Neil Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto (2005) A Really Different Look at The Troubles

Taking into consideration that the definition of war is  “armed conflict between hostile parties, nations or countries” it is fair to include Breakfast on Pluto or any other movie dealing either with The Troubles, the IRA, Terrorism and similar things in a blog dedicated to war movies.

A while back I reviewed Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins, and an other outstanding movie on the Irish Civil war and war of Independence, The Wind that Shakes the Barley (also starring the stunning Cillian Murphy), and I did also review Bloody Sunday. Each of these movies tells about another era in this long-lasting conflict between Ireland and the UK.

Breakfast on Pluto is not only a highly original variation on the theme of The Troubles, Northern Ireland and the IRA but also one actors tour de force.

Patrick Kitten Braiden (Cillian Murphy) is not exactly like other boys. Left as a baby by his single mother on the doorsteps of a church, he is given to a foster family who can’t handle him. Already the very young Patrick is not interested in boy’s things or clothes. He likes to dress like a girl, uses make-up and lives in a fantasy world where he is either a famous film star or meets his mother who lives a glamorous life in London.

Small-minded Irish small town life of the 70s isn’t an ideal place for a young man with gender issues. Despite being an outsider, his charming likable nature provides him with friends, still it is obvious he doesn’t want to stay in Ireland. He wants to go to London and find his mother.

Some of the group of friends he hangs out with are politically active and join the IRA. Kitten isn’t exactly interested in politics, at least not conscioulsy, but he wants change. He wants to express himself freely and be accepted the way he is.

After a huge fight with his foster family he leaves the small town and travels around. He is picked up by some Irish Glitter Rock Band and tours with them in their bus through Northern Ireland. But wherever he goes, people seem to be involved with the IRA  and through his naivety he gets himself into a lot of trouble and finally departs to London.

He lives under the illusion that once in London he will magically bump into his mother.

Regarding the IRA, things haven’t changed in London, Kitten still seems to be always somehow at the heart of things. The big difference however is that this time, he doesn’t see the angry hostile presence of British soldiers but the mayhem created by a terrorist attack. Being the only Irish present in the club that is blown up, he is arrested.

The adventures of cross-dressing Kitten, his tribulations and struggles to find his mother are told in a charming, funny and quirky way. Breakfast on Pluto manages to tell the story of The Troubles seen from a completely different angle. Cillian Murphy as the unworldly, gentle Kitten is really astonishing. To a certain extent Kitten reminded me of Birdy. Like Birdy the movie Breakfast on Pluto is also a really touching tale of friendship and a call for tolerance.

Maybe not your average war movie, but well worth watching. I really enjoyed it. The music is also very well chosen.

I owe thanks to Novroz from Polychrome Interest who introduced me to this movie. If you are interested in Cillian Murphy’s other movies, go visit her website. She is a true “Cillianiac”.

Why Saving Private Ryan (1998) is not in my Top 10 of Favourite War Movies but in my Top 5 of most Influential War Movies

I have seen Saving Private Ryan for the first time in cinema when in came out. At the time it was like a fist in the gut. The Omaha Beach landing was nothing I had ever seen before and this was very probably the beginning of my fascination with war movies. Since then I have seen many more but when I ended up doing my Top 10 it wasn’t in it. I watched it again, like it a lot but didn’t want to add it to the list. Still it is important to say in advance, no matter what my personal reasons are,  the genre has been marked by Saving Private Ryan to a very large extent. There really is a time before and a time after Saving Private Ryan. Especially when it comes to WWII movies. The depiction of war has fundamentally changed with and through Saving Private Ryan. Never before did those who watched get the feeling they were in the battle like in Saving Private Ryan. Therefore, if I should make a Top 10 of most influential War Films, Saving Private Ryan would even be among the top 5.

I guess the second viewing was a distracted so I felt I had to re-watch it. I am sorry to say but this third viewing has made it clear to me. Saving Private Ryan is never going to be among my top ten unless I would have to choose movie scenes. It has some of the very best scenes that you can find in any war movie but unfortunately it has way too many really corny moments. As a matter of fact I hadn’t even remembered such a lot of corny moments. Maybe that is why I love Band of Brothers which is certainly the closest you can get to Saving Private Ryan. To me this is like a purified version of it. But still, it is excellent.

