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Review of THE LAST VALLEY (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Historical war-adventure drama
Rated PG

If the movies have taught us anything, it’s that Shangri-La is never what it appears to be, because idylls are too close to idols and idles for comfort. Human nature always gets in the way of any Eden, and paradise seems always destined to be lost, as illustrated by this 1971 historical adventure-war drama.

Moviemakers were going different directions the year The Last Valley was released, with audiences latching onto tough-guy cops and P.I.s (The French Connection, Dirty Harry, Shaft), racy literary adaptations (A Clockwork Orange, The Last Picture Show), prostitutes (Klute, McCabe & Mrs. Miller), and the latest James Bond entry (Diamonds Are Forever). So The Last Valley was all but overlooked in America, despite its popularity in the U.K. and the pairing of Michael Caine (The Ipcress File) and Omar Sharif (Funny Girl, Dr. Zhivago).

Written and directed by James Clavell (To Sir with Love, also known for his novel Shogun that was made into a popular TV mini-series), the film raises a lot of questions about religion, war, and the very meaning and nature of existence. Mostly, though, it feels like an anti-war fable that grinds its gears toward the conclusion that conflict is futile yet, ironically, inevitable.

For an older film, it’s surprisingly compelling because it’s surprisingly fresh—well written and, except for a few melodramatic moments, superbly acted, with impressive location filming in Austria. Families who like the comedy Miss Congeniality will hardly recognize makeover artist Michael Caine decades earlier in this film as a captain who commands a group of mercenaries during Europe’s Thirty Years War. Superscript tells us at the film’s beginning that this 1618-48 war ravaged central Europe the same time as the plaque and was initially fought between Protestant and Catholic states in a deteriorating Holy Roman Empire. Then it became a fight for power and control, with wealthy noblemen and professional soldiers leading large armies of mercenaries from both religious sides as they spread across the countryside, destroying villages and raping and looting along the way. In effect, they put their religious differences on hold in order to pursue a common “bad”. A similar truce happens in The Last Valley. More

Review of THEIR FINEST HOUR: 5 BRITISH WWII CLASSICS (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+
Not rated (would be PG)
War / drama

British WWII movies were dependably good, so it’s no surprise that this collection of five black-and-white films doesn’t contain a single stinker. Every one of them is in the B range. Because of patriotic undertones and because of the era they tend to be on the melodramatic side, but they stick with you as much as those distinctive vocal harmonies from the ‘40s.

Went the Day Well? has a title that sounds stiff, and in fact all of the older women in this 1942 film seem to talk in the same proper, lilting, slightly theatrical voice as Aunt Bee from the old Andy Griffith Show. One of the strongest films in this collection, it’s a home guard movie based on a Graham Greene story about residents of a small British village who are asked to “billet” a platoon of soldiers. Some soldiers are put up at homes and others in a town hall converted into a dorm. But the residents start to suspect that some of those soldiers aren’t at all proper British. Could they be Nazi sympathizers? Or has wartime made everyone overly cautious? Like other films in this collection it’s a bit of a slow simmer but a fascinating drama that might appeal to older children because of the “what if” questions implied by the scenario and because some of the key characters are children. This one’s a B+, with the added bonus of being shot during wartime, when studios couldn’t build new sets and therefore used more location filming with available buildings. As a result, you get a pretty fair idea of what life looked and felt like in 1942.  More

Review of 1917 (Blu-ray combo)

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1917 Blu-ray coverGrade: A-/B+
Rated: R
War

1917 was one of my top five films of 2019, and after the awards show dust cleared it emerged with three Academy Awards (Best Cinematography, Visual Effects, and Sound Mixing), three Golden Globes (Best Picture-Drama, Best Director, Best Original Score), and seven BAFTA Awards (Best Film, Outstanding British Film, Best Director, Production Design, Sound, Visual Effects, and Cinematography).

It’s a striking film that’s a contender for family movie nights if the children are older, despite the R rating, because it’s a war film with an underlying antiwar theme that doesn’t rely too heavily on bloody carnage to get its message across. This unique film from director Sam Mendes (Skyfall) and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins features just two soldiers on a mission that begins to feel like a fantasy quest, given the surreal landscape and dangers and delights they encounter. The ground they cover is a recently abandoned battle zone, so while there’s little actual fighting, the effects of war pop up here and there in horror-thriller fashion as sobering reminders—hence the R rating.

Long takes make it feel as if the film was made with just two continuous shots, with a brief blackout in the middle. You realize how different this film is from other war movies almost instantly, as it opens with a shot of two soldiers lolling in a bucolic countryside in a pose vaguely reminiscent of the one that Alice strikes at the beginning of Alice in Wonderland. But when one of the two soldiers, named Blake, is summoned and told to pick another and report to the commander and the camera follows them, it’s a long tracking shot through the trenches that leads them to their reverse Wonderland, and not a rabbit hole. That sensation is supported by a later episode in which one of the soldiers helps a French woman in hiding by calming her baby and reciting an Edward Lear poem to the infant—a poem called “The Jumblies.” And of course there are no wondrous creatures in this surreal world—just dead bodies, rats, a few of the enemy, and a number of close calls. More

Review of JOJO RABBIT (Blu-ray)

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Jojo Rabbit Blu-ray coverGrade: A
Rated: PG-13
War-comedy-drama

Jojo Rabbit was my personal pick for Best Film of 2019, and watching it again only confirms that for me. It’s a wildly inventive, offbeat, hilarious-yet-poignant critique of Nazism that entertains as it subtly instructs. Since the action takes place in the closing months of WWII, there are some sad moments and some violence, but far less than what’s usually contained in a PG-13 film these days.

One of the most commonly taught books in junior high and high school is The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, a German-Dutch teenager who spent two years hiding in a secret upstairs section of her father’s pectin factory in the Netherlands with family and friends. She died in a concentration camp, and what the Nazis did to Jews remains a horrible page in the history of humankind. Picture that story with an equally sad death, a better ending, and the kind of quirky laugh-out-loud humor that characterized Taika Waititi’s film “What We Do in the Shadows, and you’ve got a pretty good idea of what this film is like. It’s shockingly funny because, as co-star Sam Rockwell told Imdb.com, “Taika has a really good comedy compass.”

Jojo’s family is down to just two—his mother and him—since an older sister had recently died of influenza and his father was still absent, allegedly fighting for the Germans on the Italian front. As a result, he and his free-spirited mother (Scarlet Johansson) are extremely close, and we see them playfully interacting—he, always the serious one, and she the teaser, the one most likely to play a prank or act spontaneously.

Jojo (wonderfully portrayed by first-time actor Roman Griffin Davis) has two problems: the first is that he’s so clearly sensitive and unsuited to being a Nazi that it underscores the propaganda side of Nazism. Jojo gets his nickname when, during a Hitler Youth training camp, he finds himself unable to kill a rabbit, as ordered. But the second and more pressing problem he faces is that he discovers his mother is secretly sheltering a Jewish girl behind a secret panel in the room where his sister stayed before she died. What’s a Hitler Youth to do? More

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

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Grade: A-
Entire family: No (16 and older)
Fantasy-drama-war
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
Trailer
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)

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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
Trailer
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)

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Grade: A-
2017, 106 min., Color
War
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
Trailer
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.

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THEY WERE EXPENDABLE (Blu-ray)

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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
Trailer
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