Smell of Popcorn

film reviews & musings by Max Lalanne

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Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down

Posted by Max Lalanne on October 14, 2012

The city of Mogadishu, in famine-stricken Somalia. It’s 1995 and a joint task force of Army Rangers, Delta Force, and the 160th SOAR, here to support UN peacekeeping operations against the militia of Mohammed Farrah Aidid, organize a quick strike raid into the city to capture some of the local warlord’s top lieutenants. It quickly deteriorates into a full-blown rescue mission as, per the title, a Black Hawk military helicopter – the best of the best available, mind you – is shot down in the middle of the hostile urban city. Leaving no man behind, the troops on the ground fight to reach any possible survivors just as another chopper gets hit by an rocket-propelled grenade. And they shoot their way to that one, too. Yup, that’s pretty much Black Hawk Down.

A viable argument could be made for Ridley Scott’s 2001 film being a technically superb, or furthermore perfect, movie. Intensely visual and visceral but aurally important as well, this down-and-dirty war picture about the disastrous Battle of Mogadishu sends you straight into, pardon the tired expression, the middle of the action. For more than two hours, the dull, metal staccato of automatic rifle and machine gun fire ring out in unpredictable yet expected bursts, explosions reduce desolate buildings to rubble littered with corpses, and the whirring sound of helicopter blades from above becomes a reassuring, even life-saving one. It would be like one of those video games if not for Scott’s filmmaking aesthetic and style, which is damn hard to discern between his various films of various genres, but here he allows for surprising moments of visual beauty to cut through the grime and blood, and even accentuate it.

Those moments are far and few between, but they make an impression: a convoy of menacing, bristling Black Hawk and AH-6J Little Bird military choppers flying in formation low over a pristine glittering beach, while the sound fades away stylistically to create a haunting and formidable atmosphere. Apocalypse Now is brought to mind, naturally, but instead of going for a gung-ho showiness of strength a sort of calm before the storm is shown. Then it is over – the choppers bank sharply left and start flying over Mogadishu, flying straight into the black smoke billowing in the air from the tires that the Somalian militia are burning as signals. Another strikingly poetic bit comes near the end, where a dozen or so exhausted American soldiers are forced to run pell-mell down the road out of the hostile slums of the city and into UN Safe Zone territory, being watched retreat by hundreds of victorious armed militia behind them. They stumble in slo-mo through some sort of claustrophobic fog, led by laughing street kids and cheered on by peaceable villagers.

What does all this add up to substantially, you might ask? Is Black Hawk Down an anti-war movie or simply pro-war? I don’t really know. Does Scott know? I don’t think he cares. Perhaps the best insight one might get about what this film aspires to be are the quiet conversations between the young Sgt. Eversmann and the lean, dangerous SFC “Hoot” Gibson, played by Josh Hartnett and Eric Bana, respectively, two soldiers with very different train of thoughts when their minds inevitably turns to some quasi-existential self-reflection. There’s a point in the film where Eversmann, who’s already shown to be a wide-eyed idealist, nervously asks the older man what he thinks about being here fighting “skinnies” in a faraway African country. “Y’know what I think? Don’t really matter what I think. Once that first bullet goes past your head, politics and all that shit just goes right out the window,” is the terse answer.

So Black Hawk Down doesn’t want to be about anything but the men, because in the end the story is about them not the American government’s involvement in Somalia or the failed operation or other tempting things like that. That’s more than fine by me, as the film is so mindblowingly immersive and nailbitingly realistic that you truly feel like you are there alongside the soldiers, and that nothing else really matters. They themselves are portrayed by a stunning variety of actors, both young and old, including but not limited to Hartnett, Bana, Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore, Orlando Bloom, Jason Isaacs, William Fichtner, Sam Shepard, Jeremy Piven, and Tom Hardy. Many are unrecognizable but their presence is noted. [A-]

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Ben Affleck’s Argo

Posted by Max Lalanne on October 13, 2012

To call Argo, Ben Affleck’s based-on-a-true-story thriller, a spectacular achievement would be, in all honesty and respect, reaching a bit too far. And branding it simply a “great movie,” which seems to be something that many have done recently, isn’t enthusiastic enough. Rather, here’s what it is – the best, and most vivid, cinematic rendering that you could ever hope to see incredible formerly classified and larger-than-life operation that the CIA undertook in the midst of the 1979 Iranian embassy hostage crisis to rescue six escaped American diplomats being sheltered in the house of the Canadian ambassador. And nothing much more added, but then again that’s already more than enough. There’s much chance that at the end of the film, you’ll be in complete awe of not the film itself,but instead of the unbelievable slice of history that Affleck brought to life.

What a crazy story it is. Affleck portrays Tony Mendez, the CIA extractor who, coming up with the best of the bad ideas available on the tight schedule that his boss (Bryan Cranston) was given, devised such a crazy balls-to-the-wall plan to get the Americans out of the turbulent and dangerous country that you truly believe that this could happen only in the movies. But it isn’t so, as Argo and history shows us, although, ironically enough, a film was involved in the risky operation – a Star Wars ripoff named Argo that was never made and one that proved the perfect cover for Mendez to get into Tehran, Iran, and back out with six extra passengers, all pretending to be part of the fake film’s location-scouting crew. To make his cover believable, the taciturn, bearded Mendez goes to Hollywood, enlisting the help of special effects/makeup legend John Chambers (John Goodman) and old-timer producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to sell a movie that won’t ever be made.

