Academy Award-winning silent film ‘Wings’ stands testament of time

There’s a reason Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” was considered one of the greatest novels ever written. The 14,000-page book was epic in scale, chronicling love and war through the eyes of three noble Russian families.

“Wings,” the first movie to win an Academy Award for best picture, shares qualities with Tolstoy’s novel, spanning years as the Allies troops fought the German and Austrian-Hungarian Central Powers during World War I.

Based on the story by WWI veteran John Monk Saunders, “Wings” features American Jack Powell (Charles “Buddy” Rogers), a boy who dreams of flying. His dream comes true with war. Powell enters the American Expeditionary Corp., where he trains to be a fighter pilot.

Meanwhile, the girl next door, Mary Preston (Clara Bow), also enlists in the war effort. Fueled by her crush on Jack, Mary follows Powell to Europe; there she drives medical supplies to Allied troops.

But Jack doesn’t love Mary. His sights are set on their hometown beauty, Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston). And Sylvia’s sympathies are with the wealthy David Armstrong (Richard Arlen), who likes her back.

When Jack and David find themselves training together, they eventually become best friends. They’re both assigned to the 39th Aero Squadron, and are promoted to lieutenants.

So best friends falling for the same girl? Sure, it’s an overused storyline (which we saw in “War and Peace” and still see in later war media including Michael Bay’s 2001 film, “Pearl Harbor”), but “Wings” is a historical remnant. Director William “Wild Bill” Wellman, another former WWI airman, crafted spectacular flight scenes with plane chases and crashes. (The U.S. government donated more than $16 million in planes, pilots, tanks and other military assets to the film.) It’s nothing compared to today’s computer-generated imagery, but back then, this was cutting-edge.

At its core, “Wings” is a propaganda film; you can’t watch it without feeling a surge of American patriotism. In one scene, a German-American soldier (played by El Brendel) flashes his “stars and stripes forever” tattoo on his bicep, flexing his muscles to make our grand old flag wave. Sure, it’s tacky, but you cheer along with Mary as Jack’s plane — whom he nicknamed “the shooting star” — shoots down German Heinies.

“Wings” reflects an era and sentiment lost with Vietnam and Iraq. War was romantic and exciting; now, it’s bloody and terrible. Petya Rostov from “War and Peace” looked forward to the day when he could join his older brother Nicholas in defending Mother Russia and fighting Napoleon’s French invaders.

Now, three years since the Iraq War ended, (unless you or a loved one fought in the war) war seems forgettable, distant and a relic of the past. Compared to the profusion of support pictured in Wellman’s silent film, “Wings,” it’s dull and muted, flickering like reels of scratched film. At one time, it was starkly black and white, but time has discolored the picture. Now it just blinks and flickers.

“Wings” was directed by William A. Wellman and written by Hope Loring and Louis D. Lighton, based on John Monk Saunders’ story. “Wings” won the first Academy Award for best picture in 1929. 

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‘Omar’: Caught in the middle of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

No one likes a snitch, but that’s what the Israelis want from him.

Chalk it up to bad luck, or being a kid from the wrong side of the fence. Omar’s (Adam Bakri) another casualty in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Written by Israeli-born Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad, “Omar” tells the story of a young Palestinian freedom fighter and his best friends, Tarek (Iyad Hoorani) and Amjad (Samer Bisharat). As they plan rebellions together, Omar spends his days baking bread, avoiding the Israeli police, climbing fences and slipping love letters to Tarek’s sister, Nadia (Leem Lubany).

This changes when an Israeli soldier gets shot. The Israelis arrest Omar, entrapping his confession. But Israeli agent Rami (Waleed Zuaiter) lets him go, hoping Omar will lead him to the rebellion’s mastermind, Tarek.

Like Abu-Assad’s “Paradise Now” (2005), “Omar” embeds itself with the Palestinian side of the story — which means, Israel is the big, bad bully and Palestine is the boy next door, trying to exit the lunch line without losing his money. Only, Palestine’s tired of getting beat up.

“We have no other way to fight,” says a Palestinian pledging to be a martyr in “Paradise Now.” “Israel views partnership with and equality for the Palestinians under the same democratic system as suicide for the Jewish state. Nor will they accept a two-state compromise even though it’s not fair to the Palestinians. We either accept the occupation forever or disappear.”

Like the martyr, Omar and his friends choose to fight Israeli occupation. But it also comes at a high price. Abu-Assad spins a beautiful and heartbreaking political tale about love, loyalty and the cost of freedom.

At its center is romance: the star-crossed lovers caught between an endless feud. But not even death can end bloodshed when there’s this much on the line.

There was never a tale of more woe than this of Palestine and her Israel.

“Omar” was written and directed by Hany Abu-Assad and nominated for Best Foreign Film in the 2014 Academy Awards. Abu-Assad also directed “Paradise Now.”

