2014 Movie #11 – Ender’s Game (Gavin Hood, 2013): Orson Scott Card is a homophobic ass, but he wrote some great books and the one this movie is based on is arguably his best. The movie isn’t the equal of the novel, but it was much better than I feared it would be. It has some great visuals and some decent action pieces. It also features several decent performances, not least from Asa Butterfield who played Ender. The character as portrayed in the film is less nuanced than in the novel (lacking much of that Ender’s youthful arrogance) but is still interesting. The movie does explore some of the relationships that were so significant in the novel, but not to anywhere near the extent the novel did (particularly disappointing is the lack of development of Ender’s rival and friend Bean). Probably the biggest weakness of the film as an adaptation is that most of the novel takes place in Ender’s head. It was not really a big flashy adventure, but the movie tries to make it into one. The filmmakers deserve credit for injecting some of the moral ambiguities of the novel into the film, especially the idea of how Ender and the other children are rather callously used in pursuit of victory. Overall it is worth seeing, but you should really read the novel if you’ve not done so.
2014 Movie #12 – The Sun (Alexander Sokurov, 2005): This is a biographical movie about Emperor Hirohito during the last weeks of World War II and the beginning of the occupation – except it isn’t. Sokurov seems to have had no interest in either who Hirohito actually was or in the events of that time. He depicts a Hirohito who seems to be a version of Charlie Chaplin’s “little tramp” – a somewhat innocent scamp who happens to be the God Emperor of Japan. This likeness is reinforced by scenes where he gazes, for no discernable reason, at pictures of Hollywood stars – especially Chaplin and a scene where unruly American news photographers begin calling him “Charlie” during a photo session in the imperial garden. Issei Ogata’s portrayal affects a strange physicality that is sometimes reminiscent of Chaplin and at others is reminiscent of someone with Down’s syndrome. There are some wonderful scenes, such as one where the emperor is trying to frame a letter to his son about the surrender or a dream sequence where flying fish become American bombers, but overall this film left me cold. This could be more a personal than an aesthetic reaction. My professional life has centered on the reality of historical lives. The more artists simply ignore that reality in support of a vision that has no grounding in it, the more hostile I tend to become. I’m not sure if this is a “bad” movie, but I didn’t react well to it. It may be worth revisiting at a later point for that very reason.
2014 Movie #13 – The Professionals (Richards Brooks, 1966): There was an article about this on the A.V. Club website that inspired me to revisit this film. It comes in the midst of the mid-60s era of grittier westerns (same year as “The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly” and three years before “The Wild Bunch”). It is a movie about greed, honor, and stained idealism. It features five icons of manly cool (Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, Woody Strode, and Jack Palance) facing off in the fierce desert. It is too awesome for words.
2014 Movie #14 – Elmer Gantry (Richard Brooks, 1960): I recently watched “The Professionals” which was also written and directed by Richard Brooks and also starred Burt Lancaster. I think this movie is the best film depiction of American religion ever made. I don’t mean faith (although it deals with that) or religious truth, but with the social and cultural practice of religion in America and particularly that American invention, revivalism. We see true belief and cynical calculation; devotion and hucksterism; patriotism mixed with religion; mass media intersecting with faith; and the inspiration and mistakes that come of the cult of personality – all in one movie. Lifting this even higher is a cast of beautifully realized character. I’ve never seen a bad performance from Burt Lancaster, but this is his best (and for which he won his only Best Actor Oscar). Elmer Gantry is a con-man who truly believes, and it is only his belief that makes him such a good con-man. This also features (all in my opinion, of course) career bests from both Jean Simmons and Shirley Jones (who also won an Academy Award for this film). This film also features a stand-out performance from one of the best American character actors of all time, Arthur Kennedy, as the agnostic reporter Jim Lefferts. All of this is built on an Oscar-winning screenplay by Richard Brooks. Andre Previn was nominated for the score. This is a movie of big scenes and quiet moments. If you haven’t seen it yet, go do so at once! You’ll be in for a treat.
