All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

All Quiet on The Western Front, Lewis Milestone’s landmark epic war film from 1930, is a powerful film.  The battle scenes are huge and spacious, the cast is large, and the size of the acting, typical for 1930, matches the size of the drama.  However, the greatest triumph of All Quiet on the Western Front, beyond special effects and epic battle scenes, is how convincingly the movie shows us the tragedy of sending young men like Paul, its protagonist, to war.

Paul in his (short lived) cheerful new recruit phase.

Through the course of the film, Paul grows from naive schoolboy to jaded soldier.  Along with his schoolmates, Paul decides to enlist in the German army for the First World War, encouraged enthusiastically by his high school teacher. We follow the young men through three years of training, living in the trenches and fighting in the war.  The movie’s deepest emotional punch comes when Paul returns home on leave after being on the front lines.  Back home, there’s an eerie distance between him and his family, not to mention everyone else around.  He tells a group of young students, who are in the same position he was in before he joined the war, the truth about how horrible fighting on the front lines really is.  The students call him a coward, and his old teacher objects to what he says, but Paul is simply telling the young boys the truth about what he’s experienced being a soldier in the war.  The film asks us if being a soldier and fighting for your country is worth the sacrifice it requires, and here Paul gives one resounding opinion on the matter: “When it comes to dying for your country, it’s better not to die at all!”

The crew used real dynamite to create the shell holes on the battlefield, hopefully when no one was around.

When compared to other war films, the cast of All Quiet is younger, and this is a great strength of the film.  We believe that all the young soldiers are fresh out of grade school, because the actors were actually that young, and it makes the tragedy of seeing Paul at the end of the movie so much more powerful: we come to see him as a brooding and pained old soul, even though on the surface he is still so young.  Physically, Paul looks slightly older than the sixteen-year-old new recruits at the end of the film, but in terms of experience of the world and its tragedy, the difference is like night and day.  This is perhaps the most difficult part of the movie to take in: it’s one thing to see Tom Hanks struggling to live with war in Saving Private Ryan or Robert de Niro in The Deer Hunter, but it’s another to see Ayres dealing with it at half their age.

Paul back home with his mother and sister. “You’re a soldier now, aren’t you? But somehow, I don’t seem to know you…”

We’re brought closer to Paul as the movie goes on, while in the film, he ends up all alone.  No one seems to understand what he’s going through, and perhaps no audience member can completely understand his experience unless they’ve been to war themselves.  It seems to me that this is why people make movies (and all art for that matter) about war.  When a war movie is successful, like All Quiet is, it may not be able to get us to know what it’s actually like to be a soldier, but it can help us begin to feel the tragedy of the sacrifice it requires.

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Do the Right Thing (1989)

Spike Lee’s film is all about heat.  In the hottest part of the summer, the residents of Bedford-Stuyvesant do what they can to keep cool without the help of air conditioning, jumping in front of open fire hydrants and engaging in a rather liberal use of ice-cubes, but they’re still burning up.  Heat is the backdrop of the movie, and the heat spills over into the plot: Bed-Stuy is rife with hot tempers that clash and risk boiling over, and the hottest pressure point in the neighborhood is Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, owned by an American-Italian family trying to get by in a predominantly black neighborhood.

Bed-Stuy residents generously helping a man, and his convertible, cool down.

The film follows Mookie, played by Spike Lee, a young pizza delivery boy who works for Sal but doesn’t take his job as seriously as his boss would like.  Sal has a problem with a few of Mookie’s friends, including one Radio Raheem, a generally silent character with a very loud boombox, and a young man known as Buggin’ Out who wants to organize a boycott of the pizzeria because Sal’s wall of fame features only American-Italians and has no blacks.  His complaint seems fair enough: Sal’s is in a black neighborhood, and serves black customers, but Sal refuses to adapt to the complaint, and the tensions mount to a breaking point.

Spike Lee as Mookie, and John Turturro as Sal’s angry son.

The plot is simple enough, but it’s really just a vehicle for Lee to showcase racial tensions and look into the mess people get into when they don’t get over their differences of color (speaking of color, the film is full of it – the colours are as loud as Radio Raheem’s boombox, and part of the sense of heat in the film comes from the bright reds and oranges of the buildings and costumes).  Lee takes enough time to play around with a great cast of characters, including, notably, Samuel L. Jackson’s ‘Senor Love Daddy’, a good-humoured and entertaining radio show host, who serves as the show’s grounding force, and links the other characters back into reality.  During a memorable sequence, Lee shows characters of various ethnicities yelling racial profanities at each other, and it’s Jackson’s character that Lee uses to get them, in his words, to…

‘Cool that shit out!’

