Archive for the War Category

The Deer Hunter

Posted in Drama, War with tags on May 21, 2014 by Mark Walker

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Director: Michael Cimino.
Screenplay: Deric Washburn.
Starring: Robert DeNiro, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep, John Cazale, John Savage, George Dzundza, Chuck Aspegren, Rutanya Alda, Shirley Stoler, Pierre Segui, Joe Grifasi, Somsak Sengvilai.

You have to think about one shot. One shot is what it’s all about. A deer has to be taken with one shot. I try to tell people that but they don’t listen

Released in 1978, only three years after the official end of the Vietnam war, Michael Cimino’s “The Deer Hunter” seemed as if it may have been too soon for the American psyche. It was a surprising box-office hit but was also one of the most controversial, major theatrical releases about America’s involvement in the war. It went on to receive 9 Academy Award nominations (winning 5 – including Best Picture and Best Director). Despite this, the backlash was pretty vehement. It received criticism from the likes of Jane Fonda and John Wayne – who in his last public appearance had to present it with it’s Best Picture award even though he wasn’t fond of the film. These criticisms came in many forms but for as many critics as it had, there were also a great number who considered it to be another American classic.

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Waltz With Bashir * * * * 1/2

Posted in Animation, Foreign Language, War with tags on September 8, 2013 by Mark Walker

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Director: Ari Folman.
Screenplay: Ari Folman.
Voices: Ari Folman, Ron Ben-Yishai, Ronny Dayag, Shmuel Frenkel, Zahava Solomon, Ori Sivan, Dror Harazi.

The Israel & Palestine conflict never makes an easy topic for discussion and tends to bring passionate opinions to the surface. As a result, it’s difficult for anyone approaching the subject. Here, however, we are given a film that wisely doesn’t address the politics of the conflict, choosing instead to focus more on the atrocity and brutality of war.

On realising he has no memory of serving in the Israeli Army during the First Lebanon War in 1982, Ari Folman tracks down his old buddies to hear their stories of the conflict, and try to solve the mystery of his own psychological blindspot.

Thanks in large to it’s strikingly powerful artwork, this is a documentary that’s one of the most original of it’s kind. It consists of a serious of investigative interviews with director and war veteran Folman and his comrades who served with him during the conflict. Like the stories they relate, the interviews are also included in the animation and had this been done otherwise this may not have held our interest as much as it does. It helps bind the film into a coherent and visually stunning experience. Having served as an Israeli soldier, Folman wisely doesn’t justify his actions – if anything he abhors them. As he pieces the stories together, the revelation of his deep rooted memories are harrowing and it’s no wonder he developed temporary amnesia. He psychologically blocked his memories due to the atrocities and sheer brutality of the massacre – that he was involved in – of Palestinian men, women and children. Despite, this heavy subject matter, amidst the backdrop of war and barbarism, there are still many scenes of such power and surreal beauty.

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Deservedly Oscar nominated for Best Foreign Language film, this is a provocative, gruesome and visually stunning movie, that captures an eerie and haunting feel throughout. Within it’s shocking delivery, it carries a very important anti-war message while echoing the work of Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” or Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”. Absolutely superb and quite unlike anything you’ll have seen before.

Mark Walker

Saving Private Ryan * * * * *

Posted in Action, History, War with tags on May 24, 2013 by Mark Walker

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Director: Steven Spielberg.
Screenplay: Robert Rodat.
Starring: Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Adam Goldberg, Barry Pepper, Giovanni Ribisi, Jeremy Davies, Matt Damon, Vin Diesel, Paul Giamatti, Dennis Farina, Ted Danson, Harve Presnell, Bryan Cranston, Dale Dye, David Wohl, Ryan Hurst, Harrison Young, Nathan Fillion, Leland Orser.

When Steven Spielberg was finally handed a long overdue Oscar in 1993, he received it for tackling the harrowing genocides of World War II in “Schindler’s List“. So far, he’s only received two Best Director Awards and the other was fittingly received when he tackled the battlefields of that very same war in “Saving Private Ryan“. Two different film’s but equally as powerful as the other.

