54 posts categorized "War"

September 24, 2017


Softcore Pro-War Pap
By Cole Smithey

Colesmithey.comAt best, Christopher Nolan is a barely competent filmmaker. Still, he is far from being an adept storyteller, much less a great director. Not only is Nolan’s “Dunkirk” far from the “masterpiece” that every phony bandwagon-jumping “film critic” pretends it is, the movie is one of the worst war films ever made. Here is a cinematic peanut butter and jelly sandwich made with creamy p.b. and a ton of jelly so that it won’t stick in your throat. You’ll be reaching for a glass of milk rather than the stiff drink that you would be thirsty for if this war movie were any good. Let's be clear, this movie sucks.

Search all you want, there isn’t a protagonist to be found in "Dunkirk." There isn’t even an enemy. All we see of the faceless German troops is the exteriors of their warplanes. Talk about half-assed screenwriting, “Dunkirk” exists in a filmic bubble the size of your fingernail. 

Hans Zimmer’s relentless music pounds the film with 120 beats-per-minute of aural hamburger-helper; you may as well wear a blindfold, you’ll get the gist of every scene I promise. Nolan clearly knew he was in trouble deep that he needed to mask the film’s weaknesses with so much musical bombast. I can still hear Zimmer's pedantic music ringing in my ears.

Screenwriter Nolan splits up his jumbled film into three parallel plotlines twisted to represent the battle of Dunkirk from perspectives of the land, sea, and air. Nolan only names three of plotlines although there’s an extra thrown in for additional uncertainty. Most confusing is the fact that each plotline takes up a different amount of time, ranging from a single hour to one day, to one week. Christopher Nolan’s faulty foundation for “Dunkirk” is doomed to be taught in film schools for decades as an example of what not to do.


There’s “The Mole” plotline about Tommy, a young British soldier who we are led to believe is mute because he doesn’t utter a single word for the first half of the movie. While taking a dump on a French beach, Tommy meets Gibson, a similarly mute soldier busy burying a fellow soldier in a shallow grave of sand. The “mole” refers to the wood and stone pier that Tommy and Gibson traverse in order to board a U-boat (while opportunistically carrying a wounded soldier on a stretcher) that they hope will take them to safety from the gathered masses of German troops who have 30,000 soldiers backed onto the beach.  

From the pier, Royal Navy Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) mumbles dialogue as though he has marbles in his mouth along with Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy) who seems to have even more marbles in his own maw. Christopher Nolan clearly didn’t care too much about the dialogue in these scenes since the audience will barely catch a word of it.  

Another story thread follows fighter pilot squadron leader Farrier (Tom Hardy) running low on fuel as he dogfights German “bandits” in the skies over the English Channel. There are two other fighters in Farrier’s squadron, but their subplots are so glossed over, you’ll barely notice they’re there. One thing you get is that Christopher Nolan has a fetish for making Tom Hardy act from behind a mask. “You’re not eating enough strawberries.”    


The “sea” aspect of the narrative follows the adventures of a British dad traveling on his family boat with his two teenaged sons in an attempt to rescue soldiers from the French beach. Their rescue of a British soldier played by Cillian Murphy backfires when the shell-shocked soldier flips out because he doesn’t want to be taken back into the line of fire. The subplot does allow for the film’s best performance from the ever-reliable Cillian Murphy.

Nolan's most egregious sin arrives as an anticlimactic punchline to his supposed "fact-based" story when roughly a dozen small craft boats "rescue" a fraction of the 30,000 soldiers stranded on the French beach. I wonder what the other 29,920 doomed soldiers would have thought of Nolan's rendition of Dunkirk. 

As for as the lack of filmmaking technique on hand, all you need do is compare any scene from “Dunkirk” against any scene from a film made by Polanski, Kurosawa, Hitchcock, Klimov, Linklater, or Tarantino to discover the blatant weaknesses in Nolan’s uninspired, and unschooled, approach to composition and atmosphere. Nolan wouldn’t know an “axial cut” from a hole in the ground. To pretend that Christopher Nolan is a filmmaker of any consequence is pure folly. Not only does Nolan not know where to put the camera, he hasn’t a clue about what to show and what not to show. There simply isn’t any logic or continuity to his use of filmic language.


All war films should be anti-war films by definition. If you take Elem Klimov’s bar-setting “Come and See,” for example, you’ll see what I mean.

“Dunkirk” seems to say that there are no heroes in war, only victims, suckers, survivors, and assholes. Perhaps Christopher Nolan’s movie has a point after all.

