A Hidden Life

Written and directed by critically acclaimed filmmaker Terrence Malick best known for 1978’s Days of Heaven, 1998’s The Thin Red Line, and 2011’s The Tree of Life, A Hidden Life is a visually spectacular and deeply contemplative film that uses brilliant cinematography and philosophical voiceovers to tell the true life story of Franz Jägerstätter. Visualized by the sweeping bucolic mountain vistas of Austria, we first meet the farmer Franz, played by German actor August Diehl, enjoying his peaceful country life with his wife Fani, played by Austrian actress Valerie Pachner, and we see his life play out over several years as they have children. However, at the outbreak of World War II, Franz is sent away to train for the German military but is allowed to return home after several months training. Eventually, the German military is in need of new soldiers to fight so they call up Franz to swear allegiance to Hitler and become a soldier in his army. A deeply religious man, he refuses to take an oath to Hitler who goes against all of his beliefs. Because of his openly defiant disobedience, he is sent to prison until he pledges allegiance, but, after months of still not giving in, he is transferred to Berlin where he faces a death sentence for treason. At the same time, his wife and three young daughters remain in Austria where they are subjected to insults and outright rejection from the local villagers who believe Franz’s act is reprehensible. Resembling the long and arduous time that he must wait in prison for what he knows is ultimately death, the movie is effectively slow-paced and is almost three hours long, which is fairly typical for a Terrence Malick picture. This somewhat unorthodox approach allows the viewer to truly contemplate what it means to suffer for your beliefs and stand up to what is evil in the world; especially with its shots of nature and the grandeur of the mountains, the film becomes somewhat of a spiritual or religious cinematic experience. Overall, I found it to be a truly magnificent movie that reinforces the unique genius of Terrence Malick who is able to create a film that reflects on the beauty and destruction of the world through the eyes of one of the most famous World War II conscientious objectors who later became a martyr in the Catholic Church.

1917

Co-written and directed by Sam Mendes best known for 1999’s American Beauty and the 2012 James Bond movie Skyfall, 1917 is a remarkable technical and cinematic achievement of a movie that relies on resembling a long shot filmed in real time to brilliantly capture what it must have been like as a soldier in the trenches during World War I. The premise of the movie is fairly simple and straightforward but the complexity of using cinematography to tell a story in remarkable detail makes for a truly extraordinary cinematic experience. Two British soldiers Lance Corporal Tom Blake, played by Dean-Charles Chapman, and Lance Corporal William Schofield, played by George MacKay, are told by their commanding officer who is played by Colin Firth that they must cross enemy territory in order to give word to the 2nd Battalion in which Blake’s brother is part of to call off their attack against the German military. Set over a course of several hours beginning on April 6, 1917, the two young soldiers embark on a harrowing adventure in which they face very real dangers in the no man’s land, the abandoned German trenches, the open French countryside, and eventually the frontline. As a result of the camera work, it feels as if the audience is right there with the soldiers and are experiencing the same terrifying aspects of warfare. The camera moves its way to closely follow the two main characters and almost the entire movie feels like one long shot in which the camera never stops filming the action. In another effective choice, the filmmaker decides to use two relatively unknown and new actors as the main characters to show how war affects the relatively anonymous foot soldiers, while the leadership and such major stars as Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, and Richard Madden are given less screentime. Overall, I found it to be one of the more unique war movies as a result of its magnificent cinematography and creative use of the long shot technique and therefore will stand the test of time as a true cinematic masterpiece.

