Tuesday, May 30, 2017

1968 Winner, War and Peace

War and Peace

Director:  Sergei Bondarchuk

Distributed by:  Continental Distributing

Released:  March 1966 to November 1967 (in four parts)

Country:  U.S.S.R.

About a year and a half ago, I first considered reading Tolstoy’s 1869 mammoth 1,200 page novel War and Peace.  I was warned by a literature-major friend of mine to stay away, that the juice was not worth the squeeze, as it were.  Well, nobody tells the purveyor of My BFF Project what he can't do; I considered the gauntlet summarily thrown down.  Off to the library I went, full of vim and vigor, checked out the book and got started.  And twenty-six renewals later, I'm hoping to finish that monstrosity sometime during the current calendar year.

Sergei Bondarchuk as Pierre
Not to be outdone by Tolstoy, Soviet writer-director-actor Sergei Bondarchuk took it upon himself to a make 431-minute adaptation of the most famous Russian story—yes, that’s right, this “movie” clocks in at 7 hours and 19 minutes.  But in fairness, this is more like a mini-series, released in four parts over a two year period, not unlike the more recent Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit movies made by Peter Jackson.  And it is every bit the spectacle those film series were.

This is going to sound crazy, but the film version of War and Peace actually simplifies the story quite a bit, cutting out most of the innumerable characters of the book (Tolstoy actually did not consider it a “novel”) and chopping out a lot of the side-stories.  The film is set during the wars between Czarist Russia and Napoleon’s France in the first part of the 19th century.  There are three central characters as we meet them:  Pierre, played by Bondarchuk himself, an aimless intellectual who loves ideas and discussion, but loves his vodka more; Andrei, Pierre’s friend, who is a military man who isn’t really into the military thing anymore, and really isn’t into his pregnant wife anymore; and Natasha, a high-spirited and charming young girl whose parents aren’t really good with money and who dreams to marry her Russian Prince Charming some day.

To summarize a seven-hour film in a review seems pointless, but be assured, there is war and there is peace.  Then there is war again, then peace, then war, then finally (spoiler!), peace.  I will say this:  This is one grand epic of a film, and it takes its time.  But Bondarchuk’s pacing may be what I liked about it most.  Fairly faithful to Tolstoy, there is humor and sadness and
absurdity and romance, and all these exist in all the main characters.  Pierre, a somewhat comical figure, becomes a very, very rich man early on in the story, through no fault of his own, and much of what follows is about his struggle to understand what he is supposed to do with that wealth.  Andrei, a proud and increasingly nihilistic man, tries to find his life’s purpose, with the help of Pierre, Natasha, and of course, the war against Napoleon.  And Natasha, maybe the story’s most important figure, grows from a spirited life-loving girl to a serious and selfless woman.  I especially felt the director’s frequent use of the interior monologue was effective, as we got to understand what each character was thinking and feeling, at times better than the characters did themselves.

1956 Hollywood version
Historically, the fact this film was made when it was is amazing.  The Soviet Union under Khrushchev gave the go-ahead to make a movie that glorified pre-Soviet Russia, largely in part to counter the success of the American-Italian version of the story made in 1956, starring Henry Fonda, Mel Ferrer, and Audrey Hepburn in the leads.  There is much talk of God and religion, in keeping with the philosophical nature of Tolstoy’s writing (though Tolstoy himself didn't convert to Christianity until sometime after the writing of War and Peace).  I suppose it was more important to the government that it be responsible for the definitive film version of this Russian novel than it suppress the religious elements of the film.

No expense was spared in making this movie, what the Guinness Book of Records has called “the most expensive film ever made.”  The photography is amazing and the scope of this movie is epic.  But I never felt like there was much unnecessary to the story, and the plots flow well.  When I came to the end of the 7 hours and 19 minutes, I said to myself, “Gosh, that didn’t feel like more than 7 hours and 10 minutes, tops.”

The title:  Война и мир, or to make it easier on you, Voyna i mir.

2016 BBC/A&E version
The Culture:  The “war” part concerns Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, mostly, but the story starts sometime earlier, in 1805, and culminates in Napoleon’s expulsion from Moscow in 1812.  The “peace” part looks at Russian aristocracy through its three main characters, all of whom are on somewhat different social planes:  Pierre is the richest of all of them, but he’s a bastard and his money is new.  Andrei’s family is well-respected and monied, and though they love each other, communication is not their strong-suit. Natasha’s family is respectable, but struggles with money.  Culturally, War and Peace gives us a taste of what Russian aristocracy was like during this period.

Agenda danger:  The fact that the Soviet Union not only green-lighted, but commissioned this film is perplexing.  There is no real hint of anti-capitalism or Communist propaganda.  Even the Soviet Union’s other Best Foreign Films, Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears and Dersu Uzula, present some oblique critiques of capitalist thinking; War and Peace sticks to the spirit of the novel, which really doesn’t contain a hint of Communistic thought.

