Thursday, June 23, 2011

Uncomfortable deception

In these two scenes from very different movies, characters put themselves in awkward situations in order to mislead others.

2001: A Space Odyssey

During a layover at a space station while en route to the moon, American scientist Dr. Heywood Floyd meets a Russian colleague who invites him to sit and have a drink with some friends. After some pleasantries, Floyd is questioned by one man about apparent problems at the American moon base, Clavius. When told that telephone communication with Clavius has been impossible for the past ten days, and that a Russian shuttle was denied an emergency landing there, Floyd claims to be unaware of any problems and becomes silent. When the Russian man persists, asking Floyd about rumors of an epidemic at Clavius, the cornered Floyd sheepishly explains that he is unable to comment on the situation. Floyd's discomfort is palpable, his soft-spoken manner and feeble responses giving the sense that he is being violated, but also concealing something. It is not until his arrival at Clavius that we learn Floyd's manner and answers were part of a deliberate deception to keep Clavius isolated while its crew investigates a discovery of incredible cosmic significance.

A Dry White Season

Donald Sutherland plays Ben du Toit, a white South African who discovers the truth about his country under apartheid. After his black gardener is killed while in police custody, Ben seeks justice, alienating his disapproving wife and daughter in the process. He and a small group of cohorts secretly collect affidavits from witnesses to police brutality, which Ben hides in his garage for eventual publication in a sympathetic newspaper. Under constant surveillance by the police, Ben knows he won't be able to deliver the papers in person, so he offers himself as a diversion instead. In a heartbreaking scene, Ben meets with his estranged daughter and asks if she would keep the papers safe for him, knowing she will betray him and take the decoy package to the police — but also counting on her to do so.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Remembering D-Day, Hollywood-style

Saving Private Ryan
Steven Spielberg's movie about an army squad sent to retrieve Private Ryan after his two brothers are killed on D-Day opens with a now-famous, very graphic segment depicting the landing on Omaha Beach and closes with a battle between a small American force and a much larger — and better armed — German unit. Sure, what comes between the two battles may be a gimmicky premise (even if it was based on similar real events), and at times Spielberg lays on the tension and emotion pretty thick, but the result is still an engrossing and thought-provoking look at battle. The opening invasion scene is worth the hype, though for details less obvious than the gore: the German machine gunners taking careful aim at the first boats to reach the shore, ready to fire as soon as the ramps are dropped, and the almost too-quiet clinking sounds of German bullets hitting metal obstacles on the beach, making you aware of how literally death is in the air as they measure out the American soldiers' lives like clockwork, the sound of each missed shot another moment's reprieve — and enough time to take another step toward the enemy's guns.

The Big Red One
Compared to Saving Private Ryan, the relatively short D-Day segment of this autobiographical Sam Fuller film seems somewhat sparse. Working with a small budget years before the Private Ryan age of realism, Fuller forgoes a large-scale graphic depiction of D-Day and focuses on one element — the Bangalore relay, in which soldiers are sent running one at a time into enemy fire, each carrying a piece of what will be assembled into a long explosive tube capable of clearing dense obstacles. As we watch each member of the squad get called in turn to make their run up the beach, however, we realize the same truth that Private Ryan conveys perhaps more graphically, but no more convincingly: that an invasion like D-Day requires throwing body after body at the enemy, with the hope that eventually some will get through alive.

The one non-Hollywood movie on the list, Overlord follows a British soldier named Tom as he leaves home for service in the army, through his training, and on to D-Day. Throughout, Tom (a stand-in for any British soldier, or "Tommy") ruminates on his fate, imagining his death under enemy fire. The movie combines narrative footage with a diverse assortment of actual combat film — images of London burning during the Blitz, views from fighter planes as they strafe enemy ships, women at work manufacturing parachutes, war machinery being transported across England, new ships being launched, and glimpses of British troops landing at Normandy. The archival materials are fascinating, and the beautifully understated story is woven into them deftly, making a cohesive whole and giving it an authentic feel. It doesn’t show much of the actual invasion, but in this film the emphasis is on getting there, and on what every soldier must have been thinking along the way.

