The Haunted Airman (2006) BBC TV Drama

The Haunted Airman, starring Julian Sands, Robert Pattison and Rachel Stirling is a 70 minutes BBC TV production based on a novel by Dennis Wheatley (The Haunting of Toby Jugg). I thought it was a great choice for this time of the year as it is quite eerie; a mix between psychological drama and horror story.

A young RAF bomber pilot is shot down. His wounds are considerable and he becomes a paraplegic in a wheel chair. His aunt Julia, a widow, decides to bring him to an asylum where the mysterious Dr. Hal Burns treats soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder. The asylum is located in one of those huge English country houses.

Toby suffers from different symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Nightmares, hallucinations, visions, phobias. He sees burning cities and dead civilians, relives the night in which he is shot down, imagines being attacked by giant spiders.

Julia is his aunt by marriage. She is gentle and beautiful and Toby is clearly very much in love with her and dreams of marrying her. He writes to her frequently but she never replies. One day he finds out that the sinister doctor has kept back all the letters.

From then on tragic and dramatic things happen. The end is a bit weird and mysterious.

I didn’t mind watching this, it had a gothic, haunted house feel, the images were quite beautiful and Pattison and Sands act quite well. Still, I didn’t really know what to make of it all and didn’t get the end. I went to IMDb and saw that the reviews were extremely mixed. Either 8-10 or 1-2 stars.

I’d say it’s a movie you either love or hate. Being a Robert Pattison fan would certainly influence the reaction.

I don’t like rating movies this much, but in this case, I’ll try to. I’d give it 4 stars for the actors and the cinematography and 1.5 stars for the story. Whether it is OK to turn PTSD into entertainment…

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Triage (2009)

“It’s complicated to be a survivor. Sometimes you have to place your faith in magic.”

Triage is a movie by Danis Tanovic, the director of No Man’s Land, another really great war movie. It is based on the eponymous novel by Scott Anderson.

What happened to Mark (Colin Farrell) in Kurdistan? He and his best friend David, both war photojournalist who have covered many wars, have flown to Kurdistan together in 1988. They want to cover an offensive that will take place in a few weeks. While they are there, they stay at a forlorn mountain clinic and watch how the doctor (Branko Djuric), at the end of his wits, with nothing else to do for the badly wounded, shoots them one by one. This affects Mark deeply. Later when he is back home he will still see the pictures of the tiny colored slips the doctors puts on the men. The color indicates how far gone they are and if he will have to shoot them or not. It’s part of the triage.

David’s wife is pregnant. The baby is due any day and he would like to go back. But Mark never wants to stop. There is always something more to cover, other shots to take. They quarrel and David finally decides to leave Mark and return on his own.

This is told in flash backs and it isn’t how the movie begins, the movie begins with a badly wounded Mark slowly regaining consciousness. He is at the mountain clinic. They found him near a river. He has no clue what happened to him. After he has recovered he returns home and finds out that David has still not arrived.

Mark’s wife Elena (Paz Vega) is quite shocked to see him in such bad shape and covered in wounds. Plus he is limping and the limp gets worse until he collapses one day. He is brought to a hospital and they find a piece of shrapnel in his head. Only that has nothing to do with the limp. Elena begs her grandfather, a Spanish psychologist, to come and help David. Together, they will reveal, bit by bit, what has happened to Mark and why David isn’t home yet.

I liked this movie a lot. I found the cast very interesting. Colin Farrell is astonishingly good in the role of a traumatized man who is afraid to find out the truth. Paz Vega in the role of his Spanish wife is very well chosen too but the most astonishing part is played by Christopher Lee as Elena’s grandfather. A really great role.

The movie has a lot to say about photojournalists who cover wars. The way, they always maintain a certain distance with the help of the camera. That’s a reason, the movie argues, why so many get shot. They simply forget that there really is a war going on around them.

The movie also shows nicely how a trauma can bring on amnesia and trigger symptoms like paralysis. It was very suspenseful and fascinating to see how the truth was uncovered.