The film leads us to suspect something catastrophic might happen – it’s too hot, the tempers are too testy for something not to give, especially from Sal’s overwhelmingly racist son played by John Turturro – but the climax the movie delivers is still shockingly disastrous.  Lee probably wanted something as dramatic as the ending to shock us out of our complacent indifference, and make us pay attention to what he’s trying to say about racism.  At the end of the film, he shows us two seemingly disparate quotes from Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr about racially inspired violence, where King says, very fittingly at the end of this movie: ‘Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral…[It] ends by defeating itself.  It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.’  And that’s the truth, Ruth.

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A Bout de Souffle/Breathless (1960)

A Bout De Souffle is famous for its editing, and Jean-Luc Godard’s fast-cuts are the most striking part of this film.  What seem like important events fly by, people zip around rooms, and pieces of conversation are unnaturally slapped on top of each other.  We have no idea what we’ll be looking at next, and it’s very exciting.

Godard’s film jumps more cuts than Michel Poiccard jumps cars, which is a lot.

The film is driven (often literally) by Michel Poiccard, played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, a reckless European playboy, who steals cars, toys with women, smokes all the time and gets into a lot of trouble.  Before long, Michel finds himself in over his head: he’s wanted by the police for the murder of an officer, something that happens so fast that we’re left wondering, like Michel might be, if it actually happened.  Unfortunately for him, it did, and it’s not long before the police have his wanted photo on the front page of the Paris newspaper.  Michel has no time to lose: his plan is to go to Rome, but first he needs money, and he needs to convince the woman he loves to get in his car and drive away with him.  The money he can get; the girl proves to be not so easy.

Patricia, an aspiring reporter from America played by Jean Seberg, is a bit too complicated to be won over by Michel’s plan of escape, at least at first.  She says she doesn’t know if she loves him, if she wants him to love her, or if she wants to go to Rome with him.  She really just likes having fun with Michel.  In the middle of the movie, Jean-Luc Godard puts them in her tiny apartment together for about twenty three minutes: he’s trying to get her to go to Rome, but is really just paying attention to her, and she’s trying to get him to keep paying attention to her, and stop talking about Rome, and nothing happens.

Well, nothing really happens.

The scene is great because they’re both having a lot of fun, and because Godard’s camera work jolts us into attention every once in a while.  Suddenly he’s under the covers and she’s wearing a different dress, now she’s looking at the mirror in the bathroom and he’s found a bathrobe, now we get a flash of his chest and her dimples, and Godard continues to find something new to appreciate about the two characters and their relationship.  The scene is long, but it’s a delightful change of pace from the feverish opening, and sets us up for the finale, where, as in all movies about men on the run, what Michel is running from finally catches up to him.

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The Class (2008)

Near the end of The Class, a girl tells her teacher that she’s learned nothing the past year at school, and that the books they read in class are useless.  Her teacher finds that hard to believe, so he asks her about the books she reads at home.  “Well, there’s The Republic.”  He’s surprised, obviously.  “By Plato?”  “Yeah.”  If there’s something The Class wants to teach us, it’s that kids, like this one, can be surprising.

If you went to junior high, you know this one too.

The movie follows a teacher and his class of ninth graders in a tough district of Paris throughout a school year.  The teacher, named Mr. Marin, is played by Francois Begaudeau, who wrote about his experiences teaching in Paris (he’s actually a teacher, not an actor, or so they say) and the novel was adapted loosely into The Class.  It’s a loose adaptation because the kids play themselves, not characters from a book – they use their real names.  Most of the scenes came about through structured improvs with Francois and the kids, and maybe that’s why the acting in this film never feels like acting.

Mr. Marin’s job is not easy: the kids tease him, insult him, ignore him, threaten him, write him hateful letters, and one particularly problematic student accuses him of being gay.  Yet it’s his resilience that makes the movie so hopeful: he gets all of this young teenage garbage thrown at him daily, and he’s still doing his thing the next day, ready for something good to happen in his class, for a moment when we’d get to see what makes it all worth it for him in the end.  There’s a few of those moments: apparently teaching isn’t all fire and brimstone (that would be substitute teaching).  These moments of hope are very rewarding: if you’ve ever wondered, as I often have, why anyone would want to be a teacher, The Class seems to offer an answer.

I don’t know why, but I don’t think she means it.

The main conflict of the story is centered around one particularly troubled youth named Souleymane, and the school’s unfruitful attempts to get him to actually do some homework, among other things.  As time passes his behavior seems to be getting worse (he risks turning his French lessons into boxing matches), to everyone except Mr. Marin, who’s discovered that the boy has a secret penchant for photography, and is trying to encourage him.  We get to see a stand-off between Mr. Marin, who believes the boy can be helped, and the rest of the school board which seems to be leaning more and more towards expulsion.  We root for Mr. Marin’s cause ever since we see Souleymane’s eyes light up when Mr. Marin posts his photos on the wall for his classmates to see, and can’t help feeling frustrated by the school system that seems to offer no alternatives but to expel the young boy – which, to complicate matters, could lead to his being sent back to his father’s home in Mali.

