Birdy

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Man, Nic Cage looks really young here. No wait, Nic Cage looks really old here – what is he supposed to be, sixteen? But he looks like he’s in his twenties. Same with Matthew Modine. It’s all the more strange given the kids they’re playing with are a good two feet shorter and clearly much younger. ‘Nam man, it made weirdos of us all.

Birdy is a film I’d known about since I was first obsessed with the Manic Street Preachers. When you get obsessed with a band (I’m sure this still happens today with current artists but in a much different way), from an era gone by you have to do a lot of work to learn as much about them as possible. It’s not enough to simply buy the albums and learn the songs and know every single lyric. It’s not even enough to see them live and buy the shirt and tell your friends. No, you need to chase down every TV and Radio and magazine interview or quote they ever gave. Before Tweets and Blogs we had fanzines and paper. It’s there that I learned that the Manics were as much consumers of pop culture as they were detractors of it. It’s like the old saying about a rock star teaching you more than school ever did; the Manics certainly opened my mind to stuff I’d never thought about, music I’d never cared about, and movies and books I’d never heard of.

Birdy was one such movie. When you become a Manics obsessive, most people tend to become a Richey fanatic. As the band’s lead lyricist and a central part of their creative vision, he was as seductive and humble and intelligent a mouthpiece as a rock band could ever have. Most interviews he gave (as well as the rest of the band) were a treasure trove of quips and quotes and the media loved him as they knew he would be good for a soundbite – controversial or otherwise. Richey and the band understood this as well as any professional businessman, the difference being that what Richey said came from a place of honesty and understanding. Throw in the tragedy of his mental and physical state along with the mystery of his disappearance and you have a rock and roll, human story as alluring as it is heartbreaking.

It’s no surprise then to those fans who get around to checking out some of the well publicized ‘Richey’s Favourites’ lists discover that many of his most treasured works of fiction deal directly with subject matter he was obsessed with, or dealt with, or displayed, or despised. From Concentration Camp survivors texts, to stories concerned with violence and war, from the collapse of the human spirit and the chaos of a broken mind, to authors who killed themselves or vanished entirely. Humanity’s darkest innards are where Richey rent his most tortured lyrics from, inspired in part by the master works he knew inside out. It’s easy to draw a line between the works he coveted, the works he made, and the life he led.

Birdy is a 1984 movie based off the William Wharton novel of the same name. Both concern the lasting friendship between two men – their adolescence, their harrowing war experiences, and their struggle to adjust back home. When describe like that it sounds like any number of other Vietnam movies – if I can set this one apart from the others I would say that this one has a little more in the way of heart, hope, and comedy. In the book, the War in question is WWII, but in the movie it is Vietnam – a small change, but an important one nonetheless – each war is both the same and different from the next. Nic Cage stars as Al – a typical teenager in a rundown area of Philly, while Matthew Modine is the title character – a bird obsessed, socially naive kid who Al befriends. The film jumps liberally between different time-frames – the mishaps and adventures of the mismatched youths and how their home-life and charms somehow brought and kept them together, to some point after their return from war when Al is facially disfigured and Birdy is mute and unresponsive in an Army psych ward. Interspersed later in the movie are very brief scenes of what happened in Vietnam, relaying how the relate to both events from their youth and of their current state.

I was surprised by the lack of war scenes when I first watched Birdy. That’s another key difference between it and the more famous ‘nam movies. Directed Alan Parker, known more for his musicals, prefers to focus on the friendship and the internal struggles instead of the visceral reality of what happened on the battlefield. It’s a coming of age film as much as it is a portrayal of war horror, and it feels honest and authentic in both to the extent that it gave me some nostalgia for a time in which I didn’t exist. That’s not accurate – it’s the friendship I was nostalgic for, not the time, and it strikes a similar balance to something like Stand By Me. While Cage and Modine are good, and while their friendship is something I enjoyed watching, it lacks some of the fun and camaraderie of Stand By Me, probably because the latter focused on four central characters and on a different point in their lives.

While Birdy is a fairly unique character, the film is smart enough to send a more universal message – one which it is difficult to write about without avoiding the trite metaphors about birds and freedom and cages. At points in our lives we do feel trapped and we do yearn for freedom and flight and friendship – it doesn’t matter that not all of us have experience war or abuse or social scapegoating or growing up on the wrong side of the tracks. Birdy shows us what it was like for these characters and shows enough of the characters that we recognize certain traits within ourselves. Whether we deal with hardship by tackling it face on, by indulging in obsession, by ignoring it, or by falling into fantasy – hardships are going to hit us, and Birdy tackles the subject by showing each of these responses and how friendship is one of our greatest defenses.

Peter Gabriel crafted a thoughtful score for the movie – I haven’t listened to a lot of the man’s music beyond the obvious, but his score for Birdy (which is mostly instrumental) aptly conveys both heart and panic, fear and hope. From pounding drum interludes to inspirational synths, the music can be in your face and drift quietly on the outer reaches. Parker’s film uses ‘Skycam’ heavily to simulate bird flight as well as Birdy’s imaginings and some of the flashbacks. It seems a little silly today but it works well enough for 1984 and probably raised a few eyebrows from a stylistic perspective. The important thing is that the technology serves both character and plot and isn’t just there to show off.

