Jay Ruud’s Movie Reviews
My lovely wife and I go to movies. Lots and lots of movies. And I have opinions about movies. Lots and lots of opinions. Here, I share them with you. Lucky!
My lovely wife and I go to movies. Lots and lots of movies. And I have opinions about movies. Lots and lots of opinions. Here, I share them with you. Lucky!
If you’ve been to Vienna, you almost certainly have visited the Belvedere Schloss, the great Hapsburg estate now used mainly as an art museum—and you have therefore had a chance to view the Gustav Klimt masterpiece, The Kiss. If you visited before 2000, however, you would have seen Klimt’s other masterpiece, known at the time as the “Mona Lisa of Austria”: his Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, known colloquial as the Woman in Gold. It’s not there anymore.
The new film from Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) starring Helen Mirren tells the story of why it isn’t, and why you can now see the painting here in the United States, at the Neue Galerie in New York City. The dramatic story of Maria Altmann’s (Helen Mirren) ultimately successful fight to recover the painting of her aunt Adele, stolen from her home by Nazis during the Anschluss of 1938, has been the subject of three previous documentaries (The Rape of Europa in 2006, Stealing Klimt in 2007, and Adele’s Wish in 2008), but is told here in narrative form for the first time.
The story begins in 1998, when Altmann, after the death of her sister, finds among her papers a record of a case dismissed 50 years earlier by the Austrian government, in which the family had tried to regain ownership of the Klimt portrait but were told that Adele herself had left the painting to the Belvedere in her will (which was never produced as evidence). Altmann enlists the aid of a young lawyer named Randol Schoenberg, played by Ryan Reynolds (The Proposal)—who happens to be the grandson of the famous Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg—and the two of them take on the Austrian art establishment and government and the American legal system all the way to the Supreme Court, and end up in an arbitration hearing back in Vienna. The film pulls no punches in depicting the Austrian government’s own shameful part in the affair, as unwilling to admit their own dark Nazi past.
The narrative alternates between the present day legal twists and turns of the case (in which Randol obsessively devotes himself to Maria’s case to the exclusion of his own wife and family and to the extent of losing his job) and the Vienna of the late ’30s in which we are shown the opulence of the Bloch-Bauer family and the threats, abuse, and larceny they suffer at the hands of the occupying Nazi forces. Maria and her husband ultimately attempt to flee the Nazis and come to America, but they must leave her parents behind, to an uncertain future under the Nazi regime.
These flashbacks are depicted as coming to Maria as she thinks of her past, and as memories are triggered when she visits Vienna for the first time in 60 years. These scenes of the past are more riveting than the rest of the film, and, even though we know that Maria escapes or she wouldn’t be having this memory, these scenes create more suspense than those set in the film’s present. Tatiana Maslany as the young Maria, is watchable and sympathetic as a strong-willed girl whom it is easy to imagine developing into the feisty Jewish grandmother that Maria becomes.
As for Mirren, she is as always remarkable in her performance, and she develops a believable chemistry with Reynolds, from the moment he enters her house and she scolds him like a mother for being ten minutes late but then forces strudel on him. Her frustrating wavering back and forth over whether she wants to pursue her case is understandable, though it ultimately drives Schoenberg past his limit. Reynolds is a little less believable: Perhaps anyone would look a little wooden acting next to Helen Mirren, but Reynolds is allowed only one scene of complex emotion, after he has visited the Holocaust memorial in Vienna and has come face to face with the Holocaust in his own family history. But I have a feeling there was a lot more to that side of Schoenberg that final cutting of the film eliminated: There are simply too many holes, and just a hint here and there about his motivations. He tells his wife that he went to Austria because of the money—The Woman in Gold has an estimated value of more than $100 million. But he has become obsessed with the case apparently for other reasons—we do see him later attend a concert of his grandfather’s music in Vienna. Other than that, however, we are left to guess at his emotional involvement.
More of a problem is Katy Holmes as Mrs. Schoenberg. We see her cuddling with her husband. We see her cleaning up dishes. We see her complaining when he quits his job without telling her. We see her telling him she supports him after all (we have no idea why). We see her leaving her house to have a baby. What we don‘t see is any kind of rational character arc for her or any scene in which either she or her husband has anything to say about their relationship. Again, and to a much larger extent than with Reynolds, it seems Katy Holmes’ part was either completely savaged in the cutting room, or was so poorly written to begin with that she was given nothing to work with.
There are a couple of remarkable smaller performances in the film: Daniel Brühl (Inglourious Basterds, Rush) is memorable as an Austrian journalist intent on persuading the government to do the right thing for Maria and other Holocaust victims, for, it turns out, significant reasons of his own. Elizabeth McGovern has a cameo as a smart and sympathetic judge, and Jonathan Pryce is delightful as Chief Justice William Rehnquist—who knew that man was such a jokester? But they don’t quite make up for the problems with Reynolds’ or with Holmes’ parts.
Overall, the film is an uplifting if a bit predictable story of justice achieved, of David defeating Goliath, of the ultimate triumph of virtue and the defeat of evil. The fact that it is a true story makes it all the more uplifting. And the film is beautiful, not only for the art but for the Viennese architecture and the cinematic recreation of the world of the 1930s. But in the end it could have been much better, if the Schoenbergs had been better realized. I’m going to give this two Jacqueline Susanns and half a Tennyson.
There have been dozens of movies about baseball, from the pure comedy of Walter Mathau’s iconic turn in The Bad News Bears, to the singing and dancing double play combination of Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly in Take Me Out to the Ballgame, to Tommy Lee Jones’ brilliant portrayal of a sociopathic star in Cobb. In honor of major league baseball’s opening day, this week’s “review” is actually a list of my top ten baseball movies ever. The three I’ve listed above are my honorable mentions Here are my top ten—watch ‘em if you haven’t seen ‘em!
