Conspiracy

Conspiracy

We think of the most heinous crimes in human history as having being perpetrated by beings other than humans. We call them animals or beasts or a variety of other dehumanizing names to forget that we have a commonality with murderers.

With no other group has this canard been wheeled out more often than the Nazis. It’s almost unfathomable that something so monstrous as the Holocaust could be planned and carried out by people like us.

Countering such a misguided notion is the goal of Conspiracy, a 2011 coproduction between HBO and the BBC, written by Loring Mandel and directed by Frank Pierson. The cast boasts the likes of Kenneth Branagh, Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth. It dramatizes the Wannsee Conference, a meeting held in an elegant mansion overlooking a lake outside Berlin in January 1942.

The agenda of the meeting was how to annihilate the Jews.

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Trench 11

Trench 11

An Internet friend of mine likes to say that the best war movies are essentially horror movies. They thrust you into a living nightmare, one where worms and locusts feast on the shredded cadavers of former comrades. As General Sherman said, “War is cruelty and you cannot refine it.”

It is no wonder then that horror movies will use the setting of such mass slaughters for their supernatural thrills. Recent examples include Overlord and Ghosts of War, both of which I have reviewed here. Leo Scherman’s 2017 film Trench 11 is another entry in the military horror subgenre.

Unlike the World War II setting of the two aforementioned films, Trench 11 takes place during World War I, that allegedly “great” war. It reminded me of a comment I saw on a video of Sabaton’s song Attack of the Dead Men, about the namesake event that defies belief but is true. It was about how strange the innovations of that miserable war must have seemed to the young men who were slaughtered in it; men flying, killing other men with bullets fired at speeds that render them invisible, riding in metallic machines, digging tunnels under the earth, and suffocating of toxic air. In that context, men rising from the dead does not seem that implausible.

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Piazza Fontana: The Italian Conspiracy

Romanzo di una strage

It’s the height of the Cold War. Italy’s Communist Party is still a force to be reckoned with. Far-left and far-right groups terrorize Italians in the streets, with the latter pinning their assassinations and bombings on the former in hopes of fomenting a neofascist coup: the so-called strategy of tension.

These are Italy’s Years of Lead.

Romanzo di una strage, released internationally as Piazza Fontana: The Italian Conspiracy, deals with one of the opening acts in that twenty-year drama: the December 12, 1969 bombing of the Banca Nazionale dell’Agricoltura in the Piazza Fontana of Milan. Seventeen people were killed, 88 wounded. A prime suspect, anarchist leader Giuseppe Pinelli (played by Pierfrancesco Favino, whom you might recognize from World War Z), died in police custody a few days later. The policeman in charge of the investigation, Luigi Calabresi (Valerio Mastandrea), was himself killed in 1972.

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1898: Our Last Men in the Philippines

1898: Our Last Men in the Philippines

Many of us in the Western world might think of Southeast Asia as a dense jungle where white people go to die. The French and the Americans died in Vietnam. The Dutch died in Indonesia. The British died in Malaya.

The Philippines are often overlooked. Americans may remember the islands played a role in World War II. They will speak of Corregidor (properly with a rolled “r” and a “g” pronounced like an “h” — it’s a Spanish word) and Bataan (a three-syllable word) and Leyte Gulf. What they may not remember is the war that gained Americans the Philippines, and the empire that ruled it before them.

That empire was Spain. Spaniards arrived in the archipelago four centuries before the Americans threw them out by concocting an espionage scandal out of a boiler accident. 1898, Los últimos de Filipinas, released in the English-speaking world as 1898: Our Last Men in the Philippines, is about the end of that war.

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Free State of Jones

Free State of Jones

Much has been written about how much of the American South was complicit in the institution of slavery. Historian Ira Berlin wrote in Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in America (1998) that the South wasn’t just a “society with slaves”; it was a “slave society”. Chattel slavery was the institution around which life in those states revolved.