I went into Birdy expecting a heavier drama than what I got, based on my own assumptions of what Richey liked. A war movie about a bird obsessed man on the fringes of society, scarred and left to a careless world? How could that not be a dark and gritty story? I forget than Richey was also defiant and human and hopeful, and in the end that is more what Birdy is about.

Let us know in the comments what you thought of Birdy!

Come And See

Trawl any list of ‘Best WWII Movies’ and you’ll find everything from Award Winning masterpieces like Schindler’s List and The Pianist, to old school epics such as The Bridge Over The River Kwai and The Great Escape, and even notable modern movies including Dunkirk, Son Of Saul, and Black Book. Come And See is not one you often see included (if it is, it’s probably number 1), despite its near universal acclaim and almost every review calling it one of the best War movies ever. On the surface, it seems the primary reason is that it is a Russian movie which received little exposure in the West but in today’s world of instant easy access you can find the uncut film for free on YouTube. While the film shares similarities with many of the films above, it should be viewed as a standalone, because I’m not sure there is really anything like it out there.

In Come And See, we follow a young boy in Belarus during the Nazi invasion. The film opens with him and another child playing at war on a desolate endless beach. Flyora finds a rifle buried in the sand, and this discovery seems to be the final key in his decision to join the local partisan resistance group. His family do not want him to leave but when the army comes knocking at his door, he joins them on the march and soon finds himself task with menial jobs. He isn’t impressed, but he isn’t great at the work. The partisans decide to leave him behind and he heads home depressed, meeting a young nurse on the way. This kicks off a chain of events leading to increasingly grim encounters and discoveries as the we witness the true horrors of war through the eyes and mind of a child whose limited faculties are shell shocked beyond salvation.

There is an episodic quality to Come And See which made it feel to me like a series of shorts. This does little to temper the unrelenting nightmare of what is shown but to me it mimics the newsreel ending – these are snapshots of moments of war. They are simultaneously irrelevant and all important – moments that could be happening to anyone because they were happening to everyone, moments of increasing savagery with survival dependent on increasing reliance on the whims of fate. There is also an initially perplexing dreamlike quality, with long shots which seem to dwell on nothing only for some semblance of an answer to come a few scenes later. There is an ambiguous beauty with the destruction of the countryside acting as a metaphor and twin to the destruction of the self. Cliches are turned inside out and war is shown with no hint of glory – it is nothing more than pointless ugly death, hysterical, monstrous, and beyond understanding. There is a scene where Flyora forces himself through a muddy marsh, struggling to keep afloat as the stink drags him down – your typical movie would see the protagonist coming out the other side stronger and metaphorically ready to stare down any challenge with renewed hope. This is not your typical movie, and there is no hope to be found.

And yet, I had my problems with it. The film contains far too many close up facial shots and moments of uncomfortable laughter or grimacing which tread the line between unintentionally humourous and unwatchable, to plain annoying, to recalling Lynch. These tend to go hand in hand with unconvincing performances leaving the viewer unsure if the acting is too real or merely atrocious. As a seasoned viewer of foreign cinema I have encountered my fair share of films with similar moments and actors, but an audience too used to the gloss and budget of Hollywood will likely switch off. By the end, these early moments do feel more intentional and you will be more forgiving, and they contribute to the hallucinatory quality. Special mention must go to the editing and sound departments, as they too work off each other to make this clanging, scattershot din, with ringing sounds to echo the post-explosion numbness and off screen mumbles, laughs, and screams enforcing an all-encompassing maelstrom. Much of the violence happens off-screen or just in the background, with characters regrettably looking over their shoulders like Orpheus to catch a horror which will forever haunt them, or with the aftermath of events being stumbled upon by chance.

Come And See is not an easy watch. At times it made me wish I was watching Son Of Saul instead, and at others I couldn’t look away. While I’m not sure a cleaner look, a bigger budget, or more professional performers would have made the film better, I think those improvements would help the film reach a wider and more accommodating audience. Taken as it is, it remains as stark and harrowing a depiction of human evil as you’ll ever find, merging real life events with sequences and stylistic choices which disorient and serve to make you more than a mere observer, but feel and taste the disgust and revulsion we all should feel. I can’t say that it is one of my favourite war films, but it’s certainly unique, people more knowledgeable than me have proclaimed it a masterpiece, and given that it’s easily available to watch online it should be considered a must see.

What did you think of Come And See? Let us know in the comments!

Escape From Sobibor

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A gripping tale of captivity during the Holocaust which tows the line subtly between being engaging and off-putting, and sees a stellar cast highlighting the plight of hundreds of innocents waiting to die.

