R-Point aka Ghost Soldiers (2004) A Korean Ghost War Movie

Now that was different. Feeling in a Halloweenish kind of mood I was hunting for a movie that would go well with the occasion and I must say R-Point aka Ghost Soldiers was an excellent choice. And a very unusual genre blend at that. I don’t think that there are a lot of horror/ghost war movies out there or Vietnam ghost war movies to be more precise. Korean filmmaking is famous for its horror movies and that’s why I think this movie will appeal to war movie fans and aficionados of Korean cinema alike.

Vietnam 1972. R-Point is a strategic area some 100km outside of Saigon. It’s not a combat zone but Korean, US and French troops stayed there for various amounts of time. The Vietcong are present as well but there is no talk of real fighting. Despite that fact, a whole platoon of Korean soldiers has never returned from their mission. Nobody gives this too much thought until high command receives radio transmissions from that platoon six month after their disappearance and decides to have someone investigate what happened to them. Have they been killed or are they still alive? Lieutenant Choi is designated to lead a squad of eight officers and to rescue the missing soldiers.

The moment they arrive at R-Point they get under heavy fire. It’s an intense moment and it takes a while until someone takes the shooter down. What follows is reminiscent of the end of Full Metal Jacket only here  the men let the shooter die on her own. They enter farther into the area until they find a tombstone indicating that Chinese killed Vietnamese and dropped them in a lake. The men find this quite spooky and heavy fog and drizzle makes it even worse.

I don’t want to spoil the movie and will only mention that Choi’s squad finds an old mansion that seems to have grown out of the fog and takes quarters in it. From that moment on weird things start to happen. They don’t seem to be alone. American soldiers come to the mansion in the evening, French soldiers transmit messages on the radio, a woman in a long white nightgown appears at night, people get lost, someone from the missing platoon follows them. The tensions between the soldiers are high and when the first one of them turns up dead, they get really scared.

I’m glad I watched this, it is very interesting and I could say a lot about it but it’s not possible without spoiling it. It’s unusual and well worth watching and says a lot about the wars in Vietnam. There are better Korean movies out there but I couldn’t think of another ghost war movie.

Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder (2008) Hilarious or Bad Taste?

Before I knew what  Tropic Thunder was all about I saw it mentioned a few times on people’s Top 10 Favourite war movies lists. Aha?  And then I saw several really angry and infuriated reviews. Definitely a movie that polarizes. Those who love it think it’s genius, those who hate it think it is hateful, despicable, in bad taste and politically incorrect.

I actually think it is extremely funny. It’s a huge piss take and quite multilayered. Yes, it is vulgar and there is a lot of foul language and swearing but it has to be like that. That is part of the parody. There is a lot of swearing in some war movies, especially in the boot camp parts, so that had to be a theme.

Tropic Thunder foremost makes fun of the US Vietnam war movies (I guess there aren’t many others anyway), of the macho type gung-ho flicks à la Rambo as well as of the great movies like Platoon. These movies, as good as some of them are, live to a certain extent of stereotypes and stereotypes are great material for parodies.

The most important part in the movie however is the acting. The actors are absolutely outstanding. Ben Stiller playing a retard, Jack Black a dumb-ass comedy star, Nick Nolte as Vietnam vet gone writer, Robert Downey Jr as black Sgt and Tom Cruise as Jewish businessman who wants to make money, money, money.

There is nothing sacred in  this movie. Not the death scene from Platoon, nor the Vietnam vets who write books, nor the poor little Vietcong, black soldiers, handicapped people, you name it…

But despite all the piss taking and fun it has a story to offer.

In the middle of the Vietnamese forest a film crew tries to shoot the memoirs of a Vietnam vet. The shooting and acting isn’t going well and finally the vet suggests that the actors should be left on their own in the middle of the forest where they would have to fight for their survival. Unfortunately they land on the territory of a Vietnamese drug gang and things turn very nasty.

Tropic Thunder is a parody of the Vietnam war movie subgenre but also of film business in general.  Every element that is part of a Vietnam war movie, including the drugs, the swearing and the 60s music are made fun of.

Many people loved it for its special effects and an equal amount of people hated it for the special effects.

