The Great Escape (Was it, though? Really?)

With a poster like this, you just know it’s going to be escapey.

I never saw this one before, but based on the poster, I had a good idea of what I was in for. What I didn’t expect was the jaunty Stripes/Private Benjamin music to be played throughout a movie about a group of British, Australian, and American fliers escaping from a Nazi prison camp. The first few minutes of the movie, as the men are being driven to summer camp the Nazi camp, convinced me that I was about to see a lighthearted, “Springtime for Hitler” type of deal.

And I was not far off. The tone of the movie was entirely too light. If you haven’t seen it, the movie was about soldiers that absolutely did not seem concerned for the cause for the war they were fighting, or express interest in the atrocities that were taking place 370 kilometers away at Auschwitz-Birkenau. They talked in a general way about the Nazis, but the Commandant of Stalag Luft III seemed to be an affable fellow, and didn’t instill any fear of reprisals for the endless escape attempts. The men always had plenty of food, clothing, wood to burn,  and the most extreme punishment that we see doled out to the escapees is 20 days in a warm, but boring, room. Multiple escape attempts received a slap on the wrist, and an exasperated eye roll. There seemed to be some sort of “gentlemen’s agreement” that the soldiers were required to attempt escape, and the guards were required to bring them back, no worse for the wear. Until the end, but even then, they didn’t all get killed by the Nazis. Some of them came back, totally unscathed.

I have a real issue with a movie about World War II that makes it seem so not-traumatic. I expect that movies about The Holocaust should impress upon the audience that this was a horrific, scarring, unforgivably cruel experience for everyone who was touched by it. The Great Escape shows the soldiers being held at this camp acting, for the most part, relaxed and not at all bothered by what they have witnessed. I get that they were fliers, and not ground fighters who had to look in the eyes of the people they killed, or to smell the death all around them, but they were just so clean and untouched by the war.

As with Argo, this movie was based on actual events. Also, as with Argo, the American participation in the actual events is hugely overstated. I get it. This is an American war film, so we have to be the heroes. Factually, this was a huge error. But we had all these hunky guys, so we had to be the stars. Steve McQueen insisted on bulking up his part, and added some ridiculous motorcycle jumps during his escape to ensure that the “America…HELL, YEAH!” quality was truly played at maximum volume.

WHY? Why was this necessary?

The movie had a stellar cast, but no character development. Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Lee Marvin, Richard Attenborough… none of their performances made me want to stand up and cheer. The could/should have trimmed an hour out of the movie, made a few tidy editorial cuts to pace it out more evenly so that the only interesting parts weren’t clustered in the last hour. If you think I mean that the movie showed the relentless boredom of prison-work life, and the grueling day in/day out tedium of being a prisoner of war, I don’t. I mean that it was boring. The entire digging, escaping, recapture, plotting, escaping, digging, escaping, recapture was redundant and drug out to the point where I honestly stopped caring about who was going to be alive at the end of the movie.

I do have to point out that two actors in this movie were brilliant, totally engaging, and made this whole exercise worthwhile for me: James Garner and Donald Pleasence. It was so delightful to see these two masters work together to create a real human camaraderie that jumped off the screen. Their characters had a depth and a warmth that was lacking in every other character. Their motivations made sense, if only that they wanted to help each other. Donald Pleasence was so often cast as a villain, so it was great  to see him play a kind and gentle spirit, suffering silently with increasing myopic blindness. James Garner, well, he could have just made Polaroid commercials for the rest of his life, and I still would have thought he was incredible. Their affection seemed the most real part of the entire movie. Hooray for two great actors making a good meal out of otherwise lousy potluck!

The true stars of the film: James Garner and Donald Pleasence

Overall, I think I would have been better off just watching three hours of “Hogan’s Heroes.” At least that show knew that it was a comedy about German Nazi prison camps. It wasn’t trying to be whatever The Great Escape was attempting. The music would have made sense. Overall, I give the whole escape a solid “Meh.” Not “a pretty good escape.” Definitely not a “great escape.” More of a “Well, that escape certainly happened multiple times.”


