Tag Archives: War

Movie Review: Under the Shadow (2016)

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Rating: B-/ I know literally nothing about the history of the Iran-Iraq conflict, but this movie was compared by certain people to Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone, two movies with which it was not necessary to understand the political and social context. I came into this movie with high hopes, but personally I don’t think it measures up to Guillermo Del Toro’s two masterpieces. Continue reading Movie Review: Under the Shadow (2016)

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Movie Review: Ivan’s Childhood (1962)

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Rating: B+/ The ironic thing about the title of Ivan’s Childhood is that the nightmare twelve-year-old Ivan (Kolya Burlyayev) is living out as he works as a scout for the Soviet army during World War II scarcely counts as a childhood at all. Ivan has had to grow up incredibly quickly following the murder of his family by the Nazis, and for all of us whose childhoods weren’t completely fucked up, it’s sometimes hard to remember that some people aren’t allowed a sense of relative safety and security as they come of age. Continue reading Movie Review: Ivan’s Childhood (1962)

Johnny Got His Gun (1971)

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Johnny Got His Gun is a cinematic rarity- a motion picture featuring a perfectly likable and sympathetic protagonist who you desperately hope will die by the film’s conclusion. There are some fates worse than death, the filmmaker reminds us. Although novelist/screenwriter/first-time director Dalton Trumbo’s 1971 classic is bound to be controversial for it’s strong pro-euthanasia and equally fierce anti-war statements, it is as important a movie as it was when it first came out over forty years ago, even partially due to the fact that it is willing to make you squirm and think about time-worn issues of patriotism, God, and man’s duty to himself Vs. to his country, In other words, not a light watch. But worth seeing and discussing by serious film goers.

Joe (Timothy Bottoms) is a good looking, All-American kid with his entire life ahead of him. That is, until he fights in the trenches of the first world war and gets mangled beyond all recognition by a grenade attack. An undetermined amount of time later, Joe is trapped in a kind of living death; a blind, deaf, horribly disfigured quadruple amputee imprisoned in his own head. With absolutely nothing to do set out on a steel table like a slab of meet and  confined to a sterile hospital, Joe drifts in and out of a drug-fueled haze and dreams of his past life; his parents (Marsha Hunt and Jason Robards,) his high school sweetheart (Kathy Fields) and his own expansive helplessness and misery.

Johnny Got His Gun is Trumbo’s directorial debut, based on his novel by the same name, and it is notable for trying to get into the main character’s head through dreams, hallucinations, and memories. In this way, it is as interesting and immersive as a novel. Timothy Bottoms plays the doomed soldier, and although I don’t necessarily think he was the best man for the job (he seems to flounder at times in an exceedingly difficult role,) he has a innocent quality that lends credibility to his character. The message is sort pf obvious and states itself in a somewhat didactic way, there’s a not a huge amount of subtlety to a script that all but outright tells you that ‘war is hell’ in a dark and thoroughly depressing manner. That said, the movie has not lost it’s power since it’s release in 1971 and it’s intelligent stylistic choices and primal sense of horror (the horror of being trapped within yourself. unable to see, hear, or communicate and treated by your doctors as brain-dead) still rings true.

Johnny Got His Gun will make you think about a state between life and death where suddenly, being alive isn’t worth the trouble anymore. We see a decent, clean-cut, likable kid in a harrowing situation that God willing, none of us will have to face, and we see the bullshit of war and the hypocrisy of  warmongers and politicians who send kids in to die for a conflict most of them don’t fully understand. In one of the film’s earlier sequences, Joe and his girlfriend Kareen share a sweet moment while a enlistment officer talks a line of bunk about the glory of war.

