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Films I Neglected To Review: Blasts From the Past
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Churchill," "The Death of Louis XIV" and "God of War."

One of the more intriguing footnotes of the events surrounding D-Day, one of the key battles of World War II and the one that decisively shifted the momentum in the favor of the Allies, is that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill initially opposed the idea of the massive beach landing at Normandy to retake France and push back Axis forces. That nugget of information is the center of ''Churchill,'' an odd and curiously unsatisfying historical drama. Set during the 96 hours leading up to the D-Day invasion, the film opens as Churchill (Brian Cox) insists that the mission be scrubbed and that new plans be devised under his supervision. During World War I, he was heavily involved with the disastrous campaign at Gallipoli and is convinced that history will repeat itself at Normandy with thousands of Allied soldiers giving their lives for nothing in an overly risky beach invasion. On the other hand, the people in charge, chiefly Generals Dwight Eisenhower (John Slattery) and Bernard Montgomery, believe that Churchill is so obsessed with the past that he does not realize how much things have changed in terms of military planning in the ensuing decades. They find themselves in a tricky position--they need to use Churchill’s name and reputation among the British people to help sell the war effort but they cannot risk him bringing down their best chance at victory with his doomsaying either.

This is kind of interesting at first but after a short time, ''Churchill'' puts us in the odd position of asking us to watch a revered historical figure rant and rave in defense of a position that we all know was wrong for nearly two hours. I presume that the intention of Jonathan Teplitzky's film was to show the flawed but real human being behind the spirited oratory that Churchill is most famous for but it gets a little tiresome after a while as the scenes in which he rages impotently against military brass, his wife (Miranda Richardson) and anyone else who crosses his path begin to blend into one another. Cox's performance is good, if increasingly one-note as things go on, as you can see the combination of fear, wounded pride and, yes, professional jealousy over having his battlefield expertise be so casually dismissed roiling within him throughout. ''Churchill'' is not entirely without interest but unless you have a passionate desire to see that jerk Winston Churchill cut down to size before your eyes, the film is little more than proof that not every anecdote about WW II has enough to it to support an entire feature film.

If there is one thing that unites everyone--rich or poor, powerful or weak--it is the inescapable fact that at some point, we will all shuffle off of this mortal coil and in many cases, it will be under increasingly humiliating and debilitating circumstances. That notion is the inspiration for ''The Death of Louis XIV,'' the fascinating and occasionally darkly funny historical drama from Albert Serra following the end days of the titular leader (Jean-Pierre Leaud). At first, when he feels a strange pain in his leg, no one thinks much of anything about but as it continues to spread, we bear witness to him as he endures any number of treatments ranging from the practical to blatant quackery, virtually all of it from the increasingly dubious and meaningless comforts of a royal bedchamber filled with aides and supplicants who can do nothing for him, until his eventual passing. Granted, spending two hours in a movie theater watching someone die before their eyes may not exactly strike many movie goers as being the basis for an entertaining night out at the movies but I promise you that this is absolutely captivating throughout. It has been produced in the most sumptuous manner imaginable and if there is a visually uninteresting moment to be had, I cannot easily recall it. Serra's screenplay and direction are top-notch as well, shifting from simple drama to gentle dark humor to utter tragedy with startling precision. Most of all, it provides Leaud, who has been once of France’s most recognizable actors since making his debut in ''The 400 Blows'' back in 1959, with one of the best roles of his long and considerable career and he more than makes the most of it with a brilliant turn that is absolutely spellbinding to watch at every turn in how he lets us see the man behind the regal facade--an ordinary person confronting his mortality with fear, nervousness and no small amount of genuine grace, considering the circumstances.

Set in the 16th century, ''God of War'' is a blood-and-thunder historical epic chronicling the efforts of Ming General Qi Jiguang (Vincent Zhao) and commander Yu Dayou (HK legend Sammo Hung) to defeat an army of Japanese pirates and ronin that has been attacking the Chinese coast. After a previous battle leads to the pirates getting away, Qi is sidelined from the front but when the pirates begin to plot a new, multi-pronged attack, he is brought back into the fold and puts together an army consisting of locals that he whips into shape and his own wife (Regina Wan Qian), a strong fighter in her own right who will be holding down the fort at one of the invasion points herself. Arguably the best film of its kind to emerge from Hong Kong since John Woo’s ''Red Cliff,'' director Gordon Chan has created a massive saga that is filled with any number of impressively staged battle scenes that nevertheless manages to contain a number of equally effective quieter moments as well, including those chronicling the relationship between Qi and his wife as well as those in which a ronin working with the pirates becomes increasingly disenchanted with the violent and undisciplined nature of the people he is dealing with. Zhao turns in a strong central performance as Qi and while his screen time may not quite equal his billing, Sammo Hung turns in a memorable supporting turn as his mentor. The end result is a smart, thoughtful and exciting war film that turns out to have more on its mind than just the explosions and the carnage.

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originally posted: 06/03/17 02:44:50
last updated: 06/03/17 02:52:09
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