In Memoriam

I last visited Arlington National Cemetery right before my friend John Milkewicz shipped off to Iraq. I am very thankful that he came home. Memorial Day is for those soldiers who did not.

It began after the Civil War as Decoration Day, for decorating the graves of soldiers. After World War II it became more commonplace. I know many veterans, family and friends. I am grateful that they came home. The only family member I know who died at war was Nicholas Pucci, who served in the Korean War.

Let us remember the dead today, and the true cost of war, which echoes through the generations. The lost promise, the families left gouged by their absence, and the burden those who made it home must carry.

American Civil War 625,000
World War II 405,399
World War I 116,516
Vietnam 58,151
Korean War 36,516
American Revolutionary War 25,000
War of 1812 15,000
Mexican American War 13,283
War on terror* present 6,717
Philippine–American War 4,196
The Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
The Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
Audie Murphy's grave
Audie Murphy’s grave
The Grave of Joe Louis
The Grave of Joe Louis
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
Just one small corner.
Just one small corner.

mondo mini movie reviews!

This is what I’ve watched in the past week or so.

Black Dynamite
A hilarious homage to the blaxploitation flicks of the ’70s, this one should not be missed. A dose of Dolemite with a dash of The Mack and Superfly, martial artist Michael Jai White plays the title character who’s out to avenge his dead brother, who was working for the CIA when a mafia drug deal went sour. It begins with him kicking an old lady through a door, and ends with him kicking ass at the White House, as his battle leads him to The Man himself. It gets a little silly in the middle when we learn what the Sinister Plot is, just in time for a homage to Enter the Dragon, but the dialogue is so moronically clever that you’ll be laughing the entire time. “If your momma was alive to see this, she’d be spinning in her grave!”

4 out of 5 fat muthafuckas wrestlin’ over pork chops ‘n greens

The Cove
If you ask the average person in Japan if they eat dolphin, they’d say no. So then why are thousands slaughtered every year in a secretive cove in Taiji? This documentary plays like a heist film as the man who trained Flipper, now turned activist, exposes the brutal and bloody secret of the dolphin industry, where hundreds are harvested for amusement parks and the rest are butchered for meat, and because the Japanese fishing industry thinks they eat too many fish. Yeah, really. This doc certainly has an agenda, but all good ones do; it takes great pains to show that the average Japanese has no idea this is going on, and this is no different than the corruption in America’s cattle industry, which keeps us from testing every animal for Mad Cow disease. You’ll never go to Sea World again after you watch this one.

4.5 out of 5 senseless slaughters

A Serious Man
The Coens weave a darkly comic tale of Larry Gopnik, a physics teacher whose life takes on the story of Joband the puzzle of Schroedinger’s Cat as his life begins to fall apart. I found it interesting, but at times deliberately difficult, and a little pretentious. It calls back to Barton Fink, and is enjoyable as a dark comedy if you don’t want to wonder if Gopnik is destined to misery because he’s angered God, is being tested, or has just made a serious of bad choices that like Schroedinger’s Cat, he can’t tell the result of without affecting it. It’s a good discussion film, but not for everyone; if you hated Synecdoche, NY you’ll probably find parts of this a little pretentious. I myself liked it, but felt some of it superfluous. The opening story of the dybbuk makes sense in retrospect, as it can be likened to Schroedinger’s cat, and then the issue of a student who may or may not be trying to bribe Gopnik for a better grade, and so on. There’s also the story of his son preparing for his bar mitzvah, which is both entertaining and nostalgic; did I mention it’s all set in the Jewish neighborhood of Minneapolis suburbs in the late 60’s? Nice touch. Much like the story of the dybbuk, it places it in the past and gives it all the feel of a parable.

4 out of 5 Larry Storches
The Hurt Locker
Wow. This is a war film, and the best depiction of the Iraq War I’ve seen, but first of all it is a character study. A study of the kind of adrenaline junkie operator who can handle the job of Explosive Ordnance Disposal- defusing bombs and IEDs in a war zone. Kathryn Bigelow has made a documentary-style masterpiece that takes the opening sequence of A Touch of Evil, where we see a bomb put in a car’s trunk and follow it, knowing it must go off, and makes it into a gripping war thriller. The movie is over 2 hours long, but felt like 90 minutes. Like the heroes of a Michael Mann film, these are men who define themselves by what they do, and there is a paucity of dialogue. Sgt. James leads a small squad after their leader is killed; they’re short timers who just want to go home, but he actually seems to love this job. And he’s incredibly good at it. The story unfolds like a memoir, with little structure, jumping from a sniper battle in the desert to an Iraqi base rat kid who James takes under his wing, to his men wondering if he’s going to get them killed. He’s a mystery; but in the end, we see his heart, and what makes him tick. It’s a brilliant character study of the kind of man it takes to do this insane job, disguised as a satisfying thriller. It is one of my favorites of the year, and it’s a toss-up to me whether it or Up in the Air is the better picture. Both make great entertainment out of prescient issues we’d rather ignore.

