Cadillac of the Skies

Empire of the Sun explores World War II through the eyes of an innocent child. Steven Spielberg manages to bring together his love of coming-of-age stories with his fascination of WWII. Though epic filmmaker David Lean was originally set to direct, it was too personal for Spielberg not to direct himself. Empire of the Sun was equally personal for author J. G. Ballard who based the story on his own experience living in Shanghai during the Japanese occupation. I’m not too familiar with that side of the war, but Spielberg has a way of making any topic easy to understand. The cinematography captures the wonder of Shanghai and the John Williams score finds hope in a hopeless situation.

Empire of the Sun was nominated for 5 Oscars, but like The Color Purple, it didn’t win a single one. Most people will remember a very young Christian Bale in his first major film role. Though he was only 12 at the time, Bale believably captures the loss of innocence. Empire of the Sun is PG, but this is no children’s film. Jamie is a spoiled English boy with a lovely singing voice who enjoys riding his bike, questions his faith, and mistreats his Chinese servants. His deep love of planes is the only thing he manages to hold onto when he’s separated from his parents and sent to live in a Japanese internment camp. Jim brings hope to imprisoned English and American citizens while even earning respect from Japanese pilots.

John Malkovich is uncharacteristically caring as the American Basie who takes Jim under his wing. Joe Pantoliano is a bit less accepting as his second-in-command Frank. What really surprised me was seeing young comedian Ben Stiller as one of the soldiers. Nigel Havers plays a doctor at the camp who tries to keep Jim grounded. Though events like Pearl Harbor and the Pacific War are mentioned, Jim witnesses the bombing of Nagasaki from a distance. The scene includes Miranda Richardson as one of the many malnourished POW’s. By the time the war ends, Jim is an entirely different person. Empire of the Sun soars as high as Spielberg’s most acclaimed WWII projects.

Empire of the Sun

Jim touches a fighter plane

War Pigeons

Valiant is one of the most forgotten computer animated movies ever distributed by Disney. I can’t believe I ever mistook it for a Pixar movie. At the time my brother and I were determined to see every computer animated movie regardless of who made it. My dad actually took us to the theater to see Valiant when I was 10 years old. I never had any desire to see it again and it doesn’t hold up well after a rewatch. Valiant is only 1 hour & 15 minutes long with amateur animation done exclusively in the UK. Though Disney was the American distributor, Valiant was the first film from the British studio Vanguard Animation.

The respectable British cast is about the only impressive thing about the movie. Ewan McGregor, Ricky Gervais, John Cleese, Olivia Williams, John Hurt, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Laurie, and Tim Curry all put forth minimal effort. It’s a shame, because the stories heart is in the right place. Valiant is technically a war picture set in World War II from the perspective of homing pigeons. The titular Valiant is a small pigeon with big dreams of joining the Royal air force. You know the drill, he’s an underdog that no one believes in until he proves himself in the end.

The rest of his squad is forgettable, but his wacky sidekick Bugsy is hard to ignore. Let’s just say war and fart jokes don’t really go together. All the animals wear clothing including French beret wearing mice, a fully clothed nurse that Valiant has a crush on, and the falcon villain wearing a not so subtle eyepatch. At least there’s no overt Nazi imagery in this kids movie. It’s nice to learn about the real life animals who were awarded in WWII, but Valiant is too boring to make it interesting.


Royal Homing Pigeon Service Squad F

What is a Soldier without War?

All Quiet on the Western Front (2022) is the most authentic adaptation of the 1929 novel. Unlike the 1930 original or 1979 TV movie, the 2022 Netflix film was actually made in Germany with a German cast speaking German. Since most war movies are from an American perspective, you’re forgiven for thinking All Quiet on the Western Front is one of them. I’m always willing to watch a foreign language film, but Netflix does have an automatic English dub that I refused to watch. If any German film was going to make an impact internationally, I’m glad it was something familiar that they could make their own. All Quiet on the Western Front (2022) keeps the emotionally affective theme of young soldiers facing the harsh reality of World War I, but this is more reimagining than remake.

