Tag Archives: War

CAPSULE: APOCALYPSE NOW REDUX (1979/2001)

Must See(original 1979 cut)

Recommended(Redux cut)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Martin Sheen, , Robert Duvall, , Fredric Forrest, Albert Hall, Sam Bottoms, Larry Fishburne, Harrison Ford, Bill Graham, , (Redux only), Aurore Clement (Redux only)

PLOT: Loosely based on the Joseph Conrad novella “Hearts of Darkness,” the film centers on Willard (Sheen), who is sent up the rivers of Cambodia to terminate the mad Colonel Kurtz (Brando) and destroy his cult-like compound.

Still from Apocalypse Now (1979)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Apocalypse truly is the Vietnam war on acid. At times it’s surreal, hallucinatory and mind-blowing, but that’s not always the same as weird. However, if this were a list of the 366 greatest films ever made, it would definitely make it. Heck, Apocalypse would probably make a list if this of the 66 greatest films ever made—although the longer 2001 Redux version is definitely inferior to the original 1979 film.

COMMENTS: Francis Ford Coppola’s original 153-minute version of Apocalypse Now opened in 1979 after a chaotic production and almost two years in the editing room. All that time, money and effort paid off, because, despite a draggy third act, Apocalypse Now is one of the maddest, greatest war movies ever made. Willard’s trip down the river (or the rabbit hole) is punctuated by one mind-boggling set-piece after another, including a helicopter assault on a Vietnamese village scored by Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”, a USO show featuring Playboy bunnies that slowly devolves into a chaotic free-for-all, and an opening sequence where a drunken Willard trashes his hotel room while Jim Morrison’s eerie “The End” pours out in surround sound. It’s the Vietnam War filtered through madness, LSD, and loads of unforgettable music.

The Redux version of the immortal film adds 49 minutes of frankly unnecessary footage, resulting in a wildly overlong 202 minute film. The “new” sequences mostly consist of two never-before seen set-pieces. In the first, Willard encounters a French family living on a plantation. They’re in Cambodia, but it’s as if they were still back in France circa 1950. Willard even finds romance with one of the women, Roxanne (Clement). This sequence, while interesting in an academic sort of way, is less than compelling. In the second new subplot, Chef (Forrest) and the other men on Willard’s boat spend the night with several of the Playboy bunnies last seen during the memorably disastrous “Suzy Q” sequence. These added scenes do little but show us that Willard and his crew found female companionship on their trip up the river, and it’s easy to see why Coppola cut the footage in the first place. It’s just not that involving.

Luckily, the rest of Apocalypse is still there: every other brilliant sequence that has earned the film a reputation as a flawed masterpiece. Yes, once Brando turns up, the movie sort of slides downhill, but the last 30 minutes improve upon repeated viewings. Furthermore, the 2010 Blu-Ray restores the film to its original widescreen dimensions. All the previous DVD versions had cropped the picture to fit high-definition television screens (according to cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s wishes), but no more. This Blu-Ray also includes the jaw-dropping 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness, which examines the film’s nearly disastrous 1976-7 production, which was beset by typhoons, a heart attack, and a budget that swelled to a then-staggering $31.5 million. Directed by Eleanor Coppola (wife of Francis), the doc is itself must-see viewing.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Alternately a brilliant and bizarre film…An exhilarating action-adventure exercise for two-thirds of its 139 minutes, ‘Apocalypse’ abruptly shifts to surrealistic symbolism for its denouement… Experience is almost a psychedelic one–unfortunately, it’s someone else’s psyche, and without a copy of crib notes for the Conrad novel, today’s mass audience may be hard put to understand just what is going on, or intended… Dennis Hopper is effectively ‘weird’ as Brando’s official photographer.”–Dale Pollock, Variety ( 139-min. ‘work in progress’ version shown at the 1979 Cannes festival)

CAPSULE: HOW I WON THE WAR (1967)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Michael Crawford, Lee Montague, , Karl Michael Vogler, ,

PLOT: An incompetent rookie British Lieutenant leads a reluctant squad on a mission to set up a cricket pitch behind German lines.