10. 42 (Brian Helgeland 2013)
The breaking of baseball’s color barrier in 1947 is not simply one of the monumental events in baseball history, it is one of the most significant events in American history because the integration of America’s national game was the forerunner of the integration of American society and the success of the civil rights movement some 20 years later. The story had been filmed in 1950, the year after Robinson led the Dodgers to the National League championship, with Robinson playing himself in the title role of The Jackie Robinson Story. That film had sincerity and the integrity of Robinson’s performance, but was hampered by a short and episodic script that tried to cover Robinson’s boyhood, army service, UCLA career, and baseball career all in 76 minutes. The story itself as so dramatic, though, that it cried out to be remake on a larger scale with better production values. Robert Redford tried for years to put together a project that would have cast himself as Dodgers’ executive Branch Rickey, who took the chance of bringing Robinson into the major leagues on the condition that Robinson take the abuse he was sure to receive from fans and opposing players without reacting in kind. But Redford was never able to put the deal together to make the film. He had been preceded by Spike Lee, who through the 90s tried to develop a film that would have starred Denzel Washington in the lead role (how awesome would that have been!). But that did not work out either. Brian Helelund, who had won an Oscar for writing the screenplay for L.A. Confidential, and was nominated for another for writing Mystic River, gives us in this film not a full blown biography but a look at a brief segment of Robinson’s life—from his 1945 signing by Rickey (played against type by Harrison Ford) through his historic rookie season of 1947, climaxed by teammate Pee Wee Reese’s public stand against the public abuse of his teammate. Chadwick Boseman (Get On Up) is convincingly heroic in the lead role.
9. A League of Their Own (Penny Marshall 1992)
It took a woman director to bring their story to the screen, but Penny Marshall brought to the public consciousness the role of women in professional baseball with this movie about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, fielded during the Second World War as a way of drawing people to the ball parks while most major league stars were serving in the military. What began as a kind of novelty act ended up lasting from 1943 to 1954, and the film shows how it proved to be a serious outlet for athletic women who, though forced to play the game in short skirts which made it a bit difficult to slide into second base, proved more than up to the challenge. Geena Davis is memorable as the Rockford Peaches’ star catcher Dottie Hinson, and much of the movie’s story arc involves her sibling rivalry with her sister Kit (Lori Petty), the team’s best pitcher. The subplot focuses on Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks), an alcoholic former big-league player (inspired by ex-slugger Jimmy Foxx, who had managed the Fort Wayne Daisies in 1952) and Dugan’s struggles with involvement in a situation he seems to have his doubts about. It’s Hanks who gives us that so-quotable line, “There’s no crying in baseball!” Though Marshall’s film involves a fictional story and characters, it does place them on a real team and gives us a glimpse of an important chapter in baseball history that had been essentially forgotten, at least until 1988, when a wing in the Baseball Hall of Fame commemorating the league was opened, and sparked Marshall’s interest. Geena Davis’s character is loosely based on Dorothy “Dottie” Kamenshek, outfielder and first baseman for the Peaches and one of six women from the league to have been inducted into the Hall of Fame.
8. Fear Strikes Out (Robert Mulligan 1957)
Maybe a bit of a surprise on his list is this now slightly obscure film based on the Al Hirshberg biography of one of the game’s more troubled personalities, Jimmy Piersall. The film follows Piersall’s rise from his sandlot days to his breaking in with the Boston Red Sox at the age of 20 in 1950. Piersall suffered a nervous breakdown in 1952, however, displaying a bipolar disorder that led to his being institutionalized for several weeks that year. In the film, the mental break is depicted as the result of Piersall’s domineering and demanding father, and Jimmy realizes that his drive to excel at baseball had been all to please his father rather than for himself. The real Piersall, who went on to be selected to two all-star teams and win two gold gloves, eventually disavowed the film, saying that it made too much of his father’s influence on his mental condition. But the film is a surprisingly (for its time) sensitive portrayal of mental illness, and the young Anthony Perkins, three years before his iconic role in Psycho, gives a memorable performance as Piersall, as does Karl Malden as the unsympathetic father. Robert Mulligan, who was to go on to direct To Kill a Mockingbird five years later, received a Directors’ Guild nomination for outstanding achievement in this, his first feature film.
7. Moneyball (Bennett Miller 2011)
A baseball movie that romanticizes math geeks, Moneyball exposes the underbelly that is the business side of baseball. It takes the science of sabermetrics, the empirical analysis of baseball statistics as they apply to a player’s value to his team, and shows how a bold and relentless application of that analysis can lead to success on the diamond by adapting the real-life story of Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), general manager of the cash-poor Oakland Athletics, who, forced to field a team on a shoestring budget, enlists the help of ivy-league statistician Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) and, challenging the conventional baseball wisdom of his own scouts and his manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), puts together a team that wins a record twenty consecutive games and proves the old timers wrong. The appeal of the film to underdogs everywhere, to anyone who wants to challenge conventional wisdom, to anyone respects data-driven rather than anecdotal evidence, is undeniable. Pitt and Hill give remarkably sympathetic performances, and Hoffman, as always, is excellent—though it must be admitted that some of the details of the film (including Howe’s stubborn opposition) are inaccurate but are included to heighten the dramatic potential of the “true” story, as depicted in the 2004 non-fiction book of the same name by Michael Lewis. Still, the screenplay by West-Wing creator Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian, was nominated for an Academy Award. The film was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor (Pitt) and Best Supporting Actor (Hill) and two other awards, though it failed to win any. But director Bennett Miller (Capote, Foxcatcher) has put together a truly classic baseball movie that in some ways challenges the romance typical of other baseball movies, while at the same time gives the front office guys a chance to be he heroes and to win against overwhelming odds. Same story, different set of players.
6. Eight Men Out (John Sayles 1988)
John Sayles (Oscar nominee for the screenplays for Lone Star and Passion Fish) adapted the screenplay for Eight Men Out, the story of eight members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox team that threw the world series and were banned from baseball for life, from a book by Eliot Asinof. Sayles’ deft writing and direction manages to create a tight story arc from a complex situation reported in full in Asinof’s book. Sayles achieves this by focusing on two players in particular: third baseman Buck Weaver (John Cusack), who refuses to take part in the fix but fails to report what is happening to management and as a result is banned from baseball along with the theirs, and star pitcher Eddie Cicotte (David Strathairn), whose motives for taking the money are understandable but whose tragedy it is to fall with the others. The fact that the biggest star of all, Shoeless Joe Jackson, a player the stature of a Ty Cobb or a Babe Ruth in his day, is a sidelight in the movie is a brilliant and unexpected twist, making us familiar with the full range of the human suffering caused by the “Black Sox” scandal. In its way as important a story for baseball history as Jackie Robinsons’s itself, Eight Men Out is less interesting for non-fans who may be unfamiliar with the background of the story but it does demonstrate vividly what happens when the ideals of the game are compromised, and so has become more relevant than ever in baseball’s post-steroid era.
