Red Joan


The spy who knitted tea cozies.

(2018) Biographical Drama (IFCJudi Dench, Sophie Cookson, Stephen Campbell Moore, Tom Hughes, Laurence Spellman, Tereza Srbova, Ben Miles, Robin Soans, Kevin Fuller, Stephen Boxer, Simon Ludders, Steven Hillman, Ciarán Owens, Phil Langhorne, Stuart Whelan, Freddie Gaminara, Stephen Samson, Paul Kerry, Adrian Wheeler, Lulu Meissner. Directed by Trevor Nunn

Ah, the things we do for love. Sometimes we are moved to do things because of conscience but how many times have we done things we ordinarily wouldn’t or couldn’t do out of love? Most of us can ruefully admit to at least a small list.

Pensioner Joan Stanley (Dench), an octogenarian living in suburban London, spends most of her days fixing herself tea and working in her garden, weather permitting. Her son Patrick (Spellman), a busy lawyer and politician, rarely has time to visit her anymore so when there’s a knock on her door, she’s taken aback. However, it’s not a social visit; it’s MI-5, putting her under arrest for providing nuclear secrets to the Soviets.

Most of the rest of the film proceeds in flashbacks. While a University student, Joan (Cookson) had fallen under the spell of glamorous immigrant Sonya (Srbova) and even more so of Sonya’s smoldering, brooding cousin Leo (Hughes), a not-so-closet communist party member in the 1930s when the Reds were viewed with some distrust at the very least. It isn’t long before the naïve and mousy Joan is in Leo’s bed.

When the Second World War erupts and the Soviet Union becomes our ally, Joan is drafted into an atomic research team headed by Professor Max Davis (Moore). Although Joan is used as little more than a glorified secretary, she is in fact a brilliant physicist whom Max comes to rely on as a problem solver and eventually, on a much more personal level.

When the Americans drop the A-bomb onto Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Joan who knows better than most the consequences of such an act is absolutely horrified. She comes to the realization that these terrible World Wars will continue unless both sides have access to these terrible weapons. When Leo and Sonya come knocking on her door, she is more than willing to answer.

Although (very loosely) based on actual events, this film doesn’t have the air of authenticity that something based on reality has. Far from being a John LeCarre-like spy thriller which I believe it aspires to be, this is more like a soap opera that out of one side of its face decries the marginalization of women and on the other side has them as simple-headed sops who do mad, impetuous things out of love or maybe just lust. Apparently even feminists can be fools for love.

If that sounds a bit catty, it can be forgiven; there’s a hell of a story to be told here and Nunn and company squander it. Worse still, there are some terrific performances by Dench and Cookson that are essentially wasted. Also, let the viewer beware – although Dench is top-lined here, she is limited to a meager amount of screen time; Cookson gets the lion’s share of that.

While there are some terrific moments – young Joan’s confession to Max, Patrick’s repudiation of his mother – that are worth waiting for, for the most part the movie maddeningly doesn’t let us inside the head of Joan. She does things seemingly on whim. She’s not much of a spy; she gets by mainly because, as Sonya wryly puts it, no men would think a woman capable of such deception plus there’s more than a smattering of dumb luck and Joan’s pals willing to take the blame for Joan’s actions.

This isn’t a spy saga as I’ve said; it’s more of a melodrama and a fairly rote one at that. Given the superior cast and the remarkable true story that inspired it, this movie could have been so much more. However, I can’t review that movie, only the ones that Nunn and his colleagues have given us and it’s frankly not one that rises far above mediocrity.

REASONS TO SEE: Dench always delivers the goods. There are some very powerful moments.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit soapy and/or syrupy in places. Lots of potential here but ultimately the film doesn’t deliver.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie, as the novel that inspired it, was based on the real life case of Melita Norwood.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/27/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 30% positive reviews: Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Theory of Everything
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Master Maggie

The 101-Year-Old Man Who Skipped Out on His Bill and Disappeared (Hundraettåringen som smet från notan och försvann)


101-year-old men stand out in any crowd.

