Review of PAN’S LABYRINTH (4K UltraHD combo)

Leave a comment

Grade: A-
Entire family: No (16 and older)
2006, 119 min., Color
Rated R for graphic violence and some language
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: Spanish DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, Digital Code
Amazon link

Strange. Dark. Sad. Beautiful. Haunting. Powerful.

That describes Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar-winning Best Picture The Shape of Water (2017), and it also aptly describes the Mexican director’s earlier wartime fantasy-drama, Pan’s Labyrinth (2006).

Del Toro introduces the new 4K HD release (in Spanish, with English subtitles) by saying simply, “This movie almost killed me.” That’s easy to believe, because Pan’s Labyrinth takes a lot out of audiences too. With del Toro’s fairy tales for adults, you know you’re going to find the film visually stunning, narratively compelling, and, ultimately, deeply moving.

The action takes during place during WWII (1944) in Franco’s fascist Spain. Ofelia (played confidently and sympathetically by Ivana Baquero) is riding in a military car with her pregnant mother to a country outpost run by the ruthless and sadistic Captain Vidal—who married the mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), after her husband died in the war. He had sent for them because he wanted his baby to be born near him. In the car, Ofelia reads a fairytale about a princess who fled her father’s underground kingdom to live in the world above, where she was subject to that world’s illnesses and death. But her father knew that one day her spirit would return to him in the form of another.  More


Review of THE CAPTAIN (Blu-ray)

1 Comment

Grade: B+
Entire family: No (age 14 and up?)
2017, 120 min., Black and White
War drama (w/dark comic moments)
Music Box Films
Not rated (would be R for language, violence, some nudity)
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Featured audio: German 5.1 Dolby Digital
Bonus features: B
Amazon link

The Captain (2017) isn’t a movie for kids. Then again, neither is Schindler’s List, which my daughter saw in her 10th grade history class during their discussion of the holocaust.

Both are films that stay with you, and for the same reason: mass executions by Germans during WWII. Except that The Captain isn’t a holocaust film. Set in Germany during the final months of the war, it’s based on the true story of Willi Herold, who became separated from his unit and may or may not have deserted. In the film, as in real life, he stumbles onto an abandoned staff car in which he finds a suitcase containing the uniform of a Luftwaffe captain. After celebrating his good fortune he dons the uniform. And putting it on and acting the part begins to have the same effect on him as the ring did on Gollum.

Shot in black and white in German with English subtitles, The Captain is a fascinating film, and not just because it’s so totally different from all the other WWII films that depict the battles, struggles, and individual stories of bravery and survival. It’s also a provocative psychological study. We wonder:

Is it the uniform and the role-playing that makes this corporal suddenly behave like a sadistic German officer? Is it another example of the intoxicating effect that power has? Is it an individual pursuit of irony, with Willi getting back at life for almost having him executed as a deserter by embracing some deserters and “lost” soldiers as his own private army but choosing to execute others? Is Willi the victim of PTSD, or is he representative of what happens when soldiers realize their side has lost and order and discipline start to break down? Did the situation bring out the evil in him, as it did with the British schoolchildren in Lord of the Flies? Or was Willi evil from the start, and the universe just provided him with a chance for that evil to come out? More

Review of DUNKIRK (Blu-ray combo)

Leave a comment

Grade: A-
2017, 106 min., Color
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for intense war experience and some language
Aspect ratio: 2.21:1 and 1.78:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Amazon link

Dunkirk, a small northern coastal city in France, is historically famous for a massive WWII evacuation in May 1940, when Hitler’s armies surrounded the French and the British Expeditionary Force and pinned them against the sea. With snipers firing and the German Luftwaffe strafing and bombing the area and any vessel that tried to load soldiers—hospital ships included—the Allied military brass decided they needed to save many of the larger ships for the next impending battle. That set up what Winston Churchill later called “The Miracle of Dunkirk,” when more than 100,000 French and British soldiers were rescued by a hodgepodge fleet that included private civilian launches, all acting on the prime minister’s order that ships large and small should go to Dunkirk to rescue the besieged soldiers.

As a film, Dunkirk is one of the year’s best—if you don’t mind minimally plotted films that feel vaguely like fly-on-the-wall documentaries. It may also be the ultimate anti-war movie, because it feels more like a disaster film than the typical war movie. That’s because director Christopher Nolan (Intersteller, Memento) employs minimal dialogue and in media res camerawork to plunk the viewer right into the thick of things so you don’t feel as is you’re watching a movie about war—you feel like you’re experiencing it: the chaos of war and the reactive drive to escape it. The narrative thrust isn’t heroism, or the fight-or-flight impulse, or the need to defeat an enemy. It’s escape, and the bombs and bullets might as well be lava pouring from an active volcano, or a fire threatening to destroy a skyscraper, or a floundering cruise ship taking on water in the middle of the Atlantic. War, in Nolan’s hands, isn’t political. It’s a disaster to survive.



