Tag Archives: war

The Railway Man

It takes more effort to convincingly tell a story about reconciliation than it does one about revenge, as I found with The Railway Man, a gripping study of post traumatic stress disorder, the horrors of war and the scars they burn into people, often having lasting effects years later. Colin Firth plays real life WWII veteran Eric, who was captured by the Japanese along with his regiment and held as prisoner of war for some years in a hellish POW camp. His fixation and uncanny knowledge of railway systems all over the world unfortunately is misunderstood by the Japanese, resulting in brutal torture and interrogation which goes on for months, and when the war is over and they are released, turns him into a broken, haunted man. He eventually meets, falls in love with and marries Patti (Nicole Kidman), but the time spent in that camp has left wounds that seemingly will never heal, and he finds it hard to cope. His friend and fellow veteran Finley (Stellan Skarsgard) complicates matters when he discovers that one of the Japanese officials responsible for his treatment is still out there somewhere, and can be located. It’s a fascinating situation, for the man (Hiroyuki Sanada, full of haunting complexity) has changed and bears scars of his own in ways that Eric could not imagine before coming face to face with him. Their meeting and correspondence raised many questions about the nature of war and what it brings out in a person versus how time changes ones feelings, perhaps heals some wounds and shifts perspectives greatly. Director Jonathan Teplitzky tackles the story in a straightforward, traditionalist manner, letting the emotional beats speak for themselves, keeping the camera and editing mellow to allow the actors to organically perform. Firth is a brilliant actor who too often get me stuck in syrupy roles, he shines here especially well when he’s faced with the darkness of memory and we see exactly that reflected in his eyes. Sanada has the toughest role but lands it squarely, never cloying or reaching for emotional straws but rather letting the anguish build to a tipping point and than breaking down naturally in what has to be the film’s best, most honestly realistic scene. Kidman radiates compassion and is around for less of the story but still says a lot with her screen time and does excellent work. Kind of an under seen gem, this floated by off the radar back in 2014 but it’s rich, well told drama with three brave, finely tuned central performances.

-Nate Hill

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Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line

There’s a scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill 2 where Michael Madsen’s Budd lays down the sword rhetoric: “If you’re gonna compared a sword made by Hattori Hanzo, you compare it to every other sword ever made, that wasn’t made by Hattori Hanzo.” I’d like to augment that slightly in the case of Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line and say, “If you’re gonna compare The Thin Red Line, you compare it to every other war movie ever made that *isn’t* The Thin Red Line.” That’s not to say its better than all the rest or on any kind of quality pedestal, it’s just simply unlike every other war film out there, and that differentiation makes it an incredibly special picture. Why, you ask? Because it takes a ponderous, meditative approach to a very hectic horrific period in history, and takes the time to explore the effects of conflict on both humanity and nature, as well as how all those forces go hand in hand. What other war film does that? Malick uses a poets eye and a lyricist’s approach to show the Guadalcanal siege, a horrific battle in which lives were lost on both sides and the countryside ravaged by the fires of war. To say that this film is an ensemble piece would be an understatement; practically all of Hollywood and their mother have parts in this, from the front and centre players right down to cameos and even a few appearances that never made it into the final cut (which I’m still bitter about). The two central performances come from Jim Caviesel and Sean Penn as Pvt. Welsh and Sgt. Witt. Welsh is a compassionate, thoughtful man who seems primally uncomfortable in a soldiers uniform, and shirks the materialistic horror and industrialist grind of war to seek something more esoteric, a reason for being amongst the horror. Witt is a hard, cold man who sees no spiritual light at the end of the tunnel and does his job with grim resolve, scarcely pausing to contemplate anything but the next plan of action. These two are archetypes, different forces that play in each of us and, variations of which, are how we deal with something as incomparable as a world war. Around them swirl an endless sea of famous faces and other characters doing the best they can in the chaos, or simply getting lost in it. Nick Nolte as a gloomy Colonel displays fire and brimstone externally, but his inner monologue (a constant with Malick) shows us a roiling torment. A captain under his command (Elias Koteas) has an emotional crisis and disobeys orders to send his men to their death when thunderously pressured by Nolte. Koteas vividly shows us the heartbreak and confusion of a man who is ready to break, and gives arguably the best performance of the film. Woody Harrelson accidentally blows a chunk of his ass off with a grenade, John Cusack climbs the military rank with his tactics, John Savage wanders around in a daze as a sadly shell shocked soldier, Ben Chaplin pines for his lost love (Miranda Otto) and the jaw dropping supporting cast includes (deep breath now) Jared Leto, Nick Stahl, Tim Blake Nelson, Thomas Jane, Dash Mihok, Michael Mcgrady, John C. Reilly, Adrien Brody, Mark Boone Jr, Don Harvey, Arie Verveen, Donal Logue, John Travolta and a brief George Clooney. There’s a whole bunch who were inexplicably cut from scenes too including Bill Pullman, Gary Oldman and Mickey Rourke. Rourke’s scene can be found, in pieces, on YouTube and it’s worth a search to see him play a haunted sniper. Hans Zimmer doles out musical genius as usual, with a mournfully angelic score that laments the process of war, particularly in scenes where Caviesel connects with the natives in the region, as well as a soul shattering ambush on the Japanese encampment that is not a sequence that ten year old Nate has been able to forget since I saw it and the hairs on my neck stood up. This is a diversion from most war films; Malick always has a dreamy filter over every story he weaves: exposition is scant, atmosphere matters above all else and the forces of music and visual direction almost always supersede dialogue, excepting inner thoughts from the characters. If you take that very specific yet loose and ethereal aesthetic and plug it into the machinations of a war picture, the result is as disturbing as it is breathtakingly beautiful, because you are seeing these events through a lens not usually brandished in the genre, and the consequences of war seem somehow more urgent and cataclysmic. Malick knows this, and keeps that tempo up for the entire near three hour runtime, giving us nothing short of a classic.