Among the many good movies on war and journalism, this is one of the best, one of the most thought-provoking. Fans of Colin Farrell will watch it because of him, those who doubt he is a good actor, may end up being convinced of the contrary.

Paths of Glory (1957) Kubrick’s WWI Anti-War Masterpiece

Paths of Glory was forbidden in the UK and in Switzerland until the 70s. French troops disturbed the opening in West Berlin. The movie was forbidden in American cinemas for soldiers. It was forbidden in France during the war in Algeria. It was shown in Paris for the first time in 1975. What’s that telling us? That this is a radical anti-war statement that openly criticizes high command. It is powerful and thought-provoking and absolutely unambiguous as to its goal. I felt a bit uneasy that Kubrick chose to criticize French command. Didn’t he have plenty of opportunities to criticize American command? Be it as it may, Paths of Glory, which is based on a true account, is a great achievement.

The movie opens  with the Marseillaise and a voice telling the horrors of  WWI, the numbers of soldiers that get killed daily to no avail. The incident on which the movie centers took place in 1916 in France. The movie moves back and forth between the trenches and the high command residing in an elegant Château.

An ambitious general asks of the equally ambitious general Mireau to take a hill, held by German troops, the so-called “Ant Hill”. A highly symbolical name if there ever was one as people are treated no better than ants and wiped out with one simple gesture. When general Mireau informs colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) of the order to attack the ant-hill, he is met with incredulity. Dax tells him that it is impossible and will cost an incredible amount of lives. The answer is a sarcastic calculation. 65% of the men will not survive and the outcome is not even sure. Dax wants to refuse the order but is threatened to be replaced.

The futility of the attack becomes obvious right away. Dax fights in the front line with his men who die one after the other. He and many others retreat after seeing that they can’t make it. Many stayed in the trenches, knowing damn well they would be killed and nothing could be won. Seeing the men’s reluctance to run into certain death, general Mireau orders to open fire on them but the officer who receives the order refuses.

The frustrated general then orders a court-martial. Three men are chosen in lieu of all the others and accused of cowardice. Colonel Dax, a lawyer in civilian life, takes up their defence. Like the court-martial in Breaker Morant, this is a pure sham.

Kubrick’s movie has a lot of interesting elements. Colonel Dax is one of the great war movie characters. A officer of high moral standards, free of carrerism and ambition, a just and human being. Kirk Douglas was very well-chosen for this role. He is very believable and gives a great performance.

The contrasts between the high command who is far from the action and thinks they can mock simple soldiers who are afraid, slap those who show signs of shell-shock and judge others that refuse to run into certain death, is fantastic. Paths of Glory is one of those movies that has scenes that will stay with you forever because they are emotionally true and powerful. The utter cynicism of the high command, the way they calculate losses without giving further thought to the fact that each number equals a human being, will make you cringe.

It is a movie that belongs to two sub-categories. The court-martial movies like Breaker Morant and the “Taking a hill movies” like Hamburger Hill, Pork Chop Hill, Gallipoli and The Thin Red Line.

Apparently there is a more recent French TV film Le Pantalon (1996) that quotes Paths of Glory in its major parts.

As much good as I may have said, I had my reservations. I did not understand the use of black and white. The movie doesn’t work so well from a cinematographic point of view. There are not so many contrasts and shadows as there normally are in black and white movies. Even Pork Chop Hill (far less good as a whole) looks much better. Kubrick is famous for the use of colours in his movies… I don’t see it as entirely logical that he didn’t shoot this in color. But that is the only flaw I could find. It still deserves a solid 4.5/5.

Do Women prefer The Pacific to Band of Brothers?

In an interview Dale Dye, a military advisor for many war  movies, was asked why The Pacific had many female viewers and here is his explanation for that fact.

“By telling a story that reflects the thousands of whirlwind wartime romances that happened during World War II. There’s this great desperation element—I might get killed in the next six weeks, we’ve got to get married now—and females really identify with that. They get it.” (Dale Dye in The Atlantic)

He also believes that the love story between the two soldiers John Basilone and Lena Riggi made women like it.

