June 2012

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Reviews by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Guaranteed: many spoilers

Last month, I reviewed one of the best French language movies I have ever seen, "The Kid On the Bike". Now, here is Goodbye, First Love, directed by Mia Hansen-Love (2012), one of the mediocre ones which epitomizes filmmaking by French directors asleep at the switch. A depressed young woman fixates on her first love. he leaves. She marries her much older architecture professor, then cheats on him with the young man. Note to self: add French movies about middle class marital infidelity to the banned list along with any movie in which Robin Williams plays a doctor, movies in which people switch bodies, and anything featuring Morgan Freeman.

Ichi (2008), directed by Fumihiko Sori, supports the proposition that there is almost no such thing as a bad samurai movie, just as in the '50's and '60's there was almost no such thing as a bad western. The actors could be mediocre and the production values cheesy, but the movies mine such a rich tradition that there is almost always something which grips you in the story and setting. The protagonist, a blind woman whose father has trained her to be a skilled sword fighter, presents as almost autistic, inward, rarely speaking; then, sooner or later, an unbearable provocation forces her to draw her sword, which she slowly sheathes after every killing, even when she must draw it again a second later. She meets and loves another skilled fighter, a man who has experienced a trauma which causes him to freeze every time he attempts to draw his sword. They will love each other, she will emerge from her shell, he will overcome his trauma, and it will end sadly but with hope.

American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, by Kai Bird amd Martin Sherwin, is an accessible and well written account of an ambiguous American figure. For me, it raises the issue of the morality of biography; one has the impression that the writers withhold judgment, present the facts, allow you to make up your own mind. But they possibly cross the nearly invisible line into justifying and forgiving a man they have spent so many years studying. While their claimed neutrality is respectful to the audience, and biographies couched in terms of righteous indignation shade into propaganda, there are things about Oppenheimer which really aren't all right: serial marital infidelity, raising a daughter so meanly or absently that she killed herself later, and naming names under Congressional and FBI pressure, before you get into that whole "I am become Death" thing.

I haven't read the books, but Hunger Games (2012), directed by Gary Ross, is a fairly reasonable dystopian movie, with real characters in whom you take an interest. Unlike "Hannah", the teenage protagonist is not a killing machine, but an ordinary girl who is good with a bow and arrow. In the gladiatorial combat the film depicts, she only kills when attacked, and most of the combatants are disposed of by each other. The over-the-top seventies hairstyles and diction become more persuasive as the movie lays out a somewhat believable manipulated world of bread and circuses. Given that this is the beginning of a series, the wrap-up is not that satisfying, leaving numerous loose ends for the future.

The 10 hour HBO miniseries The Pacific left me rather cold. After "Band of Brothers" and "Generation Kill", I was rather burned out on graphic, reality-based, HBO representations of war. This one seemed a bit generic. Of the three, I liked "Generation Kill", set in Iraq, the best; for one thing, it was the only one of the three where I could tell dirty men in uniform apart and keep track of the characters. "Pacific" is based on several memoirs, including Eugene Sledge's classic "With the Old Breed". The miniseries skipped the eerie moment related in that book where Sledge heard a supernatural voice telling him he would survive the war. I might have liked th"The Pacific" better had that moment been included.

Red Cliff (2008), directed by John Woo, represents the return of the great action director, whose Chinese movies in my opinion were so much better than the films he was able to accomplish in America. It is a credible action epic, recounting a historical battle in which an overly ambitrious prime minister moved against some independent people to the South; the action scenes, with swords, arrows, fire ships and catapults with flaming loads, are excellent. Of even greater interest is the sympathetic characterization of the generals on all sides, the prime minister and the three leaders who come into a coalition to oppose him: there are no actual villains in the movie, just people whose interests and desires clash. The moviwe ends with two members of the victorious coaltion--one a strategist who never actually picks up a sword--saying farewell and hoping they never have to fight one another. "Don't let that pony grow up to be a warhorse" are the closing lines of the film.

Union Station (1950), directed by Rudolph Mate, is an ordinary but acceptable noir, set almost entirely in the Chicago railway station. A millionaire's blind daughter is kidnapped; a pay-off is arranged; cops look out through special holes in the station's wall decorations, surveiling the area; there is a lot of speculation aboutn whether the victim is still alive; we watch an old Irish detective mix an elaborate drink, with cloves, cinnamon and rum; it all ends in a shootout in the tunnels underneath, a great noir location.