During WWII, Chief of Staff General Marshall (Harve Presnell) is informed of the death of three brothers in different conflicts and that their mother will receive the telegrams at the same time. A fourth brother, Private James Ryan (Matt Damon) is believed to be still alive, somewhere in the French countryside, and the decision is taken to locate him. Captain Miller (Tom Hanks), is given the rescue mission of leading his 2nd Ranger battalion through Nazi occupied territory to find Ryan and send him home.

Spielberg is, quite simply, one of the finest filmmakers that has ever graced the craft. He is, and will continue to be, heralded throughout generations of audiences and that’s with very good reason, as he’s instilled a sense of awe and unadulterated entertainment for over 40 years now. Despite an impressive backlog of movies that consists of such classics like “Jaws“, “Close Encounters…“, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “E.T“, the opening 25 minutes of “Saving Private Ryan” – where he thrusts us into the 1944 D-Day landings of Omaha Beach – is arguably his most impressive and certainly his most visceral work. It’s absolutely exhausting in it’s construction and sense of realism and the realisation soon sets in, that this cinematic autuer is not about to pull any punches in portraying a time in history that’s very close to his heart. The opening is so commanding that some have criticised the film for not living up this grand and devastating scale but Spielberg has many more up his sleeve. He’s just not able to deliver them too close together – otherwise, the film would be absolutely shattering and very difficult to get through. To bridge the gap between breathtaking battles scenes the film falls into a rather conventional storyline about men on a mission but it’s only purpose is to keep the film flowing and allows Spielberg the ability to make the brutality of war more personal. Two scenes in particular, are as overwhelming as the opening to the film: the hand-to-hand combat between a German soldier and Private Mellish (played by Adam Goldberg) and the deeply emotional and ironic injuries of T-4 Medic Wade (played by Giovanni Ribisi). These moments in the film are the most difficult to watch but they only really work because we are allowed the time to bond with the characters beforehand and experience the combat with them. Each of them have a particular, but very different appeal, making it harder to accept when some of them perish in savage and harrowing circumstances.
The cast also deserve the utmost praise for making the roles their own; the always reliable Hanks is solid in the central role and there are exceptional performances from the first rate support, namely, Barry Pepper and the aforementioned Goldberg and Ribisi, who are all outstanding.
Janusz Kaminski’s magnificent, and Oscar winning, cinematography is also starkly delivered; his images are both beautifully and horrifically captured and Spielberg’s decision to desaturate the colour and adopt some handheld approaches, add an authenticity that’s rarely been captured in the genre and brings another dimension to some of the finest and most realistic battle scenes ever committed to the screen.
There’s not much in the way of criticism that I can throw at this near masterpiece, other than Robert Rodat’s script; the conventional plot strays into cliché where the Germans are completely stereotypical and there is absolutely no sign of an Allied soldier anywhere. Rodat would have you believe that America fought the war singlehandedly, but despite these discrepancies, the film has so much power that these faults can be overlooked.

One of the darkest chapters in our history is viscerally captured in a raw and uncompromising piece of work from a virtuoso director, tapping into the highest of his abilities. Some may prefer the more fantastical and escapist nature of Spielberg, but for me, this is the finest film he’s made.

Mark Walker

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Pan’s Labyrinth * * * * *

Posted in Drama, Fantasy, Horror, War with tags on March 28, 2013 by Mark Walker

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Director: Guillermo del Toro.
Screenplay: Guillermo del Toro.
Starring: Sergi López, Ivana Baquero, Maribel Verdú, Álex Angulo, Doug Jones, Ariadne Gil, Manolo Solo, Roger Casamajor.

Despite being quite a prominent name in cinema just now, director Guillermo del Toro hasn’t actually made that many movies. He came to attention in 1993 with his excellent feature debut “Cronos” before Hollywood quickly took note and employed him on such films as “Mimic” and “Blade II“. However, his strengths lie in his own original work where he retains creative control. Of which, there are three that really stand out; the aforementioned “Cronos” is one, “The Devil’s Backbone” another and “Pan’s Labyrinth” – which to this day, remains his masterpiece.

