Friday, April 16, 2010

Enemy At The Gates (2001)

"My army is not designed for this kind of fighting. Yesterday, yet again, I had to promote twenty-five sergeants to replace the officers shot down by the sharpshooters. Those snipers are demoralizing my people." - General Paulus, Battle of Stalingrad, 1942.

Jean-Jacques Annaud's ENEMY AT THE GATES is an underrated WWII film that perfectly captures the ice-cold brutality of war without sentimentalizing the combat one iota. Unfortunately, Annaud saves his sentiment for a romantic sub-plot that quickly intertangles itself with the main narrative to the overall detriment of the film. That said, there is much about the movie that is rewarding and worth a second viewing.

The central conceit is that the Battle of Stalingrad is going poorly for the Russians. The Nazi army has superior numbers, supplies, and equipment and they have swiftly decimated the city, conquering three-quarters of it with ease. The embattled Red Army is loathe to lose the city since it is the capital and its loss would be a huge propaganda boon for the Nazis. In this setting comes Vassili Zeitsev, a young former shepherd whose quick wits and excellent aim quickly draws the attention of Commisar Danilov, a political officer whose life he saves. At the behest of Nikita Khrushchev (a brilliant Bob Hoskins in a small but vital role), they wage a dual campaign to boost the morale of the army with Zeitsev collecting notches in his belt with every Nazi officer he takes out and Danilov writing about it in the army newspaper. The comradery these two men share is quickly scuttled when both fall for the same woman, Tania Chernova, an educated resistance fighter. This trio, played by Jude Law, Joseph Fiennes, and Rachel Weisz respectively, dominate the first half of the film, which balances their romantic triangle with the triangulation of their duties quite nicely until the unspoken romantic tension boils over into unnecessary and distracting melodrama. Each, in turn, gives a good performance, though none of them even attempt to hide their British accents. Weisz, in particular, does her best to elevate the bloated soap story that is her character's only reason for existence. That the film toys with killing her and perhaps redeeming the sub-plot had me excited for a realistic 180 from conventional Hollywood drama. Alas, it was not to be. I agree with Roger Ebert that ENEMY AT THE GATES would be a much stronger film, even a minor masterpiece, had this sub-plot between Tania and the two men been dropped entirely.

Fortunately, Annaud doesn't hold back from displaying the chaotic cruelties of war. His set pieces are among the best I have seen in a war film. Stalingrad, as filmed by Annaud, has been utterly obliterated with dessicated husks of buildings and factories sticking out of a growing wave of bodies, blood, debris, filth, mud, and excrement. The brutality of the Nazi killing-machine with its tanks and potato smashers is matched only by the Red Army's desperation. The scene where the Commisar's hand out rifles to half their troops and five bullets to the other half is chilling. There aren't enough guns to go around so keep your head down and when the man next to you dies, take his rifle and put your bullets in. That scene, followed by these unarmed men charging into combat, gave me the chills. It feels like an impossible war with nothing to win and almost nothing to fight for. The Red Army is compelled by their own men at gunpoint yet the Nazi Army cannot move forward because they are plagued by snipers and small pockets of local resistance. Into this scene steps the Nazi's answer to Zeitsev, Major Erwin König, the Nazi's master marksman. The ensuing cat-and-mouse between these two men in the second half of the film is some of the most intense and suspenseful stuff I've ever witnessed. Annaud makes use of some extravagant set-pieces (an abandoned department store and a chemical factory) to stage two claustrophobic scenes wherein these two men confront one another in an obsessional game of patience, trying to outmaneuver one another, to capitalize on the slightest mistakes, and to use anything available to their advantage, which Zeitsev does memorably with a piece of glass and König does horrifically with the corpse of a young boy, Tania's brother Sascha.

Ed Harris delivers one of his finest performances as Major Erwin König, the Nazi sharpshooter sent to Stalingrad to contain Zaitsev's threat and present the German Army with the moral victory of his death. The plot also hints at König's ulterior motives. He had a son who fell in Stalingrad, perhaps the victim of a Zaitsev bullet. This is left deliberately unclear. In fact, much about König is left unclear. He doesn't appear to be particularly motivated by valor or medals or cultural pride. His is a personal pride. He wishes to remain the best and Zaitsev's growing fame threatens his supremacy. Though the film makes clear that König is the superior marksman, the issue isn't about technical superiority or even the superiority of propaganda. König dismisses the Nazi hype machine surrounding Zaitsev's purported death with a casual wave of the hand: "He isn't dead, and do you know why? Because I haven't killed him yet." That is all that matters to König and he risks everything to do it, remaining behind after having been ordered to evacuate, roaming Stalingrad with no support, no identification, no real commitment to the Nazi cause. Just a burning desire to the kill the man who has thwarted and nearly bested him.