(2016) Comedy (Netflix) Robert Gustafsson, Daniel Steiner, Caroline Boulton, Jens Hultén, David Wilberg, Shima Niavarani, Jay Simpson, Ralph Carlsson, Iwar Wiklander, Georg NIkoloff, Guhn Andersson, David Shackleton, Erni Mangold, Svetlana Rodina Ljungkvist, Eric Stern, Colin McFarlane, Cory Peterson, Shin-Fei Chen, Crystal the Monkey. Directed by Felix Herngren and Måns Herngren

 

Back in 2013, a Swedish cinematic adaptation of a bestselling novel The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared became a massive hit in Sweden, enough so that it was brought to America a couple of years later (and played the Florida Film Festival to boot). It was one of my favorite films from 2015 and is still one I watch periodically.

Now comes a sequel which while not getting a theatrical release here in the States is available on Netflix. The streaming giant hasn’t really promoted the film much, so much so that almost no major publication has reviewed it and it has gotten almost no advertising. Is it worth checking out?

The movie takes place a year after the first one; it’s Alan Karlsson’s (Gustafsson) 101st birthday. He is celebrating with his pals Julius (Wiklander) and Benny (Hultén). As they celebrate they drink a Soviet soft drink that puts a little more pep in their step. Realizing that there are no bottles left of the confection and that the formula could make them a mint, they go on an extended road trip to rediscover the formula. On the way they are chased by the CIA, Karlsson gets a job as a soft drink company executive and a monkey makes their lives miserable. Also the biker gang from the first film continues to chase them for the missing money.

While director Felix Herngren returns as does much of the cast, the sequel doesn’t hold a candle to the original. There continue to be Gump-like flashbacks to Karlsson’s colorful past (including meetings with Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger) and Bennie continues to be the world’s most indecisive man – a shtick which is getting old at this point – but to the bad the make-up on Gustafsson is strangely less convincing than it was in the first film. Also the humor is a lot more pedestrian; it’s like the writers were trying to play it much safer than the first one. Maybe because this one is an original script rather than based on an existing property there’s a little less cohesion to the story.

For those looking for a good comedy to stream, standing on its own this isn’t bad entertainment. Fans of the first film however are going to be sorely disappointed.

REASONS TO GO: The characters are all nicely developed from the first film. Gustafsson is a gem.
REASONS TO STAY: This isn’t nearly as good as the first film. The humor is pedestrian and the monkey is annoying.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, brief nudity and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The films that Crystal the Monkey has appeared in have a combined worldwide gross of more than $2.5 billion; this is her first Swedish-language film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/14/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Man Called Ove
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Goodbye Christopher Robin

Red Army


The most dominant five-man hockey unit in history.

The most dominant five-man hockey unit in history.

(2014) Documentary (Sony Classics) Viacheslav Fetisov, Scotty Bowman, Alexei Kasatonov, Vladislav Tretiak, Vladimir Pozner, Vladimir Krutov, Felix Nechepore, Anatoli Karpov, Tatiana Tarasova. Directed by Gabe Polsky

There is always talk among sports fans about the greatest team in history of their chosen sports. For hockey fans, they will endlessly debate whether the greatest team was the Montreal Canadiens of Rocket Richard or Jean Beliveau, or the Edmonton Oilers of Wayne Gretzky, or the New York Islanders of Mike Bossy. However, there are many who are absolutely certain that the Soviet Red Army team of the 70s and 80s was the most dominant and the most highly skilled team to ever take to the ice.

There is a good deal of merit to that argument. This was a team that possessed the best goaltender on earth in Vladislav Tretiak, as well as the greatest player in the world – Viacheslav Fetisov, who was in many senses the best defenseman to ever play the game, including Bobby Orr. Fetisov became the face of Soviet hockey; a fast skater, disciplined defender, and maybe as smart a player who ever played the game.