Rated PG-13. 106 mins. (F) (Zero stars — out of five / no halves)

Help keep Cole Smithey writing reviews, creating video essays, and making podcasts. Click on the button to pledge your support through Patreon.


January 08, 2017


Zero MotivationTalya Lavie’s 2014 black comedy, about a woman’s place in the Israeli Army, plays like a cross between “Reform School Girls” and “Catch 22.” Lavie skewers religious and military indoctrination in the context of psychological and physical abuses levied against female soldiers by male and female officers alike.

Writer-director Lavie takes inspiration from Jean Vigo's once banned 1933 film Zero For Conduct, about bourgeoning rebellion in an all boys boarding school, to transpose a narrative drawn from her experiences serving in the Israel Defense Forces. Although this movie might play as light comedy to Israeli audiences, the film echoes systemic abuses of female soldiers in the American military where rape is a common occurrence.

When our rebellious heroine soldier Zohar (Dana Ivgy) attempts to lose her virginity to a fellow soldier, she requests that he “be more gentle.” His callous response, “I’m combat, baby” speaks volumes about the sexist effect of his military training. Zero Motivation is a troubling movie in spite of its primarily comedic tone.

"War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing." —Edwin Starr

Zero Motivation

Not Rated. 97 mins. (B) (Three stars — out of five / no halves)

Help keep Cole Smithey writing reviews, creating video essays, and making podcasts for your enjoyment.

Click on the button to pledge your support through Patreon.


January 07, 2017


Story of WomenBased on the true story of Marie-Louise Giraud, Claude Chabrol’s provocative World War II era drama features Isabelle Huppert as a lower class single mother of two in Nazi occupied France. Marie’s war-ravaged husband unexpectedly returns home just as she finds her calling as an amateur abortionist for local women, many of whom work as prostitutes servicing German soldiers.

Claude Chabrol’s “The Story Of Women” delves into the conditions of a small occupied French town that transforms a mother of two into a hardened opportunist.

Marie’s motivations shift as she reaches a comfortable lifestyle that enables an affair with a German soldier.

Isabelle Huppert walks a fine line as an anti-heroine whose broken relationship with her husband (François Cluzet) culminates in a betrayal of outrageous proportions. 

Much of this film's power draws from Chabrol's ambiguous handling of Marie Giraud as an imperfect, if industrious woman. Huppert plays the part with a seething passion locked beneath an implacable feminine exterior. Neither Huppert nor the director pass any judgements on Marie's actions, nor does either shy away from her wartime imposed survivalist attitude to the world around her.

Because abortions were criminalized in France [from 1920 to 1975], due to a grievous loss of French males in World War I and II, Marie-Louise Giraud became an ideal scapegoat for the French courts after being indicted for her crimes.


Not Rated. 108 mins. (A+) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)

COLE SMITHEYA small request: Help keep Cole Smithey writing reviews, creating video essays, and making podcasts. Click on the button to pledge your support through Patreon, and receive special rewards!


May 21, 2014


Cranes Are FlyingThe cranes of the film’s title refer to the large majestic fowl admired by a couple of Russian working class lovebirds named Veronika and Boris — played by Tatyana Samoylova and Aleksey Batalov — during the waning days of World War II. The cranes symbolize the lovers’ hope for skies filled with natural beauty rather than birds of war — namely German warplanes.

During its first act, Russian director Mikhail Kalatozov captures the couple’s exuberant affection for one another in stylized medium and close-up shots that emphasize Moscow’s urban architecture around them. That Kalatozov borrows formal compositional techniques from German Expressionist Cinema, for such a deliberate anti-war film, adds to its irrefutable power.


The lovers’ scenes together are given imperative compositions to emphasize the confining nature of outside forces that threaten the amorous pas de deux they share. In spite of the war that rages around them, Veronika and Boris seem to share a bright future together. When they return to their respective apartments after spending precious moments together, the lovers each throw themselves onto their beds in a similar fashion. Boris calls Veronika Squirrel, a term of endearment she insist he never stray from using. The audience swept up in the infectious romantic energy that Kalatozov creates onscreen.

The visual simplicity that Kalatozov uses to establish the story allows the filmmaker to gradually — painstakingly — develop the film’s thematic complexity toward a psychological and emotional crescendo that reveals key self-destructive elements of war.

Boris volunteers with a friend to go off to war. He doesn’t warn Veronika of his plans. Whether he does so to spare her some small amount of worry, or because he doesn’t value her opinion is hardly a matter of importance. Once on the battlefield, a fellow soldier’s insult, regarding the photo of Veronika that Boris carries with him, insures that the two men will share in a dangerous recognizance mission together.

