of France during the war was “submission”.

You can mislead with the truth if you select hard enough.

How many “French collaboration” movies/books/whatevers have there been in comparison to accounts, fictional or factual, of the “French Resistance”?

The balance is so overwhelmingly on the side of “resistance” that our historical memory is seriously warped.

Iain Coleman January 22, 2009 at 10:40 am

If you can, you might want to check out the British TV series “Wish Me Luck” (available as a DVD boxed set). It’s about civilian women recruited into the OSS, and their exploits with the French Resistance and (later) the Maquis. The approach is similarly bleak, with our heroes ending up psychologically damaged or dead, and many people losing their lives through betrayal and bureaucracy.

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