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”.

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Most Memorable Vietnam Vet in War Movies

I actually had a discussion yesterday about this topic. Which is the most memorable Vietnam vet in any movie? De Niro in Taxi Driver? Ron Kovic in Born on the 4th of July? Or even Rambo? The one I prefer is Jacknife. He is the most touching and likable. But I think not necessarily the most memorable. The most memorable for me is de Niro in Taxi Driver. Anyway, I want to hear what you think, which is the most memorable and which one did you like the most?

Here are a few to refresh your memory (and yes, indeed, Robert de Niro is certainly THE Vietnam vet actor)

Robert de Niro in Jacknife

Robert de Niro in Taxi Driver

Robert de Niro in The Deer Hunter

Sylvester Stallone as Rambo: First Blood

Tom Cruise (in one of his best roles) in Born on the 4th of July

Matthew Modine and Nicolas Cage in Birdy

James Cann in Gardens of Stone

Jack Dunne in Heroes

Tom Laughlin in Billy Jack

James Woods in The Visitors

Bruce Willis in In Country

John Lithgow in Distant Thunder

One little confession, I haven’t seen the last four… Did I miss something?

The 15 Most Original War Movies

The question you might ask yourself right away is probably: What is an original war movie? Is Stalingrad original or Black Hawk Down? I would argue, no, they are not. They are great, they are absolute must-sees but they are not original. They consist pretty much of linear story telling. Well filmed but nothing out of the ordinary. What about Enemy at the Gates? Admittedly according to my definition this  almost made it into the list, as it is originally beautiful, but so are others.

Original is about something more than beautiful cinematography, it is something beyond the well-trodden path. Either a different way of telling an old story, a new look at something we saw before, a different way of filming, a genre-blend, an original story etc. After thinking for a very long time about it, I came up with the following fifteen movies that are far from the ordinary. I guess that all these fifteen films are movies that mostly also appeal to cinema lovers in general.

Three Kings (USA, 1999): Taking place during the first Iraq war it is definitely one of the most original movies I have ever seen. The way certain things are filmed is pretty unusual. When someone gets hit by a bullet we follow the bullet on its way inside the body, see how it affects the system and causes gangrene. Quite astonishing. On top of that it is a crazy, fast-paced story. Like a filmed version of a rock song.

Pan’s Labyrinth aka El laberinto del fauno (Spain, 2006): Set during WWII in Franco’s Spain. A genre blend, half fantasy, half war movie. Uses lots of fantastic elements, striking colors. Absolutely different.

Ovelord (UK, 1975): WWII, UK just before D-Day. A very short movie that alternates original footage and filmed bits. Filmed in black and white, it has a very old-fashioned feel. The story is original as well as it focuses on one individual soldier who will be shipped to France. Uses dream sequences, elements of foreboding. Still straightforward storytelling. (see my post Overlord: An Overlooked War Movies masterpiece)

The Thin Red Line (USA, 1998): WWII, The Pacific. This is the most lyrical of all  war movies. Intense pictures, haunting voices in the off meditate about death and dying. It is one of those cases –  you love it or you hate it but can’t deny it is original.

War Requiem (UK, 1989): WWI, France. Silent movie. Visual interpretation of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem based o the life of the poet Siegfried Sassoon. Mixed with original footage that gets more and more gruesome towards the end. The most gruesome original footage that I have every seen. Heavy on symbolism, colors etc. Despite Sean Bean this is definitely not everybody’s cup of tea. (see my post War Requiem; Derek Jarman’s Impressive Interpretation of Benjamin Britten’s Eponymous Requiem)

Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (UK, 1943): Boer war, WWI, WWII. A movie that relies heavily on almost choreography like acting, loads of allusions to British culture. Extremely funny, filmed in brilliant Technicolor. Quite slapsticky at times, reminded me of one or the other Laurel and Hardy at war movies, but undeniably British humor. Two astonishing acting achievements. Deborah Kerr playing three different women and Roger Livesey playing the young, the middle-aged and the old Colonel Blimp. Amazing performances.

The Downfall aka Der Untergang (Germany, 2004). There have been such a lot of movies about Hitler but this concentrates on his very last moment, in the bunker in Berlin. Quite an unusual look. Creepy, spooky, with a fabulous Bruno Ganz in one of his best roles.

