TBT – Saving Private Ryan (1998)

films, gruesome, Matt Damon, reviews, Steven Spielberg, TBT, Tom Hanks, war, world war II

I’ve eaten so much food today and I really don’t know why. Well, that’s not strictly true. I did because I’m bored. I’m meant to be getting my life (aka my house) in order before I head back to work but it really doesn’t appeal. So instead, I’ve been lying down, stuffing my face and watching soldiers die horribly in Steven Spielberg’s 1990s epic war film. It’s been a while since I saw this film and have preferred to watch the version shown on the Adam and Joe Show. Yes, it may be played out with stuffed toys and not people but that doesn’t mean its not as good as the original. Still, after watching Dunkirk I decided it was time to rewatch Spielberg’s war epic. Saving Private Ryan was one of those films that changed the way war films were made. It inspired several directors and, according to Quentin Tarantino, inspired Inglorious Basterds. It was also, apparently, the first time that people realised that World War II was awful. The majority of things I hear people say about this film is along the lines of “it really brought home to me the reality of war”. As if, before 1998, there existed some people who thought World War II was a fucking picnic for everyone involved. Personally, I’ve never needed Steven Spielberg to paint me a vivid picture of what a real battle sequence might be like to know its somewhere I don’t want to be. I’ve never really thought to myself “I really wish I was alive in the 1940s because it seems like it might be fun”. Still, it’s good to know that this film helped some people get over the crazy notion that was is good.

If there’s one thing that Steven Spielberg can do it’s create a memorable visual. We all vividly remember the water glass from Jurassic Park, the girl in red from Schindler’s List and ET and Eliot flying in front of the moon. The one that sticks with most people, though? The opening of Saving Private Ryan. It’s the thing that so many people have referenced in relation to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk because it is still considered to be the best interpretation of war ever created for the big screen. I’m not going to sit here and deny that the opening sequence isn’t great. It really is. It’s a horrific representation of what happened on Omaha beach in 1944 and it places the audience uncomfortably in the middle of the action. Even now, nearly 20 years later, this sequence still feels as gruesome and important as it did way back when.

However, the problem with these magnificent film moments is that people become blinded to the faults that come before and after. The sequence of the Normandy landings is regularly referred to as the film’s opening but it isn’t. No no. The film is patriotically bookended with some muted shots of an American flag flapping in the breeze as well as the overly sentimental prologue and epilogue showing an elderly Private Ryan visiting the graves of fallen soldiers. Had we opened in the midst of the D-Day sequence this film would have had an entirely different feel to it but, thanks to these brief moments, the film ends up feeling more like another attempt by Hollywood to bolster the myth that WWII was the good war and showcased the American spirit. It prevents the film from being the kind of critique of war that the first battle suggested it could be and, instead, turns into an American story of American heroes.

Spielberg’s film has been hailed as something of a masterpiece from the moment of its initial release and it’s easy to see why. The film is incredibly well made and the visuals are stunning. The battle sequences have still never been beaten in terms of realism and it more than adequately shows the waste of life that occurred in Europe. The main part of the narrative is intended to show us the ridiculous nature of war. We see a group of 8 men sent out on a mission to save the life of one soldier all because his mother had already lost 3 sons. It’s a sad story, obviously, but it is a preposterous notion. How can the army justify the lives of so many for the sake of 1? Every single man in the group agrees and, when all is said and done, don’t really give a shit about the life of Private James Ryan (Matt Damon). How can his mother’s suffering be more important than their own?

Still, this is war and they have to follow their Captain, John Miller’s (Tom Hanks), orders. So the group set off on their mission through Nazi occupied France. They lose men along the way and struggle to keep themselves going. But, somehow, they do. The hapless group find Private Ryan and a small group of soldiers defending a bridge. After a harrowing and spectacular opening sequence, Saving Private Ryan kind of loses its way during the main bulk of the narrative. Spielberg clearly tries to push his message about the futility of war but it kind of gets lost. Saving Private Ryan falls back into the Hollywood tradition of the Wild West movie. We see our band of heroes make their way through the landscape and heroically fighting the bad guys whenever they need. The script may make the occasional reference to the absurd nature of their assignment but there is an inescapable sense that what they are doing is both moral and brave.

I don’t hate Saving Private Ryan by any stretch of the imagination but, aside from the depictions of warfare, it doesn’t portray its message adequately enough. This film didn’t go far enough to blow the lid on the meaningless sacrifice that was made by the men who died in combat between 1939 and 1945. It is every war movie cliche rolled into one. It doesn’t directly say that war is heroic and the soldiers are fighting for their country but that is the message we are seeing. It glorifies the men on screen instead of adequately questioning the men in charge. When I reviewed War Horse for this blog I criticised Spielberg for sugaring the pill for his younger audience. He desensitised the audience by hiding the death with cutaways. Here he has no issue with showing us how deadly the war was for the people involved but what follows is sheer Hollywood. The story of a whole load of men dying so one mother can be slightly less sad.

