Thursday, July 30, 2009

Film Review #206: The Hurt Locker
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Cast: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty

“I probably wasn’t injured because I was way in the back of the vehicle. I was on top of all the bottled water, because I was little,” my friend had explained, recounting how the troop convoy in Afghanistan encountered on IED on the road beyond the city. My friend paused a beat, then added before going on, “Well. I still am little.”

The capacity to compress yawning gaps between the before and after of life-shaking violence to a simple, quiet change of tense is similar to the kind of detail you’ll find in Kathryn Bigelow’s film, set in the pre-Surge days of 2004 Iraq, which opens this week at Manlius Art Cinema. That is what sets it apart from most action thrillers and what drives its surprising capacity to comment on war in intimate and domestic as well as surreal and dislocating ways.

The Hurt Locker is billed as an action thriller and it certainly has both parts of that phrase in spades. Its exhausting two hours and eleven minutes fly by, but its pedigree predicts an authenticity beyond Hollywood style and pyrotechnics. Mark Boal based his script on his experience as an embedded journalist with a US military specialist bomb squad in Iraq and in fact the film opens with words from another journalist, Central New York native Chris Hedges, asserting that “war is a drug.” This is from Hedges’ 2002 book, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, one of the best of a rich crop of efforts by war reporters since, say, the break-up of Yugoslavia, in which Hedges writes about why he left combat and genocide coverage. As well, the actor Jeremy Renner – there is an excellent interview with him at NPR from earlier this week – spent time training with such a team to get ready to play Staff Sgt. Will James, the audacious leader of the film’s lead trio. Bigelow shot the film in the summer of 2007, just over the Iraqi border in Jordan and at the height of the Surge. Actual Iraqi refugees played most of the Iraqi roles and we may presume informed the film’s progress. Renner says further that the conditions of the “set” were sometimes so hostile that the cast and crew had shots fired at them during filming; there’s one passage in the film, apparently unscripted, when a gang of young boys pelt James’ vehicle with stones.

The plot is fairly straightforward. Bravo Company’s year-long active duty rotation has 38 days left and our bomb squad’s staff sergeant (Guy Pearce) dies during the opening scene when an insurgent in a nearby shop detonates an IED with a cell phone. In a prelude to his own development, although he’s visibly the most gripped in stomach-twisting panic of the three-man crew, Spc. Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) is the first to glimpse that tell-tale cell phone. The third squad member is former intelligence officer Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie). By the next day they’re out again with their new Staff Sgt. James, who alarms them right away with his risk-taking. The film then ticks down Bravo’s remaining time – Day 23, 16, and 2 – followed by an epilogue in which one of the three re-ups, returning to Iraq to begin Delta Company’s rotation at Day 364.

These episodes – acts, if you will – are structured around variations on what such a squad might typically encounter – a cluster of bombs connected by a spider-web of buried wires, an unevenly sagging car with the detonator hidden in the windshield wipers, an ambush in the countryside in which the crew is pinned down all day, a dead child’s body rigged with explosives, a man in a suicide bomber’s vest begging for help. At Day 16, time – along with some other boundaries – starts to break down as days and nights flow together. James’ attachment to an Iraqi boy selling boot-legged DVDs takes him first outside Camp Victory alone at night and then finally to lead his team into danger that almost loses one member.

