The Odessa File – Nazis Gone Wild! week

Mostly as an excuse so I can review a film I have waited a year to see (no not this one), this is Nazis Gone Wild! week. We will be featuring Nazis not in their usual setting – mainly post-World War II. The Odessa File is currently available on instant Netflix.

The Odessa File

PASS: The Odessa File (1974) – Rated PG.

“After finding the diary of a Holocaust survivor who had recently committed suicide, journalist Peter Miller (Jon Voight) begins following the trail of an SS officer who commanded a concentration camp during World War II. Miller soon finds himself involved with an organization of former SS members called Odessa as well as with the Israeli secret service. Further probing reveals a link between the officer, Odessa and Millers own family.”

“You are a parasite. You live off other peoples troubles.”

Director Ronald Neame and writers Kenneth Ross & George Markstein do a good job of squeezing as much of The Odessa File book plot as possible into the movie. This should please readers of the book.

Unfortunately if you have not read the book, many portions are just touched upon and dropped. The film opens with worries about Weapons of Mass Destruction being used on Israel. This subplot consists of one scene in the beginning, a brief mention in the middle, and a brief mention at the end and could easily have been jettisoned. It has almost nothing to do with the rest of the film.

The bulk of the film is the hunt for Eduard Roschmann that is undertaken by Miller. Eduard Roschmann is played by second-billed Maximilian Schell who is only briefly in the film. The vast bulk of the film is carried by Jon Voight as Miller and he does a very good job here.

Sadly that does not translate into a good movie. There are the all-too-common plotholes. Many of the ODESSA operatives know Miller by sight so that makes him the ideal candidate to go undercover. What?!?

It is quite clear that at least some of the authorities are in collusion with (or are members of) ODESSA so at an absolutely crucial moment of secrecy, I will call my girlfriend and tell her where I am. What?!?

Interestingly Eduard Roschmann, The Butcher of Riga, was not only real but was in hiding in Argentina at the time this film came out. Within the next few years, possibly due to publicity from the book and movie, he faced extradition and was forced to flee to Paraguay. He turned up dead there on August 8, 1977, presumably murdered though Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal was doubtful that it was him.

Netflix presents this movie in HD for those of you with the appropriate equipment.

I am afraid that I have to give this movie a pass. There is nothing overtly wrong with it – the acting is fine if unexceptional, the script is fine apart from a few huge plotholes, direction is fine but uninvolved.

The movie just seems flat – as if it has to hit certain plot points from the novel and string them into a whole. It is very reminiscent of the last Forsyth adaptation I reviewed, The Fourth Protocol.

People Watch: The always wonderful Derek (I, Claudius) Jacobi plays Klaus Wenzer.

WarGames – Weapons of Mass Destruction week

This is Weapons of Mass Destruction week. WarGames is currently available on instant Netflix.

WarGames

PASS: WarGames (1983) – Rated PG.

“After cracking the security of an Air Force supercomputer, young hacker David Lightman (Matthew Broderick) moves his piece in a seemingly innocent video game and accidentally tells the computer to start preparing a preemptive nuclear strike. Driven by Cold War paranoia, director John Badhams techno-thriller follows Lightman and his girlfriend (Ally Sheedy) as they travel across the country to try and warn the military of the impending launch.”

“Is this a game or is it real?” – “Whats the difference?”

“He does fit the profile perfectly. He is intelligent but an underachiever; alienated from his parents; has few friends. Classic case for recruitment by the Soviets.”

Ah the film that began the multi-decade love affair between Hollywood and the hacker. This is the first movie to mention a firewall. As with almost all movies involving hackers or computers, the number of factual errors is enormous.

The acoustic coupler is completely unnecessary to the setup in Davids room (he has a normal modem). The autodialer cycles through phone numbers at a rate that no computer/modem of the time could possibly manage. Ditto that with the computer cycling through a brute force password hack.

