Review: Downfall (2004)

Downfall is the powerful story of the last 10 days of the Third Reich told from the perspective of Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), Hitler’s stenographer.

It is an intense film that is engrossing until the last moments. Although we know true extent of Hitler’s actions, Downfall makes the dictator and his comrades seem human, which is the film’s purpose. The Nazis were not monsters; they were human beings, just like you and me. There is an uncomparable amount of realism that makes you forget you are watching a fictional film. It is Bruno Ganz’s mesmerizing and history-making performance, the powerful supporting cast, and the story itself that make this film worth seeing.

Using Junge’s memoir’s as a guide, director Oliver Hirshbiegel recreates the last days in Hitler’s bunker and of the Third Reich. Bruno Ganz gives a startling portrayal of Hitler. As the fall of Berlin is more imminent, he refuses to accept to accept Germnay’s failure. He becomes weak, brash, and shaky. Stories outside the bunker are told: a young boy fighting for Hitler’s youth; a doctor refusing to leave Berlin; the plight of Berlin’s stranded civlians; and the tales of Hitler’s generals and advisors.

Updated October 10, 2010

Review: Syriana (2005)

Timing makes or breaks a political thriller. As long as a political thriller is relevant to any current issue, then chances are it will be excellent, good or, at the very least, highly entertaining. The best examples are The Manchurian Candidate (1963) and the satire Dr. Strangelove (1964); both relate to the Cold War era, the fear of power and the fear of communism. Syriana falls into this category of great political thrillers because of its relevance to current global issues.

Syriana spans three continents and its overlapping plotlines show the affect that a merger of two Texas oil companies, Connex and Killen (great subtle names), has on each character. Jeffrey Wright plays a Washington lawyer assigned to hash out the details of the merger for the companies bosses,  played by the always brilliant Chris Cooper and Christopher Plummer.

Then there is Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig), who risks assassination when he favors China over the United States in an oil deal. He also risks not becoming the next Emir because of his approval of Western ideals and his willingness to apply some to his own country. Matt Damon plays energy analyst Bryan Woodward who uses the accidental death of his son at the Prince’s home to become an economics advisor for the Prince.

There is the story of Pakistani migrant worker and his father. When they are laid off from their jobs at Connex due to the deal struck between Nasir and the Chinese, the son is driven to terrorism. We watch as he goes through the motions in order to become a terrorist. It is a story that is emotional and hard to watch.

But my favorite character in this movie was Bob Barnes played by George Clooney. Barnes is a CIA operative reaching the end of his days and will soon be placed at a desk job. He is a man struggling with his personal life as well the fact that he has been used by most people. By gaining over 30 pounds to play an unflattering yet hypnotic character, Clooney gives the performance of the lifetime.

This is film that unflinchingly looks current global issues ranging from terrorism to the power and corruption of big companies. As Peter Travers of Rolling Stone wrote in his review of Syriana, “Clooney says his company will produce more movies like Good Night, and Good Luck and Syriana. Godspeed.”

Updated October 9 2010

Review: Gunner Palace (2004)

In Gunner Palace, director Michael Tucker spent two months filming the American soldiers of the 2/3 Field Artillery, a.k.a “the Gunners”, documenting their lives in Iraq from the end of 2003 into 2004 (roughly four months after the war was declared over). The Gunners reside in what was once Uday Hussein’s pleasure palace. Tucker skillfully combines comments by Donald Rumsfeld, humorous stories told by the soldiers, shocking and gritty images of the war, and the freestyle raps by the soldiers to create a chilling, must-see documentary.

This documentary, foremost, gives the American soldiers perspective on the war and, I feel, that during this time, we often forget or never even knew their opinion on the war. This film is important to at least appreciate and understand their stance on the war. As viewers, we follow the soldiers on nightly raids and we see the strain the soldiers go through when training Iraqi troops, locating IEDs (improvised explosive devices), and dealing with Iraqis who just want the American troops to leave.

While it does not give the Iraqi perspective on the war, aside from informants hired by the American military and the occasional shot of a possible insurgent, the atmosphere is gritty, brutal, and hellish. Most of all, this film shows how real the Iraq war is, something that the news doesn’t and can’t show us. And it cannot not be ignored because it comes from the men and women who have lived through this war.

As one soldier describes towards the ends of Gunner Palace: “When you sit on your couch and you watch the TV, and you go to your 9 to 5 job and you complain about the pizza being late … there’s no way you’re gonna know how to live here. Someone being sympathetic to this? I don’t know if I’d be sympathetic if I wasn’t in the army. After you watch this, you’re gonna go get your popcorn out of the microwave and talk about what I said, and you’ll forget me by the end of this. Only people who remember this is us.”

Updated October 8, 2010

Review: Turtles Can Fly (2004)

Turtles Can Fly is the third feature from acclaimed Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi. As the first film shot in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein, the film takes a dark and heart-wrenching look at affect war has, especially on children.

The action occurs in a Kurdish refugee camp somewhere between the Turkish and Iraqi border on the eve of the American invasion of Iraq. There lives 13-year-old “Satellite” (Soran Ebrahim), who has earned his nickname through his ability to install satellite dishes and translate news of the pending invasion to the camp’s elders. He also organizes his fellow orphans into land mine-collection teams so they can earn money.

Satellite develops a crush on the quiet and beautiful Agrin (Avaz Latif), who arrives at the camp with her brother Hyenkov (Hirsh Feyssal). Her brother is only known as “The Boy With No Arms” to the other orphans and he skillfully disarms the land mines using his teeth. There is a child with them, Risa, who we are led to believe is their brother, but we later learn that this child is the cause of Agrin’s obvious pain.

The children are at first excited for the US invasion; no one wishes to see Saddam Hussein captured more than these children. However, the movies events only lead for the children to see the true grievances that war causes. In the last scene of the film, Satellite and his friend are watching the American troops march into Iraq. Satellite is upset from what he has seen and his friend asks him “Didn’t you want to the Americans come?”

This is not a political film. It is just a story about children attempting to survive in an endless war zone and the final product is unforgettable and extraordinarily moving.

Updated October 7, 2010

Review: House of Flying Daggers (2005)

House of Flying Daggers is a martial arts movie with a fairy tale-esque plot. Directed by Zhang Yimou, the mastermind behind the Oscar nominated Hero, this film follows the same path. It is crafted with vibrant and colorful action scenes centered on the film’s star, the always stunning Ziyi Zhang, who plays Mei.

The plot is filled with more double crosses than you can count as it climaxes with a lovers duel for Mei’s affection. Despite the nonstop action, the plot twists, and gorgeous cinematography, the plot is predictable and boring. (I’m not proud to admit this, but I found myself fastfowarding to the martial arts scenes.)

It is these brilliantly directed action sequences that save House of Flying Dagger from being painstakingly awful. The plot is clearly not it’s strength, nor does it intend to be.

Most importantly, this movie looks best on the bigget screen you can find. The Echo Game scene, featuring slow-motion shots of pebbles hitting drums and Ziyi Zhang leaping between the drums as her dress sleeves fly, was a personal highlight.

Updated October 7, 2010