Still from How I Won the War (1967)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: There are a few funny/clever bits, but mostly misfire gags that are often more incoherent than absurd. A nice try, but bit of a dud from Richard Lester, who would bounce back soon with The Bed Sitting Room, a much more effective comedy in the same surreal style.

COMMENTS: The absurdity of war and absurd-minded director Richard Lester would seem to be a match made in heaven. Why How I Won the War didn’t work, then, is anyone’s guess. Perhaps war is too serious a topic for an artist of Lester’s flippant temperament. Since no one really supports war as an abstract concept, to make a military satire work it either needs to be extremely specific (i.e., have the balls to explicitly attack the Vietnam conflict) or to go truly dark (blow up the whole damn world, a la Strangelove).

More likely, War fails simply because the jokes just aren’t funny enough to carry the feature. Characters and situations are ill-defined, and the thick accents and humour largely based around British class system don’t make things any easier for the outsider. Despised by his working class troops, young Lt. Goodbody is sent to North Africa and sent on an insanely dangerous morale-building mission. Eventually he is captured by the enemy, where he finds a Nazi officer to be better company than his own squadron (his captor also gets the movie’s best lines: “we are not all supermen, you know”). The story jumps back and forth in time in a series of sketches and asides which are further broken up by tinted footage of actual World War II battles. Perhaps this methodology is intended to convey the confusion of a combat campaign, but it keeps us from getting invested in the characters or their mission. Without comment, the squad takes on mute soldiers painted green and pink (the suggestion is they’ve been reassigned into this movie from the archival footage). At one point a laugh track appears when Jack MacGowran puts on a clown nose and starts a comedy routine (his character also does a ventriloquist routine and dons blackface for battle). A disturbed soldier holes up naked in a truck and refuses to come out; he’s seen banging on the door in an institution, then the moment is forgotten as he’s back in the desert. It’s not so much that these bits don’t make sense in themselves as that they don’t appear to serve a larger purpose in a grand comic scheme. The point seems to be that war is, you know, crazy. Lester doesn’t follow up on the intriguing suggestions that the events of the movie are a funhouse mirror version of real-life historical battles, which might have given War a greater sense of purpose. Instead, like its real-life counterpart, War has no winner.

How I Won the War‘s marketing campaign was built almost entirely around John Lennon’s presence in the cast. To this day, posters and ads deceptively suggest this is a starring role for the pacifist Beatle. Actually, his part is extremely small, hardly more significant than the other half-dozen grunts in his squad. While Lennon was incredibly talented, those talents did not extend to acting. (, the group’s least talented musician, turned out to be the only halfway decent Beatle actor). The best thing about Lennon’s performance is that Lester made sure he wasn’t tested; his lines are throwaway one-liners buried among routines from the rest of the squad, and his character is cynical and detached so that his emotionless delivery becomes an asset.

Kino Lorber released War on Blu-ray in 2016 along with a number of other 1960s Lester features. Trailers (often with commentary from the “Trailers from Hell” gang) are the only extras on these discs.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…manages occasionally to hit home with its blend of surreal lunacy and barbed satire.“–Geoff Andrews, Time Out London

CAPSULE: TROMA’S WAR (1988)

DIRECTED BY: , 

FEATURING: Sean Bowen, Carolyn Beauchamp, Patrick Weathers, Rick Washburn

PLOT: After a plane crash on a Caribbean island, stranded citizens of Tromaville organize to defeat an army of terrorists.

Still from Troma's War (1988)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Working with their largest budget ever, the Troma team loses focus on their signature brand of transgressive comedy with War. Between firing thousands of blank rounds and bursting hundreds of blood squibs, blowing up watchtowers and lighting up stuntmen in flame-retardant suits, War occasionally fools itself into thinking it’s a real action movie rather than an absurd spoof.