Leave a comment

TheyWereExpendablecoverGrade: B+/B
Entire family: No
1945, 135 min., Black-and-white
Warner Archive Collection
Not rated (would be PG for war action and adult situations)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0
Bonus features: n/a
Amazon link

War movies probably have more permutations than any other genre, but the most fascinating and family-friendly ones are probably those that were made during WWII when the Office of War Information had to approve content. Most of them were patriotic films aimed at boosting recruitment or morale back home, and as a result probably fewer than a dozen are good enough to entertain today. Some of the best? Wake Island (1942), Action in the North Atlantic, Bataan, Destination Tokyo, Guadalcanal Diary, and So Proudly We Hail! (1943), as well as Thirty Seconds over Tokyo (1944), Objective, Burma!, Pride of the Marines, and They Were Expendable (1945).

The latter—a black-and-white John Ford tribute to the men who served on America’s flimsy plywood PT-Boats in the Pacific—stars Robert Montgomery, John Wayne, and Donna Reed in a film that tries to capture not just the heroism of the men who fight, but also the boredom and frustration. What makes They Were Expendable doubly interesting is that it details the mostly true story of two officers who were trying to prove the worth of these Motor Torpedo Boat Squadrons, as they were initially called, when they were still an experimental dream like the 1807 steamboat people called “Fulton’s Folly.”

TheyWereExpendablescreen1There are battles in these wartime films, but the violence is dimmed while the spotlight is on service and the day-to-day life of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and nurses. People back home knew their loved ones were at war and that they probably saw action. Did they want to see graphic killing? No, but they did want to get some sense of what life in the military was like and what their loved ones were going through so far from homes, families, and sweethearts. And Ford’s tribute is one of the most authentic from the era.

The stars are fine in their roles, but really it’s the story that holds our attention—though it’s a long one (135 min.). The action picks up in the Philippines, where the military learns that Pearl Harbor has just been attacked. Everyone is given orders to do their part to stop the advance of the Japanese fleet, except for the Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron, which is given the token assignment of messenger and transport duty. The Navy brass can’t see value in the boats, though that doesn’t stop Lt. John Brickley (Montgomery) and Lt. Rusty Ryan (Wayne) from pushing. But even as the Japanese keep taking over more territory, it’s a fight for the Motor Torpedo Boat Squadrons just to get into the fight.

TheyWereExpendablescreen2PT-Boats became famous because of former Pres. John F. Kennedy, whose story is told in the movie PT-109 starring Cliff Robertson and Robert Culp. Watch this black-and-white movie first and then the color 1963 film for a decent double feature. In They Were Expendable Ford is careful to add plenty of detail about life on the small, fast plywood boats that were equipped with machine guns to battle aircraft and torpedoes to launch from the deck at heavier ships. We see the crew patching it up, dealing with boring assignments, and yes, mixing it up with the enemy. Eventually the boats’ value was proven: their small size made them a small target, and their speed and maneuverability enabled them to get in close enough to launch torpedoes and then get to safety.

War or not, the core story is one that everyone—even children—can identify with. Children’s books are full of characters who are disregarded because they’re too small, too insignificant, or too something to succeed. In the nautical vein, there’s Tuffy the Tugboat, the children’s book hero who is scoffed at by the boats who have bigger and more important jobs to do, until one day Tuffy is the only one with the skill set to save the day. That archetype is at work here too, while Reed provides a romantic interest that’s wholesome as can be and secondary to her own heroics as a nurse stationed at Manila and Bataan hospitals. The weepy-eyed sentimentality that creeps into Ford films is here too, but thankfully it’s limited. Still, young viewers not familiar with history might raise their eyebrows when “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is sung while we glimpse an actor meant to be Gen. Douglas MacArthur. And if they don’t know about his famous “I shall return” promise made to the people of the Philippines as he himself fled to safety, that’s the period of history encompassed by Ford’s mostly fascinating and sometimes stirring film.

Language: Mild swearwords occasionally used
Sex: Nothing at all, wholesome as can be
Violence: No blood or gore or glorifying violence, but boats are blown up and battles are waged
Adult situations: Some drinking and smoking
Takeaway: War movies like Inglorious Basterds and Fury try to be edgy and shocking and rattle viewers out of their complacency; war movies like They Were Expendable look to tell a story that will enlighten and inspire as much as the biopics that came out of the ‘40s and ‘50s, and They Were Expendable is among the best of that type