5. Bang the Drum Slowly (John D. Hancock 1973)
The year before his Oscar-winning portrayal of the young Vito Corleone in Godfather II, Robert De Niro starred in the most melodramatic of all the great baseball films. De Niro plays Bruce Pearson, a young intellectually challenged catcher who clashes with flashy team mate Henry Wiggen (Michael Moriarty) but then is befriended by Wiggen, the team’s star pitcher, who learns that Pearson is suffering from Hodgkin’s disease and the prognosis is fatal. Eventually the whole team and manager Dutch Schnell (Oscar-nominated Vincent Gardenia) get behind Pearson, whose play on the field improves even as his health declines, and Schnell and Wiggen conspire to let Pearson play the last game of the season, knowing it will be his last game. The film is of course a mammoth tearjerker, but is more about behind the scenes relationships among ballplayers. Mark Harris wrote the screenplay based on his 1955 novel, which had earlier been made into a 1956 TV movie starring Paul Newman in the Wiggen role. That’s a fascinating treatment, but watch the movie and the young De Niro practicing his craft.
4. Field of Dreams (Phil Alden Robinson 1989)
“If you build it, he will come.” Or maybe you like “Is this heaven? No, it’s Iowa.” When lines from a film become part of the idiom of the country, you know that the movie has struck a chord in the American psyche. Phil Alden Robinson wrote and directed this adaptation of W.P. Kinsella’s novel Shoeless Joe. The film was made when Kevin Costner was the top movie star in the country—before the disastrous Waterworld and the nearly career-sinking Postman. It was when Costner was typically hailed as the modern Gary Cooper, with a quiet strength, integrity and modesty that defined an American hero, and how much more American can a baseball movie be? Field of Dreams is a kind of magic realist romp in which three story threads are woven through the American pastime and come out reborn. Costner is Ray Kinsella, who builds a baseball park in the middle of prime Iowa farm land—a field that allows the great Shoeless Joe Jackson and his Black Sox teammates to return to life and play the game for the love of it once again. But it also restores Kinsella’s relationship with his father, who returns to play on the field as well. And it becomes the means by which Moonlight Graham, played memorably by an elderly Burt Lancaster in his last film role, returns to his youth and fulfills his lifelong dream of batting in the big leagues. Furthermore, it provides new inspiration of novelist Terrence Mann (a thinly disguised takeoff on J.D. Salinger played by James Earl Jones), who follows the players wherever it is they are going at the end. The field really is the place where lost dreams become possible. Baseball may be big business, but like the movies themselves it is also the land of our dreams, and this film captures that. Also, I can listen to James Earl Jones say “I’m going to beat you with this crowbar until you go away” all day long.
3. Pride of the Yankees (Sam Wood 1942)
Baseball’s best-known and most highly regarded biopic that leaves no dry eye in the house may seem idealized and sentimental to contemporary cynics, but this beloved film about one of baseball’s most beloved heroes stands up because of Gary Cooper’s remarkably sympathetic and understated portrayal of baseball’s Iron Horse, who considered himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” The film was made just two years after Gehrig’s untimely demise from the disease that still bears his name, and fans who loved baseball and loved Gehrig flocked to the film in surprising numbers. The movie garnered eleven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress for Teresa Wright as Mrs. Gehrig, and best screenplay, winning only in the editing category. Veteran director Sam Wood, who had directed the Marx Brothers in Night at the Opera and Day at the Races, as well as directing Goodbye Mr. Chips and The Devil and Miss Jones and serving an uncredited stint as one of the directors on Gone with the Wind, effectively tells the life story of Gehrig, the son of German immigrants who attends Columbia University and goes on to follow Babe Ruth in the Yankee lineup known as “Murder’s Row.” Ruth plays himself in the film, as does Yankee catcher Bill Dickey, which adds realism and glamor to the film, but it is Cooper, in the third of his five Oscar nominated roles, who owns this picture, and who gives the character of Gehrig the everyman quality and modest greatness that the actual Gehrig apparently possessed in real life.
2. Bull Durham (Ron Shelton 1988)
Kevin Costner’s appealing performance as “Crash” Davis, a career minor league catcher, gives this film its soul, and strong supporting turns by Tim Robbins as Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh, a rookie pitcher bound for the big leagues, and Susan Sarandin as Annie Savoy, a Durham Bulls groupie who sets her sights on Nuke but finds herself drawn more and more powerfully to Crash. This is a romantic comedy with minor league professional baseball as its setting, but it is professional baseball depicted more realistically than it has been in any other film, colored as it is by the experiences of writer/director Ron Shelton, who spent five years in the minor leagues himself before turning to Hollywood. Bull Durham’s 97% rating on Rottentomatoes.com is the highest of any baseball movie, and Sports Illustrated named the film the greatest sports movie of all time. Shelton’s script won a Writer’s Guild of America award for best original screenplay, and was nominated for the Oscar. It is a great script, not just because of the realistic look at minor league baseball, but because of the witty romcom dialogue and the chemistry between the characters. This is a story you would care bout even if the characters weren’t baseball players.
