Tag: war

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008)

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It is most certainly flawed, but The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is likely to make this harrowing chapter of history more accessible for some children.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas serves as an introduction for children to Nazism and the Holocaust. It covers a broad range of elements integral to Nazi Germany such as institutional racism, nationalism and indoctrination, albeit in a juvenile, contrived and ultimately implausible manner.

The film charts the relationship between Bruno (Asa Butterfield), a German 8-year-old and Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), a young Jewish boy. Bruno is the son of Ralf (David Thewlis), the SS Commandant of a nearby concentration camp in which Shmuel lives, and Elsa (Vera Farmiga), who is largely ignorant of the Jewish persecution her husband is responsible for.

The inquisitive Bruno first meets the titular boy in striped pyjamas when he stumbles across the camp perimeter next to the woods that surround his house. The innocent Bruno is puzzled by Shmuel’s predicament, he doesn’t understand why soldiers are ‘taking their clothes away for no reason’ or why another inmate Pavel works in the camp after a career as a doctor. As he repeatedly visits Shmuel and develops a friendship with him, his confusion soon turns to indignation.

Clearly, their relationship is unrealistic. The abhorrent reality is that most children were killed immediately upon arrival at the camps, and even as a child who either somehow slipped through the net or was deemed useful, it is very unlikely that Shmuel could escape his oppressors’ eyeshot so many times to speak with Bruno.

The boys’ exchanges are contrived and awkward, they are not natural conversations but a vehicle for the screenwriters to teach their young viewers the basics of the Holocaust. Considering his age, Asa Butterfield is a decent young actor – he has the potential to be a star. Scanlon, however, was quite stilted.

One of my problems with the two boys’ relationship and indeed the whole cast are the English accents, it seriously affected the credibility of the characters.  Even Vera Farmiga, an American woman, gives her German character an English accent, which she does very well, incidentally. I’m sure the film’s adult cast members were more than capable of at least hints of German or Eastern European, but attempts to do so by Butterfield or Scanlon would have probably been risible.

The most villainous and unlikable character of the film is probably Kurt Kotler (Rupert Friend), but he is also something of a caricature. With his chiselled jaw, blond hair, blue eyes and immaculate uniform, Kotler is the personification of the somewhat homoerotic Nazi dream of Aryan supremacy. The problem is that instead of him being a compelling example of a Nazi propaganda poster-boy, Friend’s character is an example of the cliched ‘Ve have vays ov making you talk’ Nazi stock-character.  And of course, Friend makes no attempt to Germanise his English accent, which meant I just couldn’t believe in him.

With implausible characters and relationships, some viewers may begin to lose hope as the The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas descends into a sophomoric history lesson. However, the climax completely batters you with its shocking, powerful twist. Despite all of the preceding problems, the fittingly horrendous denouement will leave an impression on child and parent alike. Seldom have I seen a film picked up so greatly by its final minutes.

63%

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Baraka (1992)

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I can’t see how someone couldn’t like this film.

A bold statement certainly, however Baraka has an immense beauty that is surely universal in appeal. It is a documentary that’s without  narrative or narration, it captures a veritable plethora of imagery that reminds us that Earth is indeed a baraka, which is Arabic and Hebrew for ‘blessing’.

Any attempt to derive meaning or identify connection becomes merely incidental as you’re presented with the hypnotic scenery that Ron Fricke and his team have captured; it must have been difficult for them to cut their glorious footage down to 97 minutes. The film traverses verdant jungles, epic mountain ranges, sweeping temple complexes, arid deserts,  imposing cityscapes and haunting landmarks of evil such as Auschwitz and the Cambodian S-21 prison. Its human subjects are of all colours and creeds, with much of the film focusing on those who are less fortunate and sometimes utterly destitute. It is a sensational and occasionally disturbing cross-section of the planet’s landscapes, cultures and history.

The stunning wide shots and time lapses are scored with heady ambient music by Michael Stearns. His music is a cacophony of tribal chants, chimes and drums that’s vital in creating Baraka’s truly sensory immersion. My favourite piece is Baraka Theme, its broad, sonorous notes create a vast scope that perfectly accompanies the boundless panoramas.