Apparently David and NORAD both use the same voice synthesizer. As usual every word typed or shown on screen must be read aloud. It always makes me feel like I am wasting my time reading anything as it will be repeated soon enough. Well the important bits anyway – the voice synthesizer apparently picks and chooses what it repeats.

While there are a number of egregious computer errors, the script has a good grasp on hacker lifestyle at the time, both on the main character and on a few secondary hackers. At one point, David is shown coming out of the 7-11 with a Big Gulp – a pretty standard scene from my teen years though his goes a bit differently. The two secondary hackers are clearly social misfits as is David to a certain extent.

Badham does give us the requisite classic 80s montage. In this case it is a research montage instead of a workout one. We also get the requisite teenager who is smarter than everyone around him – ah if only the old folks would listen to him.

Much of the military is played as complete dunderheads. For example, immediately after the General is assured that the launch codes could only be used if we were at Defcon 1, he raises the Defcon level to 3 from 4. It does not appear to have been said ironically either.

Strangely this film was nominated for three Academy Awards. It was nominated for Best Cinematography, Sound, and Best Writing – Original Screenplay. It lost to Fanny and Alexander, The Right Stuff, and Tender Mercies respectively. The sound I understand but I did not find the cinematography impressive and the writing is riddled with plotholes.

I have to ask a lot of questions though.

Does NORAD really allow tour groups? Of the command center? With cameras? And where they do not know the head count?

Is it SOP for the FBI to arrest high school students in Seattle and then take them to NORAD?

Does NORAD really use Galaga sound effects? Does NORAD really use Beethovens Fifth to contact the President?

Certainly Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy are young and engaging here. John Wood is nice and quirky here and Dabney Coleman essentially plays the same character he always plays.

While this film is fun to watch, it is riddled with plotholes and errors and is very dated. I remembered really enjoying this film when it came out but I am afraid that I cannot bring myself to recommend it now. I do have to give it points for featuring Galaga so prominently though.

People Watch: Look for a very young Michael Madsen in the opening scene. Try not to picture him saying “Are you going to bark little doggie or are you going to bite?” Director John Badham is the voice on the tape recorder.

The Fourth Protocol – Weapons of Mass Destruction week

This is Weapons of Mass Destruction week. The Fourth Protocol is currently available on instant Netflix.

The Fourth Protocol

PASS: The Fourth Protocol (1987) – Rated R.

“In an effort to shatter NATO alliances, Russian spy Valeri Petrofsky (Pierce Brosnan) plots to explode a nuclear bomb in Britain and blame the act on America. It is up to British agent John Preston (Michael Caine) to foil the plan, despite the skepticism of his superiors. Based on the book by best-selling author Frederick Forsyth, this well-crafted espionage thriller also stars Joanna Cassidy as a second Russian agent.”

“He is armed with a bomb.” – “How big a bomb?” – “Atomic bomb.”

Director John MacKenzie does a capable job here. Unfortunately that is the best that can be said. This is a typical by-the-numbers Cold War spy thriller. There is no particular flair or artistry involved.

Author Frederick Forsyth helped write the screenplay from his novel. The script is very literate but there is very little life or passion in it. It is strange that with so much attention to detail, the antagonists assemble the atomic bomb with their bare hands, including handling the radioactive material.

Gasp! John Preston (Michael Caine) is a rogue agent who does not play by the rules! In one scene he notably stares at a countdown timer as it reaches 007. He is a little past his prime here but always enjoyable.

Pierce Brosnan (post-Remington Steele, pre-James Bond) is our primary antagonist. He drives a  motorcycle with the tag C700 OBL (yet another 007 reference). Joanna Cassidy is his cover “wife”.

Ian Richardson is the only standout in a good cast. He is simply superb in his brief screen-time as Sir Nigel Irvine. While I have not reviewed them yet, his starring role in The House of Cards trilogy is extremely highly recommended.

