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Telling stories about real people is a complicated business. Transitioning reality to the silver screen involves all manner of delicacy (assuming the filmmakers are interested in maintaining a clear and truthful relationship to that reality). And as the people portrayed become more complicated, the overall levels of complexity grow exponentially.

Harry Haft was a light heavyweight boxer who had a brief run as a pro in the late 1940s; his overall record was 13-8 and his most notable bout was his last, a fight with none other than Rocky Marciano himself. Looking at that snippet of a life, one might wonder why anyone would give this guy the biopic treatment.

But Harry Haft was a survivor of Auschwitz. A Polish Jew, Harry survived because he was willing to fight. Specifically, he fought against his fellow prisoners for the amusement of the Nazi officers … and for the right to live another day. It was that experience that landed him in the boxing ring after the war.

“The Survivor” – currently available on HBO Max – is Harry Haft’s story. Or rather, stories. Indeed, the film offers us a glimpse at Haft’s journey from all sides. We’re given an up-close look at the brutal calculus of self-preservation in the face of a relentlessly cruel and callous adversary. We’re also allowed to get a sense of the aftermath of those horrible calculations, of what it means to live after others have died. And we’re presented with the aftermath’s aftermath, a look at how difficult and even impossible it may be to move forward when bearing the weight of those choices.

Directed by Barry Levinson from a script by Justine Juell Gillmer (based on the work of Alan Scott Haft, Harry’s son), “The Survivor” is a powerful and surprisingly dense film, one that manages to pack a lot of punches (literal and figurative) into its 129 minutes. It is a well-crafted and powerful film, one anchored by an utterly transformative lead performance by Ben Foster; its large budget and high production values in many ways belie its challenging nature. It is an incredibly compelling viewing experience, even as many parts of it prove rather difficult to watch.

Published in Movies

When one hears the term “World War II movie,” there tend to have certain expectations, preconceived notions with regard to the sort of story they’re about to see and the events that are going to be represented. So it’s always interesting when we get something that’s a little different.

That’s the case with “Munich: The Edge of War,” a Netflix original film directed by Christian Schwochow and written by Ben Power, who adapted the script from the 2017 Robert Harris novel “Munich.” Set in the days immediately preceding Hitler’s 1938 invasion of Czechoslovakia, it’s a fictionalized exploration of some of what may have happened in the leadup to WWII’s beginnings as people worked behind the scenes to stave off war.

As always, separating fact from fiction is a little tough – there are a lot of real-life figures in the mix here and the events writ large are more or less accurate, but the granular details are fictionalized and/or dramatized. Still, while there’s a baseline predictability here – we all know how this will ultimately turn out – there’s still room for some intrigue, aided by a collection of solid performances.

Published in Movies
Sunday, 12 July 2020 16:28

‘Greyhound’ wages war on the water

Many of our greatest stories have revolved around warfare. From the great epics of the ancient Greeks thousands of years ago to the continued proliferation of war movies today, the tragedies and triumphs of the battlefield have been major subjects of our storytelling since we first began telling them.

We’ve already seen one strong entry into the war movie canon this year with Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods,” but we can add another to the list courtesy of “Greyhound,” currently available on Apple TV+. The film – directed by Aaron Schneider from a screenplay adapted by Tom Hanks (who also stars) from the C.S. Forester novel “The Good Shepherd” – is a throwback of sorts, an ode to the WWII films of the past, telling the tale of the men tasked with protecting trans-Atlantic convoys in the empty stretches too far from shore for air support.

It’s a sharply-paced, engaging war movie, one that finds interesting ways to juxtapose the vast and harsh expanse of the ocean with the nigh-claustrophobic confines within a warship. It also captures the pressures that land on the shoulders of those in command, pressures that are exponentially heightened by the simple fact that the enemy is often invisible. That air of dread and anticipation – and the heroism that it takes to stand strong and fight anyway – permeates the film.

Published in Movies

“Oh great,” you groan. “Another book about Winston Churchill. Just what the world needs.”

I’ll concede that those feelings are understandable. We’ve all been through the whole finest hour thing more times than we can count; it’s a story that anyone with any interest in history has at least a passing knowledge of. Untold reams of paper and gallons of ink have been devoted to the life and work of the noted statesman; while no one can argue Churchill’s historical significance, it’s also easy to assume that everything that needed saying has already been said.

All true, yes. But conversely – Erik Larson hadn’t yet said his piece. Until now.

The bestselling historian – author of acclaimed works such as “Thunderstruck,” “Dead Wake” and “The Devil in the White City” – has turned his narrative gifts and powers of insight onto the Prime Minister with “The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz” (Crown, $32). Far from the dusty doorstop of a book you might expect, “The Splendid and the Vile” is an example of Larson at his best.

Meticulously, exhaustively researched and told with Larson’s usual deftness of prose, this account of Churchill’s first year – from his being named prime minister on May 10, 1940 up through April of 1941 – is an intense close-read of the man’s life. It’s an almost day-by-day accounting of how that first year was spent, both through Churchill himself and through those closest to him – his staff, his friends and his family.

Published in Style
Tuesday, 12 November 2019 12:44

‘Midway’ tries to fight the good fight

The Battle of Midway is considered one of the major turning points in World War II. The victory by U.S. forces over the Japanese Navy prevented Japan from taking control of the Pacific Ocean and bringing devastation to America’s west coast. The United States was outnumbered and outgunned, but thanks to the bravery of the men in the fight and the brilliance of those plotting the course, they emerged victorious.

It’s an obvious choice to receive the cinematic treatment. Indeed, the battle was the namesake of a star-studded 1976 film. Now, over 40 years after that film and over 70 since the battle itself, moviegoers are getting another look at that historic fight on the big screen.

Too bad it isn’t a better movie.

Director Roland Emmerich, whose name has become a kind of shorthand for big-budget Hollywood films that are heavy on the explosions and light on the … everything else, brings us “Midway.” While he certainly understands the spectacle that comes with war movies, he doesn’t quite capture the subtler aspects of the story the way one might hope.

It’s not that the film is bad, per se – it’s just a bit heavy-handed, both in terms of the CGI battle scenes and the interpersonal relationships. To his credit, Emmerich has assembled a talented cast that is able to somewhat alleviate the issues with both his direction and Wes Tooke’s screenplay, lending the proceedings a depth that otherwise wouldn’t be there. The end result is a moviegoing experience that is fine, but no more than that.

It’s a story that warrants telling; it’s just too bad that it isn’t better told.

Published in Movies

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