The Hurt Locker was filmed with four hand-held cameras going at once, so there’s an immediacy and sense of being inside the action. But over a whole film, you see that Bigelow also takes her time and is less concerned with the bang than what it surrounds. (The only thing recently on screen to rival The Hurt Locker in this regard would be Anthony Mann’s Public Enemies, especially that admirably-shot second prison break.) Bigelow has concerned herself with what the she calls “the seductiveness of violence in cinematic form” from the start. Regardless of who has served on any given film as her editor or cinematographer, her masterful pacing of extended action sequences and provocative use of point of view have been reliable over a career dating to The Loveless (Willem Dafoe’s feature debut as Vance), a 1982 biker film after which the terms “languid” and “explosive” no longer seem contradictory. Watching her other films, readily available at Netflix, repays the effort. The jolting zombie flick set in the Southwest, Near Dark (1987), has actually more stupendously fiery explosions than Hurt Locker. The 1990 cop drama Blue Steel wrings you out with that final chase up from the subway into the street (and makes me wonder if Michael Winterbottom had it in mind when he made The Brave One). Strange Days, made in 1995, looked forward to addictive, technologically-supported vicarious violence and a racist LAPD on the eve of the Millennium; it’s considerably smarter than similarly themed movies like Total Recall, and considerably more violent than almost anything in The Hurt Locker. A year later Bigelow made Point Break, ostensibly about an FBI agent infiltrating some surfer bank robbers but inserting some nifty chuteless sky-diving too. The Weight of Water (2000) didn’t do well, with its parallel stories set centuries apart, but Bigelow does a great shipwreck and she brilliantly directed Sarah Polley as a Lizzie Borden-style colonial wife. K-19: The Widowmaker of course put Harrison Ford aboard an endangered Russian nuclear submarine in 2002. Some of these films are arguably gory and spectacular enough to make The Hurt Locker seem positively contemplative by comparison, but Bigelow’s films also have human – often redemptive – dimensions beyond the regular wild ride.

The Hurt Locker, for example, uses the relationships among its trio of bomb specialists to explore what fatherhood means to these young men in rich but spare detail. James has an infant son, with whom the film briefly reunites him near its end. By then it’s no surprise that he is an affectionate and tender father, because we’ve watched him throughout the film look out for his men. Well, that’s what staff sergeants do, yes, but Bigelow focuses much attention on the depth of this care with details like the juice box he gets for Sanborn when they’re pinned down. Or the extended tutoring in the finer points of soldiering he gives the talented but frightened Eldridge, the times he talks him through dangerous moments and refocuses him exactly as a father might. Virtually the first personal conversation the three men have concerns fatherhood, in which Sanborn says his girlfriend is always pestering him about babies; his turning point occurs on nearly the last day when he sums up his desire to leave the war with, “I want a son. I want a son.”

Although nobody in the film literally calls James a “cowboy” – I listened carefully for this word – that’s what all of us, on screen and off, know he is as an American type. This unspoken common reaction drives several powerful cameo performances – implicitly the decidedly un-cowboy staff sergeant he replaces, then Ralph Fiennes as the private British contractor in the desert, and David Morse as a colonel whose congratulations after one close call might or might not be infuriated sarcasm – as well as Eldridge’s eventual (and very son-like) rebellion against James’ “adrenalin fix.” Curiously, so far only Peter Rainer of the Christian Science Monitor calls this film a Western. Rainer cites the cowboy’s classic unease with the homestead. Then there’s the requisite pinned-down-by-savages-in-the wilderness scene. And James’ walks into the “kill-zone” are nothing if not high-noon showdowns on dusty frontier main drags. But I think Bigelow calls up something older too with her filmmaking too, like “Don’t fire till you see the whites of their eyes.”

This review was announced in the July 30, 2009 print edition of the Syracuse City Eagle. Opening on Friday at Manlius Art Cinema, “The Hurt Locker” screens daily at 7:30 PM with weekend matinees at 2:00 and 4:45 PM as well. Carousel Mall has also added some screenings. See other Kathryn Bigelow films listed in this review at

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Film Review #205: Chéri
Director: Stephen Frears
Cast: Michelle Pfeiffer, Kathy Bates, Rupert Friend

Here is that unusual film that is worth seeing as much for its flaws as for its considerable accomplishments. In order to do that around here you’ll have to be quick, because it’s playing for one week only right now at Manlius Art Cinema.