Midway

Directed by Roland Emmerich who is best known for such Hollywood Blockbusters as 1996’s Independence Day and 2000’s The Patriot, Midway is a large-scale war action movie that heavily relies on CGI special effects to recreate the pivotal Battle of Midway during World War II but does not fully satisfy as a well-rounded movie as a result of its fairly generic script and characters. Based on true events of the beginning of the American involvement in World War II, the movie shows the devastating surprise attack on the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii by the Empire of Japan. The plot follows a bunch of American characters from the top with the Commander-in-chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, played by Woody Harrelson, to the top intelligence officer in the region Edwin Layton, played by Patrick Wilson, and all the way down to the Naval bomber and fighter pilots, including the real life Dick Best who is played by Ed Skrein and Wade McClusky who is played by Luke Evans. Also, unlike most traditional war movies, the film also follows several key Japanese Naval commanders and officers who are shown making battle decisions based on their best interest. After the somewhat haphazard introduction to almost too many characters to keep count, the story leads up to June 4, 1942 when the Japanese engage the American military at and around the remote islands of the Midway Atoll, a strategic base that allows for closer range to the Japanese Islands. What ensues is the Battle of Midway in which American aircraft carriers and their warplanes go up against the Japanese counterparts in what would become the one of the largest naval battles of World War II. In dramatic and spectacular fashion, the movie effectively uses special effects to capture what the battle must have been like with a constant flurry of aircraft and anti-aircraft fire on both sides. The main mission of the Americans is to destroy as many of the Japanese aircraft carriers as possible in order to recapture control of the Pacific Theater after the mass destruction of the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. The script also does scratch the surface of the personal lives of those involved, especially the Naval pilots, but is ineffective because it comes off as cheesy and formulaic, making for unnecessary storylines to the main thrust of the movie to portray a specific battle. Overall, I found it to be a suitably entertaining war movie that does a good job of using special effects to fashion realistic and thrilling battle sequences in order to tell the important story of the Battle of Midway, but, as a whole, relies on too many characters and a rather average screenplay to truly become an iconic war movie.

Jojo Rabbit

Written and directed by critically acclaimed New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi best known for 2016’s The Hunt for the Wilderpeople and 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok, Jojo Rabbit is a terrifically well-made comedy drama that has the unusual premise of satirizing the Nazis to provide a powerful message about hatred while also being highly entertaining as a result of its very irreverent humor. The plot follows a ten-year-old boy living in Nazi Germany during World War II named Johannes ‘Jojo’ Betzler, played by the talented young British actor Roman Griffin Davis, who is a fervent follower of the Nazis and happens to have Adolf Hitler, played by the brilliantly funny Taika Waititi, as his imaginary friend. Jojo and his best friend Yorki are active members of the Hitler Youth under the local leadership of the foolish Captain Klenzendorf, played by Oscar winner Sam Rockwell. Often at the disgust of the imaginary Hitler, Jojo has to deal with his secretively anti-Nazi single mother Rosie, played by Scarlett Johansson, who we eventually learn is hiding a young Jewish girl named Elsa, played by the acclaimed young New Zealand actress Thomasin McKenzie. When he first discovers her, Jojo has great disdain for Elsa because of his fervent Nazi beliefs, but, over time, they strike up a friendship with Jojo’s understanding that it could help him learn about the so-called Jewish enemy. He often fights with the childish and ridiculous imagination of Hitler who somewhat uncomfortably becomes the comic relief of the movie, and they obviously disagree about befriending a Jew. In addition to the main characters, the film’s comedic nature is greatly assisted by a cast of rather buffoonish characters played by such highly talented actors as Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant, and Alfie Allen. Despite all the preposterous shenanigans and over-the-top satirical portrayal of the Nazis, the film ends on a positive and important note by showing how someone so indoctrinated by hate like Jojo can come around to despise his previous actions and beliefs by simply getting to know the supposed enemy of Nazi Germany, Elsa as a Jewish girl. Overall, despite the fact that the movie is not for everyone as a result of its comedic depiction of the Nazis, I found it to be one of the more entertaining and incisive satires as a result of its terrific acting and very creative and irreverent script.