The rest of the cast is quite good as well though they seem somewhat wasted. Julian Glover is the priggish boss, Brian Harcourt-Smith, who refuses to believe any evidence simply because he hates John Preston. Michael Gough plays outgoing boss, Sir Bernard Hemmings (so we have both of the recent Alfreds, faithful butler to Batman). Ned Beatty plays Borisov.

None of the action is exciting. A car does a 180 degree screech to a halt so Preston can grab a train. A van hits two other cars to pull out of a traffic jam. Ho hum.

There is nothing wrong with this thriller (well other than that it is not very thrilling) but there is nothing special about it either. In spite of the good cast, I cannot really recommend this.

People Watch: Matt (Max Headroom) Frewer has a small part here as Tom McWhirter. He puts quite the twang into his voice. Frederick Forsyth cameos as a radio newsreader.

Right at Your Door – Weapons of Mass Destruction week

This is Weapons of Mass Destruction week. Right at Your Door is currently available on instant Netflix.

Right at Your Door

WATCH: Right at Your Door (2006) – Rated R for pervasive language and some disturbing violent content.

“What begins as just another day for everyman Brad (Rory Cochrane) quickly disintegrates into an ordeal of terror when a dirty bomb is unleashed on Los Angeles. Unable to contact his wife, Brad decides to barricade himself in his house while awaiting her return from work, facing isolation and panic during his tense vigil. With a strong script and talented cast, writer-director Chris Goraks skillfully wrought thriller delivers high-level suspense.”

Made by first-time director and first-time writer, Chris Gorak, this was obviously a very personal project.

The film opens with Brad taking out the trash in a quiet L.A. suburb. He then helps his wife Lexi get ready for work on a calm ordinary day. Once we have established our peaceful setting, the credits roll.

Gorak wastes no time in establishing his premise. After the credits are done, we hear the ominous tone of the Emergency Broadcast System. Yes you guessed it – this is not a test.

The initial scenes of disbelief then panic are exceptionally well-handled. There is no need for a mega-million dollar event. The disaster feels quite real (as opposed to the spectacles put on by Roland Emmerich which are more of a fun ride).

The film is actually shaping up to be an absolute masterpiece when it hits the 30 minute mark. Unfortunately it then hits the suspension of disbelief wall.

Lexi arrives back home and Brad, panicked by the dirty bomb reports, will not let her in to his sealed home. This pretty much killed what had been an uncannily realistic film for me. I simply cannot imagine that circumstance.

The rest of the movie is still quite good in spite of the above jawdropper and a few other minor missteps but it does pale in comparison to the first half hour.

I have to recommend this as a watch for the incredibly scary first half-hour alone.

People Watch: Mary McCormack plays Lexi. She later went on to play Kate Harper in West Wing and Mary Shannon in In Plain Sight.

The Atomic Cafe – Weapons of Mass Destruction week

This is Weapons of Mass Destruction week. The Atomic Cafe is currently available on instant Netflix.

The Atomic Cafe

WATCH: The Atomic Cafe (1982) – NR – Not rated.

“A chilling and often hilarious reminder of Cold War-era paranoia in the United States, this film artfully compiles newsreel footage, government archives, military training films and 1950s music into a singular cinematic experience. Also covered are Washingtons Communist witch hunt, the historic trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and the sagely prophetic comments of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.”

“Be sure to include tranquilizers to ease the strain and monotony of life in a fallout shelter. A bottle of 100 should be sufficient for a family of four. Tranquilizers are not a narcotic, and are not habit-forming.”

“To find out who is American and who is a low-down Red.”

“Watched from a distance, this is one of the most beautiful sights known to man.”

WOW! The footage in this documentary is simply amazing. The awe-inspiring atomic blast footage is interspersed with vintage interviews, horrific aftermath video and absolutely hilarious cold war propaganda.

The Atomic Cafe begins with onscreen text describing the setting of the pre-atomic era. They then show, without narration or interview, footage of the Alamagordo testing. For the most part, the rest of the film follows chronologically.

Devastating video of the Nagasaki destruction is played while vintage comedians joke over how big the blast was. There is vintage footage and audio of the Rosenbergs and descriptions of their execution.

