Tag Archives: WWII

I Spy…

A Call to Spy

by Brandon Thomas

Finding a new way to tell a story set during World War II can’t be easy. Men on a mission? Loads of those. Pulpy action adventures? Some of the biggest movies of all time. Dramas exploring the depths of the human condition? We’ve all cried during these. 

What about the true story of female spies sent to France as secret agents? Yeah, that sounds fresh, and thankfully A Call to Spy is just that. 

Great Britain had its back firmly against the wall in the early days of WW II. The Blitz had nearly brought the country to its knees, and Germany’s occupation of France made the threat of invasion seem imminent. In desperation, Winston Churchill formed the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a new spy agency with one purpose: recruit and train women as spies.

A Call to Spy focuses on three women: Vera Atkins (Stana Katic), a Bavarian-born Jew, Virginia Hall (Sarah Megan Thomas), an American, and Noor Khan (Radhika Apte), an Indian Muslim. As the top recruiter, Atkins makes unusual choices in the other two. Hall is a wannabe diplomat with a wooden leg, while Noor is a pacifist. Within the grid of a taught spy thriller, A Call to Spy is mostly interested in how these three pushed back against multiple systems that found them to be less-than. 

Writer and star Sarah Megan Thomas, along with director Lydia Dean Pilcher, weave this true story in such a way that each woman’s tale is given weight and purpose. Unlike many female- driven spy films, our protagonists aren’t scantily clad vixens. Their strength lies in their brains, their cunning and their resolve.

Thomas and Katic channel equal parts determination and vulnerability in their performances. They are leaders who know they have more eyes on them than their male counterparts. Apte’s Noor has the less flashy role that’s at times regulated to the sidelines for huge swaths of the movie. Her final few scenes are intense and devastating, though. 

A Call to Spy jumps around so much that at times it does seem like large chunks of story are being left by the wayside. The character work is subtle and nuanced, but the narrative feels as if it’s tripping over its own feet. Those clunkier moments at times make the movie more resemble a trailer than a fully cohesive story. 

With an interesting look at a true World War II story and captivating performances, A Call to Spy is able to overcome some narrative shortcomings to land as a tense spy thriller. 

Battle Scars

Ghosts of War

by Hope Madden

Here’s the thing about horror movies in 2020: they have to one up 2020. This year itself is such a horror show, it’s hard for cinema to keep up.

Writer/director Eric Bress (The Butterfly Effect) does what he can with the supernatural war tale, Ghosts of War.

Five WWII soldiers are ordered to hold tight in a French mansion circa 1944. It’s an isolated estate, once a Nazi stronghold. Terrible things happened there, and even though the surroundings suggest luxury, the mission may be the most dangerous the platoon has ever faced.

It reminds me of that time earlier this year when COVID trapped a Bolivian orchestra inside a haunted German castle surrounded by wolves.

So the film has that to compete with. Of course, the other thing Ghosts of War has going against it is the surprisingly engaging and unfortunately underseen Overlord, a WWII horror show that drops us alongside a handful of soldiers into war torn France just in time to find zombies.

Very little is more fun than Nazi zombies.

But Bress isn’t interested in zombies. Instead, he explores the madness that weighs on men who’ve done the unthinkable by trapping them in a situation where they must face their demons.

Kyle Gallner delivers an appropriately haunted performance as one of the soldiers—each of whom Bress characterizes with quick, shorthand ideas: the nut job (Gallner), the smartypants (Pitch Perfect’s Skylar Astin), the hero (Theo Rossi), the big talker (Alan Ritchson), the leader who’s in over his head (Brenton Thwaites).

Gallner and Astin are the only cast members given the opportunity to differentiate themselves from the pack as the platoon stumbles upon evidence of the haunting. Bress and his ensemble stumble here, rarely developing any real dread, infrequently even delivering the jumps their quick cut scares attempt.

Ghosts of War makes an effort to say something meaningful. That message is waylaid by confused second act plotting and a third act reveal that feels far more lurid and opportunistic than it does resonant or haunting.

Bress tries to take advantage of the audience’s preconceived notions in order to subvert expectations, but he doesn’t have as much to say as he thinks.

