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Entries in War (3)

Thursday
Jun072018

SGT. STUBBY: AN AMERICAN HERO

Featuring the voices of: Logan Lerman, Helena Bonham Carter, Gerard Depardieu, Nick Rulon, Jordan Beck, Brian Cook, Jim Pharr and Jason Ezzell.
Writers: Richard Lanni and Mike Stokey.
Director: Richard Lanni

Rating: 3.5/5

He was one of the finest American heroes of The War to End all Wars; a unwaveringly stoic soldier who served beside his countrymen, the troops of the 102nd Infantry Regiment, in the trenches of France against a determined German army. He saw 17 close-quarters combat situations, usually by the side of his best friend, Private Robert Conroy. Upon his return to the U.S., he was lauded as a national hero, met with The Commander in Chief and was rewarded for his bravery by being bestowed the rank of Sargeant, the first four-legged officer in American military history.

Yes, four-legged. This soldier was a Boston terrier, with a short stubby tail, an appendage that earned him the name ‘Stubby’. To coincide with the 100th anniversary of his nation’s entry into the European theatre of WWI, the spirited all-American mutt has been reborn as a bigscreen hero in director Richard Lanni’s computer-animated version of his dog’s life.

It is fair to say that Lanni’s film is one of the more unusual cartoon features in recent years. A co-production between Ireland, The U.K., France, Canada and The U.S.A., it lovingly renders the period, capturing with an artist’s eye Stubby’s early life in the picturesque Connecticut countryside, his voyage to Europe and, with a particularly evocative sense of location, the trenches of the Western Front. A more stark design palette, recalling classic war film imagery, is employed to convey troop movements and geographical data; in one instance, the menacing shadow of a German ‘bird of war’ descends upon the European front. (Ed: This is a kids film, right?)  

The director is an accomplished war documentarian and for his first animated feature he has drawn as much upon the realism of his factual films as he does the Disney/Pixar model. Parents won’t be expecting to field questions like, “What’s mustard gas, mommy?”, but Lanni’s storytelling doesn’t skimp on the realities of Stubby’s frontline tour. Like all good, similarly straightforward war yarns, there are rifles firing, grenades hitting their marks and shadowy figures lurking in smoky killing fields.

Yet in scene after scene is this buoyant, lovable lead character straight out of a Dreamworks-style romp. Stubby’s considerable screen presence and emotional centre comes entirely from his physicality; Lanni foregoes any vocal anthropomorphising, instead providing for his star the best animation his computer artists can offer to create dimensionality. Stubby is every bit the great animated hero, utterly lovable in the eyes of the tykes while also legitimately heroic for the war movie fans. And like many American G.I.’s on duty in Europe, he enjoys some R&R in Paris, a sequence that is as lovely as it sounds.

The human characters are not afforded the same level of artistry; Conroy is blandly drawn, Logan Lerman’s voicing thankfully providing character nuance. Gerard Depardieu does good work as burly French fighter Gaston Baptiste, staying on the right side of stereotype; in voice over, Helena Bonham Carter plays Conroy’s sister, whose recounting of her brother’s friendship with Stubby the basis for the film.

Sgt Stubby’s life was well documented (upon his passing, the New York Times ran a half-page obituary), so there is very little leeway for embellishment in telling his story. Which makes Richard Lanni’s family-themed wartime shaggy dog adventure all the more remarkable, both as a rousing account of one of the most unlikely heroes in combat history and, frankly, as a film that exists at all.

  

Saturday
Jul222017

DUNKIRK

Stars: Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Fionn Whitehead, Damien Bonnard, Barry Keoghan, Jack Lowden, Cillian Murphy, Tom Glynn-Carney, James D’Arcy and Harry Styles.
Writer/Director: Christopher Nolan.

Rating: 2.5/5

State-of-the-art filmmaking and showy narrative technique meld uncomfortably with some hoary old war movie clichés in Dunkirk, the latest exercise in borderline bombast from Christopher Nolan. Despite being more aesthetically pleasing than Michael Bay’s garishly executed Pearl Harbour, Nolan’s big film in service of a small story has more in common with that much-maligned war pic than more serious minded award season contenders of past years like Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, Peter Weir’s Gallipoli or Terence Malick’s The Thin Red Line.

The enormous undertaking of evacuating 400,000 allied troops from the French port city as Axis forces encircled them is one of the defining moments of World War II. Nolan sets up the immensity of the event with steely grey vistas encompassing the troops as they wait for their rescuers, their despair growing with each wave of terrifying Stuka dive-bombing assault. These establishing shots offer the kind of scale and artistry that have emerged as Nolan’s stock-in-trade but as his narrative unfolds, it becomes clear the director is not particularly interested in the practicalities of troop withdrawal.

We are led through the shivering battalions by Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), who has survived a tragic opening sequence by outrunning his doomed squad before queue-jumping his fellow soldiers by pretending to be a medic then hiding amongst the wooden structure of the evacuation point to ensure his spot when the boats arrive. These hardly seem the actions of a leading man in a tale of heroism, his thin characterisation further hampered by the scale of the production mounted around him. Tommy is joined by a silent French infantryman (Damien Bonnard) and a brash Brit named Alex (Harry Styles, ok in a role that doesn’t ask much of his developing acting chops), bonded by their survival at any cost instincts.