The Soviets played a game in which even the NHL’s best at the time were left chasing their snow. NHL hockey of the period was brutish and slow compared to the grace and artistry of the Soviet players; there were few North American skaters who could keep up with the Soviets. They dominated international competition of the day, spurred on by their embarrassing defeat at the hands of the severely undermanned American team in the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. Considering that less than a month before the Olympics they’d manhandled the American team in Madison Square Garden by a score of 10-3, it truly was a miracle on ice. The Soviets didn’t believe in miracles and the fall-out was severe.

Behind the grace and artistry was a relentless system that demanded commitment and sacrifice. While much of the style of play of the Soviets was developed by the jovial Anatoli Tarasov, the genial coach who was beloved by his players was dismissed by more political elements within the Politburo and replaced with the icy Viktor Tikhanov. The Soviet players to a man despised their coach who was cold, unfeeling and treated his players as little more than game pieces, denying one player the request to return home to be with his dying father who eventually passed away.

This documentary is told primarily from the perspective of Slava Fetisov who went from being the face of Soviet hockey to a political liability when he spoke out openly against conditions that forced brutal workouts leaving players “pissing blood” as he puts it. Slava, who today is the Minister of Sport in Putin’s Russia, is constantly working his cell phone and often interrupts the interview to take a call or a text. I’m sure Polsky wondered if Errol Morris ever had to put up with this.

The footage of the Soviet hockey team in action is absolutely compelling and of course American hockey fans will still love revisiting the final moments of the Miracle on Ice game in which sportscaster Al Michaels screamed “Do you believe in miracles? YES!!!!” I don’t know about you but that still send shivers down my spine.

It is the footage of the Soviet team though that I found even more interesting as American audiences rarely got to see them in action. The Soviet philosophy was to have five man units that worked together rather than the North American philosophy of having separate forward and defense units. The result was the Big Five, a line-up of Fetisov and Alex Kasatonov on the blue line, and up front Sergei Makharov, Igor Larionov and Vladimir Krutov. Makharov and Larionov played early on for the San Jose Sharks, my favorite hockey team, and were part of the team that upset the Detroit Red Wings in the playoffs. They are a lasting part of my hockey fan past.

This is a documentary about a hockey team, sure, but there’s more to it than that. We see what life was like in a postwar Russia, rebuilding from the destruction leveled against it by the Nazis in which families were crammed into apartments that we would consider studio apartments meant for a single person. A system in which fish was only available one day a week – “Fish Thursday,” Fetisov chuckles. It was a day most looked forward to.

Fetisov is often acerbic and has a sense of humor that is rather dry. He doesn’t show a lot of emotion except when talking about the car accident that took the life of his younger brother, an accident where he was behind the wheel for. He quickly deflects further questioning on the subject; it’s clearly something he doesn’t like talking about. He went through some difficult times; after quitting the National Team in protest of Tikhanov’s treatment of his players, he was briefly jailed and beaten, his family threatened. He talks about these things dispassionately and without any rancor.

These days Fetisov is an important cog in the Russian sports wheel. He was one of the main players in getting the Winter Olympics to Sochi and is proud of the games that were held there. He is a supporter of Putin’s government, understandably so since he has flowered and prospered as a politician under Putin. He is also clearly proud of his achievements as an athlete, while deflecting praise about his stands against the abuses of the Soviet system in ice hockey that led to players being allowed to play in the NHL, albeit with much of their salaries going to the Soviet government. He seems to have a strong streak of justice in him; one wonders what he thinks of the Russian involvement in the Ukraine although I suspect he wouldn’t say anything negative about any of Putin’s policies. I might be wrong on that score, however; Fetisov is used to speaking out against that which he disagrees with.

REASONS TO GO: Wonderful archival hockey footage. Interesting peek behind the Iron Curtain.
REASONS TO STAY: Fetisov plays his emotional cards very close to the vest. Hockey fans may end up being disappointed at the socio-political content; non-hockey fans may end up disappointed at the hockey content.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s really nothing here that isn’t suitable for all ages.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Werner Herzog was one of the producers of this film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/20/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Miracle
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Our Film Library begins!

From Russia, With Love


Much better than a mint on your pillow.

Much better than a mint on your pillow.