Following the Spanish Civil War in 1944, young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) moves to a rural town with her pregnant mother (Ariadne Gil) to live with her Fascist military stepfather (Sergi López) who is determined to weed out resistance fighters to Franco’s dictatorship. It’s in this remote town that Ofelia meets a faun in the centre of a labyrinth who tells her that she is a princess. However, to claim her rightful place in this magical land she must perform certain gruesome tasks to prove her royalty.

It’s hard to pigeon hole a film like Pan’s Labyrinth as there are so many facets to it’s structure. On the one hand, it’s a political/historical drama and on the other it’s a fantasy/horror. Few (if any) films will spring to mind when these genres are mentioned in the same breath which reflects the very craftsmanship that’s at work here. One thing that you can undoubtedly count on, though, is it’s highly imaginative nature. Sure, we’ve had fantastical stories before where a young girl escapes her constrained life to enter bigger and more possible worlds. We’ve also had commentaries on the brutalities and restrictions of fascist regimes but to combine them into a wondrous journey of life, struggle and imagination is an amalgamation that I have rarely witnessed. Such is the case with this film and such is the skill of del Toro in his writing and handling of the material. He incorporates an abundance of childhood fantasies, from delving into books and mythology – that feature fauns and fairies – to the power of a piece of chalk on the wall. This may be built around the point of view of a child’s eye but its also not afraid to explore the darker recesses of that very imagination and construct some of the most monstrous creatures that can inhabit that realm. Del Toro is in absolute command here and he’s aided, immeasurably, by cinematographer Guillermo Navarro in capturing and contrasting his world within a world; one is a visually striking and enchanting fantasia, the other a stark and brutal reality. It’s a balance that’s difficult to achieve but with deft handling of coexisting genres, del Toro’s vision is able to come to fruition and manages to be both a reminder of the rigidity of fascism and the escapable ability of an imaginary youthful mind.
To embody the young protagonist, we are gifted an outstanding performance from Ivana Baquero who carries a heavy weight on her young shoulders and does so, with a skill beyond her years. Sergi Lopez also provides marvellous support as the bestial Captain Vidal who’s a smouldering villain that’s on a par with any of the war genre’s nastiest characters.
It’s very difficult to find criticism in this film as there simply, isn’t any. The only one that stands out is in the film’s title. It’s slightly misleading as “Pan” never actually features here. The original international title translates as “Labyrinth of the Fuan” which is probably the most pedantic gripe you’ll ever hear from me.

A stunning piece of work that’s both beautifully and horrifically executed. Modern masterpiece is a term that gets brandished around too often these days but this is one that’s certainly deserving of such praise.

Mark Walker

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Zero Dark Thirty * * 1/2

Posted in Drama, War with tags on February 1, 2013 by Mark Walker

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Director: Kathryn Bigelow.
Screenplay: Mark Boal.
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Mark Strong, James Gandolfini, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt, Jennifer Ehle, Edgar Ramirez, Harold Perrineau Jr, Stephen Dillane, Mark Duplass, Frank Grillo, Reda Kateb, Nash Edgerton, Jeremy Strong, Scott Adkins, John Barrowman.

So, after the Oscar winning heights of “The Hurt Locker“, director Kathryn Bigelow decides to stick to a winning formula and follow up that success with another war themed drama. Personally, I wasn’t keen on on her previous Oscar winning movie and I’m just as less enthusiastic about this one.

Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden becomes the prime target following the attacks of September 11th, 2001. Heading the search operation is CIA intelligence analyst Maya (Jessica Chastain) who commits ten years to tracking him down, while others around her have their doubts and reservations. In 2011, her commitment pays off as she believes that he has been in hiding in Pakistan and a U.S. Navy SEAL team are sent in to capture or kill.