COMMENTS: Survivors of the Tromaville flight that crashes onto a not-so-deserted Caribbean island include a lisping flight attendant, a used-car salesman/Vietnam war vet, a busty feminist, an optimistic priest, a sleazy Wall Street financier, a British guy who appears to be a secret agent (he carries curare darts, at least), and the three girl/one guy punk band “The Bearded Clams,” among many others. Their antagonists are “the cream of the crap”: Cubans, the IRA, the PLO, a squad of HIV-positive rapists, a snorting pig-faced colonel, and military-industrial Siamese twins. With a cast like that, just wind them up and let the carnage begin, right?

It’s not quite that easy, it turns out. While War never lags, it never really heats up, either. Troma conceived of War as their opportunity to break into the (relative) mainstream after scoring low budget cult hits with iconic titles like The Toxic Avenger (1984) and Class of Nuke ‘Em High (1986). The resulting project seems to want to be too many things to too many different audiences: it’s a spoof of Rambo and other anti-Communist 1980s action flicks, while at the same time it tries to put together legitimately thrilling, bullet-riddled action scenes. It takes a stab at serious anti-authority satire with the claims that the political left and right are two sides of the same greedy coin, and that the powers-that-be have an interest in cultivating public hysteria, whether it be over Communists, terrorists, or AIDS. But that serious message is undermined when it panders to its horny male teen demographic, with gratuitous female nudity and dirty diaper jokes. The film has ludicrous surreal touches, like the literal Fascist pig and the twins conjoined at the face. (There’s also a strange bit where a hysterical woman looks out from the wreckage and sees crash victims running about on fire, their flaming bodies lit up against the night sky; the problem is, her scenes are shot in the daytime. It’s not clear whether it’s supposed to be a flashback, a joke, or if it’s one of the worst continuity errors of all time, but it appears to be a low-budget first: night-for-day photography). Still, for most of its running time it’s the most “realistic” (relatively speaking) movie Kaufman and Herz ever shot. Other than the farcical firefights where our heroes mow down dozens of terrorists per Uzi burst while the bad guys return fire with Stormtrooper aim, the oddest thing in the film may be its deadpan camp dialogue.  “I have just about had it with you terrorists!” screams a mom-turned-commando as she stuffs a baby’s jumpsuit into a guerrilla’s mouth. War actually does what I’ve been saying Troma should do for years—play it straighter, not indulging in the “we’re deliberately making a bad movie, it’s funny!” jokiness—yet it doesn’t really work this time out. Making bad movies is harder than it sounds.

Troma’s 2015 Blu-ray release is nothing special visually or sonically (not a big surprise given the source material), but as usual the studio packs on the extra features. Several featurettes are ported over from the 2010 “Tromasterpiece” DVD, but there is a new introduction and about 30 minutes of new interviews. In the included commentary, Kaufmann comes across as extremely bitter about the cuts demanded by the MPAA before they would grant the film an “R” rating. He seems to legitimately believe that War was his masterpiece, torpedoed by censorship. Nonsense. Tromeo & Juliet was his masterpiece, and has the Certified Weird laurel to prove it. Even in its uncut state, War is not the glorious adventure it’s made out to be.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Military movies just don’t get any more deranged that Troma’s War. All mega-munitions claims aside, this is one completely crazy entertainment.“–Bill Gibron, Pop Matters (Director’s Cut DVD)

LIST CANDIDATE: COME AND SEE (1985)

Idi i Smotri

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Elem Klimov

FEATURING: Aleksey Kravechenko, Olga Mironova, Liubomiras Lauciavicius, Jüri Lumiste

PLOT: A teenage boy loses his innocence when he joins partisans fighting against the Nazis in 1943 Belarus.