(1963) Spy Thriller (United Artists) Sean Connery, Daniela Bianchi, Pedro Armendariz, Lotte Lenya, Robert Shaw, Bernard Lee, Eunice Gayson, Walter Gotell, Francis de Wolf, George Pastell, Nadja Regin, Lois Maxwell, Aliza Gur, Martine Beswick, Vladek Sheybal, Anthony Dawson, Lisa “Leila” Guiraut, Hasan Ceylan, Peter Bayliss, Desmond Llewelyn. Directed by Terence Young

While most people remember the first James Bond movie (Dr. No) and the third (Goldfinger) the casual moviegoer probably doesn’t remember the second. It was a box office smash, particularly in Britain where it set a box office record in only 82 days of release. Still, it doesn’t get a lot of the love that other Bond films over the years has attained.

James Bond (Connery), MI-6 agent 007 has irritated SPECTRE, a criminal organization set on world domination led by a mysterious Number One (Dawson) who pets a white cat constantly. Planning mastermind Kronsteen (Sheybal) has come up with a plan to steal a Lekter cryptographic device from the Soviet Union and sell it back to them, while exacting revenge on Bond for killing Dr. No in the previous movie. Number One engages Number Three, Rosa Klebb (Lenya) to run the operation. She in turn utilizes SPECTRE agent Red Grant (Shaw) as her primary field operative.

However, the way to get to Bond is to use a beautiful woman and the way to get to the Lekter is to use Tatiana Romanova (Bianchi) to lure in bond with the promise of a Lekter. Of course M (Lee) and Bond know it’s a trap but if they can get their hands on a Lekter, that would be a considerable coup. Bond goes to Istanbul where station chief Ali Kerim Bey (Armendariz) meets him. Grant follows Bond around, wreaking havoc and pitting the Soviets against the Turks and Brits. Romanova rendezvous with Bond and in keeping with – and adding to – a Bond movie tradition, falls head over heels in love with the British spy.

However, SPECTRE is dogging their every move, keeping Bond alive until he can literally deliver the Lekter into their hands. Romanova, who thought she was acting on behalf of the Soviet’s in-house SMERSH agency, is now ready to defect for real. There’ll be Murder on the Orient Express and a thrilling boat chase and of course face-to-face confrontations with both Klebb and Grant before all is said and done. And I could tell you how the movie ends but you don’t have to be a genius to figure out what it’s going to be.

Young was going for a more realistic atmosphere  this time around. While there are gadgets including a fairly useful briefcase and the Lekter itself, this is mostly straight-up action as opposed to later Bond movies. Connery cemented his stardom as it was very apparent that this was a franchise that was going to have staying power – this even before Goldfinger would make it a cultural phenomenon. He’s in so many ways the ultimate male circa 1963. He’s ruggedly handsome, tough as nails, absolute catnip to women and knowledgeable as well as cultured. We mere mortal males couldn’t possibly compete against all that and there were more than a few wives at the time who, seeing this, eyed their husbands with a critical expression. They’re still doing that today, if Da Queen is any indication.

Bianchi is one of the most physically beautiful of the Bond girls, although the former Miss Italy didn’t really have the charisma of the best of them – Honor Blackman, Diana Rigg, Ursula Andress and Halle Berry come to mind immediately. She’s usually lumped in with Lois Chiles and Olivia D’Abo as one of the less popular girls of the series. I don’t know that it’s fair but she certainly is easy on the eyes.

Llewellyn makes his first appearance as Q, although the head of Q branch is identified by his character’s real name, Major Boothroyd here. Istanbul makes a lovely and exotic backdrop for most of the movie and of course who can go wrong with the most romantic journey in the world, the Orient Express. The winning formula of exotic locations, jaw-dropping beautiful women and clever gadgets really got its start here.

The movie is extremely dated in a lot of ways, particularly in its attitudes towards women who are mostly portrayed as either besotted creatures whose place is in the bedroom and are in need of a manly slap once in awhile, or femme fatales who are out to emasculate if not outright murder any men who come across their path. Even the wise-cracking Moneypenny (Maxwell) really doesn’t get much respect.

