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January 16, 2014


Discussed here:
Pain and Gain
Fruitvale Station
Captain Phillips
The Fifth Estate
American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street are discussed in their own post.

I am well aware that nine films are way too many to include in a single entry. I apologize. Last year I created two sections entitled "Relationship Movies" I and II; there were just so many of them. Not so much this year. For a while now, the true story has been in the process of becoming the favored source over original screenplays, and one can hardly sit through a series of trailers without hearing "Based on a true story" at least once. So this year there are two entries for true stories. In "Based on a True Story" I include films that are more concerned with a cultural zeitgeist than the particular individual at their center. In "Biopics" I include films that chart the course of a single person's life or a chapter in that life. Even though 42 is about integrating baseball -- and by extension, civil rights generally -- it is still predominantly a movie about Jackie Robinson's life, and I have chosen to place it in "Biopics." Fruitvale Station is about a single event that ends an individual's life that speaks to the larger problems of race in the U.S. so I have put it in "Based on a True Story." I don't think the distinction has been particularly successful except to divide these films into two batches.


Tommy Lee Jones does yeoman's work as General Douglas MacArthur in Peter Webber's Emperor even if it's hard to get over the fact that we're watching Tommy Lee Jones. The question at the heart of the movie -- and central to the historical record -- is whether Japan's Emperor Hirohito sanctioned the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The person tasked with penetrating the imperial rank and file to determine Hirohito's possible role in the attack is Gen. Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox). There is also a gratuitous love story between Fellers and a Japanese woman he knows from before the war. The film is oversimplified in the way that history is oversimplified in public school textbooks, though I did learn one thing that I guess I should have known but did not. I knew about the war between China and Japan that erupted in 1937. What I did not know is that, in an attempt to embargo oil imports into China, Japan invaded French Indochina in 1940, which in turn prompted the U.S. to embargo all oil imports to Japan. That puts the invasion of Pearl Harbor into perspective.

I know Pain and Gain is supposed to have an ampersand, but this software program does not like ampersands. Michael Bay's movie is based on a series of articles by Pete Collins for the Miami New Times. Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie play the bumbling trio of gym rats who cook up a scheme to kidnap braggart Victor Kershaw (played to the hilt by Tony Shalhoub) who can't shut up about his offshore accounts, his mansion and his out-sized toys. To say the situation gets way out of control is an understatement, but this pumped-up spectacle can be viewed as a morality play about a culture that lives for money, excess and instant gratification -- and that sometimes seems to worship stupidity.

Ryan Coogler's Fruitvale Station is a day-in-the-life story about Oscar Grant III, who in the first hours of 2009 was racially profiled on the Bay Area Rapid Transit by white BART police officers who held the unarmed 22-year-old black man face down and, accidentally or not, shot him in the back. Onlookers screamed pleadingly to the officers to let Grant go to no avail. As the situation intensified, some took out cell phones to document the incident, and Coogler eerily makes the cinematographic choice to use the actual footage from one of those cameras to cut into the live action. We learn a surprising amount about Grant's life. He and his girlfriend have a daughter who hung the moon in his eyes, his family love him and worry about his scuffles with the law. He has a temper, but there is nothing in Michael B. Jordan's sensitive portrayal to lead us to believe he is a bad character, just a troubled and complex one -- a sort of Everyman. The film is another necessary reminder that issues surrounding race in the United States are still very much alive, and we should be ashamed until we address the contradictions between who we say we are as a people and the realities of our public and private conduct.
NYT Critics' Pick

Peter Landesman's Parkland recreates the events of November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas. Adapted from Vincent Bugliosi's 2008 Four Days in November, there is nothing here we don't already know. It seems what Landesman's is out to create is a sense of the confusion and chaos into which everyone was swept. We move from the morning routines at Parkland hospital, to Abraham Zapruder ready to try out the newest camera equipment on the market, to archival footage of the Kennedy's arrival at Love Field. Once tragedy strikes, the hospital is rushed by Secret Service Agents, Zapruder comes forward but his camera is so new that it is a challenge to find a lab that can print the film, Lee Harvey Oswald's brother comes forward and his kooky mother shows up. The film does a good job of communicating the surreal flurry of the day, but cutting in the archival footage sometimes works, sometimes doesn't, especially in the case of Jacqueline Kennedy for whom there is also an actress and no actress can play such an iconic figure. The film focuses alternately on the hospital staff, the Oswald family, the Secret Service, and Zapruder, which sometimes gives it the feel of a plate spinning act.

There is a moment in Hotel Rwanda when Nick Nolte as Canadian Colonel Oliver, heading up the U.N. Peacekeeping forces, delivers some of the bluntest, truest words ever spoken onscreen or elsewhere. Hotelier Paul Rusesabagina does not understand how the world can witness the slaughter and do nothing. "The West," says Oliver, "All the super powers. Everything you believe in, Paul. They think you're dirt. They think you're dumb. You're worthless. ... You could own this frigging hotel except for one thing. You're black. You're not even a nigger. You're an African." As much as Paul Greengrass's Captain Phillips powers along like the suspense movies he's known for, at its heart it is about something much more profound. We hardly talk about inequality on a national level, much less seriously consider our affluence in relationship to the destitution of the Third World.