Paul is still the soldier we follow from the frontline and into the trenches, but his entire homelife is left out. German newcomer Felix Kammerer shows a wide range of emotion as the world crumbles around him. We learn a lot more about older comrade Kat and Paul’s enlisted classmates who have different fates compared to the original. We see the trenches, mustard gas, giant rats, flamethrowers, flooding, and other terrible situations that the soldiers had to deal with. Singing and cooking a goose are the biggest moments of levity in the film. The French women are included, but it’s mostly off-screen. Although many scenes are taken out, I’m glad they included Paul trying to save the young French soldier that he stabs. Of course the biggest change was showing the behind the scenes signing of the Armistice that ended the war.

German representative Matthias Erzberger is likely played by Daniel Brühl in order to appeal to a wider audience. The war ending at a precise time makes Paul’s fate even more tragic in a full circle sort of way. All Quiet on the Western Front (2022) truly comes full circle with 9 Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Makeup and Hairstyling, Sound, and Visual Effects. Best International Feature Film was the most obvious win, along with Original Score, Production Design, and Cinematography. WWI is flawlessly recreated through various means and the intense bass score sticks with you. All Quiet on the Western Front (2022) is violent and gritty, but there is beauty in its production.

All Quiet on the Western Front 2022

The 2nd Company in the trenches

They Left for War as Boys, Never to Return as Men

All Quiet on the Western Front (1979) matches the harsh reality of the Best Picture winning original. The difference was choosing to make it a made-for-TV movie. A decision that earned the adaptation a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Made for Television. All Quiet on the Western Front (1979) is as intense as the book, but there was only so much CBS could show on Network TV. While I watched the 1930 original in school, my brother brought this version to my attention after he saw it in school. The 1979 version is just as authentic to World War I, but the cast is still primarily English or American.

Marty director Delbert Mann brought several big names including former collaborator Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasence, Ian Holm, and Patricia Neal. I was only familiar with Richard Thomas thanks to his role in It. He plays the primary young soldier Paul who joins out of school just like the original. The difference was taking a nonlinear approach to the first act. Pleasence plays the propaganda spouting recruitment professor, but the response from his class is more subtle. Holm plays the overly strict drill instructor who gets no respect from the 2nd Company. I can buy Pleasence and Holm in the cast, but Borgnine is far too American to play a man named Stanislaus Katczinsky.

Although he is the best supporting character for his frank discussions about the meaning of war. Paul uses narration to describe everything bad about the war. Including trench warfare, giant rats, mustard gas, and flamethrowers. The tragic fate of each member in Paul’s company also plays out the same. As does the moment where Paul takes pity on a French enemy soldier. The scene with the lovely French women is longer, but just as tame. Neal makes a brief impact as Paul’s sick mother when he returns home, only to realize the front is his real home. Since a butterfly was original to the 1930 film, it’s a bird that inevitably ends the war. All Quiet on the Western Front (1979) proves just as relevant no matter what decade it is.

All Quiet on the Western Front 1979

The 2nd Company on the frontline

Heil Me, Man

Jojo Rabbit is the feel good war movie of the 2010’s. That sounds wrong, but imagine trying to pitch the movie. How do you get a coming of age comedy about a Hitler Youth made in this day in age? Somehow writer/director Taika Waititi managed to get Jojo Rabbit made between Thor movies. Of course it was polarizing, but for his effort Waititi won his first Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. Though the story sounds very original, it was loosely inspired by the much more serious book Caging Skies. Jojo Rabbit was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, and Best Production Design. Jojo Rabbit was deliberately made as colorful and innocent looking as possible. The satire is over-the-top and supposed to highlight the absurdity of the Nazi party.