Armendariz, who was terminally ill when he made the movie leading Young to film most of his scenes first, is one of the more charming Bond allies and sets the bar for those that would follow. Lenya, best known as the star of her husband Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera and an Oscar nominee for The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone is a shrill but deadly efficient killer whose fight with Bond is one of the biggest kicks in the movie. Shaw, who went on to greater fame as Captain Quint in Jaws shows off washboard abs and a sardonic wit. Grant is a brilliant agent provocateur that creates a good deal of havoc here and it’s fun watching him work.

Having recently re-watched the movie, I get the sense that while it often gets short shrift among all of the Bond movies, there is reason for it. The movie doesn’t jell as well as most of the Connery Bond films and while Klebb and Grant are fine antagonists, they lack the over-the-top panache of classic Bond villains Goldfinger, Blofeld and Largo.

Those things aside and despite being terribly dated in many ways the movie still remains a terrific piece of entertainment. Certainly those tired of seeing the same three or four Bond films over and over again could do worse than to use this one as a change of pace.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the more reality-based Bonds. Armendariz is charming and Lenya and Shaw both formidable foes.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: One of the more dated Bond movies.
FAMILY VALUES: Some era-appropriate sensuality and era-appropriate violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Daniela Bianchi’s voice was dubbed by Barbara Jefford due to Bianchi’s heavily Italian-accented English. This was also the final Bond film that Ian Fleming got to see as he passed away shortly after it was released.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Ultimate Blu-Ray edition is loaded with a plethora of extras that should satisfy most Bond fans, including a gallery of still images, radio and TV promos, featurettes on the late Harry Saltzman, the exotic filming locations (some of which weren’t quite so exotic), a comparison between Fleming and Raymond Chandler and an interview with Fleming by the CBC.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $78.9M on a $2M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental/streaming), Amazon (streaming only), Vudu (purchase only),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (not available), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Our Man Flint
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Top Five

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull


Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Harrison Ford tries to get away from Shia LaBeouf who is convinced he’s Marlon Brando.

(2008) Adventure (Paramount) Harrison Ford, Shia LaBeouf, Cate Blanchett, Ray Winstone, Karen Allen, John Hurt, Jim Broadbent, Igor Jijikine, Alan Dale, Joel Stoffer, Neil Flynn, VJ Foster, Sasha Spielberg, John Valera, Ernie Reyes Jr. Directed by Steven Spielberg

 

It only took 19 years but Indiana Jones did return to the big screen. Fans have been eagerly waiting the fourth installment of the series ever since Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade wrapped but was their patience rewarded with a movie worthy of the scruffy fedora and bullwhip?

It is the 1950s and the Cold War is raging full-bore. At a secret army base in the Southwest, a group of men dressed as U.S. Soldiers take over, led by an ice-cold femme fatale Soviet named Irina Spalko (Blanchett). With her are captured American agents Mac McHale (Winstone) and the legendary archaeologist Indiana Jones (Ford).

She is after a strange artifact Jones had dug up years earlier – a crystal skull, one of only 13 in the world. The Soviets are after it with the idea of using it for mind control. Indy of course wants to prevent this from occurring. He makes a game attempt to steal the Skull but Irina and her cohorts are too well-armed, too well-organized and too many for Jones to make a clean getaway – plus there is the little matter of a double agent.

Indy manages to escape from the Soviets by the skin of his teeth. When he returns home, he is accused by the FBI of being a double agent. He is allowed to go free because nothing can be decisively proven, but he is forced to go on an indefinite leave of absence from his job at Marshall University (to avoid being fired) because of the incident.

At a train station, Indy is stopped by Mutt Williams (LaBeouf), a greaser who tells him that Indy’s old colleague Professor Oxley (Hurt) had been kidnapped after discovering a crystal skull in Peru.  He also gives Indy a letter from his (Mutt’s) mom, also held captive, that contains a riddle written by Oxley in an ancient Incan language.