Lessons from ‘The Wind Rises,’ Hayao Miyazaki’s magnum opus

“This is my last design,” Count Gianni Caproni tells Jiro in Hayao Miyazaki’s “The Wind Rises.” “An artist is only creative for 10 years,” Caproni says.

Unlike his animated counterpart, Miyazaki shared his creativity with the world for 50 years.

For almost half a century, the great Japanese animation artist created beautiful dreams, enchanting us with hand-drawn animation of talking animals, witches and wizards, soot sprites, spirits, little people and heroic princesses.

“The Wind Rises,” Miyazaki’s latest and last animated film before retiring, differs from his fantastical canon, but it’s a beautiful, reflective work of art.

The work’s title comes from a line of Paul Valéry‘s poem, “Le cimetière marin.” “The wind is rising. We must try to live,” it translates.

The 126-minute film is a biopic combining the lives of short story writer Tatso Hori and Japanese plane engineer, Jiro Horikoshi. Horikoski’s known for creating the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, the plane responsible for bombing Pearl Harbor.

Miyazaki’s Jiro (Jason Gordon-Levitt) is a dreamer. And like many men before him, he dreams of flying.

Translating American aviation magazines in his spare time, Jiro dreams up conversations with Caproni (Stanley Tucci), the Italian plane manufacturer.

“Airplanes are beautiful dreams,” Caproni tells him. “Engineers turn dreams into reality.”

Which is why Jiro designs fighter planes for Japan. Because even if wings brought man too close to the sun, it was brilliant while it lasted.

“Airplanes are beautiful cursed dreams,” warns Caproni.

If anything, Jiro’s curse is loving planes too much.

While “The Wind Rises” sparked controversy due to the film’s subject matter, the animation is beautiful and dreamlike. Triple-Decker passenger planes rise like helium balloons. Fluffy white clouds slowly inch across the screen.

“A flying door,” someone says. “You don’t see that everyday.”

But Miyazaki’s dreamlike picture is also poisoned by nightmares of nature, poverty and war.

The 1923 great Kanto earthquake rips apart Japanese cities; fire rumbles like an angry demon, swallowing every house in his wake. Although this cacophony’s voiced by human actors, the fire doesn’t talk like “Howl’s Moving Castle’s” friendly fire demon, Calcifer. Nor are his grumbles as benign as the fluffy forest spirit Totoro of “My Neighbor Totoro.”

Jiro sees death. Children starving on street corners. Pilots falling out planes he built. Bubbling bombs and missiles.

“Poor Jiro, stuck in his happy dreams,” says his best friend, Honjo (John Krasinski).

It’s a wonder he could sleep at night.

But Jiro’s no Hitler, even if he built the plane. Miyazaki paints a beautiful portrait of a good Samaritan trapped in his circumstances.

“What a nice guy,” a minor character would repeat after Jiro helps them out.

It’s like Miyazaki’s trying to rehabilitate the man for the deed. Planes — like pictures and propaganda — can be used for both good and evil. If animating pictures doesn’t make Miyazaki a villain, then the builder of the Mitsubishi A6M Zero wasn’t evil either.

After all, we all do what we have to do to live.

“The Wind Rises” was written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki. It was nominated for best animation in the 2014 Academy Awards.

Christian Bale’s American villians: ‘American Hustle’ vs. ‘American Psycho’

When you watch Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) glue and rearrange his hair on his balding head in the first scene of director David O. Russell’s “American Hustle,” you get a sense of déjà vu.

We’ve seen Bale in front a mirror — surrounded by more hair and beauty products — when he played the infamous Patrick Bateman in Mary Harron’s “American Psycho” (2000).

Sure, Rosenfeld is older and heavier than Bateman. Bateman isn’t plagued by high blood pressure and a manipulative know-it-all wife (played by the fantastic Jennifer Lawrence).

But they’re both American con men — practiced liars and actors whose confidence is as deadly as a siren’s song.

Bateman was the mad New York “mergers and acquisitions” man from Bret Easton Ellis’ novel. He murdered his acquaintances to the soundtracks of Huey Lewis & the News, Phil Collins and Whitney Houston.

Rosenfeld and his pretty partner Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) listen to Duke Ellington and John Cotrane. They run a successful Ponzi scheme in the tri-state area. Sydney would pose as Lady Edith Greensly, a rich English girl with London banking connections. They would deny it as they swindled desperate clients thinking their investment would more than double under Rosenfeld and Prosser’s fake firm, London Associates.

Or at least that’s what Rosenfeld and Prosser did until FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) caught them.

Now, their “get-out-of-jail-free” card is to help the FBI catch corruption. And boy, are DiMaso’s sights high…

If this story sounds familiar, perhaps you’ve lived through it.

“Some of this actually happened,” reads a black title screen.

Written by Russell and Eric Warren Singer, “American Hustle” is loosely based on the story of “sting man” Melvin Weinberg. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, Weinberg helped the FBI entrap six congressmen, a U.S. senator, a New Jersey state senator and a mayor accepting bribes in the undercover operation, Abscam.

