The War Tapes (Scranton, 2006)

A crucial primary source document of the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, The War Tapes is a first hand account of the devastating affects a combat experience has on embedded soldiers, even after they return home. Filmed by it’s three real life Army subjects, New Hampshire National Guardsmen Zach Bazzi, Michael Moriarty, and Steve Pink, this film follows the men’s year long military tour in Iraq from 2004-05. Along with their M-16 rifles, all three arm themselves with hand held digital cameras to capture the environment of war, as well as the changing nature war has on personnel. Beginning with basic training, on through to the deserts and bombed out infrastructure of Iraq, and back again to the tormented silences of home, The War Tapes offers a collection of haunting images of combat, guilt, fear, and hope from those fighting on the front-lines. Bazzi, a 24 year old Lebanese American student, voices his displeasure with the contradictions in protecting Haliburton trucks and denying aid to Iraqi civilians. Moriarty, a family man whose dedication to the cause is apparent, has his faith in the American government tested to the limit. Pink, whose brutally honest journal entries provide the film’s core narration, is left with mental scars permanently ingrained upon his psyche. All three represent different political opinions on the war, but each is left with their own lasting nightmare from their time in the desert. The commentaries and images offered up by these men represent those on the ground and in the know of an escalating war time situation, a discourse which rightfully destroys political talking points and news spin and reinstates the human condition in times of inhumanity. The War Tapes gives those of us at home a rare glimpse into a chaotic world no one except the soldiers themselves can truly understand, making these sacrifices even more frustrating since their losses, and those of the innocent Iraqi civilians, seem to matter very little to the puppet masters in Washington pulling the strings.

Fixed Bayonets! (Fuller, 1951)

Fixed Bayonets! represents Sam Fuller at his roughest and most restrained. His war picture follows an Army platoon, entrenched in the middle of the snow packed Korean War, ordered to decoy and fend off the advancing Chinese army so a large division of soldiers can retreat. Richard Baseheart plays Cpl. Denno, fourth in command of the platoon and Fuller’s anxious and reluctant hero. The soldiers reach a snowy pass, set up a barricade, gun positions, and shelter, and await the advancing Communist army and imminent death. Fuller crafts some brilliant long takes using a crane to dolly up and down the steep mountain pass, creating a sense of unity between the men and a realistic sense of space, even though the entire film is shot in a studio. With each Chinese advance, another commanding officers falls, drawing Denno closer to taking control of the outfit. Denno even goes out of his way to heroically rescue one officer just to prolong his lower status. This breathtaking scene, where Denno navigates an icy minefield, creates a central mode of tension, showing the lengths one man can go to stave off the responsibility of military leadership. Fuller makes sure to stress Denno’s not a coward, nor stupid, just adverse to the psychological load of sending men to their deaths. Fuller eventually gives him no choice, and the final battle sequence shows how leadership is born through brutal circumstances, no matter if you like it or not. Fuller keeps close to the soldiers, his fluid camera rarely veering off to the Chinese perspective. This adds even more emphasis on Denno, as if Fuller, nor the viewer can let him off the hook when so many lives are at stake. Fixed Bayonets! might showcase the harsh mental and physical conditions of men in battle, but in typical Fuller fashion, it also reveals a concern for humanity within times of collective horror.

Black Book (Verhoven, 2006)

Paul Verhoven still has some bite left after many years in Hollywood. Black Book, Verhoven’s latest film and first produced in his native Holland in almost three decades, is grand epic filmmaking, visually stimulating with Hollywood gloss but surprisingly subversive and brutal in tone and theme. Verhoven’s heroine, a Jewish woman named Rachel Stein, navigates WWII Holland with a keen eye for survival, first by escaping a mass execution by the SS (which included her whole family) and then becoming embroiled with the underground Dutch Resistance. Rachel cozies up with a Gestapo Officer, using her charms to earn a job in SS headquarters and be the eyes and ears for her new found allies. Rachel’s motives steam under the surface, her actions more pragmatic than vengeful. Verhoven uses Rachel as a window into the supposed valiant resistance fighters, masterfully revealing true and deceiving character traits as the plot twists and turns keep coming. Rachel’s journey is book-ended with segments from her life in the future, in 1956 Israel remembering back, yet Verhoven ends his film with a disquieting wide shot revealing the inevitable connections between Rachel’s past (the plot of the Black Book) and her future as a Jew in a different but equally restless land. Black Book uses a multitude of Hollywood story conventions, but it really transcends any easy comparison throughout it’s second half, when the affects of Post War life takes on a new and just as disturbing focus. Rachel states to her Nazi lover Muntze, “I never thought I’d dread the day of liberation.” Her allegiances have been muddled and her vision of good and evil blurred. Verhoven complicates even the most traditional characters and situations, enabling biting critiques of heroism, revenge, and greed to overwhelm a sometimes meandering overall story. Black Book is more thriller than war film, at least in the most basic sense, but has elements of suspense, action, and Noir in the mix as well. Rachel, with her dyed blonde hair, maneuvers from man to man attempting to find survival, but almost everyone becomes consumed by the image of her, not the reality, much like a Femme Fatale. Black Book falters only in it’s moments of weakness when it sometimes overlookes Rachel’s hypnotic undercurrents of fear and retribution for large scale melodrama. Yet it’s the personal moments between Rachel and Muntze which sum up Verhoven’s purpose – that good and evil blur into variations of the same human need for survival.