After being chased by Soviet agents, Indy realizes that this might be the clue he needs to recover the Skull from Irina and maybe just save the world again, so he goes down to Peru to find the Skull. Also hot on its trail is Irina and she’s holding both Oxley and Mutt’s mom hostage. But when Indy goes to rescue them, he discovers to his shock that Mutt’s mom is Marion Ravenwood (Allen) – his old flame. Now it becomes a race between Indy and the Soviets to find the secret of the Crystal Skulls with the fate of the world hanging in the balance.

This was one of the most highly-anticipated movies of recent years and in some ways it was a victim of its own expectations. I don’t think anyone seriously thought that the newest Indy would be at the same level as Raiders of the Lost Ark but at the same time there was hope it might at least be better than the last one.

I think that for the most part it was perceived as a disappointment and I recall being disappointed at the time it came out. Coming back at the movie from a fresh perspective some four years after it was released, I have to say that it’s much better than I remember it being. Some of the stunts, like the swordfight on the moving jeeps, are among the best of the series.

There’s also some cringe-inducing moments, such as when Indy survives a nuclear warhead test by hiding inside a lead-lined refrigerator. That one stretched incredulity to the breaking point. Still, by comparison this movie holds up well compared to the others despite the differences in style (more of a ’50s B-movie than a ’30s serial) and tone.

Ford steps back into the role of Indiana Jones without missing a beat and even 20 years later still has the physicality to do many of his own stunts. One casualty of the years is his chemistry with Karen Allen which I never thought was particularly strong in the first place, but they seem awkward together here, like a couple of people who had a fling years ago but have both moved on.

Worse yet is LaBeouf. He was the object of most of the complaints for those who criticized the movie and I do understand some of those issues – he feels out of place here. I think it’s because he’s trying too hard to do a Marlon Brando impression from The Wild One and it just seems silly. I don’t know that I would have cast LaBeouf as Indy’s son – but then who do you cast in a role like that? At least he has some understanding of big action films from the Transformers series.

Better though is Blanchett who as Irina makes up the best villain of the series, better than Mola Ram even. While Ram was evil and had the ability to pull your heart from your chest, he wasn’t a physical presence. Blanchett can shoot, kick, fight, swordfight and is at least as brilliant as Dr. Jones. She is a formidable opponent.

I think if you take this at face value there are some radical differences from the original trilogy, but then you have to expect that since everyone involved has gotten older. There’s more CGI here but it’s used really, really well. In fact from a technical standpoint this is one of the better movies of the last five years. It also adequately captures the spirit of the Indiana Jones movies – the wisecracking, the insane action – but doesn’t regurgitate it. It’s not a classic like the first and third movies are but it is certainly a solid movie I can easily recommend to just about anyone.

WHY RENT THIS: Again, it’s Indiana Jones. Blanchett makes an excellent villain. Fine turns by Hurt, Broadbent and Winstone.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: LaBeouf seems a bit out of place here. Chemistry between Ford and Allen not as strong. Concept somewhat weak as Indiana Jones films go.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some Indiana Jones-style violence and a few scary images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Indiana Jones series was always intended to be five films; however after Last Crusade Spielberg felt that he’ d reached a logical end to the series with the iconic final shot. However, after his son asked when the final two films would be made, Spielberg once again became interested. After Ford stated in a 2006 interview that if the movie wasn’t made by 2008, there would not be a fourth film in the series, Spielberg began fast-tracking the development of the script. 

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a featurette on the history of the real crystal skulls as well as a fairly fascinating but ultimately incomplete story of the movie’s 14 year trek to the big screen.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $786.6M on a $185M production budget; despite being a critical failure the movie is considered to be a big financial hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Paul

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Lovely Molly

Apollo 18


Apollo 18

These astronauts discover to their shock that the moon really IS made of green cheese.

(2011) Found Footage Horror (Dimension) Warren Christie, Lloyd Owen, Ryan Robbins. Directed by Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego

Once upon a time, traveling to the moon seemed like the ultimate adventure in human achievement. Then in 1969, we achieved it and it seemed like afterwards humanity did a collective ho-hum and we went on to other things, like toppling Latin American democracies. The moon landing program was curtailed after Apollo 17 in 1972.