There are so many moments I could talk about, I could throw effusive adjectives at almost every frame, however I feel mere words can’t do it justice. Baraka is a purely cinematic experience that’s somewhat futile to describe.

However, one memorable sequence I will mention is the factory processing of chicks that’s interspersed with the frenetic pace of Tokyo railway commuters; it is fascinating and ultimately quite unpleasant as the birds’ destiny in battery cages is revealed after having their beaks burnt. The camera offers insights into an array of factories, showcasing their subjects’ perfectly rehearsed skills in computer hardware assembly, textiles and poultry.

It is a film that demands to be shown on good equipment, a film that serves as a benchmark for one’s TV or projector. Apparently, it was the first film to receive an 8K transfer, what an awesome experience that must be, most likely better than real life!

When Baraka sadly finishes, you eventually move your eyes away from the screen for the first time in 97 minutes and realise that you’ve been dead still the whole time as you check your watch, surprised to see that many hours haven’t passed. It is a triumph that the moving image alone can achieve such engrossment.

86%

Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)

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A predictable, dull film that’s merely a vehicle for Williams’s tediously overbearing comedy.

There’s a great Family Guy cutaway gag in which Peter Griffin and Robin Williams are sitting on a sofa as Peter names topics such as religion and politics for Williams to comment on. Williams does so with his trademark brand of insufferable overbearing comedy, which is filling any amount of time with incessant, frenetic rambling. Peter responds simply with an exasperated sigh before leaving for a five minute break, which prompts Williams to start yet another barrage of supposedly funny noises.

I felt much like Peter Griffin whilst watching Good Morning Vietnam. It reaffirmed my opinion that Williams was not the ‘tragicomic genius’ that so many purported him to be. Williams was much better as a straight actor.

Read a short synopsis of Vietnam and you’ll know exactly what it’s all about: the loveable family favourite Robin Williams being kooky and charming the troops but clashing with straight-laced, humourless authority figures. It’s completely predictable and completely trite. They also throw in a love interest for good measure in the form of Trinh (Chintara Sukapatana), a wholly lifeless woman whom Williams refuses to stop pestering.

Williams is never funny during his radio broadcasts, but the film repeatedly tells us otherwise, showing us scores of characters struggling to hold back their tears of laughter. So many of the supporting actors, whether they’re random troops or studio operators, were just diegetic canned laughter rather than proper characters.

Make no mistake, Robin Williams isn’t playing Adrian Cronauer, he’s playing Robin Williams at his most loud and rambling. Williams is repeatedly characterised as the loveable clown who brings the people together, it’s rather nauseating. No matter how hard the film tries, it cannot convince me that he’s either funny or charming, it only succeeds in making him very irritating. Despite this, there are some moments that raised a smile, such as the language class scenes in which he focuses on New York City street talk rather than the artificial, staid sentences of the textbooks.

Williams’s flatly developed adversaries Lt. Steven Hauk (Bruno Kirby) and Sgt. Major Dickinson (J.T. Walsh) are the typical officious military men. They develop a resentment towards him that’s so instantaneous that it’s contrived and unbelievable; they’re just narrative functions that try and make you feel sorry for Williams, the sweet crazy cookie. Both characters aggressively impose their superior ranks on Williams and the other men, reminding me of the great Machiavelli quote – ‘It is not titles that make men illustrious, but men who make titles illustrious.’  Quite frankly, the quote is wasted on a trivial, tiresomely annoying film like this.

It sometimes attempts to be a drama or ‘dramedy’ with moments of perfunctory war moralising, but ultimately Good Morning Vietnam is preoccupied with indulging Robin Williams rather than achieving anything approaching credible commentary or pathos.

45%

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

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Stunning CGI and compelling allegory makes Dawn of the Planet of the Apes a solid instalment.

Unlike a lot of summer blockbusters, there isn’t much fun in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The film opens with a map sequence showing the spread of the Simian virus, it is a worryingly plausible and perhaps even prescient prelude to the film’s nihilistic 130 minutes.