A German version of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” is a good parallel between Nazi fanaticism and Beatlemania. The more characters say “Heil Hitler,” the more ridiculous it is. Especially from the perspective of a child who blindly follows the Führer. Jojo is a good kid deep down who just wants to belong and have a father figure in his life. Unfortunately, that comes in the form of his imaginary friend Adolf played by a hilariously buffoonish Waititi. Newcomer Roman Griffin Davis is the perfect blonde haired, blue eyed child actor who balances Jojo’s changing ideology. Starting with a facial disfigurement that hurts his self-esteem even more. Jojo is part of the Deutsches Jungvolk Hitler Youth program. Jojo’s only real friend is his equally clueless buddy Yorki played by fellow newcomer Archie Yates. It’s at camp that Jojo learns from Captain Klenzendorf and Fräulein Rahm played by a scene stealing Sam Rockwell and Rebel Wilson respectively.

Rahm is basically German Rebel Wilson, but Rockwell turns Klenzendorf into a surprisingly supportive authority figure. That honor actually belongs to Jojo’s kind mother Rosie. For her layered portrayal, Scarlett Johansson was nominated twice in the same year. Though she seems like a Nazi to everyone she knows, Rosie secretly opposes the war and harbors a Jew in her attic. Thomasin McKenzie is so spunky and likeable as Elsa that even Jojo starts to fall for her. At first he just wants to get information about Jews, but the humorous tone slowly fades as Jojo sees the truth. It’s incredibly tense when the Gestapo drop by and Adolf stops being so friendly. An unexpected twist is surprisingly emotional, but the thought of dancing is enough to give Jojo and Elsa hope that World War II will end. Jojo Rabbit is perfect anti-hate propaganda.

Jojo Rabbit

Jojo Rabbit goes running with Adolf

160 Confirmed Kills

American Sniper refers to the most lethal sniper in U.S. Military history. United States Navy SEAL Chris Kyle gained attention with his autobiography of the same name. The book was written one year before the soldier’s tragic death, but a movie was in development almost immediately. Several big names were attached, but directing duties eventually went to Clint Eastwood with Bradley Cooper as the star. American Sniper became the highest grossing film of Eastwood’s career and one of the most profitable war movies in recent memory.

Though completely ignored by the Golden Globes, American Sniper received several Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, and Best Sound Mixing. Only winning Best Sound Editing since every 2014 nominee won at least one award. Like The Hurt Locker or Zero Dark Thirty, American Sniper deals with the controversial Iraq War. Chris Kyle was also controversial, but that shouldn’t shape one’s opinion of the movie. American Sniper is heart-stopping whenever Kyle takes aim at an intended target. His record 160 confirmed kills made him a legend among his unit.

Cooper is incredibly good at portraying Kyle’s regret when losing a fellow soldier. Kyle is very patriotic and a man of faith who grows increasingly distant from his family back home. Unfortunately, the serious scene where Kyle returns home to his newborn baby is ruined by the use of a distracting baby doll. Most of Kyle’s personal life is covered from meeting his wife Taya played by Sienna Miller to his untimely death at the hands of mentally ill Veteran Eddie Ray Routh. Fortunately, the final scene is handled with dignity. American Sniper answers for every shot that it takes.

American Sniper

Chris Kyle takes aim

The Secret Letter

Atonement is a tragic period romance. Based on the Ian McEwan book of the same name, director Joe Wright faithfully adapted the original story. Atonement is a book turned movie about writing a book. It was nominated for Best Picture, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction, Cinematography, and Costume Design. Only winning for a Best Original Score that incorporates the sound of a typewriter. Atonement takes place in a beautifully shot 1930’s England. At only 13 years old, Irish actress Saoirse Ronan got her first Oscar nomination playing English aspiring novelist Briony.

Though she shares the role with two other actresses, Ronan makes the strongest impression as the mature, yet naive daughter of wealthy aristocrats. Atonement was Wright’s second feature after Pride & Prejudice with Keira Knightly taking part in another period romance. She’s a classic beauty who makes an impression wearing an iconic green dress. Cecilia is Briony’s older sister in love with her childhood friend Robbie. James McAvoy has excellent chemistry with Knightly. Though Briony is jealous of her sister and misinterprets every romantic encounter that they have. A very young Juno Temple plays a visiting cousin and a before he was famous Benedict Cumberbatch plays a chocolatier friend of the family.