-Nate Hill

John McTiernan’s Basic

John McTiernan’s Basic is a film that commits the cardinal sin of cheating its audience with an obnoxious, horrendous twist ending that it neither earns nor properly makes sense of. It’s a real crying shame too, because the film up until then is a hell of a lot of fun and has a rambunctious John Travolta performance that could shake the cobwebs loose from a barn. When a near mythic drill instructor (a volcanic Samuel L. Jackson) with some terrifying over-the-line tactics disappears along with some of his cadets on a routine training exercise deep in the jungles of Panama, Travolta’s rowdy DEA Agent is called in to investigate. Why a DEA agent, you ask? Well, it being Panama one might assume that any controversy anywhere could be drug related, but the film states that it’s because no one is as skilled at interrogation than him. That proves to be true, as he slowly, cleverly speaks with the remaining trainees and starts to piece together a cluttered version of events from each one. They are played by the reliable likes of Dash Mihok, Taye Diggs, Giovanni Ribisi, Brian Van Holt and Harry Connick Jr., and as such many of the scenes are quite engaging. It doesn’t hurt that Connie Nielsen is good too as Travolta’s anal retentive, by the book partner. The film oscillates through various scenarios, teasing us with which mystery might be real, and when it comes time to whisk the curtains back and land the pirouette of a reasonable final act… it just… shits itself and completely ruins not only everything that came before, but the entire film, which is really too bad. At first I thought I was just too stoned to get what happened the first time years ago, but I’ve since rewatched it a few more times and… nope. It’s illogical, unwarranted horse shit that doesn’t work any way you spin it. I would have honestly preferred the central mystery to never even get solved over the half assed resolution they cooked up. Roger Ebert pointed out that this film deserves to be in a genre he calls the ‘Jerk Around Movie,’ and I agree. It shamefully wastes the viewer’s time with an ending that’s both insulting to the efforts of the actors who really worked hard here, betrays it’s own narrative to the grave. Bleh.