On the humorous side, we have the requisite duck and cover footage. There is a homemade radiation suit (now with shredded lead to absorb those atomic rays!). Do not miss the radioactive tuna fish!

The audio is as much of a delight as the video. There are innumerable small interviews from the eras depicted (no modern interviews) and they are often played with video directly contradicting the audio statements. The soundtrack of vintage songs, many of the political and jingoistic, are hysterical.

Video quality, as should be expected, is all over the map but is generally very good. A lot of the source material appears to have been cleaned up to the extent it can.

I highly recommend this absolutely fascinating look at the dawn of the nuclear age. The directors craft this film without any additional commentary – all audio, video, stills, and music are vintage.

People Watch: Look for a cornucopia of our previous Presidents in archival footage.

Broken Arrow – Weapons of Mass Destruction week

This is Weapons of Mass Destruction week. Broken Arrow is currently available on instant Netflix.

Broken Arrow

WATCH: Broken Arrow (1996) – Rated R.

“When rogue stealth-fighter pilot Vic Deakins (John Travolta) deliberately drops off the radar while on maneuvers, the Air Force ends up with two stolen nuclear warheads — and his co-pilot, Riley Hale (Christian Slater), is the only hope for getting them back. Traversing the deserted canyons of Utah, Hale teams with park ranger Terry Carmichael (Samantha Mathis) to put Deakins back in his box. But can they pull it off?”

“I dont know what is scarier, losing nuclear weapons, or that it happens so often there is a term for it.”

“You assured me everything would go smoothly.” – “I assure you – everything is going smoothly.”

“Would you mind not shooting at the thermonuclear weapons?”

First, I have to admit that I love director John Woo. His Hong Kong films were great. The Killers, Hard-Boiled and A Better Tomorrow are all classics and gave a much needed shot of adrenaline to the action genre.

John Woo was not the first filmmaker to feature a two-gun hero but he was definitely the one who popularized it. Many of his action signatures like that one have been endlessly copied by Hollywood.

Unfortunately when John Woo came to the U.S., he hit a triple wall. None of his American movies have matched the dark poetry of The Killer or the adrenaline rush of Hard-Boiled.

Star interference hurt him twice. For his first American feature he was given the notoriously difficult Jean Claude Van Damme as his star. Worse, Mission Impossible II was a Tom Cruise film. When Tom Cruise is in a film, he has the power to film and edit to feature himself (not the film) to best advantage.

MPAA interference meant that his ballets of violence had to be severely toned down. The worst damage however was that John Woo was used to a great deal of autonomy and that did not sit well with the studios. He also liked operatic endings which do not go over well with American audiences.

Broken Arrow, while not one of his Hong Kong classics, is a quite entertaining film. There are several signature Woo Mexican standoffs here as well as a dual gun-wielding hero.

The action setpieces are great. A mine shootout is a particular standout as is the train assault.

Woo has a wonderful time with transportation themes in this film. With helicopters alone, we have helicopter vs. person on foot, Helicopter vs. jeep, and helicopter vs. train. The film starts with a stealth flight and later features jeep chases, boats, and even a train.

One of the nice things about the film is the give and take. Sometimes our villain outsmarts the hero, sometimes the hero outsmarts the villain. As with most Woo films, the hero and the villain have a close personal relationship.

John Travolta has a ball here. His brand of broad stroke acting wonderfully fits the villain for this film. His performances around this time (Pulp Fiction, Get Shorty) are marvelous but sadly they have devolved into self-parody (Battlefield Earth, Swordfish). John Travolta chews up the scenery here and the film is almost worth watching for his performance alone.

Christian Slater and Samantha Mathis play our heroes. They handle their roles capably but do not appear to be having nearly as much fun as Travolta. Football player Howie Long plays the evil sidekick. He does not have much to do but look imposing but he seems to enjoy himself.

