This was a weird crop of movies. When I made my initial queue way back, I just kept adding movies as I recalled I hadn’t seen them. Essentially, I would just wrack my brain, saying “OK – What else haven’t you seen?” and then just add them as they popped in my head. Since then, I’ve done my best to randomly shuffle the list so I never know what’s coming next. To date, I haven’t bumped one movie to the top. I just watch them in the order they show up and I try my best not to peek and see what’s coming next.
So, I was a bit surprised to see that 3 out of these 4 share one common theme. Specifically, they revolve around death. And while the odd man out doesn’t actually feature a death, it does feel like one could happen at any moment.
The final unifying factor. There isn’t a bad one in this bunch. All 4 are excellent choices and one of the them has become one of my favorite movies of all time. All told, not a bad week!!!
On with the show (and as always – Please comment below).
Earlier this year, I wrote about my absolute heartbreak suffered from viewing the latest Indiana Jones flick. I’m not even going to waste the words and type out the title, that’s how much disdain I carry for that sorry excuse of an unofficial Mummy sequel. Anyway, my pain was felt in triplicate. For starters, Indiana Jones was my Star Wars – a beloved property from my childhood that stayed with me all the way through. I can’t wait to show Colin and Aria the original Raiders. Secondly, I had a raging head cold the evening I saw the film but went out to see it to insure I caught the film on opening weekend, as I had for every single one of the previous films. I would have been better off in a Thera-Flu induced coma. And finally, the element that really pulled a Mola Ram and tugged my heart out – the fact that Steven Spielberg had his name on the finished product. After all, Spielberg was my childhood hero, he is the guy who made me love movies, and most of his filmography ends up on my various Top Ten Favorite Film lists in some shape or form. Hell, I think I’m the only person on this Earth who laughed with 1941 and not at it.
As much as I hankered for a classic Spielberg adventure, it’s apparent that as I aged and matured, so did he. I mean, look, before Schindler’s List, he hadn’t directed anything harsher than a PG-13. Since then, he has presented such uncompromising works as the aforementioned List, Saving Private Ryan and Amistad.
Munich may be his most mature work yet. I mean that as no disrespect to Schindler’s List, which is his most heart-felt. But Munich is fierce and angry and unlike Schindler’s List, it lacks even an ember of light.
Munich begins with a dramatization of the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games. Spielberg does a good job of starting with the actual incursion and then deftly pulls us all around the world, united by television broadcast, as the world sits perched on the edge of the abyss. While in 1972, terrorism was not a new concept, this is one of the first indications that the revolution will be televised.
It’s a good 15 minutes before we meet Eric Bana’s Avner, an established Mossad agent who is drafted by Israel’s Prime Minister Golda Meir, to lead a splinter group of agents and strike back at those who planned the Munich massacre. Avner and his team are stripped of their identities and country affiliation and set loose into the world – tethered to Israel only by a secret stash of cash that perpetually refills and funds their wetworks.
Spielberg’s film plays for the most part like an espionage thriller. There are shadings of Hitchcock, particularly in a sequence involving a bomb rigged to explode when a phone is answered and the sudden arrival of a target’s daughter. Many of these sequences are taut and surprising, made all the more thrilling by the fact that a lot of this really happened.
But as the film progresses and Avner’s path of vengeance winds up and down Europe and the Middle East, an unsettling pall begins to settle over the proceedings. It becomes apparent that this eye-for-an-eye vengeance only leaves all parties blinded, fumbling away in the dark while stronger entities with clearer vision and new reasons to kill emerge around them. This all culminates in a subtle, but chilling, final image that provides a compelling explanation for the real world climate of fear we currently reside in.
Spielberg also takes huge risks in telling the tale. At the beginning of the film, the terrorists are demonized. But as Avner and his crew get close to each mark, we are surprised at their ordinariness. The first target is a gentle old man prone to giving street performances to the delight of children. Many of the others project similar normalcy. This comes to a head when Avner finds himself booked in the same safe house as his next target and the two share an impromptu discussion about the importance of home, of having a country of one’s own and thus having a true identity. It’s in this passage that the film makes a compelling argument for the terrorist’s cause, a segment that apparently drew the ire of Israel upon this film’s release.
