White Christmas

(USA 1954)

“May your days be merry and bright; and may all your Christmases be white!”

— Cast

I’ve never heard anyone — not even my grandparents — call White Christmas their favorite movie. Nonetheless, as corny holiday adventure romantic comedies go, it’s a holiday treat that can’t be beat. This year, we caught a double feature (White Christmas and It’s a Wonderful Life) complete with live piano, carols, Yuletide shorts, and Santa!

White Christmas follows Captain Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) and Private Phil Davis (Danny Kaye), members of the 151st Division of the U.S. Army, from a World War II battlefield where the latter sacrifices his shoulder to save the former, into their successful postwar Broadway partnership likely borne out of a sense of obligation, to a tiny Vermont inn where they both fall in love. Not with each other — though that would be interesting. No, with two nightclub singers they meet in Miami, “Sisters” Betty (Rosemary Clooney) and Judy Haynes (Vera-Ellen, who’s visibly anorexic).

God help these misters! It’s love at first sight for Phil and Judy, but not for Bob and Betty (which amusingly are my parents’ names). The gals have to take off for a Christmas performance they booked in Vermont. Not wanting her to leave, Phil finagles a sneaky way to extend his time with Judy — much to Bob’s dismay. A startlingly sad surprise awaits them in Vermont, exactly where the gals are performing. It seems it will take a Christmas miracle to turn things around, but Bob and Betty and Phil and Judy just might pull it off — with a little help from their friends in the 151st Division.

Directed by Michael Curtiz, White Christmas is standard golden age Hollywood fare: slick sets, catchy songs, peppy dance numbers, and a cute, heartwarming, almost cloying plot that ends on a sunny note. It’s not over the top, like, say, Anchors Aweigh, but it’s totally entertaining and fun. The screenplay by Norman Krasna, Norman Panama, and Melvin Frank is energetic, building its narrative with familar elements: recurring jokes, antagonistic relations, a drag scene, eavesdropping, misunderstandings, feigned circumstances, setting something free, saving the day, blooming love, and of course snow on Christmas.

Irving Berlin’s music is classic: “Love, You Didn’t Do Right by Me,” “Gee, I Wish I Was Back in the Army,” “Sisters,” and — duh! — the title track, a huge hit that was already a decade old by the time the movie was made. The single “White Christmas” holds the Guinness World Record as the top selling record of all time (https://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/chart-beat/8022047/white-christmas-bing-crosby-number-1-rewinding-charts). Title of this movie explained.

With Dean Jagger, Mary Wickes, Johnny Grant, John Brascia, George Chakiris, Anne Whitfield, Percy Helton, I. Stanford Jolley, Barrie Chase, Sig Ruman, Grady Sutton, Herb Vigran

Production: Paramount Pictures

Distribution: Paramount Pictures

120 minutes
Not rated

(Music Box) B

Dunkirk

(USA / UK / France / Netherlands 2017)

I have mixed feelings about Christopher Nolan’s spectacular Dunkirk, a World War II military drama that has very little to do with battle. Told from three perspectives — land (“the mole”), sea, and air — the story here centers on an evacuation, that of British and allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, a fishing village in northern France at the Belgian border, over a ten-day period in late Spring 1940 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunkirk_evacuation).

I have to admit ignorance here: I knew nothing about the Dunkirk evacuation going into this film. Nolan doesn’t spend any time on background or what led to this point; instead, he just picks up with British soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) fleeing German fire outside the beach. I wish I had known ahead of time because I would have done some research. I thought a better job could have been done telling the story.

The structure, jumping between the three perspectives, takes a little work to follow. What exactly is going on is unclear and confusing, and it creates a nice sense of claustrophobia and panic in many scenes — especially that boat scene. This is good. However, keeping track of the characters is a tough task not made any easier by giving all the soldiers the exact same black hair dye. I found it hard to relate to or care much about any of them because I was kept at arm’s length. I couldn’t get invested. While definitely not the same story, Dunkirk is a kind of a big budget Son of Saul — just not as good.

As a spectacle, though, Dunkirk is magnificent. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema shot it on 70 millimeter film, and he packs this picture with gorgeous wide shots of the beach, the sea, and throngs of desperate soldiers. He beautifully captures the hopelessness of the situation with a drab palette of only a few army colors: greens, greys, blues, and cold whites that convey a chill I could see and feel. The sound is over the top loud. If nothing else, Dunkirk is total sensory overload. It’s worth seeing for that alone.