Tolkien

Directed by critically acclaimed Finnish director Dome Karukoski, Tolkien is a well-intentioned biopic, that is slightly disappointing, about one of the most important 20th century authors J. R. R. Tolkien and tries to explore what possibly inspired him to write the famous fantasy books The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings series. Living a difficult childhood as an orphan living in impoverished Birmingham, England, Tolkien, played by Nicholas Hoult best known for 2002’s About a Boy and 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road, is heavily influenced by a close group of friends he meets while studying at a prestigious school sponsored by the local Catholic Church. Eventually, because of his high marks, he goes on to study at Oxford University where he discovers his love for languages and continues to pursue his love interest Edith Bratt, played by Lily Collins who is the daughter of English musician Phil Collins. The movie is interspersed with flashbacks to his horrific experiences as a soldier in the trenches during World War War I in which some of his best friends are killed in action. The filmmaker makes the case that the creative and idealistic Tolkien was partly inspired by his wartime experiences to craft his later high fantasy books about the struggle between good and evil mixed in with magic and heroism. The movie sometimes goes overboard on focusing on the events and objects in his life that are visually connected to the characters and themes of his published works. Many of the references may go over most audience’s heads, but I could see how it would be a treat for fans of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings book series. Overall, despite the historical visual aesthetic and commendable acting performances, I found the film to be sometimes too slow and not really geared for general audiences as a result of the constant inundation of reference points in the otherwise fascinating story of Tolkien’s life.

Girls of the Sun

Directed by French filmmaker Eva Husson in her second feature film, Girls of the Sun is a surprisingly less-than-remarkable war drama that has the best of intentions by telling the story of a group of Kurdish female soldiers fighting ISIS. The all-female battalion led by the tough former lawyer Bahar is based on the remarkable Yazidi female soldiers from Iraqi Kurdistan fighting alongside their male counterparts in defeating the brutal ISIS regime that had taken hold of their territory. In a rather disjointed way in which the plot swerves rapidly between characters, the film follows this group of women who were compelled to fight after being freed from ISIS captivity as sex slaves and many of their husbands and sons were either killed or captured. The movie unnecessarily chooses to present their story through the eyes of a Westerner, specifically a veteran French war correspondent named Mathilde who is embedded with the unit for several days. Over the course of several days in which the film takes place, we witness the female soldiers trying to take back their small village in the Kurdish territory of Iraq and are engaged in several well-shot battle sequences. At random intervals, the filmmaker attempts to take a closer glimpse of the characters by presenting flashbacks of mostly the main character Bahar who is showed being taken captive, sexually assaulted, and searching for her son. Overall, I was disappointed in the cinematic treatment of such a compelling and important story about a group of courageous and powerful women; the narrative incoherence and lack of character development does not do any justice to the truly remarkable protagonists.

The Aftermath

Based on the 2013 novel of the same name written by Rhidian Brooke, The Aftermath is a visually stylish period drama with a terrific cast and intriguing story, but the film falters as a result of its formulaic and soapy script. Set in war-ravaged Hamburg, Germany in 1946 following the end of World War II, the plot follows a beautiful young English woman named Rachael, played by Oscar nominee Keira Knightley, who reunites with her husband Lewis Morgan, played by Jason Clarke, serving as a colonel in the British Forces Germany tasked with helping rebuild post-war Germany. Unbeknownst to her on her arrival to Germany, they are to live in a large mansion owned by a German widower who is going to be displaced from his home along with his teenage daughter. The previously wealthy architect Stefan Lubert, played by Emmy winner Alexander Skarsgård, and his rebellious daughter Susan are allowed to stay in the attic of the house until the time comes when they have to move out on the orders of the British military. Deeply unhappy about the situation and having to live in the ruins of a city away from the comforts of London, Rachael expresses her great displeasure to her husband who is often out of the house working long hours. Almost from the instant that the characters meet one another, it becomes rather predictable that Rachael and Stefan pretty soon begin a friendship and then a intimate romantic relationship that is kept a secret from Lewis for a time. Aesthetically well-crafted, the movie seems to drag on for a while as the illicit affair begins to cause great problems in Rachael’s marriage and Stefan’s connection with his depressed daughter who lost her mother and his wife in a bombing during the war. Overall, I thought it was a decent movie that surprisingly did not use the extremely talented cast to its full potential and relied too heavily on the expected tropes of the romantic drama genre.