I recommend this as a  Watch for an admittedly hammy yet quite enjoyable performance by Travolta and for some wild action scenes. Keep in mind while watching that this is indeed watered-down Woo.

People Watch: Look for veteran character actor Kurtwood (Robocop, That 70s Show) Smith as the Secretary of Defense. After a disappointing last decade, John Woo returned to China to film Red Cliff, an adaptation of the classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms. It is supposed to feature some amazing battle sequences.

Fail-Safe – Weapons of Mass Destruction week

This is Weapons of Mass Destruction week. Fail-Safe is currently available on instant Netflix.

Fail-Safe

WATCH: Fail-Safe (1964) – NR – Not rated

“Director Sidney Lumet transforms the doomsday scenario played for laughs in Dr. Strangelove into a taut thriller. When a computer glitch sends a bomber crew on a suicide mission to Moscow, the U.S. president (Henry Fonda) agonizes over how to stop it. Will Fonda tell the Russians to shoot down the plane? Global thermonuclear war may hinge on his decision.”

“I say every war, including thermonuclear war, must have a winner and a loser. Which would you rather be?”

“Whats the difference between 60 million dead and a hundred million dead?” – “Forty million”

Fail-Safe shares a remarkable number of resemblances to the film we reviewed yesterday, Dr. Strangelove. They were both released in 1964. Both are directed by celebrated directors and feature wonderful casts.

Both are based on cautionary novels about the possibility of error causing a nuclear catastrophe. The plots are remarkably similar and Kubrick wisely stipulated that his film be released first. Dr. Strangelove had already been delayed as a result of the Kennedy assassination.

While thematically identical, the two films could not be further apart in tone. Where Dr. Strangelove is a droll satire, Fail-Safe is a deadly serious examination of a nuclear issue and cold war politics.

Director Sidney Lumet does a wonderful job with ensemble casts in tense situations. He deals heavily in characterization and his movies are usually very light in physical action. This predisposition suits this topic well.

Lumet uses his 12 Angry Men star Henry Fonda as the President. This is wonderful casting of course coming after decades of Henry Fonda playing American everymen. Fonda is both powerful and sympathetic here in very tense situations.

Walter Matthau is exceptional as an extremely hawkish professor. Even while working on (okay mostly exacerbating) the current crisis, it is clear he is positioning himself for advantage in a future situation. Dan OHerlihy is our nominal hero, a General with a conscience. A young Larry (Dallas) Hagman plays an interpreter caught in the middle.

The stark black and white cinematography works well for the bleak depiction of possible nuclear tragedy. Sidney Lumet avoids any kind of flashiness that might detract from the drama. The movie is, not surprisingly, somewhat heavy-handed.

To show how serious the subject is, there is no music whatsoever during the film. A horrifying twist three quarters of the way in the movie, while somewhat difficult to swallow, delivers quite a punch to the proceedings.

Netflix presents Fail-Safe in HD for those not viewing it on a computer. This is a good slice of Cold War paranoia that had the misfortune of following the brilliant Dr. Strangelove. While worth recommending, it is nowhere near as good as Dr. Strangelove so watch that one first.

People Watch: This movie was quite the launching pad for a number of careers. This is the debut not only of Fritz Weaver but also of comedian Dom Deluise and Dana (MacGyver) Elcar.

Dr. Strangelove – Weapons of Mass Destruction week

This is WMD – Weapons of Mass Destruction week. Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is currently available on instant Netflix.WARNING: Watch this soon as on March 1st this movie will no longer be available on instant Netflix.

Dr. Strangelove

WATCH: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) – Rated PG.

“When a fanatical U.S. general (Sterling Hayden) launches an air strike against the Soviets, they raise the stakes by threatening to unleash a “doomsday device,” setting the stage for Armageddon in this classic black comedy that brilliantly skewers the nuclear age. The films star-studded cast includes George C. Scott, Slim Pickens, James Earl Jones and Peter Sellers (who steals the show and copped an Oscar nod playing three roles).”