Wuthering Heights (and the mathematically improbable lack of likable characters that reside there)

wuthering-heights-1939-03Well, this was definitely an interesting movie. I am going to say, right up front, that I have never read Emily Bronte’s novel which this movie is based upon. Having now seen the movie, I don’t think the odds of me adding it to my “Must read before I die” list has gone up.

Merle Oberon is gorgeous. That was definitely a plus. Laurence Olivier did his thing. I want to sound cultured and intelligent and report that the movie was full of longing and wild love, and two people who were destined to be together that were unfairly separated by an cruel world. Blah Blah Blah.

Ultimately, my take on Wuthering Heights (at least the 1939 film adaptation) is that Cathy was a spoiled, two-faced, petulant, lying, manipulative, horrible person. She was unwilling to face a life of possible work and toil to be with the man who had been essentially enslaved by her family, and his love for her. Heathcliff was no picnic, either. Cruel, emotionally abusive and distant, pathologically obsessed, exacting in his revenge. Truly, they belonged together. The fact that Cathy ended up marrying a dull man whose only fault seemed to be that he said cruel things about his wife’s ex, and proclaiming her undying love to him while still holding an unfairly bright torch for Heathcliff seemed beyond cruel. And Heathcliff marrying her sister-in-law, Isabella, just so he could keep his jealousy and obsession close at hand was amazingly cruel. Poor Isabella. I felt for her. Sure, she was too blind to see that she was just being used, but she did at least seem to have a shred of kindness. Until she married a man who didn’t love her, and she withered in a matter of five minutes of screen time, becoming sad and bitter.

I want to defend Cathy’s drunken, gambling, lout of a brother who eventually lost his families ancestral home to a newly rich Heathcliff, who allows him to stay as a virtual ghost in his lost home, plying him with enough alcohol to die quickly. But he was a horrible, hateful, cruel character, and I had no sympathy for him.

Ellen, the woman who took care of Wuthering Heights was the most likable character. At least her motivations were pure. But everyone else was hateful, childish, incredibly heartless, and well, I just did not like them.

The story involved a lot of flip-flopping between Cathy declaring her endless love for Heathcliff, and then for running to Edgar, who was played by quite a dapper David Niven. But he knew that her heart truly belonged on the moors with her precious, bitter, Heathcliff. When he stormed in to find that Cathy had literally died in her true loves arms, he just sort of shrugged his shoulders at the obviousness of that play. He probably called it a mile away, but it still seemed like a tacky move.

The movie is one long flashback, and I felt a lot of sympathy for the servants who had to put up with this nonsense for so many decades. I hope they inherited the manor when Heathcliff walked off to die, hand in hand, with the spirit of Cathy. They were both major pains in the ass, and definitely deserved each other.


How awesome is this poster, though? It looks like a great horror movie. The woman playing Mozart’s Piano Sonata in A major, K.331: Rondo alla Turca  on the harpsichord during the big party scene, and this movie poster, were definitely the highlights of the movie for me. The rest of the heights? Pretty wuthering.

Technical Difficulties


We checked out The Great Escape at the public library, as we could not find it streaming. We also picked our next film from the jar, Bringing Up Baby, but have not been able to find it streaming or for check out at the library. I am attempting to not spend money on this project by paying to rent a movie, so we have hit a bit of a delay.

We hooked up our new Roku a few nights ago, but we were unable to get our DVD/VHS player to work when we tried to watch The Great Escape. Today, we finally determiend that the disc is scratched, and we had no choice but to return it to the library, and queue up for their other copy.

Since we are still waiting for Bringing Up Baby, we picked a few more films to get back on track this weekend. So much Hitchcock. I think it’s telling that our jar contains so many Hitchcock films that neither of us have seen. I supposed neither of us has been espcially curious about his ouvre, but we do own a box set of a dozen of his films. Prior to starting this project, we watched Marnie, and it was underwhelming. I actually watched Vertigo in a film class I took several years ago, and it happens to be one that we have in a box set. We had to request Anatomy of a Murder, so backlog continues.

