Category Archives: War

The Water Diviner (2014) – Crowe’s first directing gig is a big, soppy, enjoyable mess…


TheWaterDivinerPic#22“Russell Crowe’s The Water Diviner is corny and ambitious, flirting with the epic while teetering on the brink of TV movie melodrama. Crowe directs his first film like a man worried that he might never get the chance again, painting a war drama, historical adventure and cross-culture romance with urgent, chunky brushstrokes. He also draws the most Russell Crowe-like performance since Gladiator from his leading man, Russell Crowe…” Read the full review here (opens in separate tab.)

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Marketa Lazarová (1967) – Cinephiles will get their rocks off to Vláčil’s Bohemian rhapsody…


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“There’s a little seen film called The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey, where some English miners from the Middle Ages tunnel through the earth and emerge in modern day New Zealand. Watching Marketa Lazarová feels a bit like that in reverse – you leave your comfortable 21st century life behind for a few hours and pop up in medieval Bohemia.

Director František Vláčil spent around two years filming on location, which meant his cast and crew were afforded barely much more luxury than the story’s characters. Few films have such a feeling of history – not in the studious sense of dates and places, but of deep dark waters of time rolling beneath the keel of the present day’s unsteady ship. Few films also match Marketa Lazarová‘s dazzling visuals with such authentic production values, so while the virtuosity of Vláčil’s film making often distracts from the story, the credibility of its setting is never in doubt.” Read the full review here (opens in a seperate tab)

The Fog of War (2003) – Reason has its limits…


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History was always dull at school. Boring men in brown suits in musty classrooms full of brown books that no-one ever read, droning on about the bloody Nazis. Now I look back at it, I think: how do you fuck up teaching something like World War II? With the right teacher, history could be the most exciting subject ever! When you synopsize WWII, it sounds like the most thrilling blockbuster imaginable, full of massive battles, daring escapes and featuring some of the worst bad guys in history. That stuff should just teach itself!

Now the great and terrible 20th Century recedes into history, and it’s left up to us to assess it  and try not to make the same mistakes. Luckily we have documentaries like The Fog of War to help us understand some of the key events, Errol Morris’ tricky, morally complex portrait of a man whose life was irrevocably entwined with war and death.

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Closely Watched Trains (Ostře sledované vlaky) – 1966 – Man up & Fight the Nazis!


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“Jiří Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains (Ostře sledované vlaky) is arguably one of the best known Czech films beyond the country’s borders, having won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1968.

Adapted from Bohumil Hrabal’s slender novel, it was the first Czech movie I saw, long before I emigrated to Brno, and on first viewing I couldn’t help but notice a basic similarity to an old British sitcom, On the Buses…” Click here for the full review (opens in a seperate tab.)

Amateur Dramatics + Genocide = The Act of Killing (2012)


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Joshua Oppenheimer’s astonishing The Act of Killing was voted many critic’s top film of 2013. It is a documentary quite unlike anything made before – the film maker tracked down surviving members of Indonesian death squads from the Sixties, and persuaded them to re-enact the murders they committed. Instead of the usual mixture of talking heads and archive footage, however, Oppenheimer encourages them to make their own film, and replay the crimes in the style of their favourite movies – gangster, cowboy, musical, etc.

Over the past year I’ve watched loads of documentaries, and have come to the conclusion that documentary film makers are among the most egotistical. I can handle a certain degree of arrogance, because I think if you are an artist, then how can you expect the audience to be interested in your work if you don’t believe in yourself and what you have to say?

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Casablanca (1942) – Everyone comes to Rick’s…


Casablanca, shit.  It’s always a daunting prospect reviewing an established classic, a movie so globally loved and revered.  Written about countless times before, do you attempt to approach it from a fresh angle, or just soldier on and attempt to do it justice?

The British Film Institute (BFI) recently made headlines with the announcement that Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo had finally usurped Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane as the number one film of all time.  Casablanca didn’t make the top Fifty.

The key word here is Film.  Film suggests something set in celluloid, an art form to examine and revere from a scholarly distance, whereas the term Movie suggests a cinematic experience we get up close and personal to, something that Moves us.

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Holiday Classics: The Great Escape (1963)


It was raining in London for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.  It was also raining in Brno, Czech Republic for our long, long jubilee weekend, so I reached for The Great Escape.

The Great Escape is a holiday tradition in the UK, although it is more associated with Boxing Day.  In the old days, when we only had four terrestrial TV channels, The Great Escape seemed to be on every Boxing Day.  The kids played with their new toys, the women chatted and the men retreated to the living room to watch Preston Sturges’ rousing POW escape drama.

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Tropic Thunder (2008) – Get Some!


Tropic Thunder starts off in your face, and spends the next two hours blaring and honking, tooting and parping, like the world’s biggest, most expensive, attention seeking one man band.  The man with the cymbals and the washboard is Ben Stiller, and he plays his assorted instruments as loudly and enthusiastically as possible.  Tropic Thunder is never less than entertaining.

The jokes are obvious, the music choices are cliched, and the satire is broad, but Tropic Thunder also possesses a manic energy, powered by three monstrous comic performances. Robert Downey Jr picked up the plaudits and the nominations, but Tom Cruise’s demented turn as a brimstone-spitting movie mogul is just as memorable.