So he claims.

We empathize with Souleymane partially because of his surprising soft-spot for photography, but mainly because it’s easy to relate to being messed up at that age.  You could argue that every student in The Class is lost in some way, just like every kid in the real world was in junior high.  And these are kids in the real world, they’re not actors, they’re just kids, and maybe that’s what makes this film so powerful.  The kids get to be kids, they’re not forced to try to be actors, and we believe them through all of their confused, hormonal outbursts.  This may be Francois Begaudeau’s book, and it may be Mr. Marin’s story, but time and time again, the kids surprise us and steal the show.

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Kagemusha (1980)

We all know what it feels like to put on a role.  It’s a very human feeling, maybe uniquely human.  Whether we’re eating dinner with old friends, going on a blind date, or impersonating a Japanese feudal lord (wait, you’ve never done that?), there’s seems to be a mask we put on, a role that we play.

That’s what Kagemusha is about.

This will be your face after watching Kagemusha. Minus the hair. (Unless you happen to be my grandfather, in which case, what were you doing in Kagemusha?)

Kagemusha means ‘The Shadow Warrior’ in Japanese and it probably refers to the main character of this film, who, like all of us, puts on a role – but for him, the stakes are higher.  He is a ‘Shadow Warrior’ in that he lives, for a short while, in the shadow of the dead Lord Shingen, who’s final wish was for his death to be kept secret for three years.  So it’s the job of a poor bloke (a thief, born ‘base’, who happens to look exactly like Shingen) to keep up appearances, making everyone, except those in the know, believe that Shingen is alive and well.

This is Japanese ‘Noh’ theatre, a different kind of role play. Best known for crazy masks, men who hit drums every once in a while, and the added bonus of not letting you get to sleep for a week after you see it.

As a side note, I once heard that Kurosawa used to hand-paint his storyboards in watercolour, which makes a lot of sense watching Kagemusha.  The second scene is of a messenger covered in brown mud running through ranks and ranks of sleeping soldiers from opposing clans, all with different colour schemes.  It’s like a chase scene through a rainbow.

Like, Jesus.

Kagemusha stars a brilliant actor (who would later be the star of Ran, Kurosawa’s take on King Lear and the next film he would make).  There’s an unforgettable scene in Kagemusha where he’s talking to some attendants who know he’s not the real Lord Shingen.  He stars to laugh at something immature, in his own unattractive, undistinguished way, and the attendants go “Lord Shingen would never act so vulgar.”  And he goes “Yeah?  How about this?” and puts on the role for them.  The attendants are blown away, they’re seeing their old Lord.  It’s very satisfying to see him nail it, even though we know it’s not him.  It’s as if he’s saying ‘Here’s your Lord, I can do that whenever’ and we know that, despite his respectable appearance, he’s just as vulgar and immature inside as we all can be when we let down our ‘manners’.

And the finale of this movie transcends all this role playing.  We get to see what this man is like stripped of all his roles and of everything he had (maybe there’s a foreshadowing of King Lear here?) and witness what it’s like for him to feel the unendurable emptiness of being left alone without any of his masks.  And then it ends, and the credits roll, and you’re left staring into that abyss Kurosawa created for you (see Fig. 1).

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The Seventh Seal (1957)

The most touching moment for me in The Seventh Seal is, not surprisingly, about death, but, surprisingly, it’s about the death of a relatively unknown character.  We don’t know her name, we just know she’s accused of being a witch, and some deluded men have blamed the plague on her, the one that’s ravaging their country in the 14th century.

Uh, I’m in no hurry. Beer?

In a great shot, we see Max Von Sydow, as Antonius Block, knight returned from the Crusades, (who is, by the way, playing chess with Death to stave off…death) and his squire, Jons, played by the ultra-versalite Gunnar Bjornstrand (just watch him in Bergman’s 1963 film Winter Light to see for yourself), watching as she’s burned alive.  Block has taken pity for her – he doesn’t see a witch, he sees a scared young woman.

The squire asks his leader: ‘Who will look after that child?  The angels?  God?  Satan?  Emptiness?’  Jons makes a case for emptiness.  Block isn’t so sure, Jons walks away, and Antonius Block stares down death, something he’s been doing a lot lately.  Only this time, he isn’t staring into his own death, he’s watching the death of this girl, and it’s the first time we see him overwhelmed by emotion.

If looks could kill…you’re probably already dead.

So that’s the emotional high-point for me – but the movie goes deeper (it still has eighteen minutes to go) and the ending involves a lovely actress (Gunnel Lindblom, of Bergman’s The Silence) staring down death too.  Which is surprising considering we don’t know that much about her either but, interestingly, we see her face instead of our more familiar heroes, at the spiritual height of the movie.

Plus you get to see a guy in the most amazing hat ever.  His name is Plog.  Here’s a sneak peak:

Plog, a country gentleman.

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