“You set up a crook to catch a crook,” Weinberg tells “60 Minutes'” host Mike Wallace. “We put a big honeypot out there and all the flies came to us.”

Bale’s swindler is oddly sympathetic compared to Bateman. For Rosenfeld, conning is a way of survival: “We’re all con ourselves from one way or another, just to get through life,” he says.

Perhaps it’s the way Rosenfeld looks — balding with a bit of a belly. You can’t help but feel sorry for the guy as his wife berates him.

“She was the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate,” he says.

Or perhaps it’s just the masterful acting of Christian Bale, conning himself into our hearts as he changes his figure and assumes yet another elusive identity (After all, how much can you trust a con man?).

At least this one looks and feels human.

“American Hustle” was directed by David O. Russell and written by Russell and Eric Warren Singer. The film was nominated for 10 Academy Awards including best actor, best actress, best supporting actress, best supporting actor, best costume design, best directing, best film editing, best production design, best original screenplay and film of the year.

The modern Shakespearean tragedy: ‘Coriolanus’ vs. ‘House of Cards’

No one has to tell us that there’s something rotten in the state of Washington. Congressional disapproval’s at 80 percent.

But “Hamlet,” “Richard III” and “Macbeth” aren’t the only Shakespeare plays the popular Nexflix drama, “House of Cards,” can be compared to.

There are many similarities between Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus” and Beau Willimon’s “House of Cards.”

  • Both leads — Caius Martius Coriolanus and Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) — have served their time. Caius Martius was the Roman soldier who led his troops to victory in the battle of Corioles. Underwood was the United States Democratic majority whip for the past 22 years.
  • Both Coriolanus and Underwood were expecting big promotions. Crowned “Coriolanus” after his victory, he was going to be a Roman consul. Underwood was going to be nominated Secretary of State under the reign of the 45th President of the United States, Garrett Walker (Michael Gill).
  • After not getting what they wanted, both exacted revenge, but the how is how these two men differ. Whereas Coriolanus is a soldier and general, Underwood is a politician. Coriolanus fled Rome and its fickle Roman people, organizing an attack against his former home. Underwood manipulates a more devious plot: to take control of the White House from within, by destroying the political careers of former acquaintances including those of his own party.

Those familiar with the Shakespeare play know Coriolanus’s fate. Meanwhile, Willimon builds a precarious “House of Cards” for his “Breaking Bad”-esqe anti-hero, Frank Underwood — hanging the sword of Damocles above his head as he sits closer and closer to the throne.

The sword’s going to fall eventually. But who will be sitting in the chair?

Season 1 and 2 of “House of Cards” is now streaming on Netflix. “House of Cards” was written by Beau Willimon, Andrew Davies and others, based on the 1990 BBC mini-series and the novels by Michael Dobbs. 

‘Cat’s Cradle’: Catching a whale with a bundle of string

cat's cradle kurt vonnegut“Call me Jonah,” begins Kurt Vonnegut’s satirical novel, “Cat’s Cradle” (1963). Famous first words, almost as memorable as Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.”

And like “Moby Dick’s” Ishmael, the writer Jonah (whose real name is John) embarks on a journey. His is to catalog “The Day the World Ended,” or rather, the day the U.S. bombed Hiroshima. And since bomb creator Dr. Felix Hoenikker’s dead, Jonah tracks down his three living children: the midget Newt, a tall horse-faced blond named Angela (I’m picturing SNL’s Kate McKinnon in this video) and the U.S. fugitive Frank.

This is where the tale turns absurd. The Bible’s Jonah, the son of Amittai (Hebrew for “truth”), was swallowed by a whale, remember?

But while there’s no literal whale’s in this story, the metaphor’s there. Like Captain Ahab, Jonah searches for his “great white whale.” And that truth leads him to the Hoenikker kids, who carry their father’s legacy.

Dr. Manhattan left one inconvenient invention (which also caused his untimely death): the ice-nine, a block of ice which freezes everything its dropped in. That’s what Newt and Angela hold when Jonah meets them on his way to the fictional Caribbean island of San Lorenzo.

Newt and Angela are there to see their brother’s engagement to the island princess Mona. Frank’s now a general serving at the pleasure of San Lorenzo’s dying president, “Papa” Monzano.

But God’s ways are as mysterious as the island’s main religion Bokononism. And religion turns out to be the “great white whale” Jonah’s searching for.

Invented by a prophet with the surname of Johnson, Bokononism served as the island dweller’s “one real instrument of hope.”

“Truth was the enemy of the people, because the truth was so terrible, so Bokonon made it his business to provide the people with better and better lies,” says San Lorenzo’s historian.

Those cynical words may seem blasphemous to firm religious believers, but those “lies” spell some truth.

In 300-some pages, Vonnegut shows us the absurdity of life and the meaning in a meaningless world.