Chéri reunites its star, Michelle Pfeiffer (as the aging Parisian courtesan Lea de Lonval on the eve of World War I), with director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Christopher Hampton, 21 years after their collaboration on Dangerous Liaisons. Based on Colette’s 1920 novel Chéri and its sequel, this film is the latest of a string of adaptations – a film in 1950, television plays in 1962 and 1973, and a stage musical in 1980 – which suggest the enduring tug of its story. On the verge of deciding she’ll “retire” and live on her investments after her last patron has departed for Russia, Lea impulsively enters what she assumes will be a two or three week dalliance with Chéri (English actor Rupert Friend), the spoiled and moody 19-year-old son of her colleague, Madame Charlotte Peloux (a boisterous Kathy Bates). Some years later, Charlotte intervenes and arranges a marriage for Chéri with young Edmee (Felicity Jones), daughter of another woman in their circle. (One of the best moments between these two occurs as they voice having grown up as feeling like “orphans” amidst the entrepreneurial excess of their mothers’ households.) Initially he assumes this marriage won’t upset his arrangement with Lea. Ever worldly-wise, she sends him packing after a last shopping trip, this time for his wedding present, a pearl stick pin. But neither does well with this separation, despite parallel lavish trips to the Italian lakes district and the French Riviera and the intended consolations of other partners. There are reversals, tearful declarations of love, more reversals and in a voice-over by Frears himself – old English majors take note – a kind of “Richard Corey” ending.

Michelle Pfeiffer is wonderful and quite moving as Lea and, in enough of the moments where it really counts – especially their last scene together when each is finally able to say what their love consists in and then live up to that – Rupert Friend matches her. Just after the film opened in late July, a still luminous Pfeiffer told Washington Post reporter Dan Zak that what she really fears is winding up like Norma Desmond (the character in Billy Wilder’s 1950 film Sunset Boulevard, a garish and deluded former star rattling around in a dilapidated mansion). Their interview as Zak reports it got off to a rocky start when he suggested that Pfeiffer’s own “golden age” had been the years 1987 to 1993. During that time she made the films Ladyhawke, The Witches of Eastwick, Dangerous Liaisons, The Fabulous Baker Boys, Batman Returns, Love Field and The Age of Innocence, a golden age by anybody’s standard. (Zak has since said admiringly of Pfeiffer’s Chéri performance, “Everybody’s got at least one golden age. I think she may be on the verge of another.”)

If Zak’s opening gambit left an overly long pause to get past, that Pfeiffer had Norma Desmond in the back of her mind explains a deeper bite to her performance and its commentary on aging and loss of youth. In fact, Lea and Charlotte stand out among some pretty Desmond-like contemporaries – one with raccoon eyes and horribly arthritic hands, another whose ropey throat and slack lips Chéri notices because she wears a string of pearls like Lea’s own (Harriet Walter and Anita Pallenberg, both unrecognizable) – who are really not simply comic relief figures.

Zak’s “golden age” reference originates in the fact that Chéri is set in the period known in Europe as the Belle Époque, covering roughly the last couple decades of the 19th century up until World War I. This corresponded with the “Gilded Age” in the US - a time of massive colonialism globally, robber barons, new fortunes by scandalous means, wild extravagance and the shifting social classes and gaps that led to the collapses of World War I and beyond. It was also a time of massive shifts in gender roles. It’s no coincidence that Charlotte and Lea, a couple of wily operators, talk over how their investments in oil futures are doing late in a film whose major male character favors pearls and white satin pajamas and complains he’s been kept as helpless as a 12-year-old. “Leave all the arrangements to me,” soothes Lea as readily as any sugar daddy. Colette’s novel opens with the scene where Chéri teases Lea to give him her string of pearls, immediately framing the story as one of skewed relations between the genders as a lens to comprehend broader shifts. Frears and Hampton put that scene further in, framing the story instead – at least in tone – as escapist fare, a kind of light farce about harmless May-December seduction among the rich and famous.

Or at least marketing it that way. The film’s trailer uses clips from the film that create the impression this is a comedy; these moments often stick out like sore thumbs in the course of the film itself. It’s hard to tell how much this is a marketing strategy for a summer release and how much it reflects the continued ambivalence among filmmakers and audiences alike with the film’s more serious themes. Chéri opened in limited release in 80 theaters to start here in the US. Despite a decent enough box office (up to 170 screens this week) and a cascade of initial coverage heralding the come-back of Michelle Pfeiffer, there was no advance press screening for the Manlius run (hence this review getting posted late and on-line only). Distributors pull press screenings when they don’t want to risk soft ticket sales. Critics have been lukewarm to this film – it’s gotten only a 50% favorable rating at the Rotten Tomatoes site – I suspect because it can’t quite own up to its own serious intent, and if there’s one thing we expect in our summer movies it’s clear, unambiguous intent. This movie more than repays the extra effort.