Briony falsely accuses Robbie of an unspeakable crime and she spends the rest of her life trying to atone for it. The movie transitions into World War II with Robbie escaping prison by becoming a soldier and Cecilia becoming a nurse. WWII is equally well shot with an impressive single take of Dunkirk. An 18 year old Briony also becomes a nurse played by an equally dedicated Romola Garai. Briony seems to atone when Cecilia and Robbie are reunited, but reality tells a different story. Though her scenes are brief, Vanessa Redgrave is a much older Briony who reveals a heart wrenching twist. Atonement gives the writer and the audience the happy ending they desire.


Cecilia waits outside

Playing through the Pain

The Pianist is very different than The Piano. It tells the story of Holocaust survivor Władysław Szpilman. A Polish-Jewish pianist who lived to be 88 years old. I’ve known about the movie for years since my brother watched it when he was in high school. Though my heart says The Two Towers should’ve won, I feel like The Pianist is the more logical Best Picture winner than Chicago. The Pianist won other major awards including Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Like Steven Spielberg and Schindler’s List, The Pianist was a deeply personal film for controversial director Roman Polanski. He himself was a Polish-Jew who survived the Kraków Ghetto at a young age. Speaking of young, Adrien Brody became the youngest Best Actor winner of all time at the age of 29. He was so happy that he kissed Halle Berry live on stage. Szpilman is at first a thriving pianist who ends up losing everything and everyone he cares about. Brody more than earned his Oscar by losing weight and appearing more malnourished and gaunt overtime. The Oscar winning screenplay can be viewed in three parts.

The first act slowly introduces World War II as Jews are forced to wear Star of David armbands. Szpilman has a family and a singer that he loves, but all that is taken away from him. The second act is set during the Nazi occupation of Poland where Jews are forced to do labor or executed. Szpilman manages to avoid concentration camps by hiding with non-Jews. The third act is practically a silent film as Szpilman desperately tries to survive in the ruins of Warsaw. Szpilman avoids death thanks to a friendly German officer played by future King Kong collaborator Thomas Kretschmann. Playing the piano saves his life and makes The Pianist a moving story of survival.

The Pianist

Władysław Szpilman plays the piano

The Heart is an Organ of Fire

The English Patient is another standard Best Picture winner. It’s British, nearly 3 hours long, set during World War II, there’s romance, and a sweeping foreign location. I deliberately avoided The English Patient for years, because it was long and sounded boring. I don’t hate it like Elaine did on Seinfeld, but I do think Fargo was the more deserving Best Picture winner. The English Patient was nominated for 12 Academy Awards and won 9 for Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actress, Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design, Film Editing, Original Score, and Sound. Director and writer Anthony Minghella had the difficult task of adapting Michael Ondaatje’s book of the same name.

The English Patient is told from multiple perspectives with real life Hungarian cartographer Count László Almásy at the center. Though the book and movie are highly fictionalized, Ralph Fiennes delivers a star-making Oscar nominated performance as the mostly unlikable map maker. Almásy spends a lot of time in the Egyptian desert with his friend Madox during WWII. He starts a passionate love affair with the married Katherine Clifton. Though she began her career with a Razzie nomination, Kristin Scott Thomas redeems herself in the Oscar nominated role. Fiennes and Scott Thomas have powerful chemistry, but it is still an affair. Colin Firth plays her husband who supplies an airplane that ends up having harsh consequences.

The only thing that makes The English Patient feel especially long is the fact that the mysterious amnesia stricken English patient is slowly dying from severe third-degree burns near the end of the war. French actress Juliette Binoche won Best Supporting Actress for playing the grief stricken nurse Hana who cares for Almásy. She has her own, much more innocent love affair with Sikh bomb defuser Kip played by the Indian Naveen Andrews. They’re also joined by Willem Dafoe as a Canadian spy seeking revenge from the Germans and possibly Almásy himself. The English Patient is an effective character study that could’ve been tightened up a bit.

