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Two unusual WWII films in this week's new DVD reviews 

MERRY CHRISTMAS MR. LAWRENCE (1983). This World War II drama ignores battlefield skirmishes for culture clashes, and in doing so, it carves out its own niche as one of the most atypical POW films ever made. The setting is a Japanese-run prison camp during 1942, with British captive Col. Lawrence (Tom Conti) the only one on either side making an effort to understand both the history and the mindset of the enemy. The only bilingual prisoner in the joint, he strikes up an interesting relationship with Sgt. Hara (future superstar Takeshi Kitano, here billed only as Takeshi), who can unexpectedly veer from brutal soldier to cheerful conversationalist. Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto) rules the camp with a firm but usually unobtrusive hand, but everything changes with the arrival of Maj. Jack Celliers (David Bowie). An ace soldier captured after he parachuted into enemy territory (The Man Who Fell to Earth?), Celliers stirs feelings in Yonoi — homosexual longing? identity envy? — but refuses to play along, doing his best to disrupt the carefully established order. Director Nagisa Oshima creates a very specific mood in his first English-language picture, while he and co-scripter Paul Mayersberg take care to make sure every character, whether British or Japanese, is humanized rather than demonized (one great scene details how one culture can believe suicide is honorable while the other thinks it's cowardly). All of the performances are fine (including pop star Sakamoto, who also composed the film's score), although it's Takeshi who steals the picture. 1983 proved to be a banner year for the movie's two British leads: Conti also starred in Reuben, Reuben, earning himself a Best Actor Oscar nomination, while Bowie appeared in the cult vampire flick The Hunger and also released the smash album Let's Dance.

Extras in the two-disc DVD set include a 30-minute making-of featurette from 1983; lengthy new interviews with Conti, Sakamoto, Mayersberg and producer Jeremy Thomas; and a 55-minute documentary about Laurens van der Post, author of the autobiographical novel on which the film is based.

Movie: ***

Extras: ***

THE THIN RED LINE (1998). With only four feature films to his credit, director Terrence Malick has nevertheless managed to earn a lofty place of distinction among the critical community. The Thin Red Line, which ranks above 2005's The New World, below 1973's Badlands and alongside 1978's Days of Heaven, is arguably the Malick film whose fortunes can fluctuate the most on repeat viewings. Watching it again for the first time in 12 years, I found it to be more rewarding (if still flawed) this time around. Based on James Jones' classic novel but reshaped to fit Malick's blissful sensibilities, this is ostensibly about the pivotal battle of Guadalcanal, one of the turning points of World War II. But Malick (who also wrote the script) isn't interested in the specifics of the skirmish as much as he's interested in how the natural beauty and harmony of the earth is mercilessly disrupted by the carnage that modern man brings to the scene via his weapons of mass destruction and glorified notions of victory and conquest. And with a generous three-hour running time, he's also able to show the dehumanizing effects of war on its participants, although this theme was admittedly handled more adroitly by Stanley Kubrick in Paths of Glory and Full Metal Jacket. There are several notable turns by members of the all-star cast — Nick Nolte (as a bullying officer) earns the highest marks, with top-billed Sean Penn (courageous sergeant) and Elias Koteas (mild-mannered captain) also worthy of mention — but those participating solely for George Clooney or John Travolta need not apply (Travolta gets one scene while poor Clooney only gets one speech). The voice-overs by the various characters represent the film's ultimate litmus test: Those who embrace this device will probably love the whole movie, while those turned off by it will frequently be kept at arm's length. This earned seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, but lost in all categories — mainly to the year's other WWII flick, Saving Private Ryan.

Extras in the two-disc DVD set include audio commentary by cinematographer John Toll, producer Grant Hill and production designer Jack Fisk; interviews with various actors (including Penn, Koteas and Jim Caviezel), crew members and James Jones' daughter, Kaylie Jones; 14 minutes of outtakes; and WWII newsreels from Guadalcanal and the Solomon Islands.

Movie: ***

Extras: ***

 

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