Now, I may not be writing from either side of the fence but Spielberg is one of the most honest, respectful and responsible Jewish men – a man who has done a great service to his people and the world in relaying their heartache and desires to achieve peace in this world. I don’t think anyone has the right to question his allegiance. I think he is just in his decision to look at the situation from all angles to better understand the motives on all sides. It’s responsible storytelling and he should be commended for it.
Once upon a time, I may have grooved to Spielberg’s flights of fancy but these days, it’s his take on our real world dramas that lift my spirits high.
2. Little Children
This is a movie that I was clamoring to see based on three factors. It looked to tread the same ground as American Beauty (a film that I adore). Secondly, it was directed by Todd Field, who wrote and directed the masterful In the Bedroom. If you haven’t seen that film, I implore you to check it out. It’s a great, New England-set drama.
Finally, Little Children stars Kate Winslet.
True confession, time. I’ve harbored a crush on Kate Winslet ever since Titanic. Now, I didn’t go all moony over her and return to see that film 15 times in the theater (I couldn’t. This was back before advanced ticketing via movietickets.com and Leo’s pride of chicks had bought up all the seats for the next six months. It would take a decade but I would have my revenge. All those sold out midnight performances of Twilight? All me, baby!!!). But man, did I dig that Winslet. And I wouldn’t be a red-blooded American male if I didn’t mention that Winslet’s accent and aversion to roles that require clothing helped seal the deal.
Anyway, Little Children was almost everything I was hoping for. While it does share that American Beauty vibe – with a slightly surreal take on suburban hell – I feel that it lacks the emotional release that American Beauty ultimately earned. In Beauty, Kevin Spacey’s Lester is a compelling antihero who almost does the unthinkable before being reigned in by his better judgment. He finally learns to embrace the true beauty in his life. Of course, he learns that about a moment too late.
Little Children follows a similar course but I felt a little depressed by how little the characters learned. If anything, this film is probably more sad and traumatic than American Beauty. I’m usually a sucker for dour flicks but I liked Kate Winslet’s character, I yearned for her to find an escape in her life, but ultimately, I was put off by her actions towards the end. I won’t say much more about that – I don’t want to spoil things.
I will touch on a few revelations that really work. First, Patrick Wilson plays “The Prom King”. OK, that’s not his character’s name but it is the nickname bestowed upon him by the gaggle of housewife hens who stare at this stay-at-home Dad and his son whenever they enter the local playground. Winslet plays the one woman who dares to approach “The Prom King” and ends up striking up a friendship with him – one that begins to work at the layers of sad resignation that both characters have spackled on their hardened exteriors. Wilson plays a true lost boy – a guy who has realized that although he’s married to a beautiful wife and has a wonderful son, he hasn’t made the mark on the world that he thinks he should have. And he feels time slipping by. And he’d like to rage against the machine but he’s a bit too beaten down by it to voice more than a whisper. To a guy whose greatest creative accomplishment is Lost recaps on this Blog, that resonated a little bit.
I also really liked Field’s use of the Frontline narrator to provide insight into the various personalities flitting through this suburban fantasia. His voice grounds their actions while amplifying their absurdities. It’s not a new device, Alfonso Cuaron used it to great effect in Y Tu Mama Tambien, but the inclusion here works very well.
Uniting the whole picture perfect neighborhood in angst is the return of Ronnie McGorvey (James Earl Haley) – an introverted guy living with his Mom who was shuttled off to prison on an indecent exposure conviction. His return to the neighborhood is a pox upon this community – or more succinctly, the catalyst for the powderkeg.
Haley is a former child actor, best known for playing the cool rebel in the Bad News Bears movies. His appearance in this film is shocking, with his transformation to scrawny pedophile playing havoc with our memories of this kid. Thin as a rail, with a balding, speckled head holding onto a few patches of hair he resembles a live-action Gollum and his personification of this story’s monster lends the work a similar melancholy. Haley’s been away from acting for almost 13 years which is what makes his performance even more mesmerizing. It’s a tough act getting an audience to sympathize (somewhat) with a supposed pedophile but he pulls it off. This role earned him the key role as Rorschach in the upcoming adaptation of Alan Moore’s The Watchmen and I can’t think of anyone better suited for that role.