But according to this film, there was one more mission in 1974 – one that landed on the South Pole of the moon (technically impossible according to the technology of the time), one that was made secret by the Department of Defense.

Astronauts Nate Walker (Owen) and Ben Anderson (Christie) along with Command Module pilot John Grey (Robbins) can’t even tell their families about their mission, which is top secret. They are tasked with positioning some listening devices on the surface of the moon that will help give early warning about missile launches from the then-Soviet Union.

However, the astronauts encounter something odd. Their communications are cutting out frequently because of an odd frequency which they think is being transmitted by the listening devices, although frankly that puzzles them because they shouldn’t be transmitting anything. They continue to do astronaut-like things – taking rock samples, driving the lunar rover around, and planting the flag.

However things take a decided turn for the strange. They discover a Russian landing vehicle in a nearby crater where they also discover the body of a cosmonaut who apparently was injured and died. Things get really weird when the astronauts try to take off and something slams into the lunar module, damaging it. Now they are in a race against time for survival – and they aren’t alone.

This is purported to be NASA footage from 1974 that was culled from hundreds of hours of footage uploaded to a bogus website (www.lunartruth.org) which the studio is marketing as actual footage. And yes, some of it is actual footage – from previous lunar missions, mixed in with footage shot in Vancouver.

This is Lopez-Gallego’s first English-language film after a couple of pretty nifty Spanish horror films. Like many Spanish directors, he has an eye for mood and a knack for increasing the tension nicely. There are plenty of startle scares here and quite frankly I cried out several times during the movie, something I very rarely do during horror movies. That’s money as far as I’m concerned.

Yeah, the whole found footage thing is getting a bit tired, but it is done cleverly here and great attention to detail is laid in, from shooting it so the horizon is low (as it is on the moon) to re-creating the lunar and command modules and shooting on 16mm film that is properly grainy and washed out, color-wise. All of these are effective.

The science here has been described as “preposterous” and quite frankly if you know that much about physics and engineering you’re going to be driven crazy, but then again that’s usually the case with most space-set movies. What it all boils down to is whether or not the movie is scary and as I’ve already stated, it is big time. Check your higher functions at the door and be prepared to have your primordial self pee its pants as your nightmares come to life on the multiplex screen.

REASONS TO GO: I’ve seen all sorts of horror films and most don’t scare me much; this one did.

REASONS TO STAY: The handheld cams are dizzy-making at times.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some nightmare-inducing scenes as well as some bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the movie, the actors walk normally on the lunar surface. In reality, astronauts had to shuffle their feet somewhat in order not to go leaping around the moon like gazelles because of the low gravity.

HOME OR THEATER: The lunar desolation should be seen on the big screen, but the 16mm cameras work on the home screen as well.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Bringing Out the Dead

The Way Back


The Way Back

Jim Sturgess wonders if there's anybody behind him. Unfortunately, nobody is.

(2011) Adventure (Newmarket) Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, Saoise Ronan, Mark Strong, Dragos Bucur, Alexandru Potocean, Sally Edwards, Gustaf Skarsgard, Sebastian Urzendowsky, Zahary Baharov. Directed by Peter Weir

It’s not the destination, I’ve been known to opine, but the journey. Never has that been more true than in this movie.

Janusz is a Polish cavalry office in occupied Poland. Part of the country is run by the Nazis, the other by Soviet Russia. Janusz is in the latter portion. He is accused of criticizing the Stalinist regime. His wife (Edwards) is forced to testify against him and he is sent to a Siberian gulag.

Here he meets Khabarov (Strong), an actor thrown in the Gulag for portraying a Russian aristocrat too well. He claims to have an escape plan, but later turns out to be a fraud that preys on the hopes of others. However, his information sets in motion a daring escape.

Participating are Kazhik (Urzendowsky), Tomasz (Potocean) and Voss (Skarsgard), fellow Poles as well as Valka (Farrell), a Russian mobster and Mr. Smith (Harris), a taciturn American. The lot of them travels into the harsh Siberian wilderness, picking up an orphan named Irena (Ronan) along the route.