Back at home Veronika staves off romantic advances from Boris’s insistent cousin Mark, a concert pianist given a deferral from conscription — supposedly due to his prodigious musical talent. A German bombing raid leaves Veronika homeless and her own family dead. Boris’s physician father Fyodor invites her to come live with his family even as they are forced to relocate east of Moscow.


Being in such close proximity to Mark, allows him to take advantage of Veronika when circumstance allows. Their forced marriage is a mockery that Veronika escapes while working as a nurse in a hospital with Fyodor. A pivotal sequence involving a wounded soldier left inconsolable after discovering that his girlfriend has married another man, speaks volumes about the judgmental attitudes that misrepresent Veronika’s character in the eyes of society. The tone-deaf speech that Fyodor publicly gives the soldier about the kind of woman who would do such a thing, stabs into Veronika’s heart with lasting damage.

“The Cranes Are Flying” benefits greatly from Tatyana Samoylova’s sturdy performance; her youthful beauty shifts from soft to hard over the course of the story. Veronika becomes a symbol of maturing femininity whose purpose is to promote peace, but the hypocrisy that drove her there remains with her.

Rated PG. 97 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)

Click Here to Pledge Your Support Through Patreon

July 23, 2013


Come and SeeOne of the most emotionally challenging and brilliant films of all time, Stalingrad-born Elem Klimov's "Come and See" (1985) is an exemplar of late Soviet cinema that sets the standard for antiwar films with its undiluted expression of cinematic poetry in the service of an unbearably brutal anti-war narrative about 628 Belarusian villages burnt to the ground along with their inhabitants by German occupation forces during World War II.

Absolutely essential yet still obscure in the West, the film is a disorienting vision of a genocidal hell that challenges Hieronymus Bosch's most gruesome compositions. An electric, buzzing stench of death and social decay hangs over the picture's volley between neo-realistic, formal, and documentary styles that Klimov uses to convey as wide a range of wartime experiences as possible. The director takes the viewer on a quicksilver descent into the madness of war through the eyes of his 14-year-old peasant-protagonist, Florya. Alexei Kravchenko's extraordinary performance as the film's subjective guide encapsulates a lifetime of suffering over a period of a few vicious days of the Nazi invasion. 


Florya tries to join a ragtag troop of Soviet partisans camped in the middle of a forest, but gets abandoned alongside a teenaged girl named Glasha, who temporarily served as a lover to the resistance group’s leader. A Nazi bombing raid on the forest — one of the most evocative scenes in an unforgettable film — leaves Florya with a severe case of tinnitus. Klimov uses Florya's sensory deprivation with a twisted soundscape to bring us into Florya's agony and panic via a claustrophobic sonic space that conveys the audience's sense of being wounded. The next morning, Florya and Glasha frolic in the rain during a brief reverie where they forget the looming terror that awaits them. Over the muted sounds of sped up radio music, Glasha does a Charleston-styled flapper dance atop Florya's rain-soaked suitcase. There's a dreamlike quality to the couple's short-lived musical respite before an outlandish stork conveys an unnerving omen of unexplained incidents to follow. Wild animal life plays an important part of the image system filigree that Klimov uses to connect the story to its ecological foundation in the landscape of Belarus. 

Over the course of the film Florya transforms from a boy into a broken old man. The effects of war rip out his soul and leave behind a hollow shell.

When Klimov sat down to write the script with his collaborator Ales Adamovich, the intellectual director crafted an acutely personal story about a boy who goes to fight against Nazi troops occupying his native Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1943. "Come and See" is Klimov's paean to loss. It is his attempt to cinematically compartmentalize and contextualize his wartime experiences as a child fleeing the battle of Stalingrad in the company of his mother and younger brother, by raft across the Volga, as his city burned to the ground behind them.


Not Rated. 142 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)

COLE SMITHEYA small request: Help keep Cole Smithey writing reviews, creating video essays, and making podcasts. Click on the button to pledge your support through Patreon, and receive special rewards!


Click Here to Pledge Your Support Through Patreon

June 17, 2013


Michael Cimino is better remembered for bankrupting United Artists Studios with “Heaven’s Gate” (1980) than he is for making the highly-praised war picture that put him in a position to do such a thing in the first place. All of the excesses that Cimino was prone to as a director are on splendid display in “The Deer Hunter,” an antiwar film born of pure literary license. Expanded sequences of communal celebrations exemplifying social and character traits fill time in both movies, but what he was rewarded for in “The Deer Hunter” became a curse in “Heaven’s Gate.”