The Judgement of Paris

Memoir of War

by Matt Weiner

So a screenwriter, the president of France and a spy walk into a café… have you heard this one? If so, you might have read the book La Douleur (War: A Memoir for the English translation), an autobiography by Marguerite Duras based on diaries she allegedly wrote during World War II.

Duras rose to fame as a writer, garnering a screenplay nomination for the Alain Resnais-directed Hiroshima mon amour. That film’s novel treatment of memory and chronology echoes throughout Memoir of War, adapted from Duras’s book and directed by Emmanuel Finkiel.

Mélanie Thierry plays the film version of Marguerite, whose recollections span the waning days of Vichy France through the Liberation of Paris, the end of the war and the immediate aftermath of Europe reckoning with news of the Holocaust.

If this sounds like a lot of history to cover for one movie, it would be—except Marguerite’s reflections are unconcerned with straightforward chronology. Her diaries and narration compress time and memory into one long, all-consuming reverie for her captured husband, Robert (Emmanuel Bourdieu).

It makes for a deliberately disorienting experience, one that Finkiel pulls out a few tricks to heighten: there’s the nauseatingly atonal strings of the soundtrack, as oppressive as a horror score. But most effective is the way Marguerite’s memories of these monumental years unfold so frequently in claustrophobic interiors.

We get the entire moral arc of world war by way of smoky Parisian rooms. As the war winds down and Robert’s fate seems more and more dire, Marguerite retreats both mentally and physically. And we experience the two most triumphant moments—the Liberation of Paris and what should be another happy occasion after the war—through Marguerite’s furtive glances out the window, like gossamer filters keeping the reality of the world at large a step removed from ever being something she can attain herself.

It’s a demanding role, and it rests almost entirely on Thierry to hold everything together even as her character seems to slip in and out of time. She pulls off resolve with gusto, and even tempers it with a haunted uncertainty that feels completely natural as the enormity of the Holocaust becomes clear.

Memoir of War is a difficult film to get a handle on. The Resistance intrigue is discarded as quickly as it starts to take shape. The historical romance is mostly MacGuffin. And the war barely leaves the cafés, let alone the city.

The slipperiness is apt though. Marguerite’s memories are their own fog of war, and the author’s real-life diaries play coy with authenticity vs. artistic liberty. Finkiel pieces together a fitting adaptation, and if the parts never hold together long enough to say some cohesive whole, at least he can say he makes us feel something Marguerite would recognize.

Brutally Vital

Land of Mine

by Rachel Willis

Land of Mine is almost impossible to watch. Not because it’s bad. On the contrary, it’s an amazingly crafted film that boasts an incredible screenplay and cast. It’s hard to watch because writer/director Martin Zandvliet’s film is so intense it leaves the viewer on constant edge.

Roland Møller is Sargent Carl Rasmussen, a Danish soldier tasked with overseeing fourteen German POWs at the end of World War II as they clear a beach in Denmark of land mines. This violation of international law is a stain on Denmark’s history that Zandvliet brings to light. The thought of grown men forced to crawl across beaches searching cautiously for land mines is repellant enough. It’s made worse by the fact that many of the POWs were teenage boys.

Zandvliet’s scripts balances the emotions of the situation well, and Møller’s performance brilliantly captures the feelings of the Danish people. There is little sympathy for the German POWs. If anything, this is seen as a just punishment for the crimes committed by Germany during the war. However, the audience sees the soldiers for what they are: children who simply want to go home.

As the film proceeds, tensions mount. The history of the situation is brutal and bleak, so as the audience gets to know the characters, it’s impossible not to sympathize and worry for their safety with each moment that passes. The mental torture inflicted on the prisoners is felt by the audience as we’re forced to watch their slow advance across the beach. Moments of quiet could be rent apart at any moment. It’s nearly unbearable.

However, Zandvliet knows when to give the audience a break, and the scenes on the beach are countered by more lighthearted moments: a soccer game, the boys talking about their futures, and interactions between Rasmussen and the boys that show his shifting emotions.

Land of Mine is difficult viewing, but as Zandvliet brings empathy and compassion to a dark moment in history, it becomes equally vital.