This review was announced in the July 16, 2009 print edition of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly. Chéri plays at Manlius through this Thursday, with two matinees daily this weekend and a regular 7:30 PM showing weeknights. In a wry bit of serial scheduling, Manlius Cinema’s Nat Tobin will follow Cheri with Woody Allen’s Whatever Works (also for one week) which several critics have suggested would make an intriguing double feature if paired with Chéri. On July 31st, Manlius opens Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker – so far, an exclusive CNY engagement.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Film Review #204: The Beaches of Agnès/Les Plages d’Agnès
Director: Agnès Varda
Cast: Agnès Varda, Rosalie Varda and Mathieu Demy, Jacques Demy; Anne-Laure Manceau as young Agnès
A Cinema Guild release. France/French with English subtitles, 108 minutes.

Of all the ways that French filmmaker Agnès Varda, just turned 81, might frame discussion of the French New Wave in this self-portrait documentary, she mirthfully chooses a giant orange-tiger cartoon cat with a droll, mechanically filtered voice to introduce the subject for posterity. The cat is actually long-time friend and fellow filmmaker Chris Marker, bobbing along disguised in cardboard cutout as his own character Guillaume-in-Egypt, inquiring “What about...?” off-handedly during a stroll through a crowded Paris street.

Well, she recounts just as casually, after Godard had gotten Georges de Beauregard to make Breathless in 1960, that the producer asked Godard if he had “any more pals who could make the same kind of cheap black and white films.” She tells Marker that Beauregard “wanted a stable” of filmmakers. Beauregard made other Godard films, some of Jean-Pierre Melville’s and in 1961 he produced Jacques Demy’s Lola. Getting the same recruitment query, Demy suggested his lover, Varda, whom he would marry the next year. Varda had made one feature in 1954 set in a coastal fishing village, La Pointe Courte, followed by a handful of shorts, and also worked as a photographer. So in this way Beauregard, with Carlo Ponti, came to produce Varda’s acclaimed Cléo from 5 to 7.

Since this occurs well into the film, we already know Marker’s been coming around Varda’s rue Daguerre compound in Paris since the days Varda convinced Alain Resnais to edit La Point Courte. So they have clearly colluded in staging this exchange as a kind of advisement against hoping for portentous announcements at the last minute. Instead, Varda now inserts a short clip from Cléo (Corinne Marchand as a glamorous singer trying to fill time before she learns whether she has cancer). She then comments on filming a story in real time and the inspiration of medieval painter Baldung Grein’s images of voluptuous women embraced by boney death figures, then briskly moves on to her 1962 trip to Cuba to photograph Fidel’s “revolution cha cha cha.”

Varda shot The Beaches of Agnès over two- and three-week stints between August 2006 and June 2008 with six camera people in all. Half, including Varda herself, used a Sony V1, the small high definition video camera that she began using a decade ago for The Gleaners and I; the others used a larger video camera. She takes as her major connecting image the series of beaches she’s known since childhood: La Panne beach in Belgium (her family lived in Brussels until they fled the Nazis to France in 1940), the Mediterranean port of Sète (where the family spent summers on a docked boat and the site of her first film), Venice Beach and Santa Monica Beach in California (she followed Demy to Hollywood, a town she says “immediately seduced me,” where both made films before she returned to France without him during a separation), La Guérnière Beach on Noirmoutier Island (she and Demy made a retreat of an old mill), as well as along the banks of the Seine in Paris. For one sequence Varda has six truckloads of sand dumped in the street outside her Paris house and sets up her office there “to justify the film’s title.”