For those who have never watched it I’ll summarize the story. An old man stands at the grave of someone and looks back on his life. Rewind some 50 years. D-Day. We are in the middle of the Omaha Beach landing. Horrible scenes are shown. All filmed with a shaky hand-held camera to heighten the authentic feel. People’s guts spilling out. Bodies ripped apart. Heads blown off. Arms ripped out. Men crying, screaming and praying until the worst is over, the noise dies down and the only thing that stays is a beach full of dead bodies and body parts. After this horror Capt. Miller gets a new assignment. We will follow him and his group well into France and behind enemy lines. He has to look for one James Francis Ryan. All three of his brothers were killed in action so people in Washington decided to get him out and back to the States. The group around Capt. Miller are reluctant to go on such a seemingly futile mission. They don’t understand why they have to endanger their lives for the sake of one soldier. This is a very tight-knit group of soldiers and that is part of the appeal of this movie. The sense of camaraderie and friendship has rarely been depicted this touchingly. There are very moving moments especially between Miller and Horvath. There is one in which they talk to each other in an empty church at night. Their closeness is palpable. Strangely it almost makes you want to be there. There are much more tragic moments however. One after the other of the men gets killed until they find James Ryan. When finally discovering him they face the biggest problem. He doesn’t want to leave. He feels he owes it to his comrades to stay. His highly decimated group must defend a bridge against a majority of Germans. This is one of the many famous bridge scenes that we encounter in war movies. Bridges being strategically as relevant as hills, it is a frequent theme. As I don’t know if every reader knows the story I will stop here.

Saving Private Ryan has some of the most memorable war movie characters. I like Capt. Miller as much as Sgt. Horvath, the Privates Reiben, Jackson, Caparzo and Mellish and of course the Medic Wade. As we follow the little group for a long time we get to know them very well. It has also one of the most annoying war movie characters in it. Upham is a revolting person. And there is of course a very mean German. In any case, kudos to the actors. Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Matt Damon.

Saving Private Ryan is infantry combat at its best. A lot of intense fighting. Incredible settings. Unfortunately it has moments that are way too sentimental for my taste. I will always prefer Band of Brothers.

Now it’s your turn to rank it. 1. In your Top Favourite List 2. In a Best of List and  3. Most Influential ones.

Another of my posts on Saving Private Ryan: Mean Old Private Ryan

Overlord: An Overlooked War Movie Masterpiece

The British war movie  Overlord is one of the most original and best war movies I have ever seen.  Since its coming out in 1975 it has mostly been forgotten although it was highly accalimed at the time.  That it is  widely unknown today  is really a pity. It is quite a simple movie, very short as well, only some 70 minutes, but it touches you like not many other. Overlord tells in a very personal way the story of a young man, Tom Beddows, who is going to war. He goes to boot camp, meets a young girl and knows he will be part of a big offensive that will send him to France. He will be part of Operation Overlord which  was the codename of  the invasion of Normandy by the Allied forces in WWII on June 6 1944 ( better known as D-Day). Tom doesn´t really want to be where he is but eventually gets accustomed to his new environment and the idea of going into battle. All through the movie he has dreams where he sees himself dying and he is quite convinced he wont return. Finally we see him being shipped out together with his comrades who are all  afraid of what awaits them.

As such this may not seem very special but the way this is done is just great. The movie was filmed in black and white and the story of  Tom Beddows is interwoven with original footage of bombed cities, planes, bombed trains, the landing itself and many other elements. This is done so well that the alternating parts blend into each other as if they were one movie.

Since it focuses so closely on one person (with just a few exceptions) it is very intimate. You get the feeling that this is not just anyone going to war but a young guy you might know and like since Tom is  gentle and  endearing.

All the original footage, that is very well-chosen, is by far more convincing than many CGI or reenactment parts of other movies.

It’s a perfect little movie that would probably even be appreciated by people who would normally never watch a war movie. Should you ever want to convince someone that the genre deserves its appreciation Overlord could be your choice to prove it.

It might also be great as a way to teach WWII in schools as there is no gratuitous violence.

Hart´s War (2002): A Dubious POW Legal Melodrama

There are numerous movies I could have watched while lying in bed with a cold the other day. I have a big “soon-to-be-watched” DVD pile and choice is far from scarce. There are many war movies and – believe it or not – a lot of non war movies to choose from. I didn’t really feel like watching anything too heavy so Hart’s War seemed like a good option.

It actually still seemed like a very good option more than half an hour into the movie but then it started to dawn on me that this was one of those hybrid movies, that are neither this, nor that nor anything else. Yeah well, seems as if disappointment is the daughter of bad choice and false expectations.

To cut a long story short: it was not my cup of tea. Although I appreciate the subgenre of the legal drama, this came across as a pseudo legal drama that I found less than convincing.