Beginning with the events of 9/11, the film fast forwards 2 years where it dares to expose American torture tactics to find the culprits of that fateful attack on New York. Although distressing, they are brilliantly and bravely captured which has led to some controversy on Bigelow’s part. The film, basically, doesn’t waste time in getting down to business and although the early stages consist of interrogations, Bigelow does well to maintain interest and tension. After this, the film gets bogged down in an attempt to capture recent events that require much more than a 2 1/2 hour movie to sum up.
Apparently, the script of this film was changed during the filming; the original story was the hunt for bin Laden but his (supposed) capture and death occurred before the film was completed. As a result, we have the ending to this manhunt. Personally, I don’t buy bin Laden’s capture. That’s not to say that I think he’s still roaming the earth. He may well be dead but I just don’t believe that events played out the way we have been told they did. It stinks to me that we are supposed to buy the – almost hush-hush – news coverage of such a high-profile event in current affairs. Sadam Hussein’s death was plastered all over the media but with bin Laden we are to just accept with very little evidence produced. Call me a conspiracy theorist but I can’t (and won’t) readily accept everything I’m told in the media. I believe it to be western propaganda that only serves to instil a belief in people that an end to the conflict is near. People want to believe. People need to believe. Much has been said about the 10-year-long manhunt to capture and kill bin Laden but if, buffoonish, Bush Jr, wasn’t so hell bent on drilling for oil and finishing his dear old pappy’s lucrative business in Iraq then that time wouldn’t have passed.
Anyway, I digress. My write-up is becoming more about my personal beliefs than it is a film review. So let’s get back to the job at hand. This is a film that is, undoubtedly, well structured and captured but I found that it meandered and as a result, I began to write a big “lefty” spiel (which I have omitted here) on my opinion of the conflict that we, as the west, finds ourselves in. And the reason this happened? Frankly, it was because I was bored. It wasn’t until the hour mark that things begin to get interesting but just when it began to look good, it got bogged down in boardroom scenarios and endless eastern locations. I have been a big fan of Bigelow’s previous movies but her recent venture into political events doesn’t cut it for me. She’s a director that has vibrancy and energy that is hard to compete with but on recent evidence, she’s entering into a territory that doesn’t accentuate her skills.
What does work in this, is the performances; Jessica Chastain proves, once again, why she’s everywhere at the moment. Her progression from shrinking violet to doggedly determined shows good range and some supporting actors also deliver solid work; Jason Clarke (“Lawless“) is a standout in the earlier part of the movie and Kyle Chandler (“Super 8“) gets a chance to flex his acting chops in some tense verbal confrontations. James Gandolfini and Joel Edgerton are a couple of late inclusions and it’s only in the last half hour that Bigelow shows her abilities in staging the action set-pieces. By then, though, it’s too little too late. What she does do, in her defence, is portray the actions of soldiers less than heroic. Which is one of the few truths that she shows in the entire film. Another is the ambiguity in the identity of bin Laden. At one point Stephen Dillane’s character says “… bin Laden, do I give up all hope of possibly seeing a photograph of him?” Eh… I’m afraid so. As an audience, we have to, yet we’re still expected to believe that he was identified and located on a farmyard, killed and buried at sea and an agency expert visually confirmed his identity when she hadn’t, physically, ever laid eyes on bin Laden herself.

Gung-Ho, western propaganda at it’s most concentrated. Some of it is impressively handled but ultimately, it’s nonsense that masquerades as intelligent filmmaking. It’s far from it and another blip in Bigelow’s, seemingly, great reputation. As a surfer- dude once said, in her earlier psuedo-spiritual, action pinnacle… “Go back to the valley, man…“.

Mark Walker

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Coriolanus * * * *

Posted in Drama, thriller, War with tags on June 4, 2012 by Mark Walker

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Director: Ralph Fiennes.
Screenplay: John Logan.
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Brian Cox, Vanessa Redgrave, Jessica Chastain, James Nesbitt, Paul Jesson, Lubna Azabal, Ashraf Barhom, Dragan Mieanovie, Jon Snow.

As a personal rule, I don’t watch adaptations of William Shakespeare’s works unless I’ve read the play beforehand. I like to have a frame of reference when it comes to the bard but in this case, I capitulated and couldn’t resist putting the film off any longer. I’ll always wish that I had found the time but that doesn’t diminish the overall quality or power of this interpretation from first time director Ralph Fiennes.

In a war ravished modern state calling itself Rome, where the people and the military have taken to the streets, hero General Caius Martius (Ralph Fiennes) is set to become the leader of the republic. Opponents across the political scale have other ideas though and attempt to orchestrate his downfall and banishment. Once exiled, the furious General forms an alliance with former nemesis Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler) and returns home, intent on taking revenge on the city that has scorned him.