We still needed another weekend movie. It was my turn to choose a random film from the jar which that leads me to Wuthering Heights. We just finished watching it, and it was definitely a movie. Yep. No doubt about that. It was a movie. A movie that I have now seen. So, there’s that.


Last night was not the first time I have watched Goodfellas, but it had been a long time. It still packs a wallop, but I don’t think I will need to ever watch it again. I enjoyed seeing all of the actors I recognized from The Sopranos, especially Lorraine Bracco. She is a fascinating character. I think that for a movie about the men who need to control other’s through violence, and the lengths men will go to in ensuring their position in a criminal syndicate, the really interesting characters were the women.

I can’t get over the mother of Joe Pesci’s character, who insists on preparing a huge meal for her son and his friends when they arrive in the middle of the night, covered in blood, looking for shovels and knives. The motivation of that character is so fascinating. Her definition of “caring for your family” is to be blind, to give selflessly, to not ask questions, and to feed her hungry men. That was definitely my favorite scene in the film. That mother, just looking at her son, asking why he hasn’t settled down with girl and given her grandkids, while he simultaneously says he needs to borrow her 12 inch butcher knife to cut the leg off a deer that hit his car…so brilliant.


Lorraine Bracco, as Henry Hill’s wife, Karen, was fantastic. To see how quickly she went from shock over the lifestyle she was being drawn into, to acceptance over the lies she would be forced to live with, to being an active player in criminal enterprise, is simply comical. According to the book written by the real children of Karen and Henry (“On the Run: A Mafia Childhood”), the scene where Hill beats Karen’s neighbor with a gun, and then hands her the bloody gun to hide, was totally true. Talking to kids about this event, she did acknowledge that it turned her on to be witness to something so raw and violent. The motivation of her, the real life woman, and the character, is baffling.

Goodfellas is not my favorite crime movie. It’s hard to get past the caricatures of some of the men. But the women in the movie are electric. Henry’s girlfriend, the mob wives, the mothers of Henry and Karen, the woman who transports the drugs and money to and from Pennsylvania…all just incredible! I understand why people enjoy it, but for me, it’s all about the women behind the men, the ones who normalize the violence.


Shane…Come Back, Shane


Shane is the story of a very young boy named Joey (I am not sure how young, but he is “too young for bullets” in his gun, so let’s just say he is five years old) who develops an unhealthy obsession with a much older cowboy who wanders into his family’s land one day. He convinces the titular Shane to remain with his family through a pattern of whining and manipulation that continues until the very last moment of the film.

Shane, who has no history, and is not in a hurry to get anywhere, dons a traditional white hat, to signal that he is a “good guy.” The family that ensnares Shane include a happily married husband and wife, Joe and Marian Starrett. They are settlers who have carved out a piece of heaven for themselves on a piece of land with fences to hold their cattle in. This brings the Starrett’s, and every other settler family, in conflict with a man called Ryker, who wants to continue free grazing his cattle, and hold his de facto ownership of the whole state. There is a very brief, one-off line about how the land, until recently, belonged to the Indians. But it’s said more in passing, and not meant to indicate any issue with this situation.

Whatever state they have stolen from the Native Americans, it is jaw-droppingly  beautiful. Besides the psycho-sexual drama that plays out between the Starrett’s and Shane “Is that your first, or last name?” there is an amazing amount of cinematography that captures landscapes that I am certain no longer exist in America. Literal purple mountains of majesty. It is a beautiful film to look at. This film signaled a change to how Paramount Pictures shot movies, or projected movies. It has to do with ratio apect, or new camera lenses.  I am not savvy enough to understand the technical pieces. But it’s clear that watching this movie in any format other than widescreen would lose 50% of what makes it so gorgeous.

So, we have a young boy, obsessed with a middle aged cowboy who gets adopted into his family. There is a married couple who seems pretty damned happy that an oft-shirtless Alan Ladd (if they remade this, Shane would be completely cut, six pack abs, enormous biceps, oiled up at all times) has decided to move in with them. It’s bizarre. He’s not your regular farm hand. The parents never reign in their kids over-the-top love for Shane. It’s just accepted. Shane is here, and our kid digs him. Let’s have some pie. Also, if they remade this, there would definitely be an affair between Shane and Marian, and the body count would be much higher.