300 (USA, 2006): The last fight of the Spartans is original because of the heavy use of CGI, outstanding camera work and graphics. (see my post 300: This is Sparta! )

The Hurt Locker (USA, 2008). Iraq movie. Academy Award Winner. Different in the sense that it focuses on one special task, bomb disposal and one special man who is doing it his way. He goes about his business as if he was a player in some video game. Death-defying. Plus the movie has a thriller feel which is quite unusual for a war movie. At times it feels like Speed goes to Iraq. (see my post A War Movie Gone Thriller: The Hurt Locker)

Birdy (USA, 1984). Post-Vietnam. This is unusual in many ways. Outstanding acting, a story that is far from ordinary and a way to treat post-traumatic stress syndrome like we haven’t seen it often before. (see my post Alan Parker’s Birdy: A Tale of Frienship, War and Being Different)

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (USA, 2008). WWII, Holocaust. Haven’t we all seen a lot of Holocaust movies? This is one that will stay with you. The cinematography is brilliant and the story is haunting. Nobody would expect that ending. The Holocaust seen through the eyes of a child that has no clue what is going on, only sees the signs and interprets them his way, is creepy. (see my post The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas: An Unusual Look at the Holocaust)

Grave of the Fireflies aka Hotaru no Haka (Japan, 1988). Beautiful anime from the Ghibli studios. The sad and moving tale of two kids in WWII Japan, fighting for their survival after the loss of their family. (see my post Grave of the Fireflies: An Anime War Movies)

Waltz with Bashir (Israel, 2008): Israel.  Another animated movie but of an altogether very different kind. This looks more like a woodcut. Interesting take at the Lebanon war.

Apocalypse Now (USA, 1979). Considered by many to be one of the best war movies there is, it is also very original as it doesn’t show the Vietnam war as it was, instead more like a hallucinatory re-telling of The Heart of Darkness set during the Vietnam war. Using Wagner’s Valkyrie and The End by the Doors further underlines it’s aiming at being something different. Whether you like it or not, it is very original.

Full Metal Jacket (USA, 1987). This is a highly original movie as it creates images that will burn themselves into your memory. Visually one of the most powerful movies. Plus it tells two stories. Boot camp and street fight. This last element is also quite original as Vietnam movies mostly portay combat in the jungle. Plus the Vietnamese sniper…

Have I forgotten any and if so, why should they be included?

Alan Parker’s Birdy (1984) A Tale of Friendship, War and Being Different

What took me so long to watch this astonishing movie? For odd reasons it is hardly on any war movie list, not even in Russell’s book on Vietnam movies although he included Forrest Gump. Maybe because Birdy is so much more than just a Vietnam vet movie?  I don’t know. I urge anyone who likes movies that are not ordinary to watch Birdy. Birdy has a lot to offer. A beautiful story, a powerful anti-war statement, a tale on friendship, an exploration of madness, a character sturdy of a non-conformist and two famous actors, Nicolas Cage and Matthew Modine at their very best. I truly liked every minute of it.

Birdy is based on the novel by William Wharton. It tells the story of two friends Al and Birdy who meet each other when they are still children. In flashbacks we see their teenage years in Philly and how, despite being total opposites, they become best friends. Birdy is an outsider. He hardly talks to anyone but he opens up to Al. Birdy is more interested in birds and flying than in other things, unlike Al who wants to meet girls and have fun.

They have all sorts of adventures together, from raising carrier pigeons to rescuing stray dogs and some aborted attempts at flying.

But this is the past. The present is quite a different one. Both young men did enlist when the war started. While Al comes back injured and scarred for life, Birdy is said to have gone missing for a month. When they find him he is catatonic. He is brought to a mental asylum where he mostly sits on the floor in bird-like positions. He has to be fed and hardly moves.

The psychiatrist sends for Al hoping he will get through to his friend and they will be able to heal together. Even though his scars seems to be more on the outside, it is obvious, Al is not less psychologically wounded.

The story is told in flashbacks. Step by step Al struggles to reach Birdy. He fights for his friend, their friendship and his own survival.

Of course we wonder during the movie if Birdy became that way because he was already a bit crazy to start with but Al, a seemingly healthy young man, does also come back “crazy” and we soon realize this label is by far too narrow.

Birdy reminded me a bit of Big Fish. This gentle tale of two wounded soldiers would appeal to many people who never watch war movies as well as to those who do. The score has been written by Peter Gabriel which was one of the reasons the movie was quite successful when it came out. 5/5