“Peace is our profession” – Strategic Air Command motto seen pretty much everywhere in the film.

“Gentlemen, you cant fight in here! This is the War Room.”

“Fluoridation is the most monstrously conceived and dangerous communist plot we have ever had to face.”

Stanley Kubrick did an absolutely phenomenal job of directing Dr. Strangelove. He received the first three of his many Oscar nominations for this movie. He was nominated for Best Film (producer), Best Director, and Best Writing (adapted screenplay).

Reportedly author Peter George was not happy with the adaptation of his book, Red Alert, by Kubrick and Terry Southern. The book presents a serious scenario similar in tone and theme to Fail-Safe (a movie I will discuss later this week).

Kubrick adapted this into an absolutely brilliant satire of the nuclear arms race and cold war politics. With the exception of the titular character, every one else plays the film straight (in spite of the ridiculous names given to much of the cast).

There are a ton of fun touches in the film. There is a nice scene with Major Kong (Slim Pickens) in an airplane poring over what appears to be a map. The camera pulls out and it is revealed to be an issue of Playboy. Tracy Reed (Miss Scott in the film) is Miss Foreign Affairs in the issue.

General Turgidson has a folder marked “World Targets in Megadeaths”. A firefight at the base takes place near a “Keep Off the Grass” sign.

Peter Sellers was nominated for a Best Actor in Dr. Strangelove. He plays Dr. Strangelove, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, and President Muffley. He was supposed to play Major Kong as well but broke his ankle and was replaced in that role by Slim Pickens. He was paid a million dollars – over half the budget of the film – for his performances.

All of his roles in this film are great. He has a fun and comedic time with Dr. Strangelove, a former Nazi scientist now working with the U.S. His President Muffley is a model of reason amid the chaos of the War Room. However I most enjoyed his stiff upper lip presentation of Captain Mandrake.

A slightly over the top performance from George C. Scott as General Turgidson is a sight to behold. This is only second to his performance as Patton. Make sure to pay attention to his gum fixation. The fall he takes later in the film was a real accident that Kubrick decided to leave in.

Slim Pickens is a hoot as Major Kong and his final scene is an iconic shot from this film. Veteran actor Sterling Hayden (Captain McCluskey in The Godfather) came out of semi-retirement for this film. He had previously worked for Kubrick in The Killing (1956). James Earl Jones appears here in his first film but does not have much to do.

The music choices are inspired. Whenever Major Kong and the bomb crew are on, “Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye” is playing in the background. This was later adapted and is perhaps more popularly known as “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”.  The end montage has “We ll Meet Again” by Vera Lynn played over it.

This is an absolutely incredible and iconic film and if you have not seen it then you definitely should. Do not be put off by the Black and White photography or the silly character names, this is a movie deserving of the title “classic”.

WATCH this classic movie soon before it expires on March 1st.

People Watch: Look for Keenan Wynn as Colonel Guano.

Jurassic Park III – Size Matters week

In honor of the wonderful present my wife gave me, I am featuring giant things this week. Jurassic Park III is cheating a little bit as these are not giant dinosaurs but dinosaurs are giant. Jurassic Park III is currently available on instant Netflix.

Jurassic Park III

WATCH: Jurassic Park III (2001) – Rated PG-13 for intense sci-fi terror and violence.

“In need of funds for research, Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) accepts a large sum of money to accompany Paul and Amanda Kirby (William H. Macy and Tea Leoni) on an aerial tour of the infamous Isla Sorna. It is not long before all hell breaks loose and the stranded wayfarers must fight for survival as a host of new — and even more deadly — dinosaurs try to make snacks of them. Laura Dern, Michael Jeter, Alessandro Nivola and Trevor Morgan co-star.”

“Reverse Darwinism – Survival of the most idiotic.”

“This is how you make dinosaurs.” – “No this is how you play God.”

Okay I just want to put “WATCHDinosaurs eat people!” so this probably will not be a very objective review. I just love the Jurassic Park series.