-Nate Hill

Renny Harlin’s 5 Days Of War

I won’t pretend to be familiar with the details of the Russian/Georgian war or anything that goes on in that region, but I’m pretty sure Renny Harlin’s 5 Days Of War is skewed in favour of special effects and kinetic commotion, as opposed to dutifully telling a story. It’s disjointed and has no idea which characters to focus on primarily and as such feels like a film out of time and space, cobbled together with loose strands and spare action sequences. Half the name actors are casted in throwaway roles too, which is disorienting. In a hectic prologue, Heather Graham plays the girlfriend of a war photographer (Rupert Friend), but she’s killed in a blast literally seconds after meeting her character, which seems arbitrary even to call her agent for a booking. The films sees Friend, a Georgian native (Emmanuelle Chriqui) and others stranded in a region on fire, torn apart by combat and cut off from communication. The details of this conflict are swept up in a near constant stream of action sequences, near misses and explosions, and much of the film is simply people running through bombed out villages in desperation. Croatian actor Rade Serbdzija (Boris The Blade from Snatch) makes good use of a Russian general role, somewhat of a villain but the film actually pauses later to give him a modicum of an ad, which he handles nicely. Val Kilmer and his Aslan mane of hair show up too in a sly, over advertised cameo as another photographer who helps them out briefly, and then disappears from the film. Elsewhere Andy Garcia laments the situation as the Russian president, grilled by the press about his actions, or lack thereof, in the struggle. In terms of story and narrative cohesion it’s all over the place. One aspect it handles well though is keeping the kinetic energy alive during the war scenes, they are extremely well shot and designed on a big scale to raise pulses. Average flick that could have done with a bit more structure and thought put into the script.

-Nate Hill

Behind Enemy Lines

I’ve always enjoyed Behind Enemy Lines, a hyperactive, simple minded, highly kinetic Owen Wilson/Gene Hackman war survival flick. It’s lowbrow, full of plot holes and questionable in terms of representing both the military and the Serbian/Bosnian war, but it’s also explosive, jacked up fun that packs a visual and auditory wallop. Wilson is an Air Force pilot who goes awol after a crash, and runs afoul of some Serbian radicals running a sickening genocide operation somewhere out there, while Hackman is the fiery Admiral tasked with coaching him back to an elusive drop point, and helping him avoid obstacles along the way. In pursuit is a nasty rogue general (Olek Krupa), who wants to snuff him out as he’s witnessed the man’s squadron murder his copilot (Gabriel Macht), and also just because he’s the classic stock villain and has nothing better to do. His top assassin (Vladimir Mashkov, almost identical to Niko Bellik of Grand Theft Auto 4) is an Eastern European Bear Grylls with homemade grenades and the pain tolerance of a tank, also chasing poor Wilson. It’s fairly implausible, but oh so cinematic and one I often put on just to work out the sound system of my tv. Crazy souped up editing, jagged freeze frame effects and whatnot ensue, it’s cool and kind of like Tony Scott Lite in a way. Hackman could yell out any dialogue and be convincing, owning yet another role, especially in a scene where he has a wicked shouting match with an A-hole of a UN General (Joaquim De Almeida firing on all cylinders and then some). David Keith has a great bit as another Admiral assisting in Wilson’s plight too. It’s suspenseful, doesn’t take itself too seriously and shouldn’t be subject to too much scrutiny, lest you rob yourself of a pleasurable genre viewing experience. Plus the sequence where Wilson hides in a freaky, mud filled mass grave has stuck with me for years. Good stuff, man.

-Nate Hill

One Man’s Hero


One Man’s Hero takes place during a conflict that doesn’t get all that much coverage in Hollywood, the Mexican American war. With a sweeping Patriot-esque vibe and a world weary starring turn turn from Tom Berenger, it’s an affecting tale that whether or not is based on truth, still packs an emotional whallop. Berenger is Riley, an Irish American who leads his mostly immigrant troupes through racial prejudice beset on them by their own American superiors, just one more obstacle thrown in with the already taxing war itself. Defecting from the troops, Riley is commissioned to lead his men on the opposing force, banding together with fiery, disillusioned Mexican revels leader Cortina (Joaquim De Almeida) and fight for acceptance and survival while navigating both sides of the conflict. Although there are a few impressive battle sequences staged here and there, the film is more about the private and personal wars fought amongst the ranks themselves, the notion that one army isn’t always just focused on the task and can get caught up in internal conflict, which often, including in this case, leads to unnecessary tragedy. Berenger and Almeida go at it fiercely in a love hate companionship constantly tested by the war and their mutual affection for beautiful fellow freedom fighter Marta (Daniela Romo). Underrated Patrick Bergin shows up in a severely powdered wig, Stephen Tobolowsky plays yet another one of his loathsome, letcherous roles and the late great James Gammon is the perfect embodiment of crusty yet compassionate General Zachary Taylor. Not a title that crosses many people’s vision when discussing war films, but a really solid effort despite a lower budget, a story that needed to be told and a star turn from Tom to remember. 