1. The Natural (Barry Levinson 1984)
Of all the baseball films ever made, The Natural is best at capturing the mythic nature of the game. Set in baseball’s golden era, when it was truly the national pastime and allowed people some relief from the rigors of the depression, the film’s depiction of Roy Hobbes as a heroic warrior with a kind of superhuman ability, a true knight on a quest to restore the fertility of the Waste Land that is Pop Fisher’s legacy and bring his team a pennant, hits nearly every note for the archetypal “hero” myth. Robert Redford, like that other number 9, Ted Williams, wants only to be the best there ever was in the game, but his childhood sweetheart Iris, who stands up so that he sees her in the grandstand surrounded by what looks remarkably like a halo, teaches him that a hero must be more than a good hitter. Is it overly sentimental? Is it too predictable, changing the ironic antihero of Bernard Malamud’s novel into a Homeric warrior? Maybe from one point of view. But can any real baseball fan resist Roy’s literally knocking the cover off the ball? Or the fireworks of that magnificent climax when his blow puts out the lights? Was baseball ever truly like this? If not, well, it should have been.
In the Bible, Leviathan is the name of the chaos monster defeated by Yahweh in pre-Biblical Hebrew mythology. He appears in isolated places in some of the Psalms that probably predate the composition of Genesis, and is described in detail in the book of Job, when God confronts him from the whirlwind and puts an end to Job’s questioning by showing the mortal man how impossible it is for him to understand God’s power and the construction of His universe. The Leviathan represents the chaos of the world without God’s supervision.
In the 17th century, the English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes adopted the term to symbolize the opposite—not chaos but the order of government: for Hobbes, human beings in a state of nature are greedy, selfish, and violent, in a constant state of war with one another, so that human life in its natural condition is “solitary, nasty, brutish, and short.” But art (as opposed to nature) has created what Hobbes calls “that great LEVIATHAN called a COMMON-WEALTH, or STATE.” Human beings thus, for the sake of their general welfare, willingly surrender their freedom in a social contract that gives government—the great Leviathan—its power.
Director Andrey Zvyagintsev plays with both of these connotations in the title of his latest film. Most obvious is the allusion to Hobbes. Certainly the film is about government, and the small town on the Russian coast of the Barents Sea which forms the film’s setting is a microcosm of contemporary Russian society. The film’s protagonist, Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov), a handyman and odd-job automobile mechanic, lives on a hill in a house passed down to him from his grandfather. He has a wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) and a teenaged son Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev) from a previous marriage, and we see friction between the two of them from the beginning. Lilya tells Roma to wash instead of being “like an ape,” and he tells her “you’re the ape.” And it does seem that Zvyagintsev goes out of his way to portray the animal nature of his characters: Kolya in particular is quickly angered and prone to turn to violence as his first response, but other characters are motivated by greed and lust as well. And while the characters are distinctly Russian, they also embody a kind of universal human nature of the “hold my beer and watch this” variety, though in this case it’s “hold my vodka and watch this.” Kolya’s old army buddy Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), now a lawyer from Moscow, is able to restrain Kolya’s violent impulses when he arrives to represent Kolya in court, where he is appealing the forced purchase of his property (at a paltry sum) by the town’s mayor Vadim (Roman Madyanov), essentially a thug who controls both the police and the local courts with the sanction of the Orthodox church. If Dmitri represents Hobbes’ view of the purpose of the Leviathan of government—the restraint of human nature by the rule of law—then Mayor Vadim is Zvyagintsev’s critique of the Hobbesean view. For isn’t the major flaw in Hobbes’ argument the fact that governments of necessity are made up of human beings, people who are just as susceptible to the viciousness of human nature as those they purport to govern? Can someone as selfish, greedy, and vile as Vadim possibly manage to wield power in the interest of the common good?
In Zvyagintsev’s world, government is not Hobbes’ overarching power imposing order on society, but rather the Biblical Leviathan, the chaos monster of the deep, the cause, not the cure, of the “solitary, nasty, brutish, and short” lives of its citizens. It cannot be otherwise under a brute like Vadim. And Kolya, who like Job himself is in danger of losing everything in the film, is moved to “curse God and die” (in the words of Job’s wife). Kolya appeals to a minor local priest at one point, after running into him at the general store where the priest is buying bread and Kolya is buying vodka. He asks Job’s question of the priest—essentially the question of why the innocent suffer. In response, the priest gives the answer God gave Job (41.1-2):“Can you draw out Leviathanwith a fishhook, or press down his tongue with a cord? Can you put a rope in his nose, or pierce his jaw with a hook?” which is to say, “Who are you to question God’s power?” In a curiously idiosyncratic summary of the book of Job, the priest tells Kolya how, after Job was reconciled with God, he had a good life and lived to be 140 years old. When Kolya asks “Is that a fairy tale?” the priest responds, “It’s in the Bible.”
That, of course, is not an answer to the question of whether the story is a fairy tale. Just as God’s response to Job is not an answer to his question about innocent suffering. The fact is that innocent suffering is only a philosophical problem if one presupposes a universe ruled by a benevolent deity. If one believes in a meaningless universe, suffering is simply part of the equation. The question matters to Job, and perhaps to Kolya, because they still have faith that God is not a fairy tale. But in a world governed by the Vadims, by the chaos monster, one can expect nothing else. Scenes of Vadim with the local chief priest only serve to underscore the irony of the story. The title page of the 1651 edition of Hobbes’ Leviathan depicted a giant (the Leviathan of government) with symbols of secular rule on one hand and the Church on the other, as the two pillars of government. Church and state are joined in Kolya’s village as well, but as the story progresses it seems clear that if indeed the god of this church had tamed the Leviathan of this government with a fishhook, it was not to subdue the chaos but rather to maintain and profit by it.
Although the performances are impressive—Lyadova is agonizingly troubled and complex as Lilya,Madyanov appropriately slimy and disgusting as Vadim, and Serebryakov as Kolya expressive of the most extreme of emotions without hamming it up—the real stars of the film are the script (co-written by Zvyagintsev and Oleg Negin), which won the award for Best Screenplay at Cannes in 2014, and Mikhail Krichman’s cinematography: the stark, treeless and rocky landscape of the Barents Sea coast, above the Arctic Circle in northwestern Russia near its border with the northern edge of Norway, provides a brooding but magnificent background for this brutal tale. The waves pounding on the rocky shore present a stunning visual image of the chaos monster that governs all in this barren world.