Combining a very timely atmosphere of Middle Eastern revolt and revolution, although it doesn’t feel as frighteningly effective as would be expected due to the refreshingly intelligent stance that Argo takes on the Iranian Revolution (more on that later), with a tongue-in-cheek and lightly humorous Hollywood quasi-satire, there’s an adept mix of wait-is-this-really-happening absurdity mixed in with real-life, grave consequences in the film. Comedy (“Argo f–k yourself” is one joke that never gets old) and drama are deftly interchanged, sometimes a little too pronouncedly; however, that’s the way this real-life story is, laugh-out-loud funny one second and gravely serious the next. There’s nothing much in the way of character development but you still feel deeply involved, as all the actors – especially Cranston, Goodman, and Arkin – give their satisfying best. Likewise, there’s nothing new in Argo‘s execution, but it makes for a solid movie all the same.

The thing that surprised me the most about Argo, ultimately, was the way the Iranian Revolution, and the Iranian people who took part in it, was portrayed. There’s ample footage of anti-American fervor and violence at hand, and it is certainly clear who are the antagonists, but, thankfully, it never struck the volatile chord that I though it would in these sensitive hate-filled times. Affleck makes it clear to show that the people took American hostages as leverage to demand that the United States government return the self-exiled Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, which would never happen because the cancer-stricken, dying former ruler was undergoing chemotherapy in America (and, of course, President Carter made clear that he would never negotiate with “terrorists”).

Iranian women are also widely and noticeably shown, which wouldn’t be something worth of note if Argo wasn’t the first such film to show them as they are. In an almost shot-for-shot recreation of real-life photographs of the Revolution (the comparisons are helpfully shown side-by-side during the credits), burka-wearing Iranian women are shown on the streets alongside their male counterparts holding assault rifles and protesting, and young female Muslims belonging to the embassy-occupying student group give recorded speeches that play constantly on TV screens in the background. And the Canadian ambassador’s native housekeeper, played brilliantly by Sheila Vand, turns out to have a more important role than you might expect. [A]

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Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory

Posted by Max Lalanne on October 10, 2012

1957’s Paths of Glory is described as being one of the “early” Kubricks, and indeed it is, but in many more aspects than one the film ranks among one of the director’s simplest, starkest, and very best works. Right away it brings to mind the folly-filled outright satire of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learning to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb but slyly shapes it in an altogether disturbing way to make one of the most effective anti-war movies ever commited to celluloid. It’s easier, so to speak, to put crazy characters together in a crazy plot and make a side-splitting caricature on humanity in general, but here in Paths of Glory the absurdity abounding is expertly used to hard-hitting, sober, brutal, and not at all funny effect.

The intense WWI-set story is as such: In the muddy, bloody confines of endless trench warfare on the Western front, the 701st Regiment of French footsoldiers are ordered to take the “Anthill,” a heavily-defended German-held fortification. The tired, hopeless men are led by Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), who fully realizes that the mission is a suicidal, utterly nonsensical one that will cost the lives of hundreds of his men but, without any other options, he follows the orders of the ambitious General Mireau (George MacReady), who, in turn, took them from the genial General George Broulard (Adolphe Menjou).

The attack is carried out at dawn and predictably fails; it turns out that heavy enemy fire and massive casualties contributed to an entire platoon remaining in their trenches, disobeying orders to advance and surely die in the mud and wire. Citing “cowardice in the face of the enemy,” there is talk of putting a hundred men in front of a firing squad, but what is finally decided is that three soldiers will be picked by their officers – all for various and nonsensical reasons, ultimately – to serve as examples and to be executed the next morning. Also, as Broulard keeps saying with an cheery tone, it’s a big morale-booster for the other soldiers to see men getting killed. Because they don’t have enough death, and talk and thought of it, in their lives already.

Dax is a good obedient soldier, but he’s also compassionate (at least to a normal extent) and knows that this is all crazy. He tries to vouch for the three unlucky chosen (Ralph Meeker, Timothy Carey, and Joe Turkel) at the court-martial, but finds disgusting results, as it seems that nothing will stop the execution and the complete nonsense that is running around uncurbed in front of his eyes. So what can he do? This is where Douglas – who, in some angles, resembles George C. Scott in Dr. Strangelove – gives a massively underrated performance. You can positively feel the anger boiling under his calm, cool, and collected exterior and when it finally breaks, it’s a furious moment but one that is gone all too fast and forgotten even faster.

This is not a film with a happy ending, but as you might have heard already, in the very last famous scene Kubrick gives us one moment, one simple display of pure, breathtakingly simple human emotion that is humbling to witness. It’s one that gives us hope, after the startling onslaught of unexplained cruelty, and shows that Kubrick is not above being kind to his audience and, perhaps, forgiving to the human nature.

I love the black-and-white cinematography by Georg Krause. The steadicam might have been invented during the shooting of The Shining, but here a long and steady backtracking camera shot preceding a grim-faced Dax as he strides through the trenches, explosions heard and seen around him, then climbs up to start the attack is especially marvelous to watch. Kubrick and Krause used their wide-angle lenses, deep-focus shots, and tightly-composed framing to perfection in other scenes such as the horrid court-martial, making it effectively claustophobic. You just want to get out of that room.

On paper, Paths of Glory really shouldn’t work. If not played for endlessly entertaining laughs, the notion of seeing men, completely void of normal emotion, kindness, or justice, act wholly preposterously to convey an forceful anti-war message should grow tiring and rather obvious. But it isn’t so here, and while acknowlegement must be paid to Kubrick’s already obvious mastery of his craft, might the fundamental reason be that war itself is so absurd, it takes absurdity to truly unveil the horrors? Something to think about. [A]

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