Slaves tried to break the chains that bound them. Many former slaves, and descents of slaves, fought in the Grand Army of the Republic for that reason.

There were also white Southerners who resisted. West Virginia broke from Virginia. Eastern Tennessee was in full revolt. Free State of Jones gives a third example of freed slaves and deserting white soldiers fighting together against the tyranny of Confederate rule.

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Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah

Sometimes I think it was a miracle that the American civil rights movement didn’t lead to open civil war. We remember the resistance as nonviolent, but there certainly was violence, the 1963 Birmingham Baptist Church bombing being an infamous example.

Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered for advocating nonviolence. Not all African Americans agreed with him. Malcolm X called King and his followers “hand-cuffed by the disarming philosophy of nonviolence” in a letter to George Lincoln Rockwell, the head of the American Nazi Party, on the eve of the March on Washington.

Opposition to nonviolence was a reaction to the violence inflicted upon black Americans by police and organizations like the Ku Klux Klan. One group that wasn’t afraid to take up arms was the Black Panther Party, and it is the subject of the award-winning Judas and the Black Messiah.

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1917

1917

More than a century removed from Versailles, where that armistice for twenty years was signed, we in the English-speaking Atlantic world tend to think of World War I as a static conflict. This is because we are mostly presented with the Western Front in fiction, where endless rows of trenches are bombarded with tear gas and brave men and foolhardy officers who go over the top are flayed by machine guns and corroded by poison gas. (Australians and New Zealanders had different experiences.) When the men are not charging and dying, they are languishing in squalor in the mud.

Not so 1917, directed by Sam Mendes, of Skyfall and Spectre fame, and released in 2019. This is a film of rapid movement and brutal battle. It is a film that will never let you forget that these men were not eating plum and apple jam, and the sergeant does not deliver the men breakfast in bed. They were the currency used to match the price of a mile.

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Countdown

Countdown

The 1960s Space Race saw the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in an ever-evolving game of oneupmanship. One that saw them leaping from first satellite to the first man to the first woman and first multi-person crew to, thanks to President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 declaration before Congress, to putting someone on the Moon first. That goal was reached in July 1969, when Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong stepped out of the Lunar Module Eagle onto the lunar surface.

In a different world, it might have been another astronaut taking that one giant leap using modified Gemini hardware with such a scenario depicted in Robert Altman’s 1968 movie Countdown.

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All Quiet on the Western Front

All Quiet on the Western Front

Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) is widely acclaimed as perhaps the finest antiwar novel of all time. It is a book that exudes the despair and hopelessness that we commonly associate with the Great War (if any war can be “great”). It has codified how we think of the War to End All Wars (if any war can end war). It is little wonder, then, that it was adapted to film multiple times.

Here I will discuss the 1979 version produced by ITC entertainment, directed by Delbert Mann, and starring Richard Thomas and Ernest Borgnine. This is a film that absolutely succeeds in bringing Remarque’s vision to life in a manner that takes advantage of the medium of film.

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Jungle Cruise

Jungle Cruise

Jungle Cruise was only the second movie I saw in the cinema since it reopened from the COVID-19 lockdown, and it was money well spent.

(It helped that we saw it in Amsterdam’s magnificent Tuschinski Theater. If you’re ever in town, take two hours out of your schedule to see a movie in what Time Out has called the most beautiful cinema in the world.)

Jungle Cruise is a throwback to classic adventures like Indiana Jones, Jungle Book, Tarzan and The Africa Queen, but, unlike the more deliberate and grown-up The Lost City of Z, this one is family-friendly and a whole lot more fun.

Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson are cast well opposite each other as the intrepid Dr Lily Houghton, who is determined to find the Tree of Life whose petals can cure any illness, and who has no patience for the disbelief and sexism of the male explorers of her time, and steamboat skipper Frank Wolff, who knows the Amazon like his back pocket. Jack Whitehall provides comic relief as Lily’s snob younger brother.

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