And the film abounds with other memorable visual images. Playing on the modern association of the sea-monster Leviathan with whales, Zvyagintsev gives us a startling shot of the skeleton of a huge beached whale near Kolya’s village, perhaps a visual symbol of the hollow, rotted corpse of Hobbes’ Leviathan of orderly government, completely dead in the Russia of the film. In another scene, looking for his son, Kolya visits a group of teenagers hanging out in the abandoned ruin of a church (the spiritual equivalent of the whale skeleton), where he sits drinking vodka near a fire whose sparks fly up through a hole in the ceiling—a visible representation of the famous maxim from the book of Job that “man is born to trouble, as the sparks fly upward” (Job 5.7). Paintings and photographs also carry bold suggestions in the film: in one scene between Vadim and the chief priest, a painting of the Last Supper hangs in the background between them, and we must wonder which of the two characters is the Judas in this scene. In another such meeting, a painting of Salome with the head of John the Baptist provides the background: what other saints, we are forced to consider, are being sacrificed by corrupt rulers for motives of lust or greed? In a darkly comic scene that needs no explanation, when the men go off to drink and have “target practice,” one of them brings large photographs of previous communist leaders—Lenin, Brezhnev, Gorbachev, et al.—to serve as targets. Finally, and perhaps most boldly, when we see Vadim in his office, he is always framed with a picture of Vladimir Putin behind his back—a not very subtle association of the corrupt village government with that of the nation as a whole.
This is a film of mostly unrelieved misery. Like our natural lives, it is nasty, brutish, and at 140 minutes not very short. But I highly recommend your seeing it. Here are my top five reasons you ought to go to go to this film if you can find it at a theater near you:
First, though it’s not exactly the feel-good movie of the spring, it’s an excellent film. It was nominated for an academy award this year for best foreign language film, and won the Golden Globe and the BAFTA awards in that category for 2014.
Second, it has a script that appeals not only to the heart with its startling and realistic details of the pain of human lives, but also to the mind with its exploration of political and social themes.
Third, it is a beautiful film that you can sit and enjoy visually, even if you want to ignore the subtitles completely and don’t have any idea what’s going on.
Fourth, it gives an uncompromisingly critical view of corruption in modern day Russia. Indeed, it is remarkable that the film could have been made in Russia at all, let alone that it should have been the country’s official entry in the Academy Award competition. Russia’s Minister of Culture, Vladimir Medinsky, dislikes the film so much that he has proposed new state guidelines to censor films like this one that “defile” the culture and government of mother Russia. Since Americans often enjoy seeing things that make us feel superior to Russia, you might find this film satisfying, especially since we have absolutely no corruption or greed among our own government officials.
And fifth, we are in the doldrums of the American movie calendar, when film after film coming out of the Hollywood wasteland either insults our intelligence, puts us to sleep with its cliches, or has enough senseless violence to make us sick to our stomachs. If you have the opportunity to see Leviathan this week, now that it has finally reached the remote areas of Central Arkansas, opt for it rather than another soulless murder fest or pointless teen comedy. In the end, you’ll feel it was time much better spent. Four Shakespeares for this film.
Though it was little noted in the United States, on April 3, the BBC reported that an Islamist jihadist rebel group in Mali called Ansar Dine (“Defenders of the Faith”) had taken over the ancient city of Timbuktu and had imposed its own extreme fundamentalist version of sharia (Muslim law—literally “pathway”). This included the veiling of women, the stoning of adulterers, the mutilation of thieves, and the prohibition of such frivolities as smoking, music, and soccer. It was also announced that northern Mali, with its capital at Timbuktu, would secede from the nation of Mali and form its own independent government.
Timbuktu was a city of about 55,000 at the time of the takeover, but with the announcement of sharia nearly all of Timbuktu’s Christian population fled the city. By early June, a group of Timbuktu residents had formed an armed resistance, calling themselves the “Patriots’ Resistance Movement for the Liberation of Timbuktu.” The city was reclaimed on January 28, 2013, by Malian soldiers and their French allies, facing virtually no resistance from the jihadists. When Malian president Dioncounda Traoré visited the city five days later, he was met with ecstatic cheers.
In 2014, filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako from Mali’s northern neighbor Mauritania produced the film Timbuktu, set during this turbulent period. Acclaimed in Europe, it became the first Mauritanian film ever nominated for a “best foreign film” Oscar. The film premiered in the United States January 28, and has finally made it to Central Arkansas. This is a film you really should see if you are serious about films and if you are tired of the kind of dreck Hollywood is trying to push off on us this time of year. In the first place, it is a beautiful film to watch. As my wife said, it’s like National Geographic come to life.
But what Sissako does best in this brilliantly crafted film is put a human face on the civil war in Mali. Those very human faces belong to the cattle herder Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed aka Pino), his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki), daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed), and their 12-year-old hired shepherd boy Issan (Mehdi Ag Mohamed). The family lives peacefully in the dunes outside of Timbuktu and are generally able to stay aloof from the repressive laws that disrupt the lives of those living in the city. In Timbuktu, the jihadist government establishes improvised courts issuing absurd proclamations that would be laughable if they did not so painfully affect human lives in the city. The invaders need layers of interpreters to make themselves intelligible to the natives of Timbuktu. They machine gun priceless archeological relics in the opening scenes of the movie, like most religious extremists having no respect for or interest in human culture, history, or education. Women are told they must wear socks and gloves in the heat of the Sahara. A group of young people are whipped with eighty lashes for singing in their own home. A couple is buried in the sand up to their necks and stoned to death for adultery.
Kidane and Satima debate whether to stay in their home or leave the area and go into exile as all of their neighbors have done. But Kidane is happy where he is and enjoys playing his guitar in his open tent under the stars. The theater audience, having seen what happens in Timbuktu to those who value joy, can only wish that he would follow his more realistic neighbors. The threat of the jihadists encroaching on Kidane’s pastoral world takes the very physical form of the Libyan jihadist Abdelkerim (Abel Jafri), who drives out to visit Satima every day to ogle her while hypocritically telling her to cover her head. Just as he smokes on the sly while enforcing the law against it, he is party to the death sentence for adulterers while lusting for a married woman. It is Abdelkerim who puts a human face on the jihadists, and his foibles are not unsympathetic, but more than anything he personifies the fact that the invaders ae not really interested in religion, but rather in the power that they can claim in its name. This becomes even more apparent in a scene in the city in which one of the jihadists visits a young woman’s mother to ask permission to marry her, and when he is turned down, threatens to take her by force—which he does, stealing her in the middle of the night and marrying her by force, an act justified by the leaders of the jihad through tormented logic and blatant hypocrisy.