Based in San Francisco, a group of virus resistant humans stumble upon the apes in a forest whilst locating a dam that’s vital for the city’s power supply. Carver (Kirk Acevedo), a trigger happy human, wounds an ape upon the surprise encounter, setting relations off to a uneasy start. Caeser (Andy Serkis), leader of the apes,  eventually allows the humans to work on the dam on the strict condition that they surrender their weapons.

This collaboration makes Koba (Toby Kebbell) rather apprehensive. Koba, a bonobo, has suffered at the hands of humans, developing an intense hatred for them. While Caesar is wary of humans and acts very much in the interest of his fellows apes, he recognises the humans’ capacity for good, something that frustrates and disillusions Koba to the point of rebellion.

Immediately the film impresses with its motion capture, seldom am I compelled by CGI characters like I was by Caeser, Koba and the scores of other primates. The range of chimps, gorillas, orangutans and bonobos are effortlessly brought to life through superlative animation and great physical performances.

The Homo sapiens of the film are, on the other hand, somewhat unremarkable and one dimensional – they’re all disposable save for a few. However, both the humans and apes have members whose existence are purely narrative function, they each serve identical purposes, it’s a rather simple construct. Caeser, the hyper-intelligent Chimpanzee who is stern but fair with his colony and the humans he encounters, has a clear equivalent in Malcolm (Jason Clarke), the human leader who also favours peace and cooperation.

These two leaders are beacons of appeasement and democracy, however both sides are jeopardised by bigoted brutes. The aforementioned Carver and Koba assume these roles, both have a tendency for violence and prediliction for martial law, however Koba has a much more sinister influence in the colony. Gary Oldman’s character Dreyfus, a senior member of the humans, is also a counterpart of Koba’s, however I found Carver to be more zealous in his contempt.

There is a slight narrative sag about half way through the film, however this break in momentum is swiftly fixed when the embittered, war-mongering  Koba orchestrates a full scale conflict with the humans. The film then becomes an interesting allegory for war, racism and genocide. With scenes of humans being herded into cages and brutal punishment for dissent amongst the ranks, clear correlations can be made between Koba’s colony and Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, Stalin’s USSR and the slew of other hideous regimes of history.

Generally, the film is to be commended for its anthropomorphic balance. I liked how for the majority of the time the apes communicated using sign language as opposed to just English. Speaking English is biologically impossible for apes, however I’m willing to believe that this isn’t necessarily true in the film’s universe. What I’m not willing to believe is that Chimpanzees can shed tears, they can’t, it is a human function that’s unique among primates. Also, there are instances in which the apes, chiefly Caesar, bear facial expressions or engage in conversations that are just too human. Thankfully, the anthropomorphism is seldom sentimental.

Although character development is familiar and predictable, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is ultimately a spectacle packed nihilistic summer blockbuster about instinct, hierarchy, politics, racism and war.

78%

The Last King of Scotland (2006)

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This image may summarise the film’s implausibility.

Although it features a superb transformation from Forest Whitaker and a series of well-constructed scenes,  the largely fictional narrative that surrounds them is ultimately rather formulaic and implausible.

‘The Last King of Scotland’ is all about Forrest Whitaker; as soon as he graces the screen, he is Idi Amin. The unison of Whitaker’s physicality and his superb East African accent, which is perhaps the most impressive element of his performance, transforms him into the Ugandan dictator.

Although it is clear that Amin is a manipulator and intent on getting his own way, he is loquacious, magnetic and, surprisingly, quite affable. He charms both the viewer and Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), the impressionable Scottish doctor who initially believes Amin’s rousing yet hollow speeches.

It soon becomes apparent however that this is a charm offensive, a manipulative process that wears very thin once Amin’s deeply ugly, frenetic megalomania is laid bare. Like many of history’s dictators – Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot – Amin succumbs to paranoia, and mass violence ensues.