Aha? So it is only the romance that makes women appreciate The Pacific? Could it not be that it has more to do with the fact that there are simply more women in The Pacific than in Band of Brothers?And that there is a whole psychological dimension in The Pacific, with all its tales of post-traumatic stress, that might appeal to women?

I would love some comments. Do women like The Pacific? Do they prefer it to Band of  Brothers? Or did they even like both?

How to Kill the Reputation of a Genre or Rambo: First Blood Part II

I have gotten many negative reactions when I have told people that I am interested in war movies. There are many people who think a war movie will always glorify violence and favour supermacho heroes that are close to brainless machines using guns for fun and sport.

I was always reluctant to watch Rambo until I finally gave in. I don´t think that First Blood Part I is that bad. The depiction of a Vietnam vet with post-traumatic stress syndrome is quite OK. However, I don´t like Stallone. His facial expressions are far too limited.

But when it comes to First Blood Part II… That is another story. I truly believe that this movie damaged the reputation of the whole genre.

“Do we get to win this time…?” Now seriously… Do you not consider this to be totally tasteless?

Here is what the journalist James Mottram has to add:

If the original film suggests men like Rambo are still fighting the war back home, be it on the inside or in a mountain-town, its sequel took far greater liberties. By the early 1980s, after the dust had settled on grandiose epics like Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter, Hollywood saw the opportunity to rewrite the history of the Vietnam War. A film so guilty of this it should be court-martialled, Rambo: First Blood Part II recast its embittered lead –  jailed in a civilian maximum-security prison between the first two films – as a one-man wager of war. A pure “fighting machine”, as his mentor and father-figure Col. Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna) dubs him, he is a nostalgic reflection of what Philip Caputo, in his 1977 book A Rumor of War , called “that savage, heroic time… before America became a land of salesmen and shopping-centres. (James Mottram in Under Fire: A Century of War Movies, p. 155)

What do you think? Did Rambo: First Blood Part II not have its part in killing the reputation of war movies?

Brothers (2009): Post-traumatic Stress Unrealistically Embedded

I am in two minds about Brothers. In parts I liked it in parts it made me frown at the amount of implausible details. Escapism built on a serious topic.

A young Captain, Sam (Tobey Maguire), married to a lovely wife (Natalie Portman), is sent back to Afghanistan where he was stationed many times before. Just before he leaves his delinquent older brother (Jake Gyllenhaal) is released from prison. Shortly after arriving back in Afghanistan Sam´s helicopter is shot down. Two officers are sent to inform his wife, Grace, of Sam´s death.

From that moment on Tommy changes a great deal and  assists the young woman and her two little daughters wherever he can. Soon they become close friends. Tommy and Grace discover that they have quite a lot in common despite not having liked each other in the beginning.

What none of them knows, Sam is a POW. During the months of his captivity he has to endure torture and cruelties. In the end he is even forced to do something he won´t be able to forgive himself. When he is finally freed he is not the man he used to be. He is withdrawn and doesn’t talk. He seems to suffer a great deal and accuses his wife and his brother of having had an affair. The situation grows more and more acute until it escalates in the end.
I do not deny that I liked watching this movie since it is a well done production. The score is nice, Jake Gyllenhaal is convincing (but then I have been his fan ever since I watched Donnie Darko), the pictures are appealing, individual scenes are captivating. Nevertheless this is not a good movie. Many details are highly unrealistic. The way the soldiers get captured is not convincing nor is the fact that Sam is reported to be dead and not just MIA. His wife never even questions this although nothing has been found of him or his belongings. His return is also very abrupt. No questions are asked and he seems to not be getting proper treatment even though he shows signs of severe post-traumatic stress.