They are pushed to the limits, often without food or water as they pass into Mongolia, cross the Gobi desert into Tibet and then at last must cross the Himalayas into India to finally find freedom. It is an amazing journey that not all of them will survive.

This is inspired by a book by a Polish soldier that is reputedly a true story, although the veracity of it has been called into question recently. While some claim that the author took events that happened to other people and claimed them for his own, there is also a fairly sizable contingent who believe he made up events out of whole cloth. It is nearly certain that Slavomir Rawicz did not make the journey he depicted in the book; recent documents unearthed in Russia confirm this, including some authored by Rawicz himself.

Still, never let the truth get in the way of a good story. There is certainly an epic sweep to the story, a grandeur that populates most grand adventures, and the sort that are rarely undertaken anymore. These men (and one lady) are pushed to walk 4,000 km because they have to. Could it have happened? Yes.

Director Peter Weir has some movies on his resume that will withstand the test of time (The Year of Living Dangerously, Picnic at Hanging Rock) but this is his first movie in seven years (Master and Commandeer: The Far Side of the World was the last movie that saw him in the director’s chair) which is nothing new; he only made three movies during the ‘90s and only one in the decade that followed. He may not be prolific but the quality is usually there.

 He undertakes to make a movie that is both epic in scope and personal in nature, but only succeeds in the former aspect.  The cinematography from landscapes in Bulgaria, Morocco and India is nothing short of breathtaking thanks to cinematographer Russell Boyd. They travel through extremes of heat and cold, with issues of hunger and thirst thrown in; and even a wolf attack to boot. This isn’t a stroll through meadows.

Sturgess makes an appealing hero. His optimism and determination fuels the entire journey. He is in many ways the most human but he is also the most distant. That determination which is in him isn’t fully explained until near the end, and even then he never seems to connect emotionally to anyone. That makes it harder for the audience to connect to him.

Farrell does an impressive job as Valka, the Russian criminal with the knife he calls Wolf but who turns out to be a bit of a blowhard. Janusz is often warned that Valka is the devil and he can’t be trusted but you never get a sense that he’s untrustworthy. It’s an interesting performance that captures a very complex man.

The character that stayed with me the most is Mr. Smith, Harris’ American. He is a bit of a loner, suffering from guilt and loss. He tries to keep the world at bay but his own inner humanity keeps getting in the way. Harris is the kind of actor that brings a certain human touch to his every performance, makin his characters accessible and relatable. Smith begins to display fatherly tendencies towards both Janusz and Irena; the character really blossoms then. Ronan has such ethereal features she looks almost other-worldly. This is a difficult role but she makes it look easy – I get the sense that she is about to break into major stardom.

However, we have to keep in mind that this is essentially a movie about a long walk. There’s only so much you can do with that. Yes, they are walking through desolate places that have their own beauty in their emptiness, but after awhile even beautiful images aren’t enough. They’re supposed to be chased by the Soviets and are trying to avoid contact with the villagers because they know there’s a bounty on their heads, but you never get a sense of danger of imminent re-capture.

No, the danger is that starvation and exposure will do them in and Weir concentrates on that. The imagery is pretty stark and graphic, and not for the squeamish. The exposure to sunstroke is portrayed in a very direct manner, and some may find this unsettling. Still, without the tension of being hunted the movie is harrowing, but not exciting. It’s well made, well acted (despite having a cast of interchangeable bearded Poles) and good looking but ultimately it didn’t move me the way it should have. When you consider this is supposed to be a movie about the triumph of the human spirit, you would think I would feel uplifted but rather, I just felt like I’d endured a long, grueling walk.

REASONS TO GO: Beautifully photographed, excellent work by Sturgess, Harris and Farrell. Ronan is ethereal and looks ready to break out career-wise.

REASONS TO STAY: Movie drags and could have been shortened a good 15-20 minutes.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, images of hardship and ordeal, other disturbing images of death and some nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ronan turned 16 during filming. 

HOME OR THEATER: The big vistas of desert, mountain and forest should be seen on a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Edge of Darkness