Saving Private Ryan isn’t a bad film. It’s a very good film that showcases everything that has made Steven Spielberg as popular a director as he. It features strong performances from its cast and had a profound affect on the people who sat in movie theatres to watch it back in 1998. It’s a great film but is it a masterpiece? Or is it just a great 20 minute sequence surrounded by harmless Hollywood schmaltz?

The Martian (2015)

books, film, fucking funny, Matt Damon, review, Ridley Scott, sci-fi, space

I was such a naive fool just a few months ago. I definitely thought I would be able to manage reading Andy Weir’s The Martian before the screen adaptation came out. As I’ve mentioned a million fucking times already, I’m not managing to read a damn thing at the moment. Especially when you consider that Aziz Ansari’s new show is up on Netflix. I’ll always love reading but, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, there’s always something else going on. I’ll wait til I can sit down and read a chapter without falling asleep I’ll get back on with the reading. Before that miracle happens, I’ll just go with the film version. Especially when it has more Matt Damon.

The Martian is the thrilling tale of one astronaut’s struggle to survive alone on Mars. After being mistakenly left for dead, Mark Watney must find a way to get by on a desolate planet with limited supplies. Mark, a botanist, manages to farm crops, get back in touch with Earth and survive in a harsh environment for around 600 Mars days. Back on Earth, a team at NASA must attempt to find a way to get supplies to the planet so Mark will be able to live until the next manned mission lands in four years.

This film pretty much lives and dies on the lead character because so much of the narrative rests on him alone. Matt Damon does an exceptional job and manages to ensure the film remains grounded in the realms of human emotion. Mark is a great character who shows a great tenacity and Damon plays him beautifully. It’s got to be one of his strongest performances to date. It’s the moments with Mark that keep the film together through the slightly dodgier scenes back on Earth.

Despite a quite epic cast list, that includes everyone’s favourite Sean fucking Bean, the plot that takes place back home as NASA work tirelessly to help Mark often threaten to bring the film down. The pacing is a little odd at times and the great actors are given fuck all to do anything with. There are so many characters on the sidelines that they all get forgotten about in the drama of rescue. Sean Bean and Jeff Daniels get a small chance to lock horns slightly as the flight director and NASA top-dog respectively. However, the rest of the cast just coast by with a few furrowed brows and scientific jargon.

Most unfortunately of all, Watney’s fellow crew members who are resigned to a couple of brief glimpses into their personal lives through video messages and flirty glances. Considering how wonderful the moments on Mars are it just doesn’t feel good enough. We deserve to know more about Jessica Chastain’s Commander Lewis and Michael Peña’s pilot. There should be more to the pathetic attempt at romance between Kate O’Mara and Sebastian Shaw’s characters than a quick peck on a space suit helmet. For a film so invested in it’s main character, the rest of the character development is annoyingly shitty.

Much more annoying than any potential scientific issues viewers may have found. As someone who just about scrapped by in A Level Chemistry, I can’t really comment on the accuracy of the science at play here. To be honest though, I don’t really give a shit. I said the same about Gravity and the I think realism was far more important to that plot. Ridley Scott went out of his way to ensure that enough of what was seen on screen was close to reality and, in my humble opinion, he does a good job. If anything, the most unrealistic part of this plot is the fact that Matt Damon’s character is apparently unmarried. What the fuck? The man’s a fucking god.

To be honest, the science doesn’t really matter. This is a film that refuses to take itself seriously and, against Christopher Nolan’s super serious Interstellar, The Martian is quick to point out its relaxed attitude. Watney is forever cracking jokes and pointing out the coincidences that allow the story to keep moving. The only aspect of the film that belies its unassuming nature is the length. The film is fucking obsessed with time and the number of Mars days (sols) that Mark has stranded is constantly being updated. The constant count, mixed with the problems with pacing in the narrative, has the effect of making the film feel as though you’ve been waiting as long as our astronaut. However, there’s so much charm on screen here that you won’t give a shit about it.

Behind the Candelabra (2013)

drama, Liberace, Matt Damon, Michael Douglas, review, Steven Soderbergh, television

Steven Soderbergh is in an odd position when it comes to his supposedly last film ever. After American film studios chose not to fund a no-holds-barred look at Liberace’s private life just in case it came across as a bit too gay, it became necessary for HBO to step in to back the adaptation of Scott Thorson’s account of his five year relationship with the superstar pianist. Therefore, we are in the odd position of this potentially being Soderbergh’s last film outside the US only. It also means that neither its director nor its stars will have any chance to receive Oscar nominations for their work here.

The film picks up in 1977 where, thanks to a random hook-up with a very 70s Scott Bakula, Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) finds himself surrounded by a gaggle of women at one of Liberace’s Vegas shows. Finding himself backstage with the legend, the animal handler and wannabe vet offers his services in caring for the pianists much loved dog and ends up becoming his live-in companion complete with bejewelled chauffeur outfit.

