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.

Atonement

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

Ordeal and Triumph

Patton started the 70’s with a bang. A film based on the life of World War II Army General George S. Patton had been in the works since his death in 1945. Despite resistance from his widow, descendants, and even the Pentagon, a movie was finally made 2 decades later. Patton turned out to be a great war film with one of the best biographical performances of all time. With a nearly 3 hour runtime, it’s no surprise Patton won Best Picture. After something as different as Planet of the Apes, Franklin J. Schaffner ended up winning Best Director for Patton. The screenwriting team was especially good with Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund H. North winning Best Original Screenplay. Though he didn’t win Best Original Score, Jerry Goldsmith’s theme is an all-American classic. Patton also won Best Art Direction, Film Editing, and Sound.

Of course the movie would be nothing without a career best performance by George C. Scott who won Best Actor. Although he declined the award, it doesn’t change how well deserved it was. Scott was practically born to play the general. Right down to having a similar name. General George S. Patton is a truly complex character. He’s a tough bastard who earned the nickname “Old Blood and Guts.” One second he’s honoring his injured troops, next second he’s slapping a soldier for losing his nerve. He’s a praying man who swears like a sailor. Though not too much since they wanted to maintain a PG rating. Patton’s methods may be harsh, but he’s also a poet who loves his job and fondly remembers the glory days. All of that is captured in the iconic opening scene where Patton addresses his troops in front of a giant American flag. Giving one of the most famous speeches of all time. The scene has been imitated and/or parodied a countless number of times.

It’s a tough act to follow, but the rest of the movie is just as good. Patton follows most of the general’s career through the entirety of WWII. I don’t fully understand war strategy, but most of the action is spent on the battlefield with Patton leading the Seventh and Third United States Armies. Meanwhile, the Nazis make plans to take out the general. Patton’s most outspoken critic is his fellow U.S. General Omar Bradley played by Karl Malden. Even the British don’t always support him, but he still has their respect. Most of his respect is lost after the “slapping incident” and after denouncing the Russians. Neither of which ruins his reputation enough to keep him from finishing what he started. Ending with another impactful speech that sums up the movie’s theme that all glory is fleeting. Patton has winner written all over it.

Patton

General George S. Patton addresses his troops

The Strawberry Investigation

The Caine Mutiny is like a cross between Mutiny on the Bounty and From Here to Eternity. It both deals with a mutiny aboard a Navy vessel and takes place during World War II near Pearl Harbor. The difference is the 1951 book wasn’t based on historical fact. The Navy never had an official mutiny and the movie didn’t receive their seal of approval until that was made clear. I knew nothing about The Caine Mutiny, but I’m glad I saw it. Fun fact, Michael Caine actually got his stage name from the movie. It’s an interesting character study that centers around the actions of Naval officers who fear their captain is unfit for duty.

Officers include the late Robert Francis as fresh out of college Ensign Willis Keith. When he questions his first captain, he’s immediately replaced by the far worse Lieutenant Commander Queeg. Humphrey Bogart manages to make Queeg unreasonably difficult and overly strict, but never unsympathetic. Queeg is seen as paranoid due to his cowardice actions, ball bearing habit, and launching an investigation of something as ridiculous as strawberries. Fred MacMurray is somewhere in-between as writer Lt. Tom Keefer who initially suggests a mutiny, but tries to save face in the end.

Van Johnson follows through with the mutiny as Lt. Steve Maryk relieves him of duty during a typhoon. The final act is a rousing court-martial led by José Ferrer as their lawyer Lt. Barney Greenwald. When Queeg cracks, Greenwald manages to make the men (and the audiences) see things from both sides. It’s a complex story that had to be stripped down from page to screen. Which is why the movie includes a mostly unnecessary love story between Keith and singer May Wynn. Yet The Caine Mutiny still managed several Academy Award nominations including Best Picture. The Caine Mutiny has an enduring legacy.