The game they play is dramatic and suspenseful, though it is Harris who grounds the reality in the stark cynicism of his performance. Here is a man with an intense and precise moral code. Someone who appears to abhor killing outside of his own prescribed boundaries as a sniper. When forced to confront Sacha's duplicity, he takes no joy in his duty, particularly since he had given the boy an easy out. That he strings up Sacha's corpse as bait is despicable, more so because it went against König's own paternal instincts towards the boy. Those who question Harris' ability as an actor need only to watch his final scene in the film to see that he is an understated master. His facial expressions of awareness, resentment, understanding, and resignation -- all in the space of a few seconds -- are outstanding. In the test of will between these two opponents, one gains a measure of respect for both men. In the endgame of their human chess, one is almost saddened to realize that König is destined to lie in an unmarked grave. That Harris could so sway you in empathy for a Nazi sniper who'd only minutes earlier strung-up a young boy is a testament to his powers as an actor.

ENEMY AT THE GATES is a fine yet flawed film hinged entirely on Jean-Jacques Annaud's intense direction, excellent cinematography, magnificent set design, and overall vision of horrific combat. The film is tautedly edited for the first two-thirds, building suspense and tension before the rather unfortunate romantic sub-plot takes over, sucking the life out of the film at a most critical juncture. Despite this, and the unnecessarily tacked-on upbeat ending, ENEMY AT THE GATES offers bountiful rewards for WWII film buffs and fans of suspenseful thrillers in general.

ENEMY AT THE GATES (Annaud, France, 2001)

Monday, April 12, 2010

Capsule Review: The Great Train Robbery (1903)

Rather shockingly violent for the time - a number of people are shot to death, and one is even thrown off the top of a train - The Great Train Robbery features plenty of cinematic invention in its 10 minute running time. The first pan shots, location shooting, and some innovative editing techniques combine to make this familiar bank robbery tale a rousing good time, and hugely influential in regards to both westerns (many cliches that exist in modern Western films originated here) and cinema in general. The final shot (sometimes shown at the beginning) of a bandit aiming his gun directly at the screen might be superfluous, but startled audiences when the film first opened.

Capsule Review: A Trip to the Moon (1902)

Georges Melies' landmark film (one of over 500 he made during his lifetime) is filled with inspired moments and memorable images which have the ability to register strongly through modern eyes. Of course everyone is aware of the iconic image of the rocket to the moon lodged in the eye of the Man On The Moon, but the 14 minute film features plenty of inventive special effects and surreal moments that remain enthralling - featuring a combination of live action, animation and painted backdrops which add a whimsical nature to the proceedings. More than just the first Science Fiction film, A Trip To The Moon is absolutely essential watching for those interested in film history.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Documentary Round-Up: End Of The Century: The Story of The Ramones (2003), The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007), Monster Camp (2007)

End Of The Century: The Story of The Ramones (2003) - After reading Everett True's British-centric (but very good) biography of The Ramones Hey Ho Let's Go, I decided to try out this revered labour of love documentary from filmmakers Jim Fields and Michael Gramaglia. While (necessarily) missing much of the detail of the book, the film was positioned at a rather unfortunate time in the history of the band - Joey Ramone having passed away in 2001, Dee Dee Ramone passing away during the production of the film, and Johnny Ramone passing away soon afterwards - which colors the viewing of it considerably. For fans of the band much of the information is well known, yet still fascinating to view as the mix of archival footage and newer interviews tells the story of the bands slow rise to fame and destruction due to internal struggles. The personalities of the central four: Johnny the dictator, Joey the hearthrob, Dee Dee the wildman and Tommy the technician come through loud and clear, but the documentary does much to humanize these men beyond their Ramones uniforms. A brief moment with Johnny talking about Joey's death - unable to understand why he felt so depressed by the death of someone he had basically stopped talking to more than a decade earlier- might be the film's most revealing moment. An exciting, but sometimes saddening look at America's very best punk band.

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007) - As someone with an understanding of obsession with various menial and unimportant things, there was much to relate to in this portrayal of competition amongst that geekiest of video game subcultures: the retro gamer. While playing fast and loose with facts for dramatic reasons, filmmaker Seth Gordon still wrings every ounce of tension as the rivalry between showboat hot-sauce salesman Billy Mitchell and sad-sack Science Teacher Steve Wiebe in gaining the world's highest score in Donkey Kong comes to a head. While Wiebe's tale of redemption and confirmation is the film's emotional centre, it really works because Mitchell makes such a convincing real-life villain. A slimy egotist who ducks Wiebe at every turn while preaching platitudes like a particularly sleazy motivational speaker, it's hard to believe that such a person could even exist. That his confidence comes from his mastery of what appears to be such a frivalous and unimportant skill-set gives the whole thing a minor surreal edge. As an audience member you're certainly being manipulated, but it's rare to get such David vs Goliath showdowns in a documentary.

Monster Camp (2007) - A fun but slight documentary dealing with the incredibly nerdy subculture of Live Action Role Playing (LARPing). While providing little insight into the mechanics of gameplay - the whole thing remained a bit of a mystery to me throughout - there's still lots to love about witnessing a development of comradery amongst the most ignored of social misfits. While we're introduced to a number of the players, and follow their development as they play, we unfortunately only get glimpses at what brings them back to this rather unique fantasy world again and again. There are endless scenes of people in funny costumes throwing bags of seeds at one another or hitting each other with pool noodles, but I never felt a sense of the joy and creativity which fuels the passion that these men and women have for their pursuit. Enjoyable, and sympathetic to its characters, but could have used a bit more whimsy.