The film begins with the proclamation that ‘This film is inspired by real people and real events.’, however it fails to state that the central character Nicholas Garrigan is actually entirely fictional. I hadn’t looked into the film’s veracity before watching it, however although there appeared to be clear narrative exaggerations at times, I had presumed that Garrigan was at least a real person. It is a typical example of the ‘inspired by real events’ cliché, ‘inspired’ is always the key part of the sentence.

The film follows Garrigan as he inadvertently becomes Amin’s personal physician and at times ‘closest advisor’; it is indeed an extraordinary predicament, but I suppose stranger things have happened. McAvoy is good as Garrigan, his gradually souring relationship with Amin is interesting and intense, they have many great exchanges.

However, with the knowledge that Nicholas Garrigan is an invention of Giles Foden, author of the book on which the film is based, Scotland’s narrative seems rather formulaic and implausible. I found Garrigan’s relationships with medic Sarah Merrit (Gillian Anderson) and Kay Amin (Kerry Washington) to be hackneyed plot mechanisms.

While the film includes real events such as the Israeli hostage crisis at Entebbe International Airport, much of what occurs is either historically unfaithful or sheer fiction. The story was inspired by one of Amin’s many self-bestowed titles – The King of Scotland.

An example of the film’s implausibility is the scene where Garrigan and Amin first meet. Amin’s Citroen DS has been in a collision with a cow (what appears to be an Ankole-Watusi), leaving him with an injured hand that Garrigan tends to. The creature appears to be fatally wounded and wails in a pain until Garrigan, who has repeatedly asked for it to be put out of its misery, takes Amin’s gun from the roof of the car and mercifully shoots it twice in the head.

Although the surrounding guards train their guns on Garrigan, predictably Amin respects his audacity, and, amusingly, is particularly pleased when he finds out he is Scottish. It is a scene that is quite bereft of credibility.

Although the film has elements of character study, my main problem with the film is that it doesn’t give an insight into Amin’s rule and the atrocities committed under it. Although he is clearly a despot, a mentally ill bully, the film’s emphasis on his fictional relationship with Garrigan rather than fact meant that I didn’t find him hateful.

‘The Last King of Scotland’ features a superb transformation from Forest Whitaker and a series of well-constructed scenes, however ultimately the largely fictional narrative that surrounds Whitaker is rather formulaic.

 75%

Glory (1989)

Glory_Head_ExplodeAfter this appropriately nasty image, ‘Glory’ becomes awfully choreographed.

Ultimately rather average.

‘Glory’ charts Colonel Robert Gould Shaw’s (Matthew Broderick) appointment to the head of a coloured regiment through to his battles with institutional racism during the American Civil War.

As a result of familiarity and the majority of the characters being quite bland, I found Glory’s central theme of racism somewhat unremarkable. The flattest characters in the film were the troops of the coloured regiment, who should be central to the film. The problem is they’re not, which is an issue. ‘Glory’ is adapted from Robert Shaw’s letters to his mother, meaning the film is naturally focused on him. Consequently, the core subjects of the story are quite underdeveloped.

Morgan Freeman gives a very Morgan Freeman performance as John Rawlins, the measured, sensible and wise Sergeant Major, characteristics so typical of Freeman’s oeuvre. Denzel Washington is more interesting as Private Trip, an angry runaway slave who’s understandably embittered with the world and everyone in it. This anger manifests itself as bullying, he’s always provoking people who threaten that chip on his shoulder. His wrath is felt particularly by Corporal Thomas Searles (Andre Braugher), an educated, well dressed man whom Trip considers an uncle tom.

Trip is a decent character and convincingly played by Washington, he conveys that pain and anger well; his Oscar winning turn is probably the best performance of the film. However Trip is, like the rest of the film, still somewhat unremarkable and overly familiar. There is one scene where Trip remarks how the regiment is ‘the only family he’s ever had’, which is so clichéd and predictable you could see it coming a mile off.

What perhaps is worst about the film are the battle scenes. While there’s a grisly headshot at the beginning and it succeeds in depicting the disgraceful death of the suicidal battle charges, it ultimately does not convince or affect. There’s far too much choreography going on, whether its soldiers exuberantly throwing themselves about under cannon fire or the almost laughable scenes of contrived mêlée where the soldiers run about rifle butting each other like in some second-rate action film.