5 out of 5 Best Director Oscars for Kathryn Bigelow, Dammit

The Ghost Writer
Fuck you, Polanski. Come let justice be served. Stop being Noah Cross. Have you made a great movie since then anyway? You’re not getting my money until you pay your debt.

Temple Grandin
Excellent biopic of an autistic woman who revolutionized the beef industry by making slaughterhouses more humane. I read her story in the Star-Ledger years ago, and Claire Danes portrays her amazingly in what will surely be an Emmy-nominated performance. This is playing on HBO, and you should see it. It tries to give us the view of the world through her eyes, and while some of the direction is a bit indulgent and lazy- a montage set to guitar as she figures out how to get on a cattle lot that won’t let women in for example- the story itself is compelling and touching. It’s a TV movie for sure, but Danes performance, and David Strathairn as the teacher who understands her genius, make it worth your time.

3.5 out of 5 moo moo everywhere a moo moos

Dirty Ho
No, not porn! One of the better humorous kung fu flicks of the ’70s. Pita-San and I watched this and One-Armed Boxer vs. the Master of the Flying Guillotine, which has some cool fights and great kraut-rock music by Neu!; Dirty Ho is a kung fu comedy from ’79 starring Chiu hiu “Gordon” Liu, best known as Johnny Mo/Pai Mei from the Kill Bill movies. I’d recognize that bald noggin anywhere! He plays a prince with many brothers who’re trying to kill each other off for Dad’s inheritance, and he tricks a scheming thief named … Dirty Ho… to help him. Let’s face it, the name is what makes you watch this movie the first time, but it has great training sequences and fights, and plenty of laughs and slapstick. Plus a great scene where Gordon “fights” using his servant. An underappreciated classic, if you love kung fu flicks, you must find this one.

4 out of 5 dirty ho’s

© 2010 Thomas Pluck.

Standard Operating Procedure

Rachel Getting Married may not be the best film of the year, but I have a feeling it may be the most unfairly overlooked of the year. Another movie that will be unfairly overlooked is Errol Morris’s latest feature- Standard Operating Procedureabout Abu Ghraib. It’s something no one wants to hear about anymore, and we just want to get out of Iraq, but this movie documents the ultimate disgrace of the Bush administration, which dragged the U.S.’s reputation through the mud with policies which, like shit, ran downhill and become standard practice.
In a year when Frost/Nixon is being lauded for depicting an interviewer’s uncanny ability to get a man to confess against his better judgment, Errol Morris has done it for real. This is the second time- in The Fog of War he got Vietnam War number-cruncher Robert McNamara to say if he was on the losing side, he’d be prosecuted as a war criminal; this time around he’s got the M.P.’s responsible for the Abu Ghraib photographs admitting the indefensible on camera. Lynndie England, infamously giving the thumbs-up to a prisoner naked on a leash, is here; she was in love with Staff Sgt. Charles Graner, currently in military prison. He wasn’t allowed to be interviewed, but is the highest ranking man prosecuted for the torture.

Lynndie then

As we listen to Lynndie and the rest, we see the Stanford prison experiment in action. The pressure to “get Saddam Hussein” at all costs- who was later captured without torturing the info out of anybody- was the instigator from above. But no one above the rank of Graner was ever prosecuted. Brigadier General Janis Karpinski was demoted, and is here defending her claims of being scapegoated. We learn of prisoners beaten to death, bodies kept on ice. The fear the guards felt during their tour is evident, and while it is never put forth as an excuse, it is just one more stressor toward the dehumanization of the prisoners.

Lynndie now

Those of highest rank were smart enough to never order this behavior in so many words, but some M.P.’s make it clear that they wish they’d disobeyed and been court-martialed. Others remain defiant, angry that they did time for “a photograph.” Like the photos themselves, the movie is not always what we want to see. Like Frost/Nixon, it is a record of a shameful besmirching of the American reputation and a record of heinous crimes a democratic society cannot tolerate. Maybe in 35 years someone will dramatize it, and someone will win an Oscar. Right now it may be the best documentary of the year, but Man on Wire– which while an excellent record of a happier time, and the most pleasant memory of the World Trade Center imaginable- will probably cinch it. Abu Ghraib is not something we want to look back upon, but we should. Lest we forget.