Additionally the film has two other powerful threads. One is the omnipresence of Demy, whose post-Hollywood reunion with Varda – they reconciled with the idea of growing old together – was cruelly interrupted by his AIDS diagnosis and his death in 1990 just ten days after Varda completed shooting her first of three films about him, Jacquot de Nantes. In Beaches, when it is clear that Demy will die, the screen fills wordlessly for a moment with what looks like a profusion of deep green palm fronds barely swaying in a soft wind. It’s an effective, surprisingly moving image on its own, whether or not you happen to even know or recall – Homer’s Odyssey is a touchstone for Varda – the moment that Ulysses’ heart is first pierced with an apprehension of beauty at the sight of a young palm tree.

Secondly, flowing out of just such rich moments as this and their power to summarize and connect to other such images, the notion of puzzles structures the film as much as the beach episodes. Years ago, Varda’s first “official self-portrait” was a tile mosaic; now Beaches works by juxtaposing excerpts from her films with her on-screen appearances, re-enactments, photos and the more recent installations (including Varda in the belly of a whale/boudoir among the dunes, specially for this film). Conventional film clips of well-known scenes as well as clips of music from the film-scores are excised from their context and used both to reference past work and anew as free-standing images. For Varda, memory works in this way rather than by historical time-line. This elaborates Varda’s entertaining opening piece with the mirrors on the beach set up by a troop of young assistants; yes, obviously the conceit of mirrors for a self-portrait, but also that life’s fragments reflect one another and so do efforts in one art form resonate in another. Thus what Varda calls “my musings, pretty close to the truth, are punctuated by sketches where I put on a bit of a show. Clowning around allowed me to take a step back.”

This also means that Beaches works for those at all degrees of familiarity with Varda’s work. It’s deeply satisfying when a fragment of a film you’ve seen before triggers your own memory of the whole, but it’s also credible that an entirely new and young audience – who seem to be showing up – may need no familiarity at all with her films to take in her approach to experience.

Varda’s exchange with Marker over the New Wave may even be redundant, except as a kind of footnote. I’m thinking of the spot early on where she recounts that she was conceived in Arles and named for that city, but changed her name at age 18, all the while writing her given name – Arlette – in the sand with a stick, only to have an incoming wave sweep over the letters and recede, leaving again a virgin field of sand washed clean.

Varda held her own with New Wave theorists, mostly men and many of them ex-film critics. Whether from her other films or this one alone, it’s plain she was extraordinarily literate, capable and at ease across art forms and social classes. From Beaches one does learn some particulars, that she was educated in art history at Ecole de Louvre, was a photojournalist and official photographer of Paris’ Théatre National Populaire, was intrigued by the narrative structure and experiments of novelists like Faulkner and Natalie Sarraute, is now still running the “family business” production company Ciné-Tamaris out of her Paris house and, starting with 2003’s Venice Biennale, has embarked upon multimedia art installations, some of which show are documented in this film or were created for it. She also logged three months of working on small fishing boats in Corsica and “unambiguous cohabitation” with their owners, a privately executed walk-about that bridged her student days and her decision to take up photojournalism. But Varda came to cinema unburdened by film theory (or even much viewing at age 25), at first simply wanting to try out words with images to extend her photographic practice.

Thirty-three films later – roughly half of them fiction, the rest documentary – she remains serenely centered in her clarity that “films always originate in emotions” and that technical and intellectual prowess should serve rather than drive the enterprise. For example, in Beaches Varda recalls her involvement with feminist organizing, especially in the period she and Demy were apart. “I tried to be a joyful feminist but I was very angry,” she says, listing of horrific abuses and offering archival footage of protests. But more persuasive – and in this context generating new flashes of revelation about why she created this character as apolitical – are the quick clips from 1985’s Vagabond that punctuate this section: Sandrine Bonnaire as the increasingly desperate drifter Mona, kicking a metal keg in a field, punching metal garage doors, furiously patching a boot with a ripped sole.

And Varda’s keen interest for reunions with old friends, casts and subjects alike from earlier films stretches back years, flowering in Beaches. To describe her satisfaction with her documentary about the time-honored French practice of scavenging harvest left-overs and city garbage, The Gleaners and I (2000), which she extended with follow-up visits to as many of the same people as she could find in The Gleaners and I: Two Years Later (2002), Varda says, “I was able to approach them, to bring them out of their anonymity. I discovered their generosity.”

