Movie Project #29: All the President’s Men [1976]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

All the President's Men [1976]

All the President’s Men [1976]
Director: Alan J. Pakula
Writers: Carl Bernstein & Bob Woodward (book), William Goldman (screenplay)
Country: USA
Genre: Biography/Drama/History
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, Hal Holbrook, Jason Robards
Running Time: 138 minutes

Reason for inclusion: This is considered one of the greatest journalism films of all time, as well as one of the best from the 1970s.

Accolades: Won four Oscars (Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Art Direction, Best Sound, Best Supporting Actor), nominated for four other Oscars (including Best Picture), 10 BAFTA nominations, National Film Registry, AFI’s 100 Cheers, 100 Thrills and 100 Movies lists

All the President’s Men is film that focuses entirely on one story: the investigation of the earth-shattering Watergate scandal. Everything else is trivial.

Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) are assigned to cover what appears to be a relatively unimportant news story: the burglarization of the Democratic National Committee headquarters. When it is revealed that the men — all of whom had CIA ties — had bugging equipment, it’s clear that there is more to this than meets the eye. What follows is some truly incredible journalism work, as Woodward and Bernstein go down every single possible route in order to unearth more information about this political scandal.

The two reporters call anyone and everyone who knows the men related to the scandal, they go door-to-door in hopes of securing interviews, and they search through public records, trying to find any little shrivel of information that may break their case wide open. Their attention to detail is absolutely incredible, and their persistence is admirable. Most journalists would have likely given up after reaching a dead end or two; for Woodward and Bernstein, that was even more motivation to keep going.

All the President's Men [1976]

A vital part of the story’s breakthrough comes from the mysterious figure known as Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook). This anonymous source, a senior government official, agrees to help Woodward, but only by meeting privately in an unlit parking garage. He seems to only drop hints here and there, but having an inside source is just the ticket needed to keep pushing through.

Eventually, through meticulous piecework, the two journalists are able to bust the case open, discovering a massive governmental scandal that runs far deeper than anyone might have guessed. Of course, as they say, the rest is history, with this scandal later culminating in President Nixon’s resignation.

All the President's Men [1976]

What’s most impressive about All the President’s Men is that it focuses almost entirely on this procedural gruntwork, yet it manages to remain gripping throughout. This is a political thriller where the outcome is well known, but there are still times where it’s easy to second guess what might happen. This is a testament to the excellent script, as well as the strong performances from Redford and Hoffman. These two men effortlessly gel into their roles, making them feel like bona fide newspaper reporters. Not once do they feel like actors playing journalists; they *are* the journalists. Special mention must be made of Jason Robards, who won an Oscar for his terrific supporting role as Ben Bradlee, the editor of the Post. Bradlee trusts his reporters, but he demands absolute thoroughness before their stories can hit the front page.

Now, as well-written as the film is, it can still be difficult to keep up with the investigation. Many, many names are dropped, and dozens of people are interviewed and/or called. With so many people involved, it is a bit of a struggle to tell them apart — only the important figures truly stand out.

Still, All the President’s Men is a momentous piece of filmmaking. It is especially enlightening today, as a whole new generation can look back and learn about one of the most significant news stories in our nation’s history. Watergate was a bit before my time, so I was shocked to learn just how deep the buggings ran. For its historical importance alone, this is a film that begs to be seen today, and it should be mandatory viewing in school.

8/10

Movie Project #25: Au Revoir Les Enfants [1987]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

Au Revoir Les Enfants [1987]

Au Revoir Les Enfants [1987]
Director: Louis Malle
Writer: Louis Malle
Country: France/West Germany
Genre: Biography/Drama/War
Starring: Gaspard Manesse, Raphael Fejtö, Francine Racette
Running Time: 104 minutes

Reason for inclusion: I had never seen a Louis Malle film.

Accolades: Two Oscar nominations (Best Foreign Language Film, Best Writing), BAFTA Film Award for Best Direction + three other nominations, César Award – Best Film + six other wins, Golden Lion Award at Venice Film Festival

(This review discusses the film’s big “secret”, and thus contains possible spoilers.)

Based on director Louis Malle’s own childhood experiences, Au revoir les enfants is a subtle, tragic tale of friendship set in war-torn 1944 France. Technically, it is a war film, but one that is staggeringly different from most set during this period.