Still from Come and See
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Although in a number of ways Come and See is a conventional war movie, its unremitting bleakness, violent interruptions, and dream-like passages make it transcend the mold.

COMMENTS: The difficulty in writing about this movie is apparent from the title. The sights and sounds of Come and See carry the movie, and much of the narrative is embedded in the grimy and beautiful imagery. Although the string of events is fairly straightforward, our sense of time is thrown to the wind. Everything happens over the course of a few days, but the young protagonist, at the same time, ages decades from his experiences. I have not seen a  more harrowing war movie, nor would I really care to.

Come and See tells the story of a young man who is eager to join the local partisans who are charged with causing havoc with the occupying German forces. The opening shot is of the back of an older man’s head as he looks over a sandy field. “Hey, are you crazy?” he asks an unseen character, “What do you think you’re doing? Playing a game?” Soon after issuing some nebulous warnings, we find the man’s son, Florya, with a friend. They are looking for a rifle, as that is the requirement to join the partisans. They scour filled-in trenches, hoping to find a ticket into the group. An odd shot shows young Florya seemingly making love to the ground, his arms buried deep. He makes a climatic grunt and rises, holding in his hands a muck coated SVT-40 rifle. In this quasi-sexual act, he takes his first step in becoming a man.

Much to his mother’s distress, the partisans take him in. Thus begins a recurring series of close-up faces. Time and again, Klimov relies on the actors’ faces to convey the mood of the scene; sometimes full of wonder, sometimes eager, often tragic. He juxtaposes the mother’s anguished face at the news of her son’s enlistment with the happy grin of the boy who finally feels he has grown up. He meets with the partisans and seems to be accepted, even posing in a large group photo of the squad, taken by an enthusiastic Soviet sporting a jokey Hitler-mustache.

Shortly thereafter, when he is left behind by the militia, he cannot control his tears, until he finds Glasha, a girl around his age. Together they have an innocent encounter, set in a lush wet forest. This invocation of Eden is quickly cut off by a warplane. Bombs soon drop, along with paratroopers. Eden is destroyed—to be found again in a dreamlike sequence that starts off the next morning.

After that point, Come and See allows the viewer no hope of beauty. Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: COME AND SEE (1985)

TAKING AIM AT AMERICAN SNIPER (2015) AND CLINT EASTWOOD

recently took aim at Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper (2015) referring to it as two-dimensional hero-worshiping of a psychopath. True to form, Maher immediately drew the indignation of monosyllabic patriots like Sarah “let’s kill wolves from a copter, ‘cause it’s fun” Palin.

The National Glorification of Snipers Association was equally up in arms, proving Maher wrong with their “This film has made 200 gazillion dollars. The people have spoken!” [insert gavel sound] Of course, we may look at this as another illustration of Maher’s ongoing insistence that, by and large, Americans really are a stupid lot. After all, we love to throw our dyed green paper at anything that is merchandised to us, without scrutiny. We transformed the Scooby Doo Movie (2002) and Mel’s homophobe capitalist Messiah (Passion Of The Christ) into sacred, dumbed-down box office gold.

Clint Eastwood in Kelly's HeroesPerhaps the most nauseating example of a perpetually bored, illiterate American audience is its ongoing love affair with Clint Eastwood. It is tempting to write that I have lived long enough to see the actor turn into a 200-year-old blithering idiot. However, the fallacy in such a statement is that Eastwood has always been a blithering idiot who preaches to his choir of extremist right-wing Neanderthals and empty chairs (which are actually one and the same).

Criticizing such a fossilized institution as good old boy Clint might be tantamount to questioning the Old Pie in the Sky himself, or Dale “he died for our Budweiser sins” Earnhardt. Take your pick.