3. The Corpse Bride
I am a huge fan of Tim Burton films and The Nightmare Before Christmas so I have to ask this question. How did I miss this flick for so very long?
In my piece on Munich, I mentioned that a part of me longed for the films Spielberg used to make (before actually experiencing one this past summer at which point I recanted my desires). The same goes for Tim Burton, who appeared to hit a rough patch a few years ago with troubling misfires like Mars Attacks and Planet of the Apes.
Perhaps I view Burton’s missteps under a magnifying glass as he has certainly hit way more than he’s struck out. Case in point – The Corpse Bride – which features the same stop-motion animation that lent Nightmare its black magic. While I hold Nightmare dear as a beloved cross-holiday classic (the only seasonal film you can start running on October 1st and close the year out with), I think The Corpse Bride may be the better story of the two.
In The Corpse Bride, Edward (voiced by Johnny Depp) is nervously anticipating an arranged marriage that his parents have devised to get themselves out of the poor house – salivating over the life-sustaining dowry they will no doubt inherit. Unbeknownst to them, his fiancée’s parents are also in dire straits. A variety of circumstances push Edward into the woods where he inadvertently ends up speaking his vows to the titular bride and ends up marrying his way into the underworld. The film then follows Edward’s frantic dash to rid himself of one wife while desperately trying to hold onto his life.
While The Nightmare Before Christmas works as a devilish wink to those old Rankin-Bass holiday specials we grew up feasting on, The Corpse Bride tells a genuinely effecting love story. I was entranced by the story of Helena Bonham-Carter’s tragic bride and her search for true love. The character, as outlandish as it may seem, is never played broadly and there is real pathos in her plight.
Once again, Burton teams with longtime collaborator Danny Elfman, who contributes a handful of winning songs as well as one of his best scores in years. I’ve always associated Elfman and his creepy, kaleidoscopic melodies with Burton but over the last few years he has tried to branch out, working for a number of different directors and layering the soundscape for varying films including Mission Impossible, Proof of Life and Wanted. I think Burton brings out the best in Elfman or more succinctly – they complete each other.
I’m glad I dug up The Corpse Bride.
4. Into the Wild
I wrote a whole piece about this film a few days ago and I urge you to read that. Or better yet, see this film and then read that piece. Whatever you do, see the film. It is without a doubt, one of the best movies I’ve seen in my life – just one of those flicks that comes along in your life at just the right time and place and melds with your DNA. It touched something deep in me and opened my eyes to one true life tale of a guy discovering his destiny. At heart, it made me want to be a better person.
I’m trying not to hit too many of the same points that I touched in that post so I’ll fill in some blanks. First off, the description. This is a true story. Sean Penn adapted Jon Krakauer’s best-selling book which told of Christopher McCandless desperate journey to Alaska, his trek into the wild and more importantly – deep into his soul.
Emile Hirsch plays McCandless and it is a career defining performance from a guy just getting started. Last month, I wrote about Speed Racer, which also starred Hirsch. This is a phenomenal young actor who is making some real compelling choices and will be a force to watch. His transformation into McCandless is stunning and when Penn closed the picture with a real-life shot of McCandless, I was hard-pressed to tell the difference between actor and subject.
I mentioned in my prior piece that I was really impressed by the ensemble that Penn drafted to color this tale. One guy that I have to single out is Brian Dierker who plays the “rubber tramp”, Rainey. Rainey is in essence, the real-world embodiment of Jeff Bridge’s The Dude and here comes the best part. He’s not an actor. This is his first film. He was hired on as instructor for the white-water rafting scenes and Hirsch ended up recommending that Penn cast him in the pivotal role of Rainey. Their camaraderie is so natural and the guy gives a phenomenal debut performance. I was shocked to find out he had never acted before and only did so in this film, accidentally.
I could write volumes on this story. I’m not so sure I agree with what McCandless did, or at least how he went about doing it (specifically the latter part of his adventure), but I knew and respect why he had to do it. Sometimes we’ll sacrifice anything for a moment’s peace and clarity. Ultimately, he did this to save himself.
An amazing film!!!