There is a lot of backstory about the group of settler’s who have taken on the land (which lead to a fabulous discussion on our way to work today about the 1862 Homestead Act, and communities built quickly after the Civil War with both Southerner’s and Northerner’s working together) that are being driven out, one by one, by the evil Ryker and his gang. When it becomes clear that the Starrett’s are not going to budge, and they have a new man on their team who is not afraid to kill to make a point, Ryker brings in the big guns.

Jack Palance arrives wearing, literally, a black hat. No question that he is going to get killed by Shane before the movie ends. The only question is, who else is going to die? To prevent the innocent Starrett from getting blood on his hands, Shane conks him on the head and knocks him out, so he can’t be accused of being chicken, and he can’t be accused of murder. In town, Shane kills the the hired gun, Jack Palance. He kills Ryker. He kills Ryker’s brother. Basically, it’s a bloodbath. Shane is hit, but probably not fatally.

The president of the Shane Fan Club sees the whole thing go down, and you think young Joey may have his image of his hero tainted, seeing as he just witnessed him killing three men. Nope. He loves him even more. He can’t quit him, it seems.

Shane stops by the Starrett residence to say goodbye, and we are forced to listen to the most obnoxious, braying, annoying, scene ever put on film* from Joey, screaming “Shane! Come back, Shane!” at the back of the cowboy as he rides away. This kid does not shut up. He can’t just zip it. Maybe he didn’t quite understand how awkward it might be for his father to have a more virile man hanging about the homestead, what with his mother giving side-eyes to him as he washed up. Maybe he didn’t understand the cowboy motto: Ride in to town.  Kill some bad folks. Ride away in silence.

This movie, for all it’s glorious cinematography, will always be remembered by me as the movie where I discovered the worst child character of all time. Let the man go, kid. Shane is not coming back. He would rather die alone on the prairie than have to listen to your shouting for another minute. I forgot to mention this, Shane was definitely shot in the big blow-out, but it’s never revealed how serious his wound is. I assume he was writhing in pain, but wanted more than anything to get out of Joey’s voice range.

“Shane! Shane! Come back, Shane!” That about sums it up.

*If memory serves, Chloe Webb has an equally annoying scene yelling “Sid! Sid!” in Sid and Nancy. I don’t know who made me want to jab spikes in my ears more. It might be a tie.

Shane This is a link to a 2008 article that reports that the Western Writers of America voted Shane as the “Greatest Western Movie of All Time.” This tells me that I clearly know nothing about Western cinema, and that I may be the only person who is made incredibly uncomfortable every time Joey looks at Shane.

Das Boot


Das Boot. I really had no idea what to expect from a 293 minute movie filmed almost entirely in a German U-Boat, but I assumed it would be a boring drag, and that we would want to fast forward to the real action. I am so happy to be so very wrong. Das Boot is incredible, and deserves every accolade it receives.

We did not consider watching the dubbed version, even though the actors did their own English dubbing. I am so glad we didn’t watch it with dubbing because hearing German actors speaking in their native tongue, while reading the English interpretations of their idioms, was amazing. And truly, with this movie,  you could watch it like a silent movie, with only their contemporary music on the soundtrack, and you would completely understand every moment. Like All Quiet on the Western Front decades before it, the lives of soldiers are frequently quiet, insular, collective, and requires very little dialogue to understand the feelings behind their wounded eyes.

The terrified faces of the crew on the U-96 will be burned into my memory as a true face of a long and pointless battle. A lot has been written about Das Boot, and there is nothing much I can add.  The expressions of horror, sadness, relief, madness, futility…you see it all, and it is draining. It’s exhausting to watch the soldiers fighting a war they did not choose, far from their home, knowing they are losing the battle.

Erich Maria Remarque, author of “All Quiet on the Western Front,” said of his novel, “[This] is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped (its) shells, were destroyed by the war.”