As the title suggests, the film is based in the Sobibor death camp during World War II, and is based on true events. In 1943, another train packed with Jews from around Poland arrives at Sobibor, and they are divided into groups for immediate processing – if you’ve watched any Holocaust movies or read about the death camps before you will be familiar with these scenes. Tricked into believing that it is a temporary work camp, those with a particular skill such as tailors or goldsmiths are sent to one side, everyone else is sent to the gas chambers. The survivors are put to work and are subject to random beatings, punishment, and live in terrible conditions. Yet still there is hope, as some of those survivors begin to plot any sort of uprising or escape. It is clear that the survivors are treated as little more than temporary slaves and that once they have outlived their usefulness, they will be executed. Alan Arkin stars as the leader of the revolt, conspiring with an intelligent and strong new arrival – Rutger Hauer’s veteran soldier.

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The plan is risky and based on blind hope, but the best they could have possibly hoped for. The camp isn’t huge and there are not very many actual Nazi’s present. The prisoners hope that if they can trap and kill the Nazi officers, that the Ukranian prison guards will not care enough and simply allow the prisoners to leave. For this to work though, everyone has to be on board and some prisoners will take convincing. There are plenty of shocking events and emotional moments without sentiment – the realization of what the chimneys represent, one young boy trying to run out of his queue leading to the gas chamber, the inevitable conclusion to the story of a mother and her baby who had been hiding, and the result of a previous attempted escape as each escapee is forced to choose someone to be shot with them.

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As mentioned, the cast here are very good, dealing with some of the most horrible things anyone has had to endure let alone imagine. Many of the faces you won’t recognise, a few you will, but their deeds will stay with you. These sorts of films have more impact when they don’t contain a bunch of stars, just great actors with memorable faces who are capable of generating empathy. The film is not bloody, nor does it need to be. The writing is fine, based on recollections of genuine conversations, and the direction is solid. As we watch the prisoners running for their lives at the end, as we watch some get mowed down by bullets, run free, or head into a minefield, it is all the more heartbreaking knowing that these events happened and that history has a habit of repeating itself. Where there are humans, there is hope and despair, good and evil in varying degrees – when will we tip the balance so far to the good side that evil will finally slip off and drown?

Let us know in the comments what you thought of Escape From Sobibor and what other Prison Camp movies have made an impact on you.

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Perlasca: The Courage of A Just Man

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*Note – originally written on Amazon based on a free copy by Amazon

Like most other reviewers have commented here, I had never heard of Perlasca, though was always aware that there were likely very many unsung heroes during the war who did whatever they could to save lives and help in the struggle against the Nazis. The obvious comparisons with this show, and with the story, are with Schindler’s List, and I was worried that this would be a low-budget affair with too many cheap similarities. Thankfully, within the opening moments of the movie (split into two parts for Italian television) it is clear that a lot of money, effort, dedication, and love were put into making this. We get an action packed, tense opening to set the scene and introduce a few of the main characters and Morricone’s tragic, soaring score sets a high standard for miniseries/tv movies to follow. To summarise the story briefly will not do it any justice, but for those looking for such things this is the story of a man who, thanks to his past and position, struggles to save the lives of as many persecuted Jews as possible whilst simultaneously trying to get out of occupied Hungary and back home to his wife. Using his greatest powers – confidence, intrigue, persuasion, powerful allies, and of course great doses of fortune, he masterminds the saving of many lives.

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The man himself

Everything about this production has a quality sheen to it, from the large cast who are, without exception, brilliant – to the sets, costumes, and directing. While there is humour and action in small doses, it is the heart-wrenching set pieces and the stand-offs Perlasca has with a variety of opponents which set this work aside from others as truly great. There are moments here which will fulfill any nail-biting, edge-of-seat requirements you may have, and at times the emotion, whilst never melodramatic or over played, is overwhelming. I should mention that I don’t think I recognised any of the cast members from anything else, but special praise goes to the lead- Luca Zingaretti as Perlasca. Those moments where he trades mind-game blows with those in the Nazi ranks only work because of his performance – in a lesser actors shoes we would neither be convinced that his actions would be taken seriously or that he was doing them not for selfish reasons. In spite of the emotional weight on his shoulders, he rarely allows himself to succumb to his emotions, and we can see him holding back at every turn, as an outburst would mean certain death. At times it does feel like his lucky streak is too unbelievable, but this is of course countered by the fact that everyone around him is dying, some of his attempts at rescue are futile, and we never see his ultimate goal – getting home. Special praise should also go to Gyorgy Cserhalmi as the charming, soulless Captain Bleiber and Amanda Sandrelli as Magda.

This is gripping viewing throughout, and feels like an ‘easier’ watch than Schindler’s List though I haven’t quite worked out why I feel this way. Perhaps the main characters are more likable, perhaps we have less of a focus on the Nazis, I’m not sure. Even though the content is similar, and both have horrific visuals, Schindler’s List is a colder film. I would advise anyone with an interest in WWII or war movies in general to give this a go, but of course be warned that there are plenty of scenes that will haunt you once seen, and while not graphic in any way, many may find them too upsetting.

What is your favourite WWII movie, or which film dealing with the Holocaust have you found the most powerful? Let us know in the comments!