Empty Balcony: Valkyrie

Sometimes big time actors put on their serious pants and play a Nazi-era German protagonist. I don’t know if ego or decades spent in a celebrity bubble deprive these actors of common sense, but these movies occasionally get made, and there’s always an A-lister out there willing to play one of the 20th century’s most notorious bad guys. In Valkyrie, the 2008 film directed by Bryan Singer, that A-lister was Tom Cruise.

Going over Cruise’s public persona is a waste of time, but I do remember hearing about this film back in the year it was released, and thinking Cruise must be delusional about the amount of leeway movie audiences are willing to give him. There is only one man in Hollywood who can play a good World War II German, and that man is Liam Neeson. With any other actor and any other character other than Oskar Schindler, a film is walking a fine line. To stumble means embarrassment, at best, and career-threatening ostracization, at worst. With a degree of difficulty that high, who in their right mind would choose to star in a film such as Valkyrie? King Mapother, that’s who. Continue readingEmpty Balcony: Valkyrie”

Shitty Movie Sundays: Pompeii

What a putrid mess. The trailer for Pompeii, Paul W.S. Anderson’s CGI shit-fest from earlier this year, promised viewers an exploding mountain. It never promised to be a faithful retelling of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79 that destroyed the city of the title. But that’s all well and good. Paul W.S. Anderson does not do anything but spectacle. In the trailer, Vesuvius blows up and that’s what I paid to see. What I didn’t pay to see was a low-rent Titanic rip-off that made me wait 66 whole minutes for the good stuff. And that wait is a problem. Pompeii only runs about an hour and a half. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for the disaster portion of this disaster movie. Continue readingShitty Movie Sundays: Pompeii”

The Empty Balcony: Becket & The Lion in Winter

In 1998 Peter O’Toole played Dr. Timothy Flyte in Phantoms alongside Ben Affleck, Liev Schreiber and Rose McGowan. I love it when fine actors slum it. One can read just how closely their patience is being tested on their faces. Oh? Filming my part is going to stretch longer than a week? My apologies, but I must be on a flight back to England by Friday. What’s that? You have more money? I would be delighted to stay! Continue readingThe Empty Balcony: Becket & The Lion in Winter”

The Empty Balcony: The Virgin Spring

Ingmar Bergman is one of those foreign film geniuses that is an acquired taste. Brilliant as he was, his stuff is hard watching for anyone raised on standard Hollywood fare. He was an artist. He put art to film. He was even able to pull off wearing a beret. Not many guys can. Art is often hard to digest, and The Virgin Spring is no different. Continue readingThe Empty Balcony: The Virgin Spring”

The Empty Balcony: 13 Assassins

13 AssassinsThree historical periods in Japan are among the most interesting and compelling in the annals of human civilization. The Sengoku period, also known as the Warring States period, comprised the height of feudal conflict from the 15th century to the early 17th century, culminating in the unification of Japan under the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1603. The new era of peace which followed, the Edo period, lasted until the Shogunate collapsed in the wake of internal and external pressures for Japan to end its forced isolation and open its shores to the modern world in the 1860s. What followed was the Meiji period, when the emperor was restored to power, and Japan, through numerous fits and starts, became the empire that was finally defeated by the Allies in World War II.

The legacy of the past, particularly the rigid caste structure that used to exist in Japanese society, is still very much in the public consciousness there, owing to the mythologies surrounding the samurai. A privileged class of warriors, the samurai rose alongside the violent and prolonged wars that typified feudal Japan. One could not seem to exist without the other. Once the wars ended with unification, however, the samurai were without their core purpose, relegated either to roles as bureaucrats, or as restless vagabonds, the laws of the time barring the honored warrior classes from making a living in so-called menial positions as laborers, merchants, or artisans. Yet the samurai were never weaned properly off their warrior ethos. The erosion of the samurai’s self-worth was one of the driving factors behind the collapse of the Shogunate. Continue readingThe Empty Balcony: 13 Assassins”

The Empty Balcony: Black Hawk Down

Black Hawk Down is perhaps the simplest movie I’ve ever viewed, and also the most complicated. The United States intervention in Somalia is a footnote in America’s foreign policy history, but it is quite weighted, to the point that a student of recent American politics ignores it at their own peril. The initial American operation in Somalia, Operation Provide Relief, part of UNOSOM I (United Nations Operation in Somalia I), began in August 1992 as a response to the massive amount of killing and humanitarian suffering throughout the country. It was followed by UNITAF (Unified Task Force), also known as Operation Restore Hope, which lasted from December 1992 to May 1993. During that time, the United States suffered 43 killed and 143 wounded, but was able to increase the security of much of the country. After the mission ended, however, the peace did not last, as the warlords reasserted their control and chaos took hold once again. This led to UNOSOM II, Operation Gothic Serpent, and ultimately to the Battle of Mogadishu. Continue readingThe Empty Balcony: Black Hawk Down”

The Empty Balcony: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Patrick O’Brian published twenty complete Aubrey-Maturin novels in his lifetime, with an unfinished twenty-first published posthumously. The novels are writ large with swashbuckling tales of life in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. Thick with naval terminology and period slang, O’Brian is quite effective at transporting reader far away from what comfortable chambers they find themselves and placing them smack on the quarterdeck of a ship of war. O’Brian’s novels are far from high-minded and haughty literary endeavor. They succeed as great historical novels through the skill of O’Brian’s narratives, not the cleverness of his prose. Like a true saltwater-in-the-veins sailor, they lose direction slightly when characters find themselves on land for extended periods, but pages fly when O’Brian throws his characters into pitched battles with superior foes (as he always does — O’Brian treats his sailors savagely, always requiring them to beat tremendous odds). Continue readingThe Empty Balcony: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World”

The Empty Balcony: Lawrence of Arabia

Lawrence of Arabia is the grandest of them all. Grand scope, grand personalities, and a grand, at times overpowering, score. The film is at or near the top of more ‘best movies ever’ lists than is worth recounting here. It is a classic, a film at the apogee of the industry’s aspirations for crafting epics. It was also a gaping hole in my experience of film. Until this weekend, I had never seen more than the first few minutes and some random clips here and there. Mostly, I had just never set aside the time. For the last few years, however, I never sought out the film because of what I know of the Middle East, and the film industry’s liberal interpretations of history. Continue readingThe Empty Balcony: Lawrence of Arabia”

The Empty Balcony: Patton

Some actors transcend the characters they play. Some become so familiar to us that no matter the effort we make, it is impossible to suspend disbelief, to see the performance before the performer. Such is the price of fame, at least from the perspective of the audience. As an example, think of Al Pacino’s portrayal of Ricky Roma in Glengarry Glen Ross. An incredible performance from a legendary American actor, seething with Pacino’s own brand of exuberance. That role, however, was where Pacino slipped into type. Moviegoers no longer see the characters he plays. They see Al Pacino, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Continue readingThe Empty Balcony: Patton”

The Empty Balcony: Zodiac

David Fincher’s Zodiac floats through the 1970s and beyond, often in a dreamlike state. A story about a notorious serial killer and those investigating him, it’s the period backdrop where Fincher and his crew are most effective. Whether his vision of the times is accurate is hard to gauge, but peering back through the lens of memory with Zodiac superimposed on top brought to the fore feelings of nostalgia. And, in fact, period pieces can never be completely accurate. They live and die in our own flawed remembrances of times gone by. Continue readingThe Empty Balcony: Zodiac”