Das Boot is definitely an anti-war movie, just by showing the grinding, boring, day-in, day-out pointlessness of war. If you wait for the butterfly to rise above the final battle scene to clearly telegraph the futility of war, you won’t get that. The entire five hours is that butterfly.

Argo (F@*% Yourself)


Two days out from watching Argo. Great cast of men. I know some of the hostages were women, but I definitely don’t think I could name one of the actresses, or their characters.  I loved all the Alan Arkin/John Goodman scenes. I could watch those actors perform in anything, and it would be gold. Ben Affleck is not aging. He seems like a decent guy, in this movie, and in real life. Bryan Cranston is fantastic, and could carry any movie. His scenes were the most engaging in the entire film. He can do anything. I hope he gets another series that uses him appropriately. Fantastic actor. Is there anything he can’t do? He has an incredible presence.

I miss Breaking Bad. There are many shows that have sucked me in since it ended, but I don’t believe there has ever been a show that consistently followed through on the promise delivered in the first season. And it didn’t overstay its welcome. I think one of the main problems with American television is that we just can’t stop beating a dying horse. We are definitely not a “Right to Die” country, when it comes to our popular shows. When I remember the arc of Breaking Bad, or, another favorite, The Wire, they are plotted out so perfectly. They come, they know what they want to say, they shock and entertain, and they wrap up the stories in a completely natural way. The writers aren’t waiting around to see if they get picked up for another season to determine how they are going to write the end of this season. They already know because they have the whole arc planned out. Nothing is rushed or overstretched. When I heard that another favorite show, The Americans, is coming back for only two more seasons, I rejoiced. That means they have a plan. They know what they want to say, and once they say it, they will be done. I expect that kind of planning with something British or Canadianlike Orphan Black, but for an American show to have that kind of planning pleasantly surprises me. I have some programs that I watch, strictly out of habit, that refuse to die. It’s like the networks are challenging us to stop watching so they can finally take the show out to pasture. It seems such a frustratingly American idea. Just keep driving until we run out of gas, and abandon the car on the side of the road to rust.

None of this has to do with Argo, of course. What can I say about Argo? A few months ago, we went to see a movie without actually researching what we would see beforehand. We decided to see something whose name I can’t recall, but it starred John Krasinski. His parents were played by Richard Jenkins (the amazing father from Six Feet Under—another show that didn’t keep going past its expiration date), and Margo Martindale (also from The Americans. Damn. That is a great show). After watching the nameless movie, we went to talk about it over dessert. It was forgettable, with the exception of the “serenading our mom as she goes into surgery” scene that would have been so much more effective if they hadn’t crammed every moment before it, and after it, with extraneous music cues. I am surprised I still remember seeing it, but that one scene, and my feelings of frustration that they robbed it of the intended punch it could/should have had by forcing all the scenes around it to be filled with folksy guitar songs, has stayed with me. Other than that, it was a totally forgettable movie.

Again, the preceding paragraph had nothing to do with Argo. Except to say that while watching Argo, I was acutely aware of the fact that I would quickly forget that I had seen it. By this time next month, I will most likely be confusing it with Syriana, which was a totally memorable film. They will probably blur together, and Brian will have to remind me that Syriana starred George Clooney, not Ben Affleck.

I was seven years old when the events surround Argo transpired. I am certain that I was too busy listening to Andy Gibb’s Shadow Dancing, and riding my bike around my neighborhood to notice that there was a hostage crisis. And since I am a graduate of the American public school system, I am also quite certain that I never learned about the hostage crisis in any of my history classes. Since this movie is “based” on true events, my understanding of what really unfolded would have to come from things I could read online. I am posting an article below that appears to be a good synopsis of what actually transpired. However, basing my understanding of the hostage crisis on the movie alone, my review should be, “America, Good. Iran, Bad.” Or, like every war movie, every space exploration film, and most of the epics about good men triumphing over evil, “America saves the day…Again! Go, Team America!”

Ultimately, and with several days to consider, I guess my final review of Argo would have be “It made me think of better things.”