Mark Kermode spoke of how ‘Glory’ had ‘visceral war scenes’ that were ‘long before Saving Private Ryan’. Indeed, ‘Glory’ was before ‘Saving Private Ryan’, but the latter heralded a new level of brutal realism, after its awesome 169 minutes you feel completely battered and depressed. I am very surprised that Kermode would compare this tame piece of work with Spielberg’s stark WWII epic.

Despite my reservations, I wouldn’t say ‘Glory’ is a bad film, it goes along just fine. Although I thought there should’ve been more focus on the black characters, it is Shaw’s struggle to control and maintain his new regiment that’s probably the most interesting part of the film. Although a compassionate man, he realises that he is now an authority figure, he must nurture a veneer of unwavering stoicism and power so the men respect and obey him. This means he must adhere to the rules of the time, including the ugly, violent ones. I was most engaged when watching Shaw wrestle with the officialism and racism of his regiment, however the men he commanded were trite and boring.

While it may have been more profound in 1989, I felt that the film, although competent, was rather neutered and covered well-trodden ground.

 69%

The Deer Hunter (1978)

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A vast, multi-faceted, albeit slightly maudlin epic with a beautiful score, striking cinematography and gripping acting intensity.

A sprawling epic of three hours, ‘The Deer Hunter’ is a striking, moving film. It focuses on a group of working class men who live in Clairton, Pennsylvania; which whilst is an industrial town, is a pretty and tranquil part of the world. However, this is strictly the film’s depiction of Clairton; it was actually shot in various locations across Ohio.

These men have firm working class sentiments, they work in the steel factory together and, once their shifts are over, drop by the local bar to shoot pool and have a few drinks; this is the men’s comfortable existences, however their lives are soon to be turned upside down. The men are called to serve their country in Vietnam, where they are to be subjected to an array of abhorrence that will change them forever.

It is a striking film in every sense. John Williams’ score, the acoustic ‘Cavatina’, is blissful; it complements every scene it features in. Its sequences of natural beauty and Clairton life are starkly juxtaposed in the film’s second act: the infamous Russian roulette scene. It is acted with truly remarkable conviction; the actors must have forced themselves into an unpleasant place to produce such harrowing realism. The scene is so visceral and intense that it creates a disturbed silence amongst an audience; even its biggest critics would have to try very hard not to be affected by it.

Normally a critically acclaimed film, ‘The Deer Hunter’ hasn’t been devoid of criticism. It has been labelled melodramatic, and it does indeed have its maudlin moments, I agree, but it has also been accused of being ‘racist’. It may be a one sided account of the war and I appreciate it was released during sensitive times shortly after the conflict, but I do not agree.

Does a film have to cover every aspect of an event? Does it have to cover every perspective? Of course not. ‘The Deer Hunter’ reflects one case: one group of men and their exposure to a small group of sadistic belligerents. Some say the depiction of the Vietcong is racist, but to rational, informed people, I think it’s clear that film the isn’t suggesting that the entire Vietcong was like this. We realise that atrocities similar to those seen in the film are committed by both parties in times of war; to proclaim that the film is trying to tell us otherwise is false and preachy.

I concede that the majority of the Vietnamese are, to understate somewhat, portrayed unscrupulously, but the extent of one’s criticism should be that the characterisation is flat, certainly not racist. Additionally, there are pedants who moan about how there were no cases of Russian roulette documented over the course of the Vietnam War – it’s called artistic licence. If you’re so bothered by ‘The Deer Hunter’, if you yearn for fair portrayal, balance it out by watching Oliver Stone’s vitriolic ‘Born on the Fourth of July’, which is a scathing attack on the United States’ behaviour in Vietnam and their military and political ethos.

Returning to another popular comment; I do concede its melodrama, especially during a scene where the American National Anthem is sung in unison: far too gushing and ‘American’. However, overall, any flaw is completely pushed aside by its ensemble cast, its aural and visual impact and its ability to keep your attention for 180 minutes and leave a lasting impression on you.

87%