Gaspard Manesse stars as Julien Quentin, an 11-year-old student at a Catholic boarding school in occupied France. After returning from a much-welcomed vacation, Julien and the other kids are introduced to a new student: Jean Bonnet (Raphael Fejto). It doesn’t take long for the other children to make fun of Jean — after all, boys will be boys — and even Julien gets in on the action. Hell, at first Julien downright despises the new kid.

Au Revoir Les Enfants [1987]

It isn’t until Julien learns Jean’s secret that two of them are drawn together. You see, Jean’s real last name isn’t Bonnet — it’s Kippelstein. The boarding school, like many others in France, has been secretly harboring Jews under assumed identities in an attempt to provide them safety from the omnipresent Nazis. This is a huge risk for the school’s headmaster, and close calls with German soldiers (and French fascists) keep everyone on their toes.

Once this secret is revealed to the audience, the film grows in suspense. Nazis are continually in the picture, though surprisingly they aren’t always shown in a negative light. During one scene, Julien and Jean become lost in the woods. They eventually wander into a nearby country road where they see headlights coming in their direction. The two boys are ecstatic — at least until it is clear that these are enemy soldiers. Jean immediately takes off running — a natural impulse, to be sure. The boys are quickly caught, but rather than being tortured or worse, they are given blankets and driven back to the school. It’s rare to see Nazis portrayed positively, especially when the Holocaust is a focal point of the film.

Au Revoir Les Enfants [1987]

Of course, there are plenty of evil Nazis as well, and much of the film feels like it is a matter of when — not if — they will discover the hiding Jews. Through it all, the friendship of Julien and Jean is tested. While it is fun to watch their playful behavior throughout, this makes the seemingly inevitable conlusion even more heartbreaking to watch.

I was most impressed with Au revoir les enfants‘s absolute subtlety. Malle never forces emotions onto his audience, instead opting to just show everything as it happens. Everything feels authentic, almost certainly because Malle himself went through a similar experience as a child. As such, this is a beautiful piece of cinema, a story that will move even the bleakest of hearts.

8.5/10

Movie Review: 42 [2013]

42 [2013]

42 [2013]
Director: Brian Helgeland
Screenplay: Brian Helgeland
Genre: Biography/Drama/Sport
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Nicole Beharie
Running Time: 128 minutes

Jackie Robinson will always be known as the first African American to play in Major League Baseball, but many seem to forget that he was also a damn good player. In a ten year career, he was a 6-time All-Star, an MVP winner, Rookie of the Year, and a World Series champion. In the new biopic, 42, his excellent career is only glossed over in favor of taking a look at his tumultuous first season.

First, we begin in 1945. Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) is looking to improve his team and comes up with an unfathomable idea — why not sign a talented African American player? While there was no rule against letting minorities play Major League Baseball, there was an unwritten code that every team adhered by. After taking a look at several of the big names in the Negro leagues — including Roy Campanella and Satchel Paige — Rickey settles on the then 26-year-old Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), citing his strong demeanor and ability to withstand verbal abuse.

42 [2013]

Jackie, accompanied by his lovely wife, Rachel (Nicole Beharie), spends a season in the minor leagues before hitting the majors in 1947. As soon as he steps on the field on Opening Day, Jackie is surrounded by reporters. This is commonplace, as is the racist heckling from the crowd, written death threats and even petitions against him from his own teammates. It’s hard to believe that just over 60 years ago, the U.S. was so heavily segregated. Toilets, water fountains and even baseball stadiums were divided, with different lines for “whites” and “colored” patrons.

Many of the character interactions in this film are downright disgusting, and sadly enough, most of them actually happened. The most notorious example is when Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) attempts to rattle Robinson while he’s at the plate by spewing racial epithets at him over and over again. Chapman is relentless, and this is when Jackie reaches his breaking point. Is he really ready to do this? Can he continue to handle all of the pressure bestowed upon him as MLB’s first African American player, essentially a trailblazing pioneer? Of course, we know the answer to this.

42 [2013]

It’s somewhat disappointing that 42 only focuses on Jackie’s first season, simply because he had an impressive career with many noteworthy moments. This makes sense from a film perspective since it gives director Brian Helgeland a chance to portray Robinson in the brightest possible light (which I have no complaints about), but it still feels like there is just so much more to tell.

The film is given the full Hollywood treatment with tried-and-true cliches, dramatic music and a number of heavy-handed scenes (I half-expected Steven Spielberg’s name to be attached to the project), and it concludes with notes on what later happened to Jackie and a select few teammates. While I was fully expecting this “where did they go?” epilogue, it was bizarre to see notes given on players who weren’t even