A quick note for any of you who actually read these; I didn’t write anything about “Sunset Boulevard” last night because I just wrote something about that last summer and didn’t have anything to add.
2014 Movie#15 – The Raid: Redemption (Gareth Evans, 2011): The writer/producer/director is Welsh but the film is Indonesian. This is an action film that has gotten a lot of positive critical buzz (though definitely not from the late Roger Ebert) which it deserves – to an extent. This is a story which is lean to the point of emaciated (SWAT team raids Jakarta crime stronghold – there is some minor character stuff and a corruption angle, but that’s about it – and Things Go Wrong). This is basically an hour and forty minute long series of action sequences – extremely well-done and choreographed action sequences. The fights don’t quite rise to the cinematic level of the original “Oldboy” but almost. The pacing is relentless, save for the last boss-fight which drags a bit. In some ways this movie reminded me of the original “Assault on Precinct 13” (the 1975 John Carpenter movie, not the pedestrian remake from 2005). It has the same intensity and claustrophobic feeling that movie had in its second half. It also has visceral and gritty violence – be warned. If you love well-done martial arts films (as I do), this is your cup of green tea. This has been a general success with both critics and fans, so a Hollywood remake to screw it up is, of course, already in the works.
2014 Movie #16 – Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Anthony and Joe Russo, 2014): Here is a big budget action movie that surprised the hell out of me. I thought I’d probably enjoy it, but I didn’t expect to find it impressive. I was impressed. Not “Citizen Kane” impressed, but still impressed. When the press about the making of this film began, I had one big question: what the hell is Robert Redford doing here? Mr. “Sundance Film Festival” certainly didn’t need a career reboot, or the money, so what was up? Having seen the movie, I get it now. First, this was technically good. Not just the big effects, but polished film-making. Most notably, it was well-paced. Enough “high voltage action” to make billions of the dollars, but there was also time for – gasp – character development. I also never had the feeling I get with many modern action films that the action sequences are pointlessly long. It worked. But that wasn’t why I was impressed.
The movie did two things that I found impressive and both concerned story and character. First, it took the Steve Rogers story as presented in the first movie as a way to talk about how war veterans so often come home to find they don’t exactly fit. Rather than just using Roger’s being a “man out of time” as either schmaltz or just comedy, they used it to give him a connection with modern war vet Sam Wilson (“Falcon”) and to say something real about the world we live in. The second thing that impressed me was at the core of this story, the civil war inside SHIELD. Redford as an actor brought what was necessary to make his character more than, well, a comic-book villain. Instead he and Hydra come to embody the very real part of our own country that sees order and security as being worth paying any price. This thinking is what gives us Guantanamo Bay and NSA surveillance. There was always something sinister about SHIELD, with its power and its lack of transparency and a tension between that and it being on the side of our heroes. Rather than just wave hands and say, “well, they’re the good guys” this movie put that tension front and center. Redford’s portrayal of Alexander Pierce sold the reality to ground the movie, but Samuel L. Jackson winds up embodying the conflict. He obviously loves the scary lethal machines and the power they represent. In many ways, his coming to see the problem with that power is a more profound development than Steve Rogers giving up being the “good soldier” and becoming a real hero. This is weighty stuff for a “comic book movie”. I think this was really good… even better than The Avengers.
2014 Movie #17 – The Unknown Known (Errol Morris, 2013): This documentary about Donald Rumsfeld was excellent. It bookends nicely with the filmmaker’s 2003 film on Robert McNamara, “The Fog of War”. Both deal with men who were in leadership positions during controversial wars. Both deal with men who were frequently the smartest guys in the room (or at least thought they were). Both films use extensive interviews that allow their subjects to write their own indictments with their own words. What is somewhat depressing is how each of these guys basically followed the same trail of ambition combined with a certain view of American national security into bloody and intractable conflicts and how both men seem incapable of seeing their own culpability in these events. See this!