The Longest Day
If you want to become invested in the private lives and back stories of this film's characters, you'd better be quick about it. The Longest Day boasts an international all-star cast, which includes Richard Burton, John Wayne, Sean Connery, Henry Fonda, and Red Buttons (?!), but the emphasis is not on character development or emotionally engaging sub-plots. Instead, this film, like many of the large-scale, star-studded war films of its time, is plotted more like a history book, presenting the Normandy invasion from the points of view of an array of characters on both sides, and including lots of historical tidbits along the way, such as the Allies' plan to drop firecracker-laden paratrooper dolls into France to confuse German troops or their use of clicking noisemakers to tell friend from foe. While at times it feels like "The Longest Film," it is nonetheless a generally satisfying overview of the invasion.

See also:
Remembering Pearl Harbor, Hollywood style
Remembering the Doolittle Raid, Hollywood-style

Friday, June 3, 2011

X-Men: First Class

James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender
When we first see the adult Erik Lehnsherr — the super-powered mutant who will become the villain Magneto — in X-Men: First Class, he's a multilingual globe-trotting assassin hunting down the man who tortured him years before in a Nazi death camp. This seems a suitable origin for a character who eventually turns against humans and comes to believe that mutants should rule over them. (George Lucas, take note: this is how you turn a character to the dark side!) What is not so suitable is that in Magneto's own origin story it is revealed that before there was Magneto, there was . . . another Magneto. Perhaps not the Magneto, but an evil mutant named Sebastian Shaw, who has his own dangerous powers, dangerous motives, and a dangerous team of evil mutants similar to the one the aged Magneto commanded in the previous X-Men movies. This is the disappointing thing about X-Men: First Class, because the interesting possibilities of such an origin story — in which the future Magneto befriends and then parts ways with his future rival Charles Xavier — are abandoned in favor of the team-vs.-team formula of the previous three X-Men films.

This is particularly surprising because First Class uses as its backdrop the Cuban Missile Crisis, a historical event weighty enough to provide sufficient threat and conflict for any super team. Given the novelty of the period setting and the possibilities inherent in the blending of history with fiction, it is puzzling why the filmmakers decided to eclipse the drama of Magneto’s supposedly unique origin with a villain who is essentially the character we know Lehnsherr will become, a character we have seen plot against humanity and be defeated before.

The other major figure is Charles Xavier, destined to become Professor X, a man committed to protecting humans regardless of how poorly humans treat mutants. The younger Xavier portrayed by James McAvoy is less restrained than the serene elder portrayed by Patrick Stewart in the other X-Men movies. Because his mutation — the ability to read and influence other peoples' minds — is not readily apparent to the outside world, Xavier effortlessly enjoys human society, winning drinking contests and hitting on women with a practiced pickup routine. Consequently, he is detached from the pain felt by mutants who, like his friend Raven, a scaly blue-skinned shape-shifter, must work hard to conceal their difference in order to be accepted. We see in Xavier a genius with a lot to learn, and though we can assume the events at film's end will humble him somewhat, we never see a true epiphany.

We do get to see Xavier, supposedly a professor in earlier films, actually teach in First Class — he helps Lehnsherr develop his powers of magnetism to astonishing levels, and watching him show a young mutant named Banshee how to fly is the film's highpoint of fun. The role of cool Nazi hunter suits actor Michael Fassbender very well, maybe in part because he played one so well in Inglourious Basterds, though certainly his own multilingual European background and good looks make him a natural for such a role. He keeps Lehnsherr's childhood trauma just under the surface at all times, unpacking it as needed to great effect and making Lehnsherr the most tortured — and most appealing — character of the film.

See also: Iron Men