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Another Awesome Doc and Those Oscar Nominations

Another Awesome Documentary and Those Oscar Nominations

They Shall Not Grow Old (New Zealand/UK
 New Zealand director Peter Jackson is best known for the fictional Lord of the Rings trilogy.  But it’s his longtime interest in military history that has led to this amazing work, released during the centenary of the armistice that ended the First World War and dedicated to a grandfather who served in the British army from 1910-1919.  On January 21 I braved extreme windchills to see it on the big screen, a one-day only showing at Cineplex theatres in Canada.
            The painstaking production drew from some 100 hours of archival footage originally shot during the war itself, and 600 hours of audio recordings by WWI veterans made in the 1960s and 1970s. These voices of firsthand experience provide all the narration.  Given the variable quality of extant archival images, their lack of sound, different frame-rate film speeds, etc., Jackson’s team had to overcome a number of technical challenges, which he describes in detail in an extended commentary following the closing credits.  That includes the decision to apply a meticulous colourization process to some of the footage which brings the scenes more intensely and fully to life before our eyes. For more analysis see:
            The results are, in a word, awesome.  The narrative, focused on British infantry troops, proceeds chronologically through the phases of the war.  Watching the early views of eager fresh faces in training one wonders how few will survive four years hence.  The film’s first part looks back to historic newsreel black-and-white images, sometimes juxtaposed beneath the garish colours of wartime propaganda posters. Then the view expands to strikingly immersive full-screen colour. In the remainder of the film Jackson also occasionally uses pixilated black-and-white stills from his collection of wartime propaganda magazines.
Any romantic notions of battle are quickly disabused by the ensuing devastation and horrors of trench warfare along the Western front.  Nothing is spared: the muck and the blood, total lack of hygiene and privacy (the lice and the rats), decaying corpses of men and horses, poison gas, barbed wire and blasted no-man’s land.  But amid the carnage there is also a certain camaraderie among ordinary soldiers, extended even to captured German prisoners.  When the armistice is announced there is subdued relief, no sense of celebration among the men who will return to mass unemployment and a civilian society that little understands and wants to forget.
            The documentary does not attempt to offer a complete picture of the so-called Great War.  Staying with the situation of British facing German foot soldiers, it includes the role of artillery and early motorized tanks but not that of the airforce or navy, or the role of colonial troops and those of other nations.  In his commentary Jackson also alludes to the important role of women in wartime production on the home front as a subject beyond the scope of his film.  What They Shall Not Grow Old does accomplish, and brilliantly so, is to recall with unmatched realism and immediacy the experiences of enlisted men during that cataclysmic conflict a century ago.  A  

Those 2019 Oscar nominations

First a word about the Golden Globes which I don’t take too seriously.  It was ridiculous for the musical biopic Bohemian Rhapsody to win “best drama” (though I don’t think it’s as bad as many critics lament) while Vice was put in the “musical or comedy” category (it was neither). Globe wins for Rhapsody and for Green Book (another controversial choice) seem to have benefited their Oscar prospects with best-picture nominations.
            The egregious omission on the best picture list is Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk, superior to either of the above.  The inclusion of Black Panther, the first superhero movie to make it into this category, is obviously a nod to its theme of Black empowerment and box-office popularity.  I would have loved to see The Rider in there (my #2 film of 2018, it was named best film by the U.S. National Society of Film Critics), but it’s a small independent so had no chance.  The best news is to see Roma, a genuine masterwork, nominated for both best picture and best foreign-language film, tied for a leading 10 nominations with The Favourite, also one of my best. Roma has to be a prohibitive favorite in the foreign-language category.  For best picture its strongest competition may be the star-heavy A Star is Born.  Nicest surprise is to see the unknown Yalitza Aparicio get nominated as lead actress for Roma, whose director Alfonso Cuarón has a good chance in the best director category.
            Biggest omission in the lead actor category is Ethan Hawke who topped most critics’ polls for his performance in First Reformed, though its director Paul Schrader did get a nomination for original screenplay.  Watch for more thoughts on what or who should win and will win in the various categories closer to the February 24 awards ceremony.    


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