However, Clint and his generation of camouflaged hayseed worshipers should receive credit where credit is due, and one of those initial credits came from The Duke himself. , of all people, once criticized Eastwood’s brand of hyper-realistic violence. Wayne argued that while the Westerns he had made with John Ford were violent, they used stylized violence. Wayne clearly found Eastwood’s variety of fetishistic fascism to be a disturbing glorification of carnage. That is, until Wayne (or his agent) noticed all the ticket-booth silver being dolled out by the yokels to see their stoic, cinematic sociopath in action. Wayne, hypocrite that he was, then spent the rest of what little career remained appearing in pale Eastwood imitations, such as The Cowboys (1972) and McQ (1974).

Eastwood can and should also be give credit for having sucked all the mythological poetry out of the western; a poetry so carefully nurtured as “the Great American Art Form” by the likes of John Ford, Howard Hawks, , , and, above all—Aaron Copland.

In place of a sweeping, stirring, panoramic landscape, Eastwood and company gave us nihilistic sadism served up in a red, white, and blue Continue reading TAKING AIM AT AMERICAN SNIPER (2015) AND CLINT EASTWOOD

366 UNDERGROUND: BATTLE AT BEAVER CREEK (2014)

DIRECTED BY: Bryan Taylor

FEATURING: Matt Brown, Sheldon Graham, Corky McMechan

PLOT: In the near future, a volunteer travels to the Yukon border to fight with a militia against unknown invaders.

Still from Battle at Beaver Creek (2014)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s really just a very elaborate home movie, and not a particularly weird one at that.

COMMENTS: Every single person who appeared in Battle at Beaver Creek—every soldier extra glimpsed from a distance for a half-second, every motionless corpse—gets a video credit at the end of the movie, with a closeup  and their name in big letters. It’s both amusing and endearing, and reveals the kind of production this was—a bunch of guys out in a field together, making a movie! And, to their credit, they did make a movie—a coherent one, with a beginning, middle and end, a few nice ideas, and creative effects given the budget. Unfortunately, while that achievement is impressive, that doesn’t mean that you, as a member of the general viewing public, are going to be interested in seeing the result.

This is one of those movies where nothing much really happens, and you still can’t figure out exactly what’s going on. Introductory text explains that we’re 100 years in a pseudo-post-apocalyptic future, and the American government has developed mind control technology known as WEFI. We then see Chinese office workers turn into suicidal zombies for reasons that are never explained. TV tells us that an unknown force, possibly Chechens (?!) are gathering on the Yukon-Alaskan border to invade Canada, and a local militia is forming to oppose them. Our protagonist, who seems to be some sort of retired intelligence officer or something (his backstory is never explained) goes to join them at Beaver Creek, where he encounters mind control warfare.

The movie has a vision of the future that’s fairly plausible, and a few interesting moments (when an omniscient being appears in the sky, delivering lines like “I am your Lord God. You are an American projection”). But the downsides are formidable.  Essentially, as is so often the case for movies funded by credit card, the project’s ambition outstrips its resources. There are no professional actors in the cast; they can’t even find anyone to convincingly play an emotionless zombie. The use of stock footage can be distractingly bad (apparently, one hundred years from now, the U.N. Secretary General will be a dead ringer for former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad). Although the futuristic setting which mixes high cybertechnology with a fossil fuel shortage is rich, the script is still confusing, and it’s difficult to tell what exactly is at stake and at times even who’s who. The dozens of available extras are not enough to create a believable battle scene.

Most of all, there is simply not enough material here to create a feature film. The solution is to pad the film with endless walking scenes. Our hero begins walking to Beaver Creek at the 18-minute mark and does not reach the first plot point until the 27-minute mark. The fact that the Yukon scenery is beautiful and the cameraman experiments with different digital grains and arty dissolves does not change the fact that nothing is happening except a guy walking. And, after he finally does meet another character and they exchange a few minutes of additional exposition, it’s time to start marching again. The eighty-minute runtime seems interminable. Well-intentioned but, unfortunately, flat-out boring, Battle at Beaver Creek cannot be recommended to anyone but other low-budget filmmakers looking to copy the few good ideas here, and avoid the many pitfalls.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…one of those weird, cultish independent films that you may not think you’ll like, but eventually will.”–Amy R. Handler, Film Threat (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: IVAN’S CHILDHOOD (1962)

Ivanovo Detstvo

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Nikolay Burlyaev, Evgeniy Zharikov, Valentin Zubkov, Valentina Malyavina

PLOT: A twelve-year old war orphan serves as a scout for the Russian army, repeatedly sneaking over the border to report on German troop positions.