All in all its an exaggeration, a caricature, a parody and in outrageously bad taste but really funny.

If you don’t want to watch the whole movie, watch at least Tom Cruise dancing.

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?

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

Remembering The Deer Hunter (1978)

Isn´t it weird sometimes what we remember about certain movies? I don´t know when it was, but I think it must have been a very long time ago, that I watched The Deer Hunter for the first time. Looking back the only thing I did remember was the Russian roulette scene and the cage that was submersed in water. I didn’t remember any combat scenes and nothing that went on before they volunteered or after they returned from the  war. What actually happened is that  my memory turned The Deer Hunter into a pure POW movie.

I finally watched it again and was surprised. I saw a totally new movie. Powerful is the best word to describe it, even though this does it little justice. Sure, what I remembered was still there but it shrank considerably and took up less than a tenth of the whole movie. Strange I think,  because since I have seen it again I must say, yes, the roulette scene, the whole POW part is maybe the most impressive but it is not the most important. And it is totally fictious. It is as if Michael Cimino had chosen to show the war in this way because he thought facts would not be drastic enough. Looking at all the other Vietnam war movies that have been done since I must say that especially because of these scenes The Deer Hunter is not the best Vietnam war movie there is but it is one of the more original ones. And it is an extraordinarily good movie about a certain type of people and how they were affected by the war.

What I will remember from now on is young men who live in a grim industrial town. They are second generation  Russian immigrants who are enthusiastic and idealistic and want to fight for their country not knowing what they get themselves into. A bunch of friends for whom life only just begun and whose dreams will be shattered for ever. Who return having left the easy-going, careless “Deer Hunter”-personality behind. They are completely changed and broken and we ask ourselves at the end : is there still enough left of them to begin a new life?

It is not my favourite Vietnam movie but it  ranks high up among the 10 best as I stated before (see my list 10 Vietnam War Movies You Must See Before You Die ).

What about you? Which is the part you like best about The Deer Hunter. Would it have been possible to leave the roulette part out altogether? How high would you rank it within the 10 best Vietnam war movies and how high within the best including every war/subgenre?

Rescue Dawn (2006) or One Man´s Ordeal in a Vietcong Prison Camp

Dieter Dengler, a young American fighter pilot of German origins, is shot down over Laos, in 1965, just when the Vietnam war is about to start. Naïve and enthusiastic he doesn’t think that much harm could come his way but when he is captured by Vietcong he learns otherwise. Thanks to his astonishing resourcefulness, his unabashed optimism and his sense for camaraderie he survives the worst imaginable circumstances. He endures torture, hunger, pain and humiliations by sadistic guards, petty accusations and nagging by fellow prisoners. He carefully plans their escape and finally succeeds, only to find his ordeal is not over.

Werner Herzog is known for movies that often have lush jungle vegetation as a backdrop. No difference here. The same cinematographic language that I knew from movies like Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo, Cobra Verde and Grizzly Man that have made Herzog famous. The beauty of the forest, the plants and giant insects are captured here as well, but  then the comparison to other movies stops. Rescue Dawn was one of the most revolting films I have ever seen. Probably it is shockingly true to the events that Dieter Dengler had to endure, nevertheless I found it hard to watch. Seeing people eat handfuls of larvae and maggots was not my cup of tea. Sure it is well done and all but yuk, yuk, yuk.

Apart from being disgusted I am also awed. It´s incredible what some people can endure and how they manage to survive the worst.

Christian Bale is very good although  he acts quite badly at the beginning. Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davis are outstanding.

Required viewing for Werner Herzog fans, POW movie fans and every one like me mad enough to think they have to see every decent war movie no matter what´s at stake for the stomach nerves.

Michael Cimino speaks about The Deer Hunter (1979)

The Deer Hunter will always be one of the most fascinating Vietnam war movies. It´s not an easy movie and it is one of those you have to watch again to truly understand it. I wanted to write a review of it many times but was never satisfied with what I came up with. While waiting for the ultimate inspiration  I found this video post of an interview with the director of the film, Michael Cimino.  I found it quite interesting, especially since the interview is interwoven with bits of the film. Really well done.

Hope you will like it too.