All these elements are quite anachronistic. Relics of another time, a time when there was hardly any psychological treatment available and the awareness of PTSD was very low. You might expect this in a Vietnam movie, but not in one dealing with a contemporary conflict.
The dynamics of a dysfunctional family are shown convincingly. The father, a  Vietnam vet with an alcohol problem, plays the two brothers off against each other. Obviously he favours the one who opted for the same career. The development of Tommy´s character is also very well done. He becomes more and more endearing towards the end of the movie.
Tobey Maguire playing a  Captain is not credible at all. I just did not buy it. He should have played a lower rank. He seems far too young to be a captain.
This movie is for Jake Gyllenhaal Fans, people, who go for dysfunctional family stories and all those who would like to see a movie where the key message is: You will be healed as soon as you can talk about the shit you have done and been through.

All those who would like to see a realistic coming-home story of a war veteran should not go for it. The aim of this movie was to be dramatic, not realistic.

Since this movie seems to be an American remake of a Danish movie I might try to see the other one. It would be interesting to see how that was handled.

True Blood and The Vietnam Vet

I read a lot. All sorts of things. Classics, literature, prize winners, pure entertainment, crime and thriller, some Fantasy… I am curious when I hear people enthuse about a book. That´s how I got lured into reading the first two in the Southern Vampire Series, Dead Until Dark and Living Dead in Dallas by Charlaine Harris. I do not really want to go into this reading experience here (I do understand why the series is succesful), nor is this the place to analyse women´s obsession with vampires (…. maybe…or,…..no, I don´t even go there…), what caught my attention early on was the character Terry Bellefleur. I felt he was very intense and with very few words Charlaine Harris captured the personality of a truly traumatized person. Without elaborating this character much she added another dimension to the already multi-faceted people swarming these books. Like in many Vampire novels before the Sookie Stackhouse series, one of the major themes is the outsider, someone who has lost contact with the society or was never part of it. And since the Southern Vampire books are populated with so many different types of fictitious and real outsiders like vampires, shape-shifters, homosexuals, Afro-Americans, addicts, the addition of a Vietnam vet seems of almost stringent logic.

I had read the books before even hearing of the series but was very curious to watch it. Six Feet Under will always be my favourite series so it was only logical I would at least have a look at what magic Alan Ball would be weaving  in True Blood. I was not disappointed. This series is just great fun. Very sexy and daring. Great cast, great stories, greatest intro song to any series ever (sure, it is only my humble opinion).

Writers and director took quite a few liberties especially with the cast. Many characters are much more developed than those in the book. Some are totally different, like Tara. Other types of outsiders are added, like alcoholics.

And what about our Vietnam vet? Miraculously transformed into an Iraq veteran to offer identification to the younger audience and to raise the awareness and understanding of and for those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. This is more or less the explanation given by the producers. Quite nice, only it does not work for me. It does not feel right. I cannot explain it, but to me he is and will always be a Vietnam vet. No matter how much rationalization they put into his “transformation”.

When the actor Todd Lowe, whom many know from Gilmore Girls, was asked how he did prepare for the role, he explained he pictured a Vietnam vet that he had known as a young man. A homeless guy that talked him into giving him his cigarettes.

I wonder if there is not another reason to switch from Vietnam to Iraq. Maybe the age? Would a Vietnam vet not be much older than a guy returning from Iraq and Afghanistan? Of course this is a rhetorical question. Maybe the producers, even though they are extremely inclusive of marginal groups did not want to embrace the elderly? Now, don´t tell me this is not food for thought. Aren´t we living in a society that is ever so obsessed with age? Aren´t the vampires  ageless…always young, always beautiful? There is a certain logic in ostracizing the elderly from a vampire movie, right?

Or – which is not much better – did they think it was too hard to believe that someone could still suffer from PTSD after having come back such a long time ago? If so, what do they know?

I think they should have let this be. And I don´t buy the explanations. I would have preferred Terry Bellefleur to be an elderly Vietnam vet.

What about you?

I have to post the opening credits here for you, they are just too good to be missed and, let´s be honest, when will I ever get another chance to do this in a blog on war movies? Although…Come to think of it… what about a post dedicated to Generation Kill and  Alexander Skarsgard….