Tag Archives: War

CAPSULE: WAR WITCH (2012)

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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)

CAPSULE: JACKBOOTS ON WHITEHALL (2010)

DIRECTED BY: Edward McHenry, Rory McHenry

FEATURING: Voices of Ewan McGregor, , Rosamund Pike,

PLOT: British farmers unite with Churchill and Scotsmen to repel Nazis who invade London by

Still from Jackboots on Whitehall (2010)

tunneling under the English Channel.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The idea of an absurd Nazi invasion of England acted out by children’s toys is odd and appealing, but the premise is undercooked, and never hits either the weird or (more importantly) the comic notes that it should.

COMMENTS: Hitler in a dress!  That should be funny, right?  It could be either a great punchline, or the beginning of a running series of gags that see (for example) der Führer more concerned with what’s going on with his hemlines than with developments on the front lines.  But Hitler’s transvestite cameo is emblematic of the problem with Jackboots.  The joke is never developed; the movie just trots out the dictator dressed as the Queen of England, with a pearl-handled Luger, and expects us to laugh.  Although the occasional amusing one-liner slips through the fog of war (usually delivered by in his dead-on Churchill impression), for the most part Jackboots‘ quips don’t exactly stomp on your funny bone.  They’re sparse, as well.  A lot of time is devoted to chuckle-free dramatic scenes between big-handed farmhand turned soldier Chris (McGregor), his lady-love Daisy (Pike), and her disapproving Vicar father (Grant), as well as to intricate battles between plastic Panzers and Punjabi guards that—considering they’re enacted with toy tanks fighting Ken dolls in turbans—are more thrilling than expected.  Jackboots is part WWII movie parody (with a roughneck American pilot who thinks the Nazis are Commies), part clever historical references (the defeated Brits retreat to Hadrian’s Wall, and the Germans are fearful of pursuing where even the Romans dared not go), and part pure silliness (a Braveheart spoof takes up a large part of the last act).  There is a running undercurrent of mock-prejudice against the Scottish (who are depicted as cannibals in skirts) that must be funnier to U.K. residents than to those in the U.S. and elsewhere—at least, I hope it is; otherwise, it’s just another Jackboots comic misfire.  The movie manages to be unique without ever finding its own voice, which makes it interesting without ever being engaging.  Mainstreamers hoping for a script with the sly gross-out humor of Team America or the pop-culture savvy of TV’s “Robot Chicken” (which uses the same action-figure aesthetic as Jackboots) will be disappointed, if not angry and frustrated, by the oblique comedy on display here.  But even if it’s not riotously funny, little touches like a ghoulish pig-nosed Goebbels, a cat who looks like Hitler, puppet gore, and an attack vanguard of bazooka-wielding Nazi dominatrices in black lipstick should be enough to keep weirdophiles watching to the end.

Though the end result is mediocre, Jackboots‘ crazy synopsis managed to attract top-notch cult British acting talent.  Besides McGregor, Pike, Spall and Grant, the voiceover cast includes Alan Cumming (as Hitler), Tom Wilkinson (as Goebbels), and (as Himmler).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…for sheer oddity value… must rank as some kind of collector’s item.”–Henry Fitzherbert, Daily Express (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: CARMEL (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Amos Gitai

FEATURING: Amos Gitai,  (voice)

PLOT: A series of autobiographical reflections mix with impressionistic recreations of a battle between Romans and Jews and poetry read by Jean Moreau.

Still from Carmel (2009)


WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Although there are a few moments of effective weirdness, most of Carmel is too personal to convey much meaning to anyone other than its director.  Far too much of the movie is misty flashbacks of characters we can’t place fondly reading letters from relatives we don’t know.

COMMENTSCarmel is a confusing movie, and its lack of urgency about telling a story combined with disinterest in avoiding dull patches doesn’t serve it well.  To give it its due, it does announce itself as a “poem”—one supposedly “about people, what they think and what they want and what they think they want”—providing ample warning that, if you don’t like to read poetry, you’re probably not going to like this movie.  Of course, that’s a very different proposition from saying that if you do like to read poetry, you will like this film.  Scattered interesting images and turns of phrase aren’t enough to make great verse; good poetry, after all, exhibits focus, discipline, and communication, which are Carmel‘s weak points.  That said, Carmel does turn a few fine film phrases, which save it from being a complete, solipsistic waste of time.  The first of these phrases happens early on, when Gitai evokes an ancient battle between Romans and Jews.  Moreau narrates the battle over Hebrew dialogue, and, further in the sonic background, an English-speaking voice (could it be Sam Fuller, who makes it into the credits?) chronicles the exact same events, but out of phase with the primary narration.  Visually, two (sometimes three) overlapping images play onscreen at the same time, all featuring centurions in horsehair helmets battling robed Jews by torchlight.  The effect is dreamy and abstract, rather than chaotic; this montage would be successful if were extracted and presented as a short film all its own.  We fast-forward in history for the film’s second meaningful moment, which also utilizes the overlapping dialogue motif.  A father (Gitai himself) is searching for his recently-deployed soldier son at a gas station.  He shares coffee with the attendant, but their attempt at conversation, while taking the outward form of a dialogue, drifts into the two men delivering two completely unrelated monologues.  A metaphor for Israeli-Palestinian relations?  Both those bits occur in the movie’s first third, and (besides an unexpected re-occurrence of the battle scene at the movie’s midpoint) we have to wait almost to the end before encountering the movie’s third interesting interlude, a bizarre bit involving a young couple who wander into an old woman’s home during a terrorist attack, borrow gas masks, recite prophecies and poems, briefly make out, and leave when the air sirens fade out (promising to return for a chat if they’re ever in the neighborhood).  The vast valleys between Carmel‘s high points, however, are filled with autobiographical boredom.  There are pretty establishing shots that establish nothing, and lots of readings of old family letters that lead to pastoral flashbacks.  Characters are shown, but not introduced.  Who is the red-haired boy who writes letters home from boarding school?  One of Gitai’s sons, maybe the one who later becomes a soldier, or Gitai himself as a kid?  (It doesn’t help that the lad looks like no one else in Carmel, not even the kid Gitai is shown auditioning to play the role of his son in [another?] movie).  Who is the pretty brunette woman shown endlessly looking at herself in the mirror while an opera aria plays—a younger version of Gitai’s mother?  Of his wife?  A daughter?  The familial relationships, along with the symbolism, can probably be untangled, but the author gives you little inducement to want to figure out who is who or what they really want, as opposed to what they think they want.  It’s all important to Gitai, but he never makes it important to us—the film seems aimed at an audience of one.

The “Carmel” of the title may refer to Mount Carmel, which is associated with the Old Testament prophet Elijah. There are several other towns and settlements in Israel called “Carmel,” including one that was involved in the Bar Kokhba revolt against the Romans in the second century A.D.—could this be the site of the battle shown in the film?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Gitai seems to care little about what the audience will glean from this oddity, which is its strength and weakness… fuses documentary, narrative and stream of conscious forms in creating a singular, occasionally exasperating, work.”–Mark Keizer, Box Office Magazine (contemporaneous)