The English Patient

Almásy dances with Katherine

Russian Roulette

The Deer Hunter is the first Best Picture winner about the Vietnam War. Made at a time when the war was still a controversial subject. Making The Deer Hunter the first major Hollywood movie to truly capture the harsh reality of the war. Predating Apocalypse Now by one year. The Deer Hunter has similarly been called one of the greatest movies of all time, but I knew I needed to work myself up to it. My only knowledge of the film was its use of the deadly game Russian Roulette. A game where a player puts a single bullet in a revolver, spins the barrel, and has 1 to 5 odds of dying. You can imagine the controversy when several impressionable youths decided to take part in the game.

The Deer Hunter was always meant to center around Russian Roulette, but the Vietnam part came later. It originally took place in Vegas with the title The Man Who Came to Play. Whether the game’s presence in Vietnam was factually accurate or not doesn’t stop it from being a powerful theme throughout the 3 hour movie. Lesser known director Michael Cimino was apparently very difficult to work with on set. Taking control of both the writing and editing process. The Deer Hunter is way longer than it needs to be, but events are split into a distinct three act structure…

The Deer Hunter

Mike and Nick play Russian Roulette

The Deer Hunter takes place before, during, and after Vietnam. The first act is dedicated to establishing the characters before they’re shipped off. Since Cimeno wasn’t a big name at the time, the movie needed an all-star cast to draw attention. The Deer Hunter managed to secure Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage, Meryl Streep, and John Cazale. They all play Slavic-American members of a tightnit steel worker community. This was sadly Cazale’s final film since he was dying of terminal cancer at the time. Cazale has the rare distinction of only acting in Best Picture nominated movies. Including The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather Part II, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Deer Hunter. Streep mostly took a role because she was with Cazale at the time. This was only Streep’s second movie, yet she managed to get nominated for her first of several Oscars.

The three primary servicemen are De Niro as Mike, Walken as Nick, and Savage as Steven. Mike and Nick are best friends, but they’re both in love with Streep’s emotionally damaged character Linda. Steven gets married to Angela before being sent to Vietnam. A lot of time is spent on every little detail of the wedding. Though it is important to see the characters in happier times. That includes everyone singing “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” in a bar and going on the titular deer hunt. All three friends are joined by Cazale’s Stan, George Dzundza’s John, and real life foreman Chuck Aspegren’s Axel. The first deer hunt sees Mike kill a deer no problem. The second act abruptly shifts to Vietnam. Mike, Nick, and Steven think honor and glory is waiting for them, but they should’ve listened to the soldier they met earlier at the wedding.

Explosions and civilian casualties aren’t given nearly as much attention as the first game of Russian Roulette. Viet Cong are depicted with a ruthless fixation on the game of chance. Steven breaks down completely and Nick is forced to play against Mike. It’s incredibly tense, but Mike manages to get them out of the situation. Mike keeps a levelhead throughout the conflict, but Nick isn’t so lucky. Although De Niro was rightfully nominated for Best Actor, it’s Walken who deserved his Best Supporting Actor win. Nick’s PTSD gets to him and he goes AWOL in Saigon. The third act sees Mike return home a changed man. He can’t face his own welcome home party, he deliberately fails to kill a deer, and he makes a move on Linda.

Steven winds up alive, but he faces the all too common loss of his legs and confinement in a veteran hospital. When Mike searches for Nick in Saigon, he finds another changed man. Nick’s transformation into a despondent heroine addicted professional Russian Roulette player is haunting. The scene has just as much tension as the earlier scenes, but this time it doesn’t end so well for the fallen soldier. Though I’m sure ending with his friends gathered to sing “God Bless America” wasn’t trying to make a statement. The Deer Hunter was up against another Vietnam war movie called Coming Home, but the former had a greater impact that earned it Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Film Editing, and Best Sound. The Deer Hunter leaves an impression.

The Deer Hunter

Mike goes deer hunting