It is only a matter of time before Kidane must be drawn into this mess in which the lunatics are running the asylum. When the fisherman Amadou kills his favorite cow “G.P.S.” Kidane confronts him and a quarrel erupts, ending in the accidental death of the fisherman and putting Kidane into the hands of what passes for justice in Timbuktu. Nothing but tragedy can possible ensue, and the film ends on a note of hopelessness that would be unbearable if we didn’t know that the jihadists would be out of power soon.
Well, most of the American audience probably doesn’t know that, and it is a very difficult film to watch. Particularly when we know that there are various other places in the Arab world where such oppression occurs today. But Sissako’s film does two things that suggest the human spirit can transcend even the most irrational of oppressors. First, it shows an American audience that Islam does not have a single face: the Imam of the Timbuktu mosque (Adel Mahmoud Cherif), who acts as a kind of chorus figure throughout the film, seems to represent the majority of Muslims as he asks of the invaders, “Where is piety? Where is God in all this?” Secondly, the film shows the spirit of the people, symbolized by a group of the city’s children playing the forbidden game of soccer with an invisible ball as a silent protest against the invaders. Whatever happens, there is hope in the children—even in the anguished face of Kidane’s daughter Toya as she runs across the desert as the film fades out.
This film will not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s a movie that would be well worth your while. Three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare for this one.
In Kenneth Branagh’s new retelling of the classic fairy tale, when her fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) prepares to put her in a stylish new dress, Cinderella (Downton Abbey’s Lily James) stops her, insisting that she wear her mother’s classic old gown, with just a little touching up and color added. The brief scene is a metaphor for the entire film: it’s a flashy, colorful reboot of the familiar story that parallels fairly closely Disney’s seminal 1950 animated film. And like Cinderella’s dress, its elegant old-school style outshines more innovative recent versions of traditional fairy tales.
This is not to say that the film is precisely the same as the earlier Disney classic. Chris Weitz’s script gives enough new material to give his audience a bit of insight, if not sympathy, for the motivations of Cinderella’s stepmother (a brilliant Cate Blanchett), and a good deal of sympathy for the Prince’s father, the old king (a superb Derek Jacobi). Cinderella’s backstory is given a bit more space, and we witness her happy childhood her sympathetic parents, and a wrenching deathbed scene with her mother (Hayley Atwell, Captain America: the Winter Soldier), in which her mother gives her a code to live by: “have courage and be kind”—a code that governs her life and that she passes on to her prince. In today’s cynical world, the simplicity and sincerity of that sentiment may seem hopelessly outdated, but the film plays it straight and makes you want to believe it. It’s a deathbed scene that Weitz parallels later in the film between the Prince and his father, who likewise leaves his son with a prescription for happiness.
Nor, of course, does this live-action film feature talking and singing (and sewing) mice—though fans of Jaq and Gus won’t be disappointed in Ella’s somewhat more subtle communication with her own pet mice. And there is no “Bibbity-bobbitty-boo” song (though that highlight of the cartoon version does get a bit of a shout-out), but there are a few computer generated special effects that provide some magic to the transformation of the pumpkin, the mice, and lizards, and a goose who becomes the coach driver. But the film does not rely on effects, and it doesn’t rely on a revisionist feminist reading of the fairy tale (as Disney did in last year’s remake of its Sleeping Beauty cartoon in Maleficent).
Branagh has the wisdom to know that the reason the classic stories survive for centuries is not because clever contemporaries rewrite then to make them flashy and new. They survive because there is something universal in them. The plot of this film is nothing if not predictable. It is, after all, the story of Cinderella, and the story as it has been perpetuated over the years and as it has been loved over the years. The traditionalist in Branagh extends even to the incredibly retrograde act of using actual film rather than digital recording in shooting the film. Its costumes are gorgeous, its colors vivid, and its sets sumptuous.
And though it relies on a few magical effects, it depends more on character made real by an intelligent script and real human performances, led by Richard Madden (Game of Thrones’ Rob Stark), who plays the young-and-in-love prince not as a sappy romantic but a sincere young idealist, and by James, who could be nauseatingly saccharine in such a role but instead comes across as believably good and naturally kind.
It’s precisely that goodness and kindness that could make adult audiences in 2015 look at the film with jaded eyes (the kids will feel no such compunction). Wouldn’t it make a better story if Cinderella rebelled against her virtual imprisonment, fled her home and came back with a band of soldiers or at least a lawyer, to take back her ancestral home from her usurping stepmother. And she could follow this by leading a revolution against the old king to create a new democracy, be elected its first president, and marrying the prince who would become the First Gentleman in her new White House. And sure, that would be quite a story, but it wouldn’t be Cinderella.
Some such reimagining could occur to a writer who saw Cinderella’s traditional role as one of passivity and weakness, that of a victim who needs a Prince to come along as a deus ex machina to deliver her from a situation she has no power to remove herself from. But a close look at what Cinderella does in the movie dispels any notion of passivity or weakness. Cinderella always has the power to leave her situation, but the house is her family estate and is the symbol of her loving family, so her staying in her situation is an act of courage. In returning good for evil from her stepmother and stepsisters, she not only follows her mother precept but is an example of an almost saint-like kindness, an attitude we can scoff at if we wish, but what does that say about us?
In the end, Cinderella presents herself to her prince as nothing more than the simple soul that she is: “Will you take me as I am, an honest country girl who loves you?” Take it or leave it, this is the fairy tale as it has survived through the centuries, and it is the film that we have. Branagh shows us that the old virtues are not dead, and that the old ways of making films and telling stories are still viable. Three big Tennysons for this worthwhile film for the whole family.