-Nate Hill

Dunkirk: Christopher Nolan’s latest is an unforgettable masterpiece – A review by Josh Hains

“We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” – Winston Churchill

Most, of the war films I’ve seen post Saving Private Ryan have been about American soldiers and the battles they’ve fought during World War II, Vietnam, and more recent wars, save for the war sequences of Atonement. It was refreshing to see a World War II film yesterday afternoon that was shown from the perspective of British soldiers, and with the German enemy only shown for just barely a few seconds. It’s a perspective we used to encounter often decades ago that for one reason or another fell to the wayside. Hopefully this masterfully crafted piece of cinema will encourage other directors to widen their landscapes and tell more stories from the British perspective, or perhaps even the French or another allied nation.

By now you have no doubt seen many talking up a storm about this year’s undeniable “masterpiece”, and that it should be a major Oscar contender for Christopher Nolan when the season hits its stride in a few months. I dislike using the word masterpiece to encapsulate all of my positive thoughts about any given movie, and I feel it is quite often improperly attributed toward movies that aren’t actually considered masterpieces some years after they’re released. Film culture has this odd habit of using a wide assortment of colourful, hyperbolic wordage to emphasize how good a movie is during its first couple of weeks in theatres, yet the majority of movies dubbed a masterpiece during Oscar bait season seem to fade into obscurity. But the film being heralded as a masterpiece over the last week, I believe wholeheartedly, will be regarded as such decades from now and for a worthy variety of reasons, but most of all because of the way the imagery lingers within your mind like dirt under your fingernails.

There’s an image I can’t shake no matter how hard I try, of a man looking upon a fire that’s been, for lack of a better word, burned into my mind since the moment my eyes bore witness to it. If I close my eyes, or think of it in my minds eye, I can see it as clearly as if it were happening right in front of me in this very moment. To be honest, I can see nearly the entire movie that clearly, I remember much of it so well having seen it just under a day ago, but it’s images of smaller moments that seem to have been etched into my mind with a hot knife better than others. One would think the more traditionally spectacular moments, of boats exploding and planes being shot down, would stick out in one’s mind the way they always seem to with other war movies, but surprisingly, and refreshingly, that just isn’t the case here. No, I remember the man watching the fire grow as the sun sets, a trio of young men watching a fellow soldier wade suicidally into treacherous waters, a pilot running on fumes while gliding past thousands of men on the beach as they cheer.

Dunkirk is a war film comprised of small moments such as those that, when put together in the form of a complete picture, creates the sensation of a much larger war epic without ever having to actually become one. Yes, it’s a war movie that shows us Christopher Nolan’s perspective on Dunkirk, but it’s not about the war itself, but rather these small moments within the war and the collective struggle of soldiers and common folk affected by the event, and the personal toll the war takes on every soul who had the misfortune of experiencing it.

Much has been made about a lack of a single protagonist for audiences to latch onto and invest themselves in, as if the lack of such a character is a major deprivation for audiences that’ll leave you feeling cold and emotionally detached from the movie. That’s just not true. Dunkirk is about the collective experience of the soldiers and civilians who were a part of this event, and by not choosing a single person to use as our guide through this hellish experience, Nolan allows the audience to feel like they’re right there amongst the soldiers and sailors as planes swoop overhead and bombs periodically detonate with horrific results. No one character is glorified or given the special treatment by Nolan, and thanks to his wise decision to interweave three different perspectives non-linearly together, each and every act of courage or bravery that he focuses on regardless of the immense stakes surrounding them, are treated with equal importance.

I am thankful I am not one of those people who had difficulty following the non-linear presentation of the film. While watching Dunkirk I felt that the non-linear style only amplified the suspense I was feeling, making me clench my fists tighter and my knuckles turn whiter. I enjoyed the sensation of being tossed around from one situation to the next, trying to guess what direction I’d be travelling in until the three interweaving perspectives collide toward films end, and  the pieces come together perfectly like a puzzle.