Still from Ivan's Childhood (1962)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: In his debut film, Andrei Tarkovky’s work isn’t yet confidently weird enough, although his decision to wrap this Soviet war drama in dreamy melancholic flashbacks (in stark contrast to the aesthetics of Socialist realism ) was a strong signal of the pioneering direction he would be taking.

COMMENTS: In many ways Ivan’s Childhood is Andrei Tarkovky’s most conventional work; it’s in a recognizable genre (the war drama) without obscure philosophizing, it’s of a “normal” length (compared to his epic works), and, since the director had not yet begun his experiments with minimalism and ultra-long takes, the pacing is comfortable. There are four dream sequences, but they are all idyllic and tasteful, nothing that would alienate the average moviegoer. So, if you have a friend who is intimidated by slow-paced, three-plus hour philosophical epics like Stalker or Solaris, or if you yourself just want to start in the kiddie end of the Tarkovsky pool, Ivan is the go-to movie. Although it’s stylistically gentler than his later movies, that’s not to say that this debut film is intellectually shallow or atypical of the maestro’s output: all of Tarkovsky’s intelligence and poetry is already on display here. Themes from future masterpieces—the preeminence of the dream, the symbolism of water, careful use of ambiguity—all make their first appearance in Ivan. Anchored by a gritty performance by young Nikolay Burlyaev, who straggles into a base camp half-starved and starts ordering a lieutenant around with the arrogance only a kid can muster but has the right touches of tearful vulnerability at key moments, the story has an easy-to-locate moral and emotional center. Ivan’s childhood has been taken from him by the war. For the most part the wartime scenes are dingy and dark, set in trenches or dirty bunkers. Even the river, the boundary of Russian and German territory Ivan sneaks across the border under cover of darkness, is shot mostly at night, turning it into a cemeterial swamp lined by dead trees. Ivan’s dreams of lost childhood, by contrast, are bright and airy, full of spiderwebs and butterflies and stars that shine from out of wells. Even a ride on a horse-drawn apple cart during a thunderstorm is shot in a negative image so that the shadowy forest glows around the boy. The film’s rhythm of pleasant dream interrupted by gunfire and the call to duty is effective. A relationship between the nurse Masha and Kholin, one of the three officers who together serve as Ivan’s surrogate fathers, interrupts the boy’s story, but is an interesting aside. When the older man catches the dark beauty alone in a copse of white birches, and it isn’t entirely clear whether the dance the two characters engage in is a prelude to seduction or rape. Masha, the only female in the army with a platoon of potential suitors, seems frightened by his commanding demeanor and probing questions; their relationship is never resolved, but the scene develops a great, nervous erotic tension that provides us perspective on an adult world beyond what Ivan knows. His boyhood is inevitably destroyed by the war, but Tarkovsky finds a way to send Ivan off to a heaven thinly disguised as a dream. The ending is one of the enigmatic, just-oblique-enough to pass the censors spiritual moments for which Tarkovsky became famous. Vadim Yusov’s brilliant, fluid black and white camerawork adds immensely to the successful debut of a great cinema talent.

