Saturday, October 01, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: Sept. 23-29

From Russia With Love (1963) ***½
Director: Terence Young
Writers: Richard Maibaum, Johanna Harwood, Ian Fleming (book)
Starring: Sean Connery, Daniela Bianchi, Pedro Armendariz, Lotte Lenya, Robert Shaw, Bernard Lee

Last week, our oldest boy found himself in a bunch of hot water when he not only played a video game he knew he was restricted from playing, but he had to steal it from the house to do it. We’re pretty strict about what the boys are exposed to in terms of violence and language. He knew we didn’t want him playing my James Bond video game, but it had been eating at him for the four years that I’ve had it, and he finally broke.

It probably came as quite a surprise to him that after a week of no video games for that stunt I broke out “From Russia With Love” for our family movie night, the very movie that video game was based on. Needless to say, he was thrilled. My James Bond video collection has been gnawing at him nearly as bad as that video game had.

I chose to start him out on “From Russia With Love” for a few reasons. 1) It’s my favorite of the PG-rated Bonds. 2) It was the one the game was based upon, but the game had invented much more violence than can be found in the movie. 3) It’s one of the least action oriented Bonds. I hope this gave him an appreciation for that fact that there’s more going on in these movies than people shooting at each other.

The verdict: he loved it. The youngest, not so much. His favorite phrase throughout the screening, “When are they going to fight and stuff?” The oldest got it, though. I started watching Bond movies when I was about his age, and it’s probably the perfect age to start. It has all the silly action and comedy that are Bond signatures, but he’s old enough to pick up on the plots and the twists and even some of the innuendo. Hopefully, he won’t really understand that for another few of years, though.

The Conspirator (2011) ***
Director: Robert Redford
Writers: James Solomon, Gregory Bernstein
Starring: James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Kevin Klein, Evan Rachel Wood, Tom Wilkinson, Justin Long, Danny Huston, James Badge Dale, Colm Meaney, Alexis Bledel, Johnny Simmons, Toby Kebbell, Norman Reedus

I had read some disappointing reviews of this movie at the time of its theatrical release. At that time, many accused the movie of lacking power behind its historical material. Director Robert Redford hasn’t had a great track record of late, coming off a couple of commercial and critical flops, which followed a string of critically lauded movies. “The Conspirator” is closer to the former category than the latter, but it’s not a bad movie.

This is the first of a couple of movies about our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln, that have been in the works for quite some time. It isn’t really about Lincoln, however, but about the country’s lust for revenge after a national tragedy. It follows the military criminal hearings of the assassins of Lincoln, focusing specifically on the trial of Mary Surratt, the mother of one of the men suspected of conspiring to kill the President, Vice President and Secretary of State during the final months of the Civil War. Surratt was the lone female indicted as a co-conspirator and with her son the only unaccounted for member of the conspiracy; the pressure was on the military tribunal to convict her for her son’s crimes.

James McAvoy plays her reluctant lawyer, who only takes the case because of the apparent violation of her rights as an American citizen to a public trial by her piers. The movie wisely doesn’t really answer the question as to whether she was actually a conspirator in the assassination, because that’s not the point. The point has more to do with our government’s recent decision to try suspected terrorists by military tribunal, rather than within the bounds of our public legal system. It’s about what America is supposed to stand for, the rights we allow our citizens to assure that such matters do not amount to petty revenge above justice. The difference is that Surratt was a citizen and most of the terrorist suspects were not. But when it comes to the ideals of a society, should that matter?

Of Gods and Men (2011) ***½
Director: Xavier Beauvois
Writers: Xavier Beauvois, Etienne Comar
Starring: Lambert Wilson, Michael Lonsdale, Olivier Rabourdin, Philippe Laudenbach, Jacques Herlin, Loïc Pichon, Xavier Maly, Jean-Pierre Frin

“Of Gods and Men” tells the fascinating true story of Trappist monks in Algeria who get caught up in the local politics of fundamentalist terrorists inflicting their terror on the impoverished community that they are charged to care for. Their story isn’t really about the politics, however, but rather their choice to walk in the shadow of God.

I’ve never seen anyone’s decision to live within the grace of God so well explained as it is in this movie. The choices these monks are faced with force each of them to question their beliefs and their choices. They don’t only question their personal choice to live as men solely devoted to their God, but also the choices they are forced to make by both sides of the conflict. As men of God they cannot refuse to help any one in need, even the terrorists when they come with a wounded man. They understand, however, that the terrorists will use any help they get as an excuse to demand even more from them. Any help they give the terrorists will seem a betrayal to their flock, who struggle daily with the havoc wrecked on their lives by the terrorists. What’s a true man of God to do?

The message of love these men send with their sacrifice to humanity through their devotion to God is clearer than any government decree or fanatical demand. Love is the answer. If only more of us could understand that, we might just have Heaven here on Earth.

Western of the Week

Yellow Sky (1948) ***
Director: William A. Wellman
Writers: Lamar Trotti, W.R. Burnett
Starring: Gregory Peck, Anne Baxter, Richard Widmark, Robert Arthur, John Russell, Henry Morgan, James Barton, Charles Kemper

William A. Wellman’s western “Yellow Sky” brings a great many things to mind. It isn’t a great western, but it is a good one. It’s good for the time period in which it was made. It’s entertaining. It has some good action sequences. It has some cookie cutter characters, but not the main ones.

First, there’s Gregory Peck in a fairly early role, although he was already a star. He wasn’t Atticus Finch yet, and it shows. He plays the leader of a band of thieves who has a change of conscience. He’s not a good guy to begin with, and it’s easy to see why the rest of the group might turn on him. He’s Gregory Peck with that voice of his, so you can see how he got the job, but his hold on it is tenuous thanks in part to a much more sinister Richard Widmark as the second in command. But also, thanks to Peck’s own lankiness and ability to show his weaknesses and doubts.

Second, was rape not a crime before the 60s? It seems the heroes of these older westerns get away with actions against women that no hero, no matter how flawed, could even think of getting away with today. Now, of course Peck attacks the cute as a button Anne Baxter before he has his change of heart. In fact, it’s what begins to change it. But still, the way he goes at her is just wrong, and everyone in the movie just shrugs it off as something that happens. Of course, she does shoot him. I guess if rape victims were given a chance to shoot their assailants there would be more justice in the world.

Third, I’ve been a fan of James Bond for a long time and I can’t believe I had never heard of this movie before I saw it on Netflix Instant. I don’t know if this movie is cited as an influence on Bond, but there is one shot in this movie that is undeniably repeated in almost every Bond movie. Near the end of the film, when Widmark is trying to gun down his former colleague, we get a point of view shot from inside the barrel of his gun. This is the exact same shot that opens all but one of the official Bond pictures.

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