Based on a spec script about people who go to Las Vegas to play Russian roulette, Michael Cimino and two other writers (Michael Seeley and Deric Washburn) developed the screenplay [“The Man Who Came to Play”] into a modern-day parable about the cost of the Vietnam war on personal terms. It is rare that a more relevant metaphor has served as the foundation for a movie of any genre.

The story follows three Russian-American steel mill workers living in a close-knot community of Clairton, Pennsylvania in 1967. Mike (Robert De Niro), Steven (Jon Savage), and Nick (Christopher Walken) have all signed up for the army to go to Vietnam. Steven’s wedding in a Russian Orthodox cathedral contrasts with one last deer-hunting trip the friends take the following day. Mike’s solemn belief that a deer should be killed with a single shot delicately announces his place as the de facto leader of the group.

The second act plunges the audience into the middle of a disorienting aftermath of a battle in Vietnam’s jungle landscape. Our three soldiers are soon captured and reunited in a makeshift riverside prisoner of war camp where inmates are treated to a choice of death by Russian roulette or by being thrown into an underwater cage consumed with corpses and rats. Crazed by the insanity of their circumstance Mike and Nick execute a spur-of-the-moment violent escape that sends the three friends off on divergent paths toward a freedom that hardly matches the kind of liberty they formerly shared.


Each man loses a crucial part of his humanity. Steven is physically ruined. Upon his return, Steven’s bride goes mute as a result of his condition. Nick takes on a self-destructive sense of guilt for Steven’s injuries. Mike carries the responsibility for the trust that Nick put in him to not abandon him “over there if anything happens.” His emotional investment in the girl he once loved — played by Meryl Streep — pales by comparison with the obligation he has to Nick.

Upon returning home, Mike discovers that Nick has gone AWOL, and remains in Vietnam. Deer hunting no longer holds the appeal it once had for Mike, who allows his prey to escape rather than end the majestic animal's life. On the brink of the fall of Saigon, Mike returns to hunt for his friend whom he hopes to rescue. Nick’s heroin addiction has allowed him to forget everything about his past life to the point that he is incapable of experiencing the present. Like America itself, these Americans are wrecked.


Rated R. 182 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)

COLE SMITHEYA small request: Help keep Cole Smithey writing reviews, creating video essays, and making podcasts. Click on the button to pledge your support through Patreon, and receive special rewards!


Click Here to Pledge Your Support Through Patreon

March 08, 2013


EmperorHowever turgid the storytelling, “Emperor” makes its historic points about a widely unknown 1945 wartime episode that played out in U.S occupied Japan after its surrender. General Douglas McArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) must decide the fate of Japan’s well-loved Emperor Hirohito. Supreme Commander McArthur is shown to be exceptionally sensitive to the enormous implications of his crucial decision whether to bring war crime charges against the Emperor or provide him with a graceful exit. The history seems to be correct on the surface, even if its dramatized delivery is anything but exceptional.

U.S. General Bonner Fellers (respectably played by Matthew Fox in a thankless role) carries on a voice-over narration that keeps the movie tethered too close to shore. The airy noir tone is all wrong for a movie that isn’t, can’t, and shouldn’t try to be “Casablanca.” General Fellers is assigned to conduct an investigation into Emperor Hirohito’s culpability to war crimes. Fellers’s report will inform General McArthur’s pressing decision.

Fellers also has some personal business to take care of relating to his former girlfriend Aya (Eriko Hatsune), a Japanese exchange student Fellers met when the two were in college together in the States. Concerned for her safety, the General searches for Aya who may or may not have been killed during the U.S. attacks on Japan.

The film wisely pins its delayed climax on the meeting between General Douglas McArthur and Emperor Hirohito (believably played by Takataro Kataoka). Although the closing sequence of events doesn’t make up for the film’s clunky descent into over-pronounced melodrama, it does express the theme of cultural respect that the screenwriters intended.

Rated PG-13. 98 mins. (C+) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)

Click Here to Visit the FilmBlog for Artwork, Movies, Music, News, Photos, Politics, Posters, Reviews, Trailers, Videos, and More

February 25, 2013


Downed Submarine —
Cold War Picture Sinks in the Deep

Phantom 2The cinematic offenses committed by the filmmakers of “Phantom” are varied and many. Whoever thought it was a good idea to have Russian characters speak without a Russian accent has some fundamental lessons to learn about filmic storytelling. You might imagine that a drama set inside the creaking hull of a relic submarine during the Cold War would be suspenseful if not downright claustrophobic. Not this time. Writer-director Todd Robinson (“Lonely Hearts”) has made a movie that suffers from attention deficit disorder.