The Caine Mutiny

Lieutenant Commander Queeg joins the USS Caine

Onward, Christian Soldiers

Mrs. Miniver is the first of many World War II films to win Best Picture. Predating Casablanca by one year. Since 1942 was at the height of WWII, Mrs. Miniver couldn’t help but lean into propaganda. Although the movie is more war adjacent than a straightforward war film. It’s told from the perspective of its title character. Mrs. Kay Miniver is an average everyday English housewife created by Jan Struther for a newspaper column. William Wyler won his first of three Best Director Oscars for the film. Other awards include Best Cinematography and Best Screenplay. The script couldn’t have been easy to write with the war changing so rapidly. Yet Mrs. Miniver is both topical and thoroughly engrossing.

Nearly every cast member was nominated, but it’s Greer Garson who commands the screen with her career making performance. Kay is a loving wife and mother who indulges herself before the war breaks out. Walter Pidgeon was nominated for his performance as Kay’s caring husband Clem. Like Cavalcade before it, Mr. and Mrs. Miniver are determined to keep their children safe in times of war. Their children are the sweet Judy, chatty Toby, and grown up Oxford graduate Vin. The plot is mostly divided with the war raging in the background. Mrs. Miniver has a rose named after her by the kindly Mr. Ballard played by an Oscar nominated Henry Travers. Clem is called to fight in Dunkirk, but it’s all left to our imagination. What we do see is a very intense confrontation between Mrs. Miniver and an injured Nazi pilot. Of course the scene had to be reshot when America entered the war.

Vin joins the Air Force and develops a passionate romance with Carol Beldon. Teresa Wright also deserved her Best Supporting Actress win playing a different kind of war bride. Dame May Whitty was only nominated for her scene stealing portrayal as Carol’s grandmother Lady Beldon. Her arc involves a rose competition that tests her newfound acceptance of the Miniver family. You truly feel the devastation of the war when bombs drop on their fallout shelter and unexpected casualties start to add up. Although propaganda in nature, the final speech at a ruined church followed by a rendition of “Onward, Christian Soldiers” is enough to inspire anyone. There is a 1950 sequel titled The Miniver Story, but it wasn’t nearly as acclaimed. A rose by any other name would be Mrs. Miniver.

Mrs. Miniver

Mr. and Mrs. Miniver protect their children

Followed by: The Miniver Story

From the Playground to the Battleground

All Quiet on the Western Front is a timeless anti-war message. It was the first sound war film to win Best Picture after the silent Wings. All Quiet on the Western Front is also the first (but far from the last) Best Picture winner based on a novel. The 1929 book of the same name was almost immediately followed by the Hollywood adaptation. I read the book in school and watched the movie, but I completely forgot that it was from the perspective of German soldiers. It’s hard to tell considering the American accents. Bare in mind this was World War I. The book and movie’s anti-war themes got it banned and/or burned a decade after Nazis rose to power.

All Quiet on the Western Front is all about the loss of innocence affected by the war. A school professor convinces a class full of impressionable youths to join the Army with what can only be called propaganda. It’s all fun and games at first, but reality hits them as soon as the first bombs start to fall. As a pre-Code 1930 movie, All Quiet on the Western Front doesn’t hold back on depicting the very real tragedy of war. Thanks to the direction of Lewis Milestone who won the Oscar for Best Director. Young soldiers are blinded, blown up, shot, and amputated on.

They’re forced to fight in dangerous trenches while dealing with giant rats and mustard gas. The only fleeting moments of levity are the soldiers getting back at their drill instructor, getting double food rations, and seducing French dames. As the 2nd Company starts to die out, Paul is one of the few who survives. He really starts to question the war when he fatally wounds an enemy soldier who’s no different than him. Things come full circle when Paul returns home, only to realize the front was all he had left to live for. There is a follow up book and movie called The Road Back, but it’s not as well known or acclaimed. All Quiet on the Western Front is one of the best war movies ever put to film.

All Quiet on the Western Front

The 2nd Company in the trenches