The scene of the couple’s genuinely sweet moment juxtaposed against the officer’s never ending speel is particularly memorable. For a boy going to war, what is gained? More importantly, what is lost? Potent, raw, and sometimes downright eerie, this movie is worth watching when considering both the Euthanasia and wartime debate. If I myself was in Joe’s position, there’s no question about it. I’d want to be put out of my misery as quickly as possible.  Living for the sake of living, despite horrible quality of life, just isn’t worth it. This isn’t a rousing movie with lots of hyper kinetic battle scenes. It’s a quiet, serious kind of film, and should be viewed as such. It is also one of the most effective ant-war films I’ve ever seen.

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’71 (2014)

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Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) is having a bad day. A  British soldier stranded in Belfast as the Troubles reach their zenith, he is inexperienced in the ways of war and has no idea who to turn to and as night falls, his fear turns to utter panic. The Irish are out to kill him, and, as it turns out, the British have a bone to pick with him too when he witnesses something in a Protestant bar he shouldn’t have.

Determined to go back home to his little brother Darren (Harry Verity,)  Gary must be willing to power through a night in hell and even kill for the first time if he is to survive. But Gary finds some unexpected friends in Bridgid (Charlie Murphy) and Eamonn (Richard Dormer,) and Irish ex-military medic disgusted by the senselessness of war and his daughter.

There is scarcely a dull moment in ’71, an intense and realistic wartime drama that chronicles Gary’s frenzied  attempts to simply survive the night.  The film captures a atmosphere of chaos and ongoing panic like nothing else I’ve seen, creating a world where the foggy motives of both  Irish Catholics and British Protestants seem to meld together into one incomprehensible mass.

’71 is fair to both political sides of a messy, tragic conflict, and although I didn’t like Jack O’Connell in the 2008 horror-thriller Eden Lake, I thought he was excellent here. Far from being an action hero, Gary is green as can be. His inexperience mirrors that of another character, a teenage Irish Republican terrorist named Shaun (Barry Keoghan) who pauses helping his younger sister with her homework long enough to grab his hidden assault weapons and heads out, evading his mother’s watchful gaze.

The movie asks the question; what makes us so different that we have to continue hurting and killing each other in bloody, senseless wars? We are taught in times of conflict by the omnipresent propaganda machine that our adversaries are different from us, vile, unrelenting in the savagery.  At one point, Eamonn, Gary Hook’s good Samaritan, says that war is nothing more than ‘posh cunts telling thick cunts to kill poor cunts.’ For me, this was the high point of the movie. Has war ever been more aptly described in a more concise mannersince the first person who spoke the famous adage, “War is Hell?”

What makes us so damn different? We want the same things; financial security, our family’s unconditional love and acceptance. We feel the need to matter. And even if there are those few human beings that are irredeemably, utterly evil, why should political doctrine choose our enemies? People who, in other circumstances, could even be our friends. Had it not been for the long-standing hatred between the Northern Irish and the British Militia, Sean and Gary probably could have sat and had a drink together and bore no animosity for each other.

The only complaint I have about this movie was that it was quite confusing, I was puzzled as to who many of the side characters were and what they wanted with Gary. There was at least two similar looking characters  on different  political sides with rather large mustaches, and I’ll be damned if I could tell Mustachio #1 and Mustachio #2 apart on a dark set when all hell was breaking loose.

Besides that, all I can say is I recommend this movie to people who are interested in war films and historical periods, particularly the Troubles. It is realistic, humane, and fair-minded, and while it is not for the particularly sensitive, it would be great to show to mature high school students to explain to them how things went down in Northern Ireland at that time. Finally, we are left with the question of Gary; will he escape? And if he does will he ever be the same?

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The Great Escape (1963)

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For top-notch wartime action and intrigue, look no further. Even if the ending is a bit of a bummer.

250 men, one elaborate plan; to get the hell out of dodge. The Great Escape is set in a P.O.W. camp in 1943, where hundreds of American and English soldiers are being held indefinitely in the clutch of the  Luftwaffe, a organization originating from Nazi Germany. The men are restless; they are surviving under passable conditions, with livable (if meager) accommodations, but they want to see their families, their wives, their children. moreover, they want to raise some Hell and their refusal to live the servile existence of cattle costs them dearly in the long run.