Cinematic technology’s service of the human reaches a most magic moment in Beaches when Varda returns to the village of Sète, site of La Pointe Courte, resurrecting test footage she’d shot of a local couple, Pierrot and Suzou, old friends of hers, long ago. The husband had died soon after, leaving two young sons, now middle-aged men. Mounting a projector on a hand-cart and rolling it through the old town, Varda ran the test footage for the sons, who had seen their father in photos “but never in motion.” Watching Blaise and Vincent’s faces as they watch their long-passed father’s image on that very thoroughfare and you’re reminded that in some places photo – still and motion alike – inspires fear of soul-stealing. Work like Varda’s may give souls back.

Fanzine published this review on July 8, 2009 at The Beaches of Agnès won France’s Cesar Award for best documentary in February and had its official US theatrical opening on July 1 in New York City at Film Forum and in Los Angeles on the 3rd. But actually a number of screenings in North America already have prepared the ground – at Toronto’s film festival last fall right after its Venice IFF premiere, since February at film festivals in Portland (OR), Wisconsin and Seattle, and as sneak peeks in several Varda retrospectives: in Chicago and then at Harvard in March and, just winding up now, American Cinematheque’s week-long retrospective in Santa Monica. Varda has traveled to some of these to give talk-backs after screenings and in March visited New York for a number of interviews at Film Forum that are just hitting print now. The Criterion Collection’s January 2008 release of a new four-disc DVD set – her first three features (La Pointe Courte, Cléo from 5 to 7, and in 1964 Le Bonheur/Happiness) plus Vagabond (1985) – is available along with several other Varda titles at Netflix.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Film Review #203: The Last Ridge
Director: Abbie Kealy
Cast: 10th Mountain Division, Scott Simon

In 1946 Italian filmmaker Roberto Rossellini made a film called Paisá – criminally hard to find here – whose six episodes depict the Allied liberation of Fascist Italy between 1943-45 through the eyes of ordinary people interacting with, primarily, U.S. GIs. These vignettes often turn on misunderstandings due to language and O’Henry-like twists, but Paisá features pretty keenly observed portrayals by a non-American filmmaker – and it brims with a deeper, more serious appreciation for the Yanks that we are no longer so sure greets our troops abroad.

Certainly not in 1993 Somalia, when a one-hour helicopter mission to capture two aides to warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid in Mogadishu’s Bakaara Market neighborhood turned into 15 hours, with 19 US troops and 1,000 Somalis killed. A convoy of the 10th Mountain Division rescued survivors. Ridley Scott put that onscreen in late 2001 in the utterly riveting Black Hawk Down, which you can see, along with Stanley Kubrick’s classic Dr. Strangelove (1964), in 35 mm as part of Fort Drum Night at the Palace Theater on the 17th.

Fort Drum is home now to the 10th Mountain Division and there’s another movie screening to get the evening underway. Abbie Kealy’s documentary The Last Ridge (2007) harks back to World War II’s Italian campaign, the founding of the 10th Mountain Division and its current generation. Kealy, who lives outside Baltimore and often makes documentaries for PBS, inherited the letters and diaries of her uncle, Pfc. Stuart Abbott, a 10th Mountain soldier from Chicago who died at 18 on Italy’s Mt. Belvedere the day after writing a last letter to his mother in which he looked forward to “curling up with a good book and an entire pan of hot buttered popcorn.”

Kealy says she’s known about her uncle’s service in the 10th “since I could lace up my ski boots,” but it was a request for photos from historian McKay Jenkins for his own book that prompted Kealy to plan her film (and adopt his title).

Kealy is reticent about her connection to Abbott in the film itself but talks about him elsewhere. Just so, The Last Ridge includes footage of the 10th’s World War II vets revisiting Italy and being feted by their hosts – NBC noted the 61st anniversary of the taking of Riva Ridge during coverage of the Turin Winter Olympics – but it’s a quieter stray detail about the film’s making that illuminates the depth of gratitude similar to that found in Rossellini’s Paisá: before Kealy and her tiny crew could film the Riva Ridge wintertime re-enactment in the Apennines, miles of snow-choked paths were cleared by four Alpini (traditional mountain guides), three of them in their 70s - who would’ve been little boys when the Allies drove the Fascists north out of their country.