One good thing: Hart´s War is another movie that can be added to the small list of WWII movies with African American soldiers in it (see my post on African American Soldiers in War Movies).

Apart from that, you watch it and forget it and think: Too bad it could have been good if… If what?

What’s the story? A young law student, Lt. Hart (Colin Farrell), get’s captured by a German patrol while driving someone through the woods and ends up as POW after having been tortured before  giving away some information. The highest ranking officer among the prisoners in the camp, Col McNamara (Bruce Willis) immediately dislikes him as he despises him for lying about the fact that he has collapsed after a few short days under torture. As a sort of punishment he is not allowed to stay in the barracks with the other higher ranking officers but must join the barracks of the privates and the lower ranks.

This does not work out too bad until the day two black American pilots (Terrence Howard and Vicellous Reon Shannon), two of the Tuskegee Men in fact, appear and things get nasty. Full-blown racism hits them. Hatred and aggression follow until one is executed and the other one falsely accused of the murder of a white soldier.

Even though he has only been a second year law student before the war, Hart gets appointed as the defence attorney but after a while it gets clear that it is all a sham. Secret things are happening that need a cover-up. I found the justification of what is happening morally dubious. The end does not always justify the means.

The rest of the movie is a pathetic illustration of pride, honour and glory. Highly melodramatic.

The two black actors are good, Colin Farrell is quite all right but Bruce Willis is a parody of himself. Or maybe he had something in his eye. The height of his acting seemed to consist of standing there with one eye half closed and trying to look super imposing. (Just to make things clear, I do normally like Bruce Willis.)

Meaningless pseudo-court-drama with a melodramatic ending. 2.5/5 points (2.5 points are for cinematography, choice of the topic racism in the military… Forget the rest).

Hope and Glory (1987): Seeing War with the Eyes of a Child

Hope and Glory is such a lyrical and beautiful movie. A rare gift of total enchantment. Like a perfect summer day.

Bill is only 9-year-old at the beginning of WWII. He is the only boy in a house full of women as his father has joined the forces. For him and his little sister the war is a great adventure. They don´t really understand the dangers. Bill collects shrapnel and plays with other boys in the ruins of the houses in his street in a suburb of London. At night they run for cover from the constant bombing. When their house burns down, his mother takes them to the country where her parents own a splendid stately home on a lake. The children enjoy idyllic  summer holidays. They  go fishing with their grumpy grandfather or play cricket. Their mother´s sisters join them, as do other family members. At the end of summer the war holds a special surprise for them. Their school has been bombed. It is easy to understand what joy this bears.

Hope and Glory is also a look back at a lost world where families were much closer, where life, despite the hardships and the war seemed somehow better than today. And of course it does remind us of our own childhood that often with hindsight seems like a lost paradise with little daily worries. Still the depiction of the war is very realistic. For us with our grown-up´s eyes there is no mistaking it for a joyride.

The Brylcreem Boys (1998): A WWII Comedy, Drama and Romance in Ireland

The least I can say about this movie is that it is total fun. I did certainly never expect to laugh during a POW movie but that actually happened repeatedly. Admittedly it is not the most refined humor, it’s rather of the burlesque, slapstick kind. But it is never overdone. The movie is just sprinkled with it here and there. The overall tone is often quite serious. Still it is one of the very rare movies you could probably watch with  children (although planes and people get shot down at the beginning and there is some fist fighting as well).

Ireland having lost many of its young men during the Civil War had decided to stay strictly neutral during WWII. This was not much appreciated by the allies. Unlike Switzerland Ireland insisted that every soldier encountered on Irish soil was to be taken prisoner. What was not universally known however was the fact that they put all the prisoners, French, British, American, Canadian and German into the same camp.

The Brylcreem Boys is not based on a true story but on true facts that have been carefully assembled and put together to tell a convincing story. Two fighter pilots, the Canadian Miles Keogh  (Bill Campbell) and the German Rudolph von Stegenbeck (Angus Macfadyen),  shoot each other down over Ireland and are both taken prisoners and brought to the same camp. While on leave they  fall in love with the same girl, the strong-willed Mattie (Jean Butler),  which adds a bit of romance to the whole story. Their rivalry and mutual dislike is very intense in the beginning but over the course of the movie and during many incidents they realize that they are not that different despite being on different sides.

Much of the funny elements of the movie stem from contrasting the Germans and their rigid discipline and total lack of sense of humour with the  more easy-going other prisoners. (Unfortunately there aren’t any German actors in the movie and some of the accents that the cast adopted are a bit laughable.)