When a RAF Squadron Leader by the name of Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough) with a staggering number of escape attempts under his belt arrives in Stalag Luft III, the P.O.W. camp to end all P.O.W. Camps (guaranteed to contain even the most uncontainable prisoners,) he and stoic resident troublemaker Virgil Hilts (Steve McQueen) set about quick to forming an escape plan. They and a mass percentage of the prisoners begin to dig a massive hole that will hopefully bring them into the forest outside the camp, and then, hopefully, to freedom. But escape turns out to be harder than they had anticipated. And then there’s that one guy Danny (Charles Bronson) who’s Kryptonite is enclosed spaces; a really inconvenient affliction for a man who’s going to crawl through a long, impossibly tight tunnel to escape captivity to have. On the up side, he’s got his right-hand man and inseparable bosom friend Willie (John Leyton) (though they appear to be more than friends, if you ask me, but that’s just me picking up on subtext *wink*) to help out.

   The Great Escape is almost three hours but it’s still worth watching, just pick a time to view it when you don’t have any other engagements for a good while. What makes it such a good movie is partly that they find important jobs to do even for people who seem initially useless. Take Colin Blythe (Donald Pleasence) a adorably British birdwatcher and tea drinker whose vision is quickly failing. Turns out mild-mannered Blythe is a pretty good forger and when his sight completely fails, leaving him blind and helpless in a wartime situation, his good friend Hendley (James Garner) takes up the reigns for him and helps smuggle him out of the camp. But even as Hendley leads the virtually sightless Blythe around German towns and landscapes, Blythe is not a burden, because no one would have gotten past square one without his clever forgeries. Everyone, even the men with challenges or who seemingly have nothing going for them, become an asset to the collective.

The movie also has an excellent ensemble cast and seems relatively short at about two hours forty minutes. It’s not as good as Pulp Fiction in that regard (… Fiction being the only movie over two hours I can sit and watch again and again and that will seemingly be over in no time at all). In a world where some eighty minute movies feel like they’re going on for interminable hours, The Great Escape just zips by due to it’s great writing and compelling plot. There is also some actual thought put into the characters (a rarity in adventure films) and they come off as distinct and fresh. The Nazi characters aren’t cartoon villains; there was even one (Robert Graf) who I felt quite sorry for at times (!)

The majority of them are doing their best with the roles given to them in a long, bloody war, they just happen to be fighting for the wrong side. There’s a moment when Graf’s character, Werner, says regretfully that he was taken out of the boy scouts, which he thoroughly enjoyed, to join the Hitler Youth and you are reminded that not every person fighting on one side of a war is a crazy extremist. Think the Confederates in the Civil War were a bunch of slave-owning racists and the union soldiers were saints? Think again! It’s emotionally dishonest to claim any one ‘side’ in a war is the devil incarnate. The Great Escape respects that in that for every evil Nazi in this movie there is another dude who wants to go home almost as much as the P.O.W.’s do.

Although The Great Escape is an old movie, it hasn’t aged a bit since it’s release in 1963. Some films start feeling old or irrelevant in their handling of themes (Hitchcock’s films are a great example, for me anyway) but The Great Escape kept people on the edge of their seat then and it will still keep people on the edge of their seat now wondering how these guys will turn out. There’s that harrowing iconic scene with Steve McQueen riding a motorcycle over a barbed wire fence and lots of suspenseful moments (like Pleasence and Garner attempting to escape from the soldiers by airplane.)

The only reason I can think of that people really wouldn’t like this movie is that society has very short attention span nowadays. It’s quite a long movie. Don’t watch it if your in a rush to just pop the DVD in, see the movie, and then pull it out in ninety minutes flat. It’s got a big, multi layered story with a ton of characters (I couldn’t even identify some of the main characters by the end of the movie,) it’s meant to be absorbed, taken seriously. Apparently this is based on a true story; I can’t think of a better way to honor the men who participated in this elaborate escape than the making of this movie. And considering all the biopics that exploit their subject matter, that is saying something.