Hot Fuzz (Wright, 2007)

I grew up loving Action films, specifically the cheesy cop flicks of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. The appeal for such an impressionable mind must have been the visceral thrill of seeing men with guns duke it out over landscapes of steel and metal, blood splatter and smoke filling the air. These American films provide the heart and soul of Brit comedy filmmakers Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s Hot Fuzz, a glossy, exciting, and extremely funny homage to a genre drenched in seriousness. Hot Fuzz begins with a short but catchy lineage of Officer Nicholas Angel (Pegg), London’s most efficient and stern officer of the law. Angel’s so good, his department heads (Martin Freeman, Steve Coogan, and Bill Nighly), transfer him to a peaceful village named Sanford, simply because he’s making them look bad. Angel, quite used to the high paced pursuit lifestyle of London, becomes thrust into a calm, whimsical country town where nothing bad ever happens. Wright deftly plays up these initial awkward moments between Angel and the folks of Sandford, specifically his fellow officers of the law. Nick Frost (Pegg’s buddy in Shaun of the Dead), plays Angel’s partner Danny, a large man in love with every cop movie ever made (he’s got DVD collection to die for). When people start dying “accidentally” around town, Angel’s senses kick in and the hunt is on for the killer. Hot Fuzz ends up reveling in all the cliches and cheesy trademarks of the Action films it references, most notably Point Break and Bad Boys II. Danny asks Angel if he’s fired multiple guns while jumping through the air, or if he’s raised his gun in anger and fired off a clip because he can’t kill the criminal he adores. It’s as if every kid weaned on Terminator 2, Hard Target, Commando, and Hard-boiled is asking the questions as well, picking the brain of a real cop with great prestige. It’s in the blissful reconfiguring of locale and situation within these preconceived genre traits which makes Hot Fuzz such a great experience. The final action sequence, an epic gun battle shot and choreographed as if it were a Michael Bay film, exceeds most action films in terms of blocking and ambition. Hot Fuzz turns out to be just as exciting as any of the films it’s paying tribute to, but has layers of meaning well beyond the typical surface level gun play. As Nicholas and Danny begin to uncover the truths about this supposedly quiet town, so does the viewer see that Hot Fuzz takes pride in honestly developing character and emotion even as the action hits the fan. Hot Fuzz surpasses the first Wright/Pegg/Frost collaboration Shaun on all fronts, not only by loving the genre being dissected, but showcasing a real flare for the understanding of why the genre works in the first place. Hot Fuzz comedically riffs the serious components of the Action film, but it loves them as well, and the result masterfully combines the two in a balls to the wall extravaganza of guns, laughs, and true friendship. Here comes the Fuzz motherfu@$%…

While the City Sleeps (Lang, 1956)

In both While the City Sleeps and The Blue Gardenia, director Fritz Lang overextends himself by packing too many contrasting genres into seemingly strait-forward material. While the City Sleeps uses a serial killer plot-line, but adds in scenes of bland melodrama about the love lives of the newspapermen attempting to break the story. Furthermore there’s a juvenile competition by these same men to see who can win over the boss with such a scoop in order to get a prime promotion, all framed by a truly disturbing psycho killing young, beautiful women. The NYC setting means nothing to Lang’s expose’ of compromised ethics (even though the ethics aren’t that compromised), except to make the story-line seem grander and more sustainable. But these characters haphazardly run into each other, ideas, and successes, making the whole affair a jumbled mess of danger, comedy, and anticlimactic suspense scenes. Lang is best when he’s focused on one genre, specifically Film Noir, where he can unleash the furies of rage, angst, and familial disconnect through clear cut genre traits, undermining them through morally ambiguous characters (see The Big Heat). While the City Sleeps bases it’s whole existence on the sensationalism of a killer, yet Lang doesn’t match the man’s cruel tactics with any sense of character. He’s just a story to these boring characters, too caught up in their own problems to recognize the true brutality at work. Lang’s look at breakdowns in psychology remain his most interesting projects, showcasing the director’s need to explore the dark corners of madmen and murderers. While the City Sleeps settles for uninteresting hack jobs.

The Siege (Zwick, 1998)

Art imitating a nightmare reality, unknowingly representing a true future. Set in a pre-9/11 NYC, The Siege follows F.B.I. agent Anthony Hubbard (Denzel Washington) and his counter-terrorism unit as they attempt to uncover a number of deadly sleeper cells in New York City. Zwick’s film also involves the C.I.A. (spook Annette Benning) and the military (General Bruce Willis), blatantly revealing how each arm of the government can unmask and undermine the other in this modern War on Terror. The Siege has a traditional and unrewarding screenplay but reveals moments of eerie transcendence, fluctuating between 9/11 style sequences of mass panic and quiet, reflective ones of government officials feeling impotent to the threat. Edward Zwick defines mainstream directing, letting his actors discover their unchanging character roles and live exactly as they should within this environment. However, The Siege dares (probably because no one could have imagined anything so bad in real life) to have epic terror sequences spelling out the gruesome human toll such attacks can have, and now have had on New York City. As Denzel approaches a bus with countless passengers taken hostage, we can see the determination and the confidence in his eyes, believing he can get those people to safety. When the bus disintegrates into a ball of fire, he knows and we know the real deal has hit the streets of America. It’s a haunting image of fiction which has become an all too familiar reality.

Reservoir Dogs (Tarantino, 1992)

A landmark film, and for better or worse influencing more young filmmakers than any other recent film.¬†Reservoir Dogs contains moments of genius (the commode anecdote wonderfully parallels Tim Roth’s split personality), but like most debuts by major filmmakers only hinting at the potential so wonderfully on display in Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown and Kill Bill Vol. 1. Reservoir Dogs¬†maintains a brilliant sense of containment, both in character and purpose, and achieves a certain sharp brutality unmatched in Tarantino’s other work. It’s hard to watch this film again since so many have ripped it off, ironically depriving it of some originality and impact. Tarantino’s evolvution as a filmmaker has been fascinating to watch and remembering where it all began remains important, even when his work becomes a parody of itself.