There are certain movies about which my wife has to constantly remind me “You’re not the intended audience,” and I find that to be true more and more the older I get. There are many ways, though, in which I probably am the intended audience of Matthew Vaughan’s (X-Men First Class) latest effort, Kingsman: The Secret Service: I mean, chiefly it’s a spoof of old-school James Bond flicks from the ’60s to the ’80s, and has a sound track of ’70s and ’80s tunes to prove it. As someone who grew up with Dr. No and Goldfinger, I couldn’t help but be drawn in to the world of the movie, and though Colin Firth’s Harry Hart is somewhat nerdier than Sean Connery’s Bond, his stiff upper-class British lip and bullet proof umbrella make him a formidable secret agent in that same tradition. But the film’s over-the-top violence left me repulsed and, frankly, confused about what the point of it all was.
The film is based (what isn’t, these days?) on a popular comic book series from Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons about a super-secret organization of spies dedicated to battling evil. The group is like a modern Round Table of idealistic knights dedicated to the chivalrous battle for the cause of right: The head of the organization, “Arthur” (Michael Caine) sends his knights errant (Firth’s code name is “Galahad”) out on quests to rid the kingdom of its enemies—it is no accident that the organization is called “Kingsmen.” Anyone familiar with medieval history knows that chivalry was all about class. Early in the film, Hart instructs a group of working class toughs that “Manners maketh man,” and proceeds to beat them into submission with a very polite ass-whipping. The entrance to his secret organization is through a haberdashery on Savile Row, and is accessed with the password “Oxfords, not brogues.” The new Round Table, like the old one, is made up of the noble class.
In this story, a ruthless multi-billionaire Silicon-valley magnate named Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) is bent on saving the world from global warming by killing off the entire human population (with the exception of a handful of the very rich and the very powerful), and plans to do it by offering everyone on earth free cell phone and Internet service, through which he will be able to command them to annihilate one another. It’s the sort of elaborate plot and lunatic villain typical of the old Bond films, and has the kind of climactic scene in which the Bond character beards the villain in his den in a confrontation in which the survival of humanity hangs in the balance. Just another day’s work for a Kingsman.
Behind the elaborate plot is a fairly typical initiation story, focusing on the young street lad Gary “Eggsy” Unwin (Taron Egerton), the son of a former Kingsman recruit killed in the line of duty while saving Harry Hart’s life. Eggsy, with a home life controlled by an abusive, gangster-connected stepfather, seems to have nothing but a dead-end future waiting for him. Harry recruits the young Eggsy to fill the slot of another slain agent, Lancelot, and after a series of impossibly competitive training exercises, Eggsy proves to be more than the equal of the snobbish little twits he is competing with—except for one young woman, Roxy (Sophie Cookson, charming in her first screen role), who predictably becomes his sort-of romantic interest. So in part this is a film about class in a way that will have more to say to a British than an American audience. “Manners maketh man,” Harry Hart says, and with this in mind Eggsy transcends his environment, learns the manners of a Kingsman, but keeps his street-savvy. What else would you expect?
Egerton is likeable in the lead role, learning to transform his congenital James Dean into an acquired Sean Connery. Firth is unflappably delightful as the seasoned spy, and Michael Caine, who never met a role he didn’t like, is quite proper in a part that takes a bit of an unexpected twist. Mark Hamill, a.k.a. Luke Skywalker in another life, in what amounts to little more than a cameo, plays a kidnapped eco-scientist forced to assist Valentine in his insane schemes. Hamill’s role is something of a private joke: In the comic books, the scientist kidnapped by Valentine’s henchmen is actually named Mark Hamill. Vaughan stages a minor coup in getting the real Mark Hamill to play the character, whose name is changed to Professor Arnold for the film. But it’s kind of a treat to see Hamill working, if only in a small but noticeable part like this one.
It is Jackson who really steals the show in the acting department: His incredibly campy performance as a lunatic billionaire who lisps, wears his baseball caps turned to the side, and plans mass murder but vomits at the sight of blood, is such a bizarre twist on his usual tough-guy persona that he had me in stitches through much of the film.
Those are the parts of the movie that seemed likethey were speaking to me. Then there were the other parts that went off the rails. Scenes in which Valentine’s henchwoman “Gazelle,” played by dancer Sofia Goutella, slices and dices her enemies with bladed metal feet, for instance, were interesting in a stylized way but soon became brutally redundant. Or when the heads of dozens of Valentine’s super-rich, confident of their invulnerability, begin exploding like so many firecrackers on the Fourth of July—an image reinforced by the music of “Land of Hope and Glory” playing in the background.
But the showcase scene of the movie, a veritable orgy of violence, occurs in an evangelical Kentucky church of the all-too-common sort that masks ignorance, bigotry and hatred under the cloak of Christianity: (Warning: spoiler alert here) In the scene, Harry is attending the service and, at an electronic cue from Valentine relayed through everyone’s free cell phone, the entire congregation in the church turns into programmed, maniacal killers, and a melee begins in which everyone present, including Firth, is trying to kill everyone else. They use knives, axes, guns, a flagpole through the chest, and their bare hands to stab, chop, shoot, gouge, mangle and destroy one another until, by the end of a scene that never seems to end, Harry has managed to kill literally everyone in the church, all to a background of Leonard Skynard music. Perhaps, because the hundred or so parishioners have been presented unsympathetically to that point, we are meant to feel nothing for them. Perhaps the fact that the whole scene is filmed as if it is a video game, but using real people instead of computer graphics, is intended to distance us and objectify the violence. The scene is technically astounding but morally repugnant. Perhaps there is a point being made about the danger of blurring distinctions between film and reality, film being just as unreal as video games, especially in these days of computer-generated special effects. Or perhaps that is a distinction that today’s generation of film-goers does not even think of making—if so what does that fact say about the ability of contemporary films to make any emotional impact on audiences?
Yes, Honey, I know, I’m not the intended audience. If you’re like me, you probably aren’t either. I’ll give this one two Jacqueline Susanns and half a Tennyson, for the parts I did understand.