Best Picture that year:  Oliver!  That's the title; it's not as though I am extra-enthusiastic to name this one.  Because I'm not.

Rating:  I’m not sure how many of you would have the time or patience for a 7 hour 19 minute film, but people binge watch stuff like The Walking Dead, so why not give it a try?  I also very much liked the BBC-One/A&E mini-series from 2016.  That version focused on more characters and is much more upbeat and more “Hollywood.”  But the mini-series is also faithful to the book, and you can bang that version out in just under six hours.  

The book takes longer.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

1969 Winner, Z


Director:  Costa-Gavras

Distributed by:  Cinema V

Released:  February 1969

Country:  Algeria/France

I’m not one much for cinema with an overt political message—never cared much for All the President’s Men, nor for Dr. Strangelove, nor for anything by Oliver Stone.  Heck, I don’t even really count Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as worth seeing more than once.  So when I learned that Z, 1969’s Best Foreign Film, was considered some sort of all-time great political thriller, I have to admit, I went in begrudgingly.  I don’t like to be hit over the head with a preachy message.

But movies can “transcend the genre,” as they say, and I think Z is one of those films.  Based on a real assassination, that of Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis in 1963, Z has good guys and bad guys.  The good guys are the leftists who protest war and call for overturning the current system.  The bad guys are the militaristic right-wing government, plain and simple.  The movie starts with the good guys just wanting to have a little get-together in a government-approved setting.  Their political leader is The Deputy, played by Yves Montand, probably best known to American audiences from the 1966 film Grand Prix, with James Garner and Toshiro Mifune.  The bad guys find ways to obstruct and interfere with the good guys’ right to assemble.  The good guys are determined to let The Deputy give his speech, and eventually a time and place (smaller than they’d like) is set.

The Director, while still alive
The Deputy is on the way to make his speech when . . . BAM!  He is knocked on the head with something stronger than just a political message.  The culprit is some ruffian, presumably hired by the bad guys.  But The Deputy is no wallflower—despite one helluva headache, he goes on to make his speech, condemning nukes over the loudspeakers for all to hear outside the small venue.  After the speech, feeling pretty keen about himself, but still needing a couple of aspirin desperately, The Deputy walks out and through the crowd.  Out of nowhere, a car pulls out toward him and BAM!  Like a Bugs Bunny cartoon, he is given a second lump.

This time The Deputy goes down like Apollo Creed after an Ivan Drago haymaker; and this time, he isn’t getting up.  The government (i.e., the bad guys) “believes” this was a classic open-and-shut case of manslaughter by drunk-driving, naturally.  The rest of the film follows the investigation into this incident, with the forces of truth being opposed at every turn by those in power doing all they can to cover up what really happened and who really did it.
"How many lumps?"  "Three or four!"

One such honest investigator is played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, who stars in two other Best Foreign Films, 2012’s Amour, and 1966’s A Man and a Woman (to be reviewed here in a few weeks), both French films (also of note, the role of the Photojournalist in this film is played by Jacques Perrin, who played as the adult Tito in 1989 BFF Winner, Cinema Paradiso.  Perrin was also the producer of the film).  This investigator is honest and stubbornly pursuant of the truth.  The real question the movie poses is:  Is being an honest man stubbornly pursuant of the truth enough against the full forces of government who have every interest in covering that truth?

Z has great performances and the pacing and photography are perfect for the story.  There is a documentary feel to this film, but it is not without episodes of dark humor.  Especially amusing are the thugs whom the government has working for it, not really bright enough to know why they are doing what they are doing.  The film was billed as a thriller, but it really isn’t one if you
Jean-Louis Trintignant as The Deputy
are paying attention.  The filmmakers have a political viewpoint that is out there for you to see, so if you are surprised by how events unfold, you may be dumber than the thugs that perpetrate the crimes.

The title:  The letter is a symbol that somehow means, “He lives!” according to the film’s closing sequence.  Maybe The Director isn’t really dead, but was only sleeping?  But in that case, they should have called it, “Zzzzz.”

The Culture:  This is an Algerian-French production, but the country of setting is never really identified, despite the story being a fictionalized account of a real event in Greece.  The culture portrayed is a post-war time of political activism and upheaval.

Agenda danger:  Left good; right bad.  The establishment is corrupt and the opposition are pure as the driven snow.  About as subtle as a hammer to the head.  On a side note, Oliver Stone structured his artistically-interesting but truth-averse JFK on this movie, directed by Greek-born Costa-Gavras.

I'm walkin' here!
Best Picture that year:  Midnight Cowboy.  I’m walkin’ here!

Rating:  Your political point of view is sure to color what you think of this movie.  I found it a bit ham-handed message-wise, but the film itself is very watchable.  Stone’s JFK and Spike Lee’s Malcom X are examples of similarly well-made movies, worth checking out for the film-making and performances (particular Denzel Washington’s in the latter), but then to be put aside never to be seen again.  But that’s just this man’s opinion.