Even though they are far away from the war itself, one of the prisoners sort of brings it back with him when he returns from London from his futile attempt at escaping the camp.  His account from his stay in the British capital makes the tragedy of the constant bombing during the Blitz  utterly palpable.

I am a big fan of the Irish actor Gabriel Byrne whose character is the commanding officer of the camp. He also co-produced this movie. Seeing how much fun he exudes playing this role one can easily assume that this was a movie that was very close to his heart.

I am very glad the directors felt compelled to tell this story of this quite exotic camp. It provides an interesting insight into Irish history for which I am glad.

Since this is really a feel good movie but far from being stupid entertainment you might really  enjoy watching it.

The Pacific versus Band of Brothers: Should we compare?

I finally got to watch the last episode of The Pacific. Even though I had an entry on it a while back I didn´t feel like writing about it before I had seen the whole series. It proved to be  a good decision since I couldn´t really appreciate it at first. I couldn´t help myself, like so many others, and compare it constantly to Band of Brothers. Apart from being a HBO miniseries produced by Spielberg and Tom Hanks, opening with men who were there talking about their experiences, those two series have nothing in common. Sure they both show a lot of very intense and gruesome infantry combat scenes but that is that.

Band of Brothers, as the title eloquently indicates, was about a close-knit group of men, one Army Infantry Company. This is not the case in The Pacific. The Pacific focuses on three main characters, the three marines Sgt. John Basilone, PFC Robert Leckie and Eugene B. Sledge. The last two wrote books about their experiences. The first episodes focus on Leckie, whereas the last ones tell Eugene aka Sledgehammer´s story. This last detail is based on the fact that Eugene went to war much later than the others. He missed Guadalcanal and Cape Gloucester, one main battle and one major experience of the war in the Pacific.

The mini series shows a lot of off the battle ground episodes. Soldiers on leave in Australia, Leckie´s stay at different hospitals and later we see Sledge back home. Many of this off the battleground parts look at the symptoms of post-traumatic stress of which both Leckie (in a very physical way-peeing himself-) and Sledge (more psychological-he´s depressed and has endless nightmares) suffer intensely.

The series has  many crucial moments. Truly gory battle scenes.  Endless rain on Cape Gloucester that grinds down the morale. The realization that all they learn is “killing Japs”.

There is one key scene, the moment when the two friends Sidney and Sledge meet as one leaves and the other arrives in the Pacific. Sledge wants to know from Sidney how it is to be fighting but he doesn´t get an answer. This is actually a recurring theme in war movies (there is a scene like that in The Deer Hunter and in many others): the inability of those who have experienced it to tell those who are about to experience it what it is like to be in combat. Or maybe it is not so much an inability as a refusal. They have been there, they know it´s no use. You cannot talk about something that is so completely different from anything you imagine. No one who hasn´t been there will ever know what it is like and there are no words to really convey this, nothing that equals the experience. All you have got in the face of the innocent and ignorant is silence. The Pacific shows this very well.

I would like  to point out specifically one further scene. It is related to one of my major points of interest namely Death. In The Pacific we see one of the most touching deaths in the history of war movies. I don´t want to spoil anything so I´m not going to tell you who is dying. What makes this scene so different is the way it is shown. We do not see the actual dying, we hear that the person died and then the corpse is being carried  by some soldiers and transported through the lines of men standing there paying tribute and crying. This is a genuinely heartfelt and sad moment. A display of utter futility.

Something else is very different from Band of Brothers. Even though it was WWII, this wasn´t the same war. This is not about a bunch of soldiers freeing occupied countries and captives. We have no rewarding moments like the one in Band of Brothers when they liberate people in a concentration camp. The war in the Pacific seems much more futile at moments. And senseless. And it lasted longer. The war in Europe was already over, Germany had surrendered but Japan had not. Only after Little Boy and Fat Man did this war stop. This must have been some sort of an anticlimax. By the time those soldiers came home, the whole world had already been celebrating the end of the war. The party was over and they had missed it.

Needless to say that this influences the tone of the movie.

For all these reasons I do not think it is doing The Pacific any justice to compare it to its older brother.  It really has its moments this series.

One last thing needs mentioning though and it is something I did not enjoy much. The Japanese are never ever shown in a positive light. You truly get the impression that they were a bunch of murderous automatons. If anyone wants to see a more honest depiction I suggest you watch Tora Tora Tora (1970) or Letters from Iwo Jima (2006). They both try to and  succeed in doing the Japanese justice.

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