In 2010 the earthquake caused us briefly to acknowledge Haiti's impoverished conditions, but our response constituted little more than a blink before we put it out of our minds and went on about our business at Costco, Walmart, Disneyland and the cineplex -- or Wall Street, the Hamptons, charity balls and  Bergdorf Goodman, depending on where one falls in the spectrum. In the midst of his ordeal Captain Phillips, "Irish" to the Somalis, pleads to his captors' leader, "There's got to be something other than being a fisherman or kidnapping people." Muse's plaintive reply is straightforward: "Maybe in America, Irish, maybe in America." For Muse and his men, victims of harsh poverty in a civil war torn land with no stable government and no work, there are few means to survival. Somali's coastal fish stocks that subsistence fishermen used to net have been depleted by an invasion of illegal foreign trawlers. Captain Phillips, to its credit, puts us into an ambiguous ethical realm and does not allow us to take the moral high ground.

(After seeing the film, I remarked to a friend that, though Tom Hanks is excellent as Captain Phillips, the performance delivered by the Somali who plays opposite him would unfortunately go unnoticed. I am happy to say that a week after screening the film, I heard an interview on NPR with Barkhad Abdi, who plays Muse, in which the commentator noted that Mr. Abdi's performance has been praised by critics.)

NYT Critics' Pick / On October 18, 2013, A.O. Scott wrote an excellent article that puts forward a thesis on what the survival theme in Captain Phillips, All Is Lost and Gravity implies beneath the surface.

The Fifth Estate has problems. Adhering to the principle of disclosure, I must confess that I am a Benedict Cumberbatch fan, and in my estimation, his uncanny embodiment of Julian Assange is superb. Daniel Brühl is also very good as Daniel Domscheit-Berg, Assange's right-hand who suffers the mood swings of a needy, megalomaniac. (Cumberbatch is no stranger to playing a megalomaniac; however, though Sherlock may be many things, needy he is not.) The problem is with Bill Condon's plodding direction and the much discussed choice to treat Assange's actions with impartiality. There's nothing wrong with that when handled deftly, but here it results in a wishy-washy narrative.

A.O. Scott identifies another problem with the film that is right on target: "Like nearly every other movie that tries to confront that elusive, pervasive force [the Internet] head on, this one quickly loses track of what it is talking about. The challenge of conveying, on screen, the special intensity of online life is formidable. The clicking of keys and the dragging of mice; the pallor of faces illuminated by glowing plasma; the little bar, always growing too slowly, that shows how much data has been downloaded — these are visual clichés that seem to be the only available tools."

I began by saying that I intended the entry titled "Based on a True Story" to include films that are more concerned with a cultural zeitgeist than the particular individual at their center. The Fifth Estate fails because it is primarily about the relationship between Assange and Berg rather than an exploration of the more prickly questions their story occasions about surveillance and privacy, transparency and security, questions to which Condon gives wide berth.

I am always up for a Stephen Frears film. Judi Dench is positively radiant in Philomena. She glows from within and imbues Philomena Lee not only with  dignity, but with nobility. Dench and Steve Coogan, who plays the acerbic journalist who facilitates her reunion, are wonderful against each other. I couldn't decide where to put this particular "Based on a True Story." It could have gone into "Women's World" or "The Older Crowd," but it could not have gone into "Choices and Consequences" because the choices were not Philomena's to make, though she is nonetheless burdened with their consequences. The broader story of the Magdalene Asylum was told on film in Peter Mullan's 2002 The Magdalene Sisters. Frears's film is the story of an individual woman's loss, a loss that could lead to emptiness and regret that instead leads to fulfillment and peace with the past.
NYT Critics' Pick
A profile of Philomena Lee appeared in the New York Times 11/29/2013.

John Lee Hancock's Saving Mr. Banks is an odd movie. The narrative structure introduces us to a determined Walt Disney earnestly trying to cajole P. L. Travers (Emma Thompson) into signing over the rights to her book Mary Poppins for what would become the now classic movie musical. That tug-of-war informs half of the film's narrative. The other half, provided in alternating flashbacks, is the story of an Australian family reduced to a hardscrabble life by the father's acute alcoholism. P. L. Travers, it turns out, was Helen "Ginty" Goff, the daughter of Travers Goff (Colin Farrell). This back story holds promise but is played out with excessive sentiment from both narrative and cinematic points of view. Furthermore, introducing Ginty's childhood relationship to her father as the cause of a conflicted relationship Mrs. Travers brings to her material and its realization in the Disney studio's hands ends up making the movie seem like an intensive two-hour gestalt therapy session. Finally, we can only imagine how superior Disney's Mary Poppins would have been had more of Mrs. Travers's demands been heeded, surely an unintended consequence of a movie produced by Disney, featuring Walt himself, and aimed at self-promotion.

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