Narrated by NPR’s Scott Simon, The Last Ridge spends considerable time on the founding of the 10th. Charles Minot Dole of the National Ski Patrol proposed and recruited this elite division, inspired by the devastation the Germans suffered in Hitler’s first winter Russian campaign and by the Finnish “ski troops” who then repulsed the Soviets invading them. It appears that this civilian bright idea was initially “laughed out of Washington,” but Dole’s persistence and the huge response of volunteers – including many Ivy League graduates and champion sportsmen, even Norway’s world champion Olympic ski jumper Torger Tokle – won out. The 10th got underway two weeks before Pearl Harbor.

Trained under truly grueling conditions for almost four years on Washington’s Fort Lewis and Mt. Rainier, Colorado’s Camp Hale and briefly in Texas at Camp Swift, the 10th first saw action after Japan’s short-lived invasion of two Alaskan islands – landing in heavy fog, 18 were killed by friendly fire after the Japanese had already evacuated.

But in late 1944, the Allies had bogged down after 16 months of fighting, trying to take the northern Apennine Mountains near Bologna. The Allies needed to take Mt. Belvedere and the key to that was Riva Ridge, a series of peaks held as observation points that protected Belvedere and in turn kept a crucial highway out of play for the Allies. Previous frontal assaults on Riva Ridge had cost the Allies 15,000 casualties. When the Allied command turned to the 10th Mountain Division, they expected up to 90 per cent casualties. Instead some 700 men from the 10th went up the back way at night, scaling a sheer 2,000 foot cliff that the Nazis left unguarded. The 10th went on to capture Belvedere in the following days, Mt. Della Torraccia and the village of Torre Iussi, and helped chase the Nazis to the Po River and the mountain tunnels at Lake Garda. On May 7th, the European war ended.

Besides pioneering mountain and winter warfare techniques and gear – Kealy says they “invented extreme sports” – the 10th, which initially disbanded after World War II, seeded a generation of sports and environmental leaders. Besides founding some 60 ski resorts – including Vail and Aspen in Colorado and Vermont’s Sugarbush – 10th vets shaped Outward Bound, Nike, the Sierra Club, and the National Outdoor Leadership School. The Last Ridge DVD contains another 45 minutes worth of extras including more interviews with a number of these vets – especially catch the vivid Tap Tapley - plus current 10th members and author McKay Jenkins, and additional training and making-of footage about the re-enactments shot in Colorado, Italy and Slovenia.

Some of those re-enactments were carried out by current 10th members. The 10th was reactivated in its present form in 1985 and now – 20, 000 strong – makes its home at Fort Drum in northern New York.

Kealy shot her film over three winters, conducted 100 interviews with World War II vets and some two dozen with current 10th members serving in Afghanistan (where she embedded with the 10th), and at Walter Reed Hospital, where older 10th vets are active in visiting the wounded. The Last Ridge also contains captured German military film plus US archival footage. There have been at least seven other books about the 10th – Flint Whitlock’s Soldiers on Skies came out in 1992 but most since 2003 – and two other films, but Kealy enjoyed the input of most of those authors as consultants on her film. The Last Ridge premiered in April 2007 in Vail, Colorado; the next month it screened at Fort Drum and on TV in Watertown and Rochester PBS stations.

The most deployed division in the US armed services, the 10th has served in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Horn of Africa, Bosnia, Somalia, Haiti, the Persian Gulf and here at home in Hurricane Andrew Support.

And they’re right in our own back yard.

This review appears in the July 9, 2009 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly. See The Last Ridge, Black Hawk Down and Dr. Strangelove at Eastwood’s Palace Theater, 2384 James St. on Friday, July 17, part of Fort Drum Night, a Wounded Warriors benefit by Operation Homefront. Doors open at 1730 hours (5:30 PM). Under 17 must be accompanied by an adult. Copies of The Last Ridge DVD will be available at the event. Also check out and Fort Drum Night is part of Jeff Meyer’s “Brew & View 35 mm Film Series” at the Palace.