Side note: I’m not sure which is the bigger surprise here — that 1D’s Harry Styles actually isn’t terrible, or that Tom Hardy is hidden under aviator goggles for the entire film. The latter is a bummer. He’s so hot!

With Mark Rylance, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Michael Caine

Production: Syncopy, Warner Brothers, Dombey Street Productions, Kaap Holland Film, Canal+, Ciné+, RatPac-Dune Entertainment

Distribution: Warner Brothers, Karo Premiere (Russia), NOS Audiovisuais (Portugal), Roadshow Entertainment (New Zealand), Roadshow Films (Australia)

106 minutes
Rated PG-13

(Music Box) C+

http://www.dunkirkmovie.com

Hacksaw Ridge

(USA/Australia 2016)

“Thou shalt not kill.”

—The Ten Commandments

 

“I don’t know how I’m gonna live with myself if I don’t stay true to what I believe.”

—Desmond Doss

Like him or not, Mel Gibson has what it takes to direct a massive Hollywood picture. Hacksaw Ridge, his first directorial job in a decade, demonstrates that much—just in case earlier films like Braveheart, The Passion of the Christ, and Apocalypto didn’t.

Hacksaw Ridge depicts the remarkable and true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), the Lynchburg, Virginia, Seventh-day Adventist who served as a medic in the U.S. Army during World War II. His story is unique: he enlisted, but as a conscientous objector for religious reasons. Refusing to kill or carry a gun, he rescued 75 or so wounded soldiers from the field during the Battle of Okinawa (http://www.collegedale-americanlegion.org/Pages/DesmondTDoss.aspx). President Harry S. Truman awarded Doss the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1945, the first time such a high accolade was bestowed upon someone who never even discharged a weapon (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Desmond_Doss).

From a technical standpoint, Hacksaw Ridge is pretty awesome. The story is a good one. The battle scenes are clearly the centerpiece: they’re loud and extremely graphic. The prosthetics are spot on realistic. Cinematographer Simon Duggan starts out with warm, almost sepia tones in the early civilian scenes, but as the setting moves onto the battlefield he ditches color in favor of a washed out black, green, and white palette. Shaky closeups, slow motion shots, blurry pans, and quick cuts create a sense of confusion as gunfire and explosions and human carnage take over the screen. Hacksaw Ridge is no Son of Saul (https://moviebloke.com/2016/02/11/son-of-saul-saul-fia/), but it still overwhelms the senses albeit in a distanced, staged blockbuster way.

Otherwise, Hacksaw Ridge didn’t impress me all that much. At its core, it’s a standard-issue war movie complete with a sugary subplot about the girl, Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer), waiting for Doss to hurry up and get back home so they can get married, and lots of humorous if mawkish male bonding through nicknames, insults, physical attacks, and simply having each other’s back. There’s a military court scene, trite “war is hell, boys” lines, soldiers who freak out once they get on the battlefield, likable characters who perish, and of course the superhuman heroic deeds of Doss.

Most character background is given hurried and superficial treatment: Doss’s alcoholic veteran father (Hugo Weaving) and his bad experience in World War I, Doss and Dorothy’s quick courtship, even the failed attempts of Sgt. Howell (Vince Vaughn) and Cpt. Glover (Sam Worthington) to persuade Doss to leave the Army. Too bad, because a little more insight could have made the film stronger. A particularly glaring example is brother Hal (Nathaniel Buzolic), who simply vanishes once he shows up at the dinner table in uniform. What happens to him? Did I miss it?

I’m conflcited on the message here, but I guess that’s okay because frankly Hacksaw Ridge is a conflicted film. Gibson maintains that it’s an anti-war statement (http://www.christianpost.com/news/mel-gibson-hacksaw-ridge-is-an-anti-war-movie-170318/). Fine, but that’s hard to believe considering the disproportionate amount of time and resources given to overblown battle scenes. I’m not sure the film honors Doss or his pacifist convictions. Moreover, what sure seems like a blatant parallel to the so-called religious liberty movement is, in my view, misguided and hollow, especially when Doss’s faith is treated more or less as incidental. Hacksaw Ridge sustained my interest, but I would have appreciated a little more depth.