Tommy’s story is folded into three other sub-narratives that intercut in that non-linear manner by now very familiar to Nolan’s fervent fan base. Mark Rylance is Dawson, a patriotic Brit who, with his sons (Barry Keoghan; Tom Glynn-Carney) is amongst the many brave homelanders that set sail for Dunkirk to help recover his fighting countrymen; Tom Hardy is Spitfire pilot Farrier, who darts back and forth across the skies over the beach with his wingman Collins (Jack Lowden), dispersing ME-109’s and Heinkel bombers with ruthless efficiency; and, Kenneth Branagh who, as the evacuation’s senior office-on-point Commander Bolton, is responsible for much of Nolan’s occasionally clunky expository dialogue.

Nolan’s obsession with his fractured narrative structure perfectly suited his past works Memento and Inception (his best film, by some measure). The mechanism muddled the ambitious but fatally flawed Interstellar and is entirely unnecessary, even flagrantly indulgent, in Dunkirk. The showy, jigsaw-puzzle challenge the storytelling poses undermines involvement, only serving to draw attention away from the plight of his protagonists and onto the storyteller himself; one can picture Nolan in front of a chalkboard strategically plotting his structure with cool academic efficiency. Surely the filmmaker’s insistence upon imposing his favourite device upon all his narratives is edging towards Shyamalan-like overkill (and the inevitable marketplace backlash).

As in past efforts, the director relies upon a dense soundscape to throw a blanket over his plotting, leading to the now familiar “I can’t understand what they’re saying!” comments often associated with his work. Muddying up the mix is an overblown score by Hans Zimmer, which determines every scene, however intimate, must build to a crescendo, leading to series of ‘big moments’ that the narrative does not earn. By the time the director reacquaints himself and his audience with the benefits of a more conventional denouement, any investment in the character’s journey has long since dissipated; scenes of ‘big emotion’ in the third act feel capital-C ‘contrived’.

Where the film soars is as an aerial spectacle. Recalling the thrilling dogfight sequences of Guy Hamilton’s 1969 wartime classic Battle of Britain, cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and editor Lee Smith capture the nerve-shredding experience of life as a Spitfire pilot, the planes and the airmen afforded the kind of exhilarating hero-worship that is sorely missing from the rest of Nolan’s chilly, unaffecting opus.

Friday
Nov072014

STALINGRAD 3D

Stars: Mariya Smolnikova, Yanina Studilina, Thomas Kretschmann, Pyotr Fyodorov, Sergey Bondarchuk, Dmitriy Lysenkov, Andrey Smolyakov, Aleksey Barabash, Heiner Lauterbach and Oleg Volku.
Writers: Sergey Snezhkin, Ilya Tilkin.
Director: Fedor Bondarchuk.

Screening courtesy of the 2014 Russian Revolution Film Festival.

Rating: 2.5/5

As David Ayer’s Fury, featuring Brad Pitt and a tank full of combat movie stereotypes rolls through Australian cinemas, so to does Russian cinema’s own equally grand and cornball World War II melodrama, Stalingrad. Despite some stunningly realised technical work, Fedor Bondarchuk’s action-packed opus creaks under a rigidly antiquated narrative that bears a far closer pedigree to Michael Bay’s fanciful Pearl Harbour than Steven Spielberg’s gritty standard-bearer, Saving Private Ryan.

At US$30million (and with Columbia Pictures international distribution arm attached), it is one of largest production’s ever undertaken by the Russian film sector. Yet scripters Sergey Snezhkin’s and Ilya Tilkin’s dialogue and drama never come close to matching the visuals crafted by Bondarchuk’s production design team. Topped-and-tailed by an expensive Japanese earthquake sequence so as to create an unnecessary flashback device, audiences are then plunged into Stalingrad 1942, specifically a section of the city that has been cut-off after the German troops ignite vast fuel supplies (the sight of Russian troops bursting through walls of flame, fully ablaze and impervious to pain, gives an early indication as to the purely cinematic degree of heroism to be expected over the next 2 hours.)

Holed up in the crumbling remnants of a once opulent tenancy are five rugged, chummy Russian soldiers, led by the scowling, war-weary Gromov (Pyotr Fyodorov). Much like the societal cross-section represented by Pitt’s tank-crew, Gromov’s men are all types yet act as one; they find one more thing to bond over in the form of 18 year-old Katya (Mariya Smolnikova), a doe-eyed and determined lass who also happens to be a crack-shot with a telescopic sniper’s rifle.

The German forces are represented by Kapitan Kahn (Thomas Kretschmann, Europe’s hammiest leading man; see Dario Argento’s Dracula 3D), who keeps the pretty blonde peasant Masha (Yanina Studilina) hidden away to rape at his whim while also falling in love with her, and Khenze (Heiner Lauterbach), the bald tyrant of a head officer, who spits out some of the film’s unintentionally funniest lines (“These damn lice can’t even let a man die without making him itch.”)

Battles scenes are suitably brutal, as befitting one of the most bloody conflicts in modern military history, but are shot in such purely cinematic terms they barely suggest the real-world horrors soldiers from either side would have faced. Slow-motion hand-to-hand combat, complete with CGI blood-splatter (ala, 300) and ‘bullet-cam’ (ala, The Matrix) are used and re-used; one sequence, in which the Russian’s bounce a shell off a tank hull with pinpoint accuracy, is just plain stupid.

The director lathers his brave infantrymen in a warm, nationalistic glow, which is admirable but also detrimental; so one-dimensionally heroic are his band of brothers, audience connect as they would with a ‘James Bond’ or ‘Indiana Jones’ type. One should walk away exhausted and deeply moved by the courage these men displayed in the face of a tyrannical force. Instead, Fedor Bondarchuk's bloody battle epic celebrates the excesses of war cinema far more effectively than it does the heroism of his countrymen