Despite the modern alternative setting that Fiennes chooses for his adaptation, he still manages to retain the feel of a play. Some scenes reflect a classic BBC dramatisation and he employs some high quality actors to provide the goods. The classically trained actress Vanessa Redgrave is the most comfortable amongst the ensemble as the influential matriarch Volumunia. She delivers her lines with absolute confidence and such an understanding of Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter. She’s not alone though; for as little time as they get, the ubiquitous Jessica Chastain delivers a reserved performance as Coriolanus’ disconsolate wife Virgilia and Gerard Butler proves that his talents lie beyond mere rom-com’s and mindless action movies as Aufidius, the rebel leader of the Volscian army. Butler’s fellow Scotsman Brian Cox also shows some real presence in one of his better roles of recent years as the Roman senator Menenius. But as the tortured and unrelenting protagonist Caius Martius Coriolanus, it’s Fiennes that takes centre stage, chewing it up in the process and delivering an intense and ferocious performance. It’s often forgotten how good an actor Fiennes really is but this is proof, once again, that given some meaty material, he can really sink his teeth into it. Shakespeare’s works tend to be all about the prose and the performers and as much as this film delivers on that front, it also delivers an effective modern setting with surprisingly brilliant action set-pieces. There is a real intensity to the politics involved and Fiennes wisely chooses to stick with the original material. It’s hard to balance Shakespeare’s writing’s in a contemporary way and for the most part, it works impressively. However, as the original play is based on a supposed Roman general during the 5th century BC, there are regular references to the common beliefs of this time. “The gods” is an often used piece of dialogue that doesn’t quite fit with the chosen setting and whenever the actors deliver lines with such, it jars slightly. The rest of the film though, is a towering and mesmerising take on the machinations and intrigue of political power.

As always with Shakespeare, it takes a while to tune your ear but the visuals are so effective and the performances so good, that it brings one of his lesser known tragedies, comfortably, to a wider audience. It also heralds the arrival of exemplary actor Ralph Fiennes as an exemplary new director.

Mark Walker

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The Men Who Stare At Goats * * *

Posted in Comedy, War with tags on March 30, 2012 by Mark Walker

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Director: Grant Heslov.
Screenplay: Peter Straughan.
Starring: George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey, Stephen Root, Robert Patrick, Stephen Lang, Rebecca Mader, Glenn Morshower.

Grant Heslov is mainly known for his producing and writing collaborations on some of George Clooney film’s. However, on this occasion he takes the directorial reigns, leaving me wondering what might have come of this film had someone with more experience been behind the camera.

In the 1980’s, reporter Bob Wilton (McGregor) stumbles onto the story of the ‘New Earth Army’, a bold, experimental unit formed by the U.S. It’s purpose is to train so-called ‘Jedi’ warriors to use paranormal powers, including mind control, for the use in battle and to help in the interrogation of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Then he meets one of the unit’s major players Lyn Cassady (Clooney), now supposedly retired, and tags along for a series of misadventures in Iraq.

Amazingly, this is based on a true story and with this prior knowledge and superior cast, you’d expect something quite special. Sadly, it doesn’t provide it. It starts off, looking very good indeed but after the half hour mark I started drifting when the realisation came, that it wasn’t going anywhere. The cast are excellent as you’d expect; Clooney, once again, shows nice comic touches and expressions, Spacey is under-used but still manages scene stealing moments and Bridges is absolutely brilliant as the spaced out, hippie commander Bill Django – which is a little reminder of his iconic portrayal of “The Dude” from “The Big Lebowski“. McGregor also does well, amongst these heavy hitters and has nearly developed a decent American accent. It’s just a shame that their performances were not helped with something that resembled a script. To be fair though, there are still some nice comedy moments and there are many interesting components to the story but it lacks drive. Maybe it’s because the assembled cast is so impressive that more is expected. Or maybe, it’s because it’s in the hands of a novice director – punching above his weight. Either way, it disappoints. This is a film that the likes of the Coen brothers could have taken to great heights. It has a similar sense for the brothers’ off-beat humour but lacks their creativity.

A passable comedy, that amuses sporadically but relies too heavily on it’s four main performers. It’s them that maintain your interest but the material should have been delivered with more confidence.

Mark Walker

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