The opening scene of soldiers including young Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) running down a street trying desperately to escape enemy gunfire before finding the mole of Dunkirk harbour where Commander Bolton observes the chaotic situation while soldiers like Tommy repeatedly try to escape the clutches of the beach over the course of a week, sets the tone of the movie immediately: frantic, intense, terrifying, sudden. We spend a day upon the Sea where Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter ( Tom Glynn-Carney) and their young deckhand George (Barry Keoghan) pluck soldiers like the Shivering Soldier (Cillian Murphy, and yes, that’s what he’s called in the credits) and the RAF pilot Collins (Jack Lowden) from the depths of the icy waters. Then there’s an hour in the Air where Farrier (Tom Hardy) chases down German Messerschmitt planes in his Spitfire, halting most of their attempts to bomb boats.

I’m also thankful I heard every line of dialogue crystal clear, well enough to accurately identify Michael Caine as a radio communicator for the Royale Air Force. Admittedly, I heard the explosions and gunfire so loudly I jumped a few times when the overwhelming sound caught me off guard. Many continue to emphasize the need to see this film in 70mm IMAX, but I believe that regardless of what format you choose, it’s the experience of seeing Dunkirk theatrically that is necessary, and perhaps not so much the format, though it helps if the screen you’re looking at is bigger than most. As great as our surround sound has gotten for use in our homes, nothing will ever compare to seeing this film on the biggest screen you can find. When the sound of a Messerschmitt comes roaring from behind you, then almost sounds like it’s passed overhead before screaming way out in front of you, it genuinely feels like the closest thing to actually being there that any of us will ever encounter, and it’s absolutely terrifying. When soldiers are forced into the water, typically in fleeing from a sinking vessel, you can almost feel, smell, and taste the frigid waters. And when bombs are dropped and gunfire erupts, both at near deafening decibels, you can’t help but tense up as if one of the bombs or bullets might collide with you. It’s an immersive experience you really need to experience for yourself to believe and understand the full extent of.

The actual images of the film are less terrifying than the sounds of explosions and machine gun fire, in part because Nolan leaves the film devoid of blood beyond a few cuts and scrapes, a decision that had even myself second guessing how he might make this work. Once you understand that Dunkirk is a psychological war film that asks you to ponder what you’re watching rather than simply bombard you with heaps of exposition and gory carnage aplenty, you realize there really is no need for an R rating for this picture. Dunkirk is just an hour and 46 minutes long, lean and devoid of unnecessary fats comprised of character beats, long and frequent exposition dumps, and bloody war horrors, and all the better for it. This film didn’t need to be longer or shorter than it is.

I don’t have any qualms with Dunkirk at this juncture (the qualms others have encountered I don’t have), and while I love everything I saw in the film and greatly admire the ensemble cast’s performances, from Fionn Whitehead to Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, and others and the scenes they all inhabit, it was the perspective titled The Air I felt the deepest investment in. That’s not a knock against the other scenes, I just found The Air more hypnotic than anything else in the film, mostly due to the truly stunning cinematography from Hoyte van Hoytema (seriously, every frame of this film is gorgeous and should be framed and hung in a museum), and Tom Hardy’s near silent performance (he has maybe 10 lines of dialogue in total). It didn’t occur to me until today that after a certain point in the film, Tom Hardy’s Farrier never speaks again. That Hardy conveys outwardly and through his eyes (because he wears yet another mask in Dunkirk) everything Farrier is thinking in the moment is in itself is quite the accomplishment, and only goes to show just how great an actor Hardy has become. That his scenes are the most riveting and awe inducing sweetens the deal.

The first thing my mind floats to when I think about Dunkirk is still the image of a man watching the fire grow on the beach, as clear as if it happened just a moment ago. The sky turning charcoal, the flames glowing against the sands and his face, his stern expression showing accomplishment and sacrifice in the same breath, the wind snapping against his skin and tossing his hair, his story coming to an end moments before the film does. I know I’ll see Dunkirk many more times, but if I only saw it just once, I’m willing to bet I’d remember that image for the rest of my life.