2014 Movie #18 – RocknRolla (Guy Ritchie, 2008): Regular readers of my little reviews will know I have a soft spot for British crime dramas. This is one of them. This is a solid, but not exceptional, caper film of the same sort as “Layer Cake”, etc… It is very worth watching if this is your cup of tea, but nothing is being transformed here. The best thing about this movie is the cast: Tom Wilkerson, Mark Strong (you’ve seen him in something), Idris Elba, Toby Kebbell (trust me, you probably have seen him too) Tom Hardy, the usually criminally under-used Thandie Newton, and Gerard Butler – who is actually allowed to do some acting in this movie. The two best scenes in the movie center on dancing. Watch them.
2014 Movie #19 – The Fighter (David O. Russell, 2010): I’m a few films behind with this director, having not seen either “Silver Linings Playbook” or “American Hustle” yet. Russell managed something rather impressive here; he told a story about overcoming addiction, dealing with family, and winning a world title – and managed to make it not saccharine. In form, the movie is “Rocky” – ordinary guy from the streets comes from behind for the big win. Add in he has a brother who is a former fighter and a current crack addict. Then add an insane family and finding The Right Woman. You’ve seen the whole damn thing before. What makes this great is that Russell and the actors find the truth in this true story. When we see redemption and triumph, it is earned. The key to much of the success is the performances; Mark Wahlberg is good, Amy Adams is great, but Melissa Leo and Christian Bale make the movie work. She sells every bit of being an insane and toxic mom… who really does love her kids. Bale takes his charming crack-addict character and sells both sides of that equation. You see the screwed up addict and you see the guy that everyone loved. When the big fight comes and we hit that point where our hero needs to come from behind, it is Bale who makes it work. He gives a low voiced speech that sets up the “come from behind win” and makes it feel real – not like the cliché it could so easily seem. Excellent movie.
2014 Movie #20 – The Swimmer (Frank Perry, 1968): This is a surreal film from a man who specialized in surreal films, Frank Perry. His first movie was “David and Lisa”, a love story featuring two mental patients which tried to show the world through their perceptions and his most famous movie was the Joan Crawford biopic, “Mommie Dearest”. After the first cut of the movie, Perry was fired by producer Sam Spiegel (and, evidently, Burt Lancaster, who stars in the film) and a young Sydney Pollack was brought in to do some re-shoots and finish the film. This movie, based on a John Cheever short story, follows a man (Lancaster) on an afternoon in affluent suburbia as he swims through neighbors’ pools across the county on a route home. The whole thing is filmed as a kind of dream turning into a nightmare as it becomes obvious that he is denying his own memories and holding onto illusions about his life. We watch him progress through the movie and, pool by pool and encounter by encounter, have his poise, his charm, and even his masculinity taken from him. We see a man who had been filled with illusions about himself and who had those illusions broken and so retreated into delusions. Lancaster makes this film great. Lancaster enters the movie like, well, Elmer Gantry, all blue-eyed confidence and masculine charm. At the end, he is left shattered and crouching outside the locked door to an empty house that isn’t his home anymore. Lancaster sells every step of that journey. Technically, I didn’t find the movie that interesting. The camera work is good, but not fantastic, earning more points for being willing to experiment than for being successful at doing so. The music score, by first-time composer Marvin Hamlisch, is really a bit over-wrought. The places this movie works are in the screenplay (by the director’s then wife, Eleanor Perry) and in the performances. Many interesting cameos here by Kim Hunter, Diana Muldaur, and others, including the film debut of a young Joan Rivers.
I somehow saw this film when I was a kid, but didn’t understand it. Still, that last image of Lancaster crouching outside his empty house stayed with me. Many years later, in college I think, I read the short story and remembered the movie (being pre-internet, I couldn’t just look up that there had been a film adaptation). I’ve intended to re-visit this film for a long time, but just now got around to it. I’m very glad I did. The movie is a decent example of the kind of film that began to appear in the late 1960s and then disappeared after 1977, but it is made great by a performance by one of the finest movie actors ever (yes, I am a major fan of Burt Lancaster). It is well worth the seeing.