The script is completely silly. The reasons for our cast to end up on Isla Sorna are not just ridiculous but actually mind-bogglingly stupid. Thankfully director Joe Johnston does not waste much time at all on this. It would have made far more sense to have simply had an airplane go off-course and crash on Isla Sorna.

Sam Neill is really the only returning cast member. He does a good job even considering the script has him doing things Dr. Grant would not do. Laura Dern has what amounts to a cameo role. William H. Macy seems largely wasted and out of place here as does Tea Leoni but their presence is welcome.

The cast is notable as much for who was not in it as who was. Jeff Goldblum was originally in it but hurt his leg shortly after filming began and dropped out. Three of my favorite character actors (Steve Buscemi, Stellan Skarsgard, and Tony Shalhoub) were all considered for roles.

So what does this Jurassic Park have that the two Spielberg ones do not? One word: Pteranodons! Spinosaurus! Oh wait that is two words.

Joe Johnston should be applauded for cramming everything into an hour and a half. It is not that I like a short movie but I am sure he was pressured to bring the time on this one down. It is just amazing how much he managed to squeeze in.

The first two films were epic in scope and length. Johnston wastes no time in getting straight to the action and after that it is one dinosaur attack after another. It seems almost like a rollercoaster ride.

If I did not love the dinosaur special effects so much, I would probably rate this a pass. As it is WATCH: Dinosaurs eat people!”

People Watch: Bruce A. Young (M.B. Nash) is also Captain Banks from the TV show, The Sentinel. Director Joe Johnston most recently completed The Wolfman which I have yet to see.

The Giant Buddhas – Size Matters week

In honor of the wonderful present my wife gave me, I am featuring giant things this week. The Giant Buddhas is currently available on instant Netflix.

the Giant Buddhas

WATCH: The Giant Buddhas (2005) – NR – Not rated (I did not notice any objectionable content).

“Christian Frei’s documentary traces the tragic tale of the giant Buddhas of Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Valley, which stood as monumental landmarks for 1,500 years until 2001, when the Taliban declared that all non-Islamic statues in the country be destroyed. Despite international protest, the statues were blown up. Through interwoven narratives from past and present, Frei’s film sheds light on the disturbing consequences of religious fanaticism.”

“Everything changes. Nothing remains.” – Buddha

No this is not a movie about giant Buddha statues attacking people. Sadly it is a documentary about the reverse. The Giant Buddhas covers the destruction of two 1500 year old Buddhas by the Taliban in 2001.

While the documentary is well worth watching there are a number of problems with it. The narrator”s voice drones on in a passionless monotone which saps some of the life from the film. When the English narrator isn’t speaking then we are listening to people speak in Arabic, Cantonese, French and other languages with a ton of subtitles so be prepared to do a LOT of reading.

The Giant Buddhas attempts to cover way too much ground. There is enough material for a week”s worth of documentaries. We cover not only the destruction of the Buddhas but also a reconstruction in China, the history of the Buddhas, the history of the Buddhas as viewed by Westerners, an extremely courageous Arabic journalist, the archaeological dig trying to find the third (reclining) Buddha, people who live in the caves between the Buddhas, and more.

Part of the problem I think is that the director is also the producer and editor. This could definitely have used a guiding hand and a jettisoning of some of the other stories. Daily Afghan life is very fascinating as are a number of the other stories but it appears that the director couldn’t quite decide what story he wanted to tell.

The final portion of the film is Nelofer Pazira”s (a female journalist) journey to the niches that housed the Buddhas. Those images are very depressing.

At one point we’re watching Nelofer riding down a road next to a hardscrabble stream. She asks the driver, “Are there mines along the banks?” Can you imagine living in a world where you would have to ask that? Keep in mind that that is also the people’s main source of water.

I recommend watching this movie simply for the subject matter. It is a great shame that these statues were destroyed. It is also a great shame that this documentary is so unfocused.

People Watch: Director Christian Frei was nominated for an Oscar for his documentary War Photographer.