Ed Harris gets our attention as Demi, a Soviet naval commander, circa 1968, assigned to helm the B67 submarine he served on for most of his military career for one last voyage. Inferring a Russian identity on the Ed Harris’s American accent and gestures is a non starter. The obsolete sub is being sold to the Chinese Navy. It’s up to Demi to deliver it. With his protégé second-in-command officer Alex (William Fichtner) at his side, Demi finds his authority challenged by a team of questionably affiliated spies — led by David Duchovny’s Bruni — on a mission to do global harm. Plot coupons appear and vanish at regular intervals. A cloaking device, which can sonically make the submarine appear to other vessels as a variety of much larger ships, is momentarily presented as a significant plot point before being discarded like so many other narrative details.

The radical spies’ plan involves the sub (disguised as a Chinese submarine) attacking a barely observed U.S. vessel. Blame will be assigned to the Chinese, and the proverbial poop will hit the fan. It doesn’t help matters that the story never expands to show activities on the target ship. The movie exists in an airtight vacuum where the benefit of context is regarded as an unnecessary luxury. The filmmakers rely on a kneejerk crutch of military lingo to falsely energize the action. Characters repeat phrases about things like “sonar con” and “acoustic signatures” with requisite seriousness, but the overall effect is unconvincing before turning into an utter annoyance.

The characters are so poorly drawn that you’re never sure what they're supposed to represent as human beings. Even their objectives are murky. Harris’s Demi initially comes across as an ethically solid Commander. But as he allows himself and his crew to be intimidated by the demands of spies, intent on setting off World War III, it becomes difficult for the audience to know where to place their trust.

The poorly constructed story goes through plenty of obfuscating gyrations before spinning out of control in a melodramatic puddle that takes the cake for soap opera cheesiness. You’d never guess that the story was based on an actual event that pales the Cuban Missile Crisis by comparison. Clearly, there is a fascinating and suspenseful story buried somewhere in the impetus for “Phantom.” However, you don’t see much evidence of it on the screen. Even you happen to be huge fan of submarine movies, “Phantom” is not worth your time.

Rated R. 97 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)

Click Here to Visit the FilmBlog for Artwork, Movies, Music, News, Photos, Politics, Posters, Reviews, Trailers, Videos, and More

January 28, 2013


Lore-movie-posterCo-writer/director Cate Shortland’s brilliant adaptation of a story from Rachel Seiffert’s debut novel, set during Germany’s 1945 downfall, is an audacious depiction of survival and self-discovery. Shortland employs a stark unfettered cinema language to convey the surreality that the story’s namesake protagonist endures. The visual and emotional inertia here touches our central nervous system in a way that few films can.

Saskia Rosendahl gives a mesmerizing debut performance as Lore, a 14-year-old girl charged with leading her four younger siblings across war-ravaged Germany after her SS officer father and pro-Nazi mother are taken away by Allied troops. Days turn into weeks as Lore attempts to walk her three younger brothers and younger sister from their home in the Black Forest to their grandmother’s house — about 500 miles away in Hamburg. Ashes from the chimneys of nearby Dachau blow burned pieces of photographs carried by Jewish prisoners into the forest. Fresh wounds on rotting corpses, arrayed like carefully posed mannequins, that Lore discovers along her journey tell their own stories.

Barely able to take care of her siblings and herself, Lore learns to trust Thomas (Kai Malina), a fellow refugee she meets on the trek. Lore harbors contempt for the ostensibly Jewish Thomas in spite of her gradual realization of the atrocities that her parents contributed to.

A follow-up to Cate Shortland’s impressive debut film (“Somersault,” 2004), “Lore” is an unconventional war film filled with ambiguity, horror, and despair. It relies upon the intuition of its audience to perceive its finely woven layers of information. At once literal yet nimbly metaphoric, “Lore” condenses its extensive subject into a cinematic poem that is easily, if disturbingly, digested.

Not Rated. 108 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)

Click Here to Visit the FilmBlog for Artwork, Movies, Music, News, Photos, Politics, Posters, Reviews, Trailers, Videos, and More

Featured Video

SMART NEW MEDIA® Custom Videos



Throwback Thursday

Podcast Series