I’ve never been a huge fan of the whole “Based on a True Story!” thing, the note that you see at the beginning of movies that I assume is supposed to make the audience sit up and take note, that is supposed to give the film the weight of authority that couldn’t possibly attach to those made-up stories that could never happen. I imagine that’s why nobody ever cared about Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings, and why, say, Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, Citizen Kane, and The Godfather were such flops with audiences.
Of course that’s absurd. What appeals to us in movies, in novels, in plays, is the narrative. The stories that we hear help shape our consciousness of the world, not the other way around, and what appeal to us most are stories that reflect what Jung called the archetypal patterns of our minds. What appeals to us is the quest, whether it is Sir Galahad’s or Frodo Baggins’; the fall of tragic figures, whether Oedipus or Michael Corleone; the comic resolution of the barriers to love, whether for Kate and Petruchio or Maria and Captain von Trapp; and sometimes even the crushing of the human spirit by natural forces too much for our yet indomitable souls, whether in Moby-Dick or Still Alice.
The opposite of that is also the case: there is an archetypal appeal to the story of one who succeeds against all odds, whose spirit carries one to triumph beyond the malign forces arrayed against him. Certain war stories have always reflected this kind of narrative. In modern America, this archetype is often seen in the area of sports. Think what a great story it will make when the Cubs finally win a world series. In films, we’ve seen this archetype play out from The Natural to Chariots of Fire to Hoop Dreams. One of the most effective manifestations of this archetype on celluloid is David Anspaugh’s 1986 film Hoosiers, in which Gene Hackman plays a coach who lost a previous college coaching job for striking a student, and is hired by a small rural Indiana high school as essentially his “last chance” and, against all odds, is able to turn a small group of mainly unremarkable players into a state champion team.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that this is precisely the same plot as the new Kevin Costner vehicle MacFarland, USA, a Disney film directed by Niki Caro (Whale Rider). In this film, set in 1987 (the year after Hoosiers hit the theaters), Jim White (Costner) loses his job coaching high-school football in Boise after an incident with a mouthy student and must move his family to the only place he can find that will hire him: a high school in McFarland, in California’s San Joaquin Valley, one of the poorest towns in the United States, populated almost exclusively by Hispanic farm laborers. He is hired to teach life science and P.E., and as assistant coach on the football team. He and his family are uncomfortable in the town and with their neighbors—one of his daughters voices the wish that “Dad will lose it again, and we’ll get to move somewhere else.” And White doesn’t understand the people and generally assumes the worst of those he meets. He, too, is clearly hoping that he can weather a year at MacFarland and find a better job—he feels he couldn’t find a worse one.
Having lost his assistant coaching gig after a disagreement with the head coach, White begins to notice that some of his students are particularly good at long-distance running, as he observes them running (since they can’ afford cars) to school and out to work in the fields. It occurs to him to start a cross country team, though MacFarland has never had one and he himself has no experience coaching one. Yet he recruits seven student athletes (played mostly by actors from MacFarland or surrounding towns) and forms a team, though his inexperience is evident in their first meet, against a team of privileged white kids from three prep schools. But White finds ways to improve his coaching and the students’ training, and the team begins to surprise people as the season goes on.
So far I know this sounds like a huge cliché (down-and-out kids saved from lives of poverty or even crime, a la Sidney Poitier in To Sir with Love), perhaps made worse by the insulting implication that the people of this town need to be shown the way to succeed and happiness by the white (literally White) savior who swoops in and changes their backward ways (a la Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia). But you say cliché, I say archetype, and there wouldn’t be so many movies of this type if the basic story arc of the triumphant underdog were not so powerful for audiences.
Nor does a familiar story necessarily lack quality if it is well told and well acted. Costner, the plain spoken, never flashy Everyman, the Gary Cooper of his generation, is easy for Anglo viewers to identify with (as he was in Dances with Wolves). This story, like that one, begins with his character in ignorance about the people among whom he is living, and ends with his growth into an informed empathy with his students and their families. He works with three of his students in the fields, he visits their home and breaks bread with them, he sees the hard labor of the kids and their parents to put food on the table and their frustrations in the face of grinding poverty. The movie is not about the white coach saving his students from lives of crime and rescuing them from their abusive parents. There are no villains here, unless it is an economic system in which one’s future is largely the product of the accident of one’s birth.
There is something incongruous in the title “McFarland, U.S.A.”: it evokes the myth of the American dream, and the film is in many ways a modern Horatio Alger, rags-to-riches story. But the “riches” in this case are really merely high school graduation and the opportunity for a college education that under most circumstances are available to all Americans. Here is a case where even those basic expectations are beyond many families, and the result of this Disney movie is not, in the end, a reaffirmation of the American dream but rather an ironic—perhaps unintentionally ironic—censure of a society that promulgates the myth but erects barriers to its fulfilment for a good section of its population.
This is a feel-good movie that makes good use of the archetypal underdog sports story. But more deeply it is about success attained by teamwork, not just among the runners, but among the entire community—the school, the parents, the students, and the coach—who find a way to achieve success in an incredibly difficult situation. A minor concern of the film is whether White will actually accept a job offer from a rich school district that his coaching success at MacFarland has earned him, but the movie is predictable enough that you can be pretty sure that the outcome of that will be a replay of Sidney Poitier’s final shot in To Sir with Love.
In addition, of course, the story of McFarland has what my colleague Philip Anderson always calls the “minor virtue of being true.” I said at the outset that this was never something that necessarily recommended a movie to me, but it certainly adds a layer of interest to this film as the “where are they now” ending details the subsequent lives of MacFarland’s first seven cross-country stars. Cynics might scoff at the feel-good ending and the predictable plot, but most viewers are going to be moved by the story, and it will give them plenty to think about as well. Three solid Tennysons for this one!
Ruud Reviews Movie Rating Scale
This is a great film.
You need to see it, or incur my wrath.
This movie is worth seeing.
I’d go if I were you. But then, I go to a lot of movies.
2 Jacqueline Susanns
If you like this kind of movie, you’ll probably be entertained by this one.
I wasn’t all that much.
1 Robert Southey
This one really isn’t worth your money. If you’re compelled to see it anyway, at least be smart enough to wait until you can see it for less money on Netflix or HBO. If you go see it in the theater, I may never speak to you again.