Stiller deserves credit for starting off offensive and having the courage to stick with it, and mounting a Hollywood satire with a Hollywood blockbuster budget.  Satires about the movie making industry are ten a penny, but few come with a $90 million price tag.

Tropic Thunder follows the disastrous adaptation of an acclaimed memoir by a Vietnam Vet, “Four Leaf” Tayback (Nick Nolte), who lost his hands saving his comrades in battle.

The bloated production is stuffed with assorted Hollywood types.  There is the over-the-hill action star, Tugg Speedman (Stiller), sniffing out another hit after his creaking franchise, Scorcher, left audiences cold, and his ill-advised stab at credibility, Simple Jack, is regarded as the worst film ever made.

Also onboard and striving for credibility is Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), a drug addicted bad boy famous for a string of fart-based comedies; and rapper Alpa Chino (Brandon T Jackson), fresh from a lucrative endorsement of “Booty Sweat” energy drink and trying to go legit in the movies.

Contrasting sharply with Speedman and the others is Kirk Lazarus, five time Academy Award winner, an actor so method he undergoes surgery to darken his skin to portray African American Sgt. Lincoln Osiris.  So method, in fact, he stays in character all the time and doesn’t emerge until after he’s done the commentary on the DVD.

The warring egos cause trouble on the location shoot, and rookie director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) is unable to control his cast.  The chaos on set causes the cameras to miss a $4 million explosion, attracting the attention of the movie media, reporting the production as over budget and a month over schedule after only five days.

Studio Boss Les Grossman (Tom Cruise) is furious, and threatens to pull the plug unless Cockburn can control his stars.  Cockburn follows Four Leaf’s suggestion, dropping the prima donnas in the middle of the jungle and rigging cameras along their route, and use pyrotechnics to elicit a realistic performance.

Things don’t go quite to plan – the crew attract the attention of a local gang of druglords, who mistake the heavily armed Americans as the DEA.  Soon Speedman and crew find themselves in very real danger…

The idea of pampered actors finding themselves in peril without realizing it isn’t exactly original – Three Amigos! and Galaxy Quest – and Tropic Thunder, seemingly conscious of this, takes a little while to get rolling.  Stiller seems to try covering up the unoriginality with a lot of shouting, noise and swearing.

Once the gang finally realize they’re in trouble the film finds the right gear.  The cast warm to their characters and Tropic Thunder actually becomes an effective action movie in its own right, as Lazarus and the remaining actors break into the cartel’s base to rescue the others.

The satire is broad, but packs a mighty punch.  The film attracted the wrath of disability advocacy groups in the States, objecting to the repeated use of the word “Retard”.  In one of the film’s most memorable moments of dialogue, Lazarus explains to Speedman the fatal mistake he made in Simple Jack, of going “Full Retard”.

If anything, the disability advocacy groups should celebrate Tropic Thunder & Simple Jack for naming and shaming high profile actors who use disability as a surefire shot at another trophy in their cabinet.  The joke is not on people with disabilities, it is on high profile public figures who use people’s disabilities as an easy win.  Dustin Hoffman, Peter Sellers and Tom Hanks are all name checked, but poor old Sean Penn – “…2001, I Am Sam…went full retard, went home empty handed…”

Eyebrows were inevitably raised about Downey Jr’s character going “Blackface”, but once again, the joke is not on black people.  The joke is on a character so shameless and so wrapped up in “Method” methodology he believes that he can be Black by being black.

Downey Jr’s jive talking Lazarus/Osiris is the film’s outstanding performance, as layered as it is.  What is happening in Lazarus’ head?  He is so in character, he doesn’t back down from racial stereotypes even when called by the real African-American on set.

Downey Jr is almost trumped by Tom Cruise’s grotesque cameo as Les Grossmann.  Demonic studio bosses have been done many times before, but you have to think back to Michael Lerner in Barton Fink to find one this fickle, ferocious and slimy.  Who knew Tom Cruise had a sense of humour?

Stiller, who has made a career of portraying angry little men with huge egos, is more likeable here than he has been for quite a few years now, and generously lets Downey Jr grab all the plaudits with the flashier role.  Stiller puts in some good work here though, and draws considerable sympathy.  And of course, there’s his deliberately excruciating moments as Simple Jack.

Of the cast’s big names, Jack Black is the most disappointing.  His Portnoy is a jarringly one note, mean-spirited performance, as the meaty wild child spends the whole movie screaming and shouting through cold turkey in the jungle.

Nick Nolte is predictably gruff and grizzled as Four Leaf, the vietnam vet whose experience of the war may not have been as grueling as he described in his book.  In a neat cameo, Matthew McConaughey is convincingly slick as Speedman’s shallow, materialistic but ultimately loyal agent, Rick Peck.

The film has the look and feel of a glossy Hollywood blockbuster, although some of the music choices are rather familiar.  This may be a deliberate choice – if movies have taught us anything, it’s that guys riding in helicopters loved listening to the Rolling Stones & Buffalo Springfield while machine-gunning “gooks”.

Tropic Thunder is worth catching on the small screen for some tasty comic performances and some juicy, controversy-baiting dialogue.  Sure to develop a separate cult following away from the big screen.

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