With Luke Bracey, Darcy Bryce, Rachel Griffiths, Firass Dirani, Michael Sheasby, Luke Pegler, Nico Cortez, Goran D. Kleut, Harry Greenwood, Damien Thomlinson, Ben O’Toole

Production: Pandemonium Films, Permut Productions, Vendian Entertainment, Kylin Pictures

Distribution: Summit Entertainment (USA)

139 minutes
Rated R

(ArcLight) C+

http://www.hacksawridge.movie

The Handmaiden [Agassi]

(South Korea 2016)

“Where I come from, it’s illegal to be naive.”

—Sook-hee

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden [아가씨], but I’m glad I got to see it. One word: wow! A sexy, complex, and intriguing film to say the least, it’s a lavish visual and narrative cinematic experience. The trailer offers only a hint of what awaits.

Park wrote the screenplay, an adaptation of the 2002 novel Fingersmith by Welsh author Sarah Waters, with frequent collaborator Chung Seo-kyung. They change the setting from Victorian Era Britain to 1930s Korea when it was under Japanese colonial rule before the end of World War II. Confession: I did not read the book. The change is brilliant, though, resulting in something far more tense, exotic, and erotic than I imagine it would have been had they stuck to the original concept.

The Handmaiden is a cutthroat tale of power, sex, and deception in the same vein as Dangerous Liasons, though by no means is it the same story. The title refers to “Tamako” (Kim Tae-ri), a young common girl hired to serve as a maid to mysterious Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee). Lady Hideko’s authoritarian Uncle Kouzuki (Jo Jin-woong) runs the household, which has a crazy library of antique erotica and a basement used for punishment. The atmosphere is abusive and weird. So much so, in fact, that Lady Hideko’s aunt committed suicide—and she still hears her voice at night.

WARNING: Potential spoilers ahead!

“Tamako” has a secret: she’s really Sook-hee, a master pickpocket from a long line of con artists. Sook-hee is working with Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), a dashing con man, on an elaborate scam to bilk Lady Hideko out of her fortune. Fujiwara, posing as a Count, is wooing Lady Hideko into marriage, after which he plans to commit her to her an insane asylum and take off with her money. Fujiwara has a secret, too: he’s double dealing with Lady Hideko, who wants to get away from her uncle. Their plot involves getting married, cashing out her inheritance, and committing her illiterate maid under her name, after which Lady Hideko assumes the identity of “Tamako”—while keeping her money, of course.

The best-laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley, and nothing here is what it seems. Things get interesting and go another route when the two women’s relationship takes a sexual turn, and they like it.

The Handmaiden is an example of near perfect execution. The beginning and end are a little slow, but what’s in between is well worth the slightly draggy bookends. Divided into three parts, it tells the story from the different perpectives of the three scammers. We get more information with each part, and just when it looks like we know what’s coming—bam!, the proverbial rug is pulled out from underneath and the narrative goes somewhere else. The characters are really complex, and the acting here is excellent. The sex scenes are sensual but often have a humorous undertone. Chung Chung-hoon’s cinematography is rich and layered with thoughtful camerawork that adds a nice voyeuristic touch to the whole film, liberally using long shots and peeking through doors and around screens. This is a film you can easily get lost in.

144 minutes
Not rated

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B+

http://www.handmaidenmovie.com/showtimes

The Long Voyage Home

(USA 1940)

Normally, a movie loaded with dirty seamen spread all over a wet, slippery poop deck might be something to see. The Long Voyage Home is not that movie. Based on a slew (four to be exact) of one-act plays strung together like a pearl necklace and reset during WWII, The Long Voyage Home is a nautical drama about a group of mostly illiterate sailors aboard a ship, the Glencairn, that seems to have a Nazi spy on it. Spoiler: it doesn’t, but we find that out about halfway through. The rest of the film follows the crew to shore to see off oafish Ole (John Wayne) and his parrot to Sweden before a debaucherous detour through a dank English city changes the plan. Arrrrrgh.

I learned two key facts from this film: not everything Eugene O’Neill wrote is great, and John Wayne made a sucky Swede. Definitely a work of another time, The Long Voyage Home was toture not just because of the boring story but everything else: style, pace, acting, speech. The characters were one-dimensional, and the events that took place were disjointed. I found it difficult to get involved or care about what happened. Add a schmaltzy ending complete with a newspaper blowing in the wind, and I’m overboard. The clothes were cool, though.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) F

http://www.hfpa.org/tag/the-long-voyage-home/