Tarkovsky was given the chance to complete this movie, based on a short story by Vladimir Bogomolov, after another director had failed. Tarkovsky rewrote the script from scratch, adding the dream sequences over the Bogomolov’s objections. Valentina Malyavina, the actress who played Masha, would later serve nine years in prison for murdering a fellow actor.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Unlike Tarkovsky’s subsequent films, which began to rely more and more heavily on a minimalist approach and a reliance on long takes, Ivan’s Childhood has an eye-grabbing visual aesthetic that makes excellent use of elaborate camera movement, canted angles, and almost surreal compositions.”–James Kendick, QNetwork (DVD)

CAPSULE: WAR WITCH (2012)

Rebelle

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Kim Nguyen

FEATURING: Rachel Mwanza, Serge Kanyinda

PLOT: Rebels abduct a 12-year old girl from her African village and force her to become a soldier; when her military commanders decide she has magical powers, she is declared the army’s “war witch.”

Still from War Witch (2012)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The tiny dash of magic realism that’s added to soften the blow of the tragic realism isn’t enough to turn this all-too-believable drama into a weird movie.

COMMENTS: The blank-faced girl begins narrating her story to her unborn baby, in the process praying, “I hope God will give me the strength to love you.” It’s a harsh opening for a hard movie, but despite the themes of war, cruelty, and child slavery, War Witch finds ways to not be a complete downer. The plot has three clearly defined acts, each tracking a year of Komona’s life. It begins at the age of 12, when armed men in canoes storm the riverside shantytown she lives in, killing most of the residents and carrying her off as a slave. By 13 she has found a beau and hope for the future in the person of a young albino magician (named “Magician”) who courts her according to folk traditions, and by age 14 she is a woman of the world, having suffered enough pain and heartbreak for two lifetimes. Writer/director Kim Nguyen delivers plenty of gruesome and cruel moments but chooses not to linger over them, and lets beams of light pierce the darkness. The sunny Congolese locations, from the mysterious forest full of ghosts to the field of boulders (also full of ghosts) can be sublime. Komona and Magician (first time actors Rachel Mwanza and Serge Kanyinda) both do well and share a touchingly naïve romance, especially in light of the awful things they have suffered and the awful things they have been forced to do. There is a minor fairytale ambiance to the proceedings, what with the child witches and wizards, accusatory ghosts, and an evil warlord (known by the sobriquet “the Great Tiger”) ensconced in an improbably grand tower in the middle of the jungle. A visit to a hidden albino village to find a semi-mythological creature provides another fable-like moment. The movie accepts the existence of magic and never questions local superstitions; for example, a man casually asks for a gris-gris to protect him against war as payment for helping the children. After drinking “magic milk” (the hallucinogenic sap of a local tree), Komona gains the ability to see ghosts. The apparitions, corpses caked in white clay with blank eyes, are simple and effective, and they begin to haunt the girl everywhere. They warn her of an ambush set by government soldiers, allowing her alone to escape and giving her the reputation of a witch. The movie never gives us any reason to question the accuracy of Komona’s visions, which in the end take on a crucial psychological importance for the girl. Nguyen mixes childish imagination and voodoo practices with military reality to brew up a unique world we have not seen on film before. Unfortunately, with the fantasy elements stripped away, this world is far too recognizable from cable news broadcasts. “It’s a hard world for little things,” mourned Rachel Cooper in Depression-era Appalachia in Night of the Hunter; on another continent, in another millennium, her pronouncement still rings sadly true in War Witch.

At no point in War Witch does the movie explain what country it is set in, or who the rebels are or what they are supposedly fighting for. The movie was shot in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), however, and clues suggest that the action is set there, including the fact that the rebels fund their insurgency by mining coltan, an exotic mineral found mostly in the Congo. The Second Congo War, which officially ended in 2003, still lingers on with outbreaks of ethnic violence and warlordism to this day; it has been called the deadliest conflict since World War II. Some 30,000 children have been conscripted to shed blood for both sides. The notorious Joseph Kony, the cult leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, has operated out of the DRC, and may be the model for War Witch‘s Great Tiger.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… [a] gripping, surreal African child soldier drama…”-Ky N. Ngyuen, Washington Diplomat (contemporaneous)