This may be a look behind Liberace’s candelabra, but there is no denying who the stand-out star really is. Damon gives a superb performance as Liberace’s young lover, despite being well over 20 years older than Scott really was at the time. Some amount of technical wizardry and make-up has taken place to make Damon seem younger than his actual 42 years, but nobody is able to truly turn back the clock. Of course, the lack of realism has little effect on the overall might of the performance and Damon once again proves how much better he is than the Jason Bourne films suggest. The actor plays Scott as fairly passive and it feels as though the slightly naïve youth is simply swept along on a wave of adoration, celebrity and wealth. Although there are hints of a real affection and admiration for the pianist and is captivated by his presence from his first glimpse.
And it’s easy to see why, thanks to Michael Douglas’s sensational job of bringing Liberace to life. There is no doubt that Douglas is a talented actor, but if he hadn’t embraced the chance to glide around a stage this whole thing would never have come together. He has such confidence in his own sexuality and performance that there is no awkwardness from the fact that a very heterosexual actor is playing a very homosexual star. Douglas portrays Liberace as someone who is aware of all of the facts. The performance is slightly tongue-in-cheek and you get the sense that the actor is much more embracive of the ridiculousness of the situation than Liberace ever could have been. He has to accept the façade because of the role, but that doesn’t mean he has to believe it.
It is during our first glimpse of the great man that we get the greatest sense of the extent to which Lee and his audience were engaged in their mutual delusion. The figure we see floating around the stage covered in jewellery, sequins and fur is so incredibly at odds with the accepted image of the womaniser with his gaggle of lust-filled female fans. Everyone, even his own mother (played by an almost unrecognisable Debbie Reynolds), buys into the lie because, as Lee himself explains, “people only see what they want to see”. Just as the film’s audience will only see what they want to see.  Watching Douglas in performance mode you know deep down that there is no way the actor is responsible for the technical wizardry on show, but watching everything unfold before your eyes you’ll happily give him the credit for the double-time boogie-woogie. Douglas isn’t just playing Liberace he is Liberace. You can certainly see why Scott becomes so enamoured quite so quickly. The film’s opening section leaves you in no doubt that the man had endless talent and a great sense of showmanship.
Such a great showman that Liberace managed to hide a bucket-load of neurosis and personal pain. The pairing works because they each receive something vital from the other. When they first meet, Scott tells Liberace that he was orphaned as a child and moved between foster homes. It is his fear of abandonment and lack of strong fatherly presence that drives the young man to accepting the offer: within Liberace he has found someone to love, protect and teach him. On the other hand, Lee is drawn to younger men so he can cling to the youth that he still can’t accept that he has lost. With every year that passes Scott becomes less interesting and the star’s wandering eye finds itself focusing in on potential replacements. It is a romance that is doomed from the start and we see a glimpse of Scott’s future in the shape of the pianist’s former squeeze, his duet partner Billy Leatherwood. All of Lee’s boys outlive their welcome. It is just a case of making the every year count.
It is after seeing footage of himself on television that Liberace gets slapped in the face by his ever-advancing years. Hoping to cling to his youth for a little longer Lee embarks on a series of intense plastic surgery at the hands of his delightfully grotesque surgeon, Dr. Jack Startz, played by an unrestrained and fantastically funny Rob Lowe. Deciding that Scott has grown too comfortable with his new life of luxury, Lee pays for another deluge of surgery to turn the young man into a replica of the young pianist. (Amateur psychologists eat your fucking heart out with that one.) Startz gets Thornson hooked on a regimen of prescription drugs leading to his further decent into the murky waters of addiction.
The naïve Scott grows more aware of his lover’s lessening affection and instead turns to his drug dealer to provide him with the means to ignore it. We see Damon go from innocent young country bumpkin to a broken, world-weary man. When Scott finally comes to realise that he is just like the boys who have gone before him there is a wonderful glimmer of humiliation, anger and self-hatred in his face. We all knew this relationship was damaging and would end in an inevitably bleak manner, but that doesn’t stop Damon allowing the audience to feel sorry for him. It would have been easy to overplay both of the men, but these two stars have more than enough talent and restraint to give this film the extra layers it needed to prevent a horrible fall into celebrity soap opera.
In fact, there is a great sense of old school Hollywood beneath all of the gaudy visuals, sex, drug use and gory close-up scenes of plastic surgery. Soderbergh’s film has been put together with great care and every scene feels as well designed and detailed as Liberace’s public image. This film knows what it’s trying to say about its characters and presents its vision with such confidence that you simply get swept along with the story. The camera work is simple, but effective: we are treated to a mixture of graceful long shots, locked-down close-ups for more intimate moments, and a small amount of shaky cam to aid Scott’s descent into booze, diet pills, and coke. Thanks to Soderbergh’s immense skills as a filmmaker (taking his usual additional roles as DOP and editor here) and a remarkable script from Richard La Gravenese, a trashy tell-all book has become something sensational. It is funny, dramatic, heartbreaking and heart-warming all at once. If this truly is Soderbergh’s last work than the film industry is losing a titan and will no doubt be worse off for it.