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Beasts of No Nation (2015)

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Poor Agu (Abraham Attah.) A young African boy caught up in a war on his own soil that American youngsters can neither understand nor comprehend, he is forced to commit unconscionable acts in order to survive. Fighting as a child soldier against a faceless enemy he has no real understanding of, Agu has little time to mourn the senseless slaughter of his family as he must prove himself to the charming and predatory Commandant (Idris Elba.) As he learns to be a fighter and a murderer, Agu must face the death of everything human in him, and his realization that being reunited with his remaining relatives is becoming increasingly distant and unlikely with each passing second.

Beasts of No Nation is based on a novel by the same title, which I bought on Amazon about a year prior but just couldn’t get into. People talk about ‘first world problems’ so much that it becomes kind of a cliche, but there is still a grain of truth to it. Growing up in America can be hard, unbelievably hard- drugs, mental illness, family strife, gang warfare, bullies, and poverty are just a few of the hurdles many American kids face every day, but there’s a marked difference between us and a kid like Agu. We know with some degree of clarity that we aren’t going to be invaded or have our homes destroyed in all-out war.  We don’t have to worry we will come home and find a crater where are house was, and piles of ash where the people we called ‘mom’ and ‘dad’ once stood.

The film adaptation of Uzodinma Iweala’s slim novel takes us into a world where safety is excruciatingly uncertain and the only thing between a relatively comfortable childhood and the wreckage of innocence is a group of soldiers keeping up a barrier between ‘home’ and ‘out there.’ This is done with somber immediacy, and held up to scrutiny by Attah’s haunting performance as a boy for whom tragedy becomes a long-standing part of himself. Attah’s astonishing dramatic turn makes his transformation from ordinary goofball preteen to psychologically broken casualty of war completely believable.

The violence in this movie doesn’t have a whole lot of stylized varnish or frills, the difference between this and a Quentin Tarantino movie is daunting, though both are worthy cinematic excursions in their own way. Pedophilia, carnage, wartime rape, and the mass killing of innocents are on naked display, and we see how thin a line there is between a normal person and a person who commits horrific acts is.

Sometimes, all it takes is a push for a everyday citizen, even a child, to act in self-interest and slaughter another human being. We are all just slightly advanced animals. Anyone who thinks we’re morally superior to wild creatures is either a fool or simply mistaken. Agu is not a monster, he does what he needs to to survive and we wonder how many of the men- boys, really- in Commandant’s troupe (many of which are participating in rape, child killing and other wartime atrocities) were just scared little kids unable to hold a gun at the beginning of this long, bloody war.

The script of this movie is incisive and well-written in that like Agu, we are never quite sure what is going on or who is fighting who. This deliberate vagueness gives the film a kind of disorienting feeling that was a good choice on the part of the filmmaker. The only connection to the white journalists and outsiders to this war is the people with cameras who snap pictures of Agu as he walks down a dirt road with an assault weapon. Agu returns their gaze with an appropriately uncomprehending look.

We see the brainwashing process- the pleading man Agu is forced to kill with a machete is obviously responsible for slaughtering his family, because why not? Agu is given drugs and groomed with smarmy words and bullshit political speeches. He is beaten senseless and molested by the Commendant. His only friend, the silent Strika (Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye) feels for him but is in exactly the same position he is. We also see how the wealthy profit from a boy’s war, though exactly when and how we are unsure- like Agu, we are cast into an unfathomable situation with very little background information.

Beasts of No Nation is a disturbing movie, but it succeeds in making a conflict we hear about secondhand in the papers feel a little bit closer. Appropriately confusing, erratic, and sometimes downright unwatchable (in a good way,) the film will make you think and, cliched as it is, appreciate what we have in this country compared to what those in war-torn regions only dream of. Safety is relative (especially with the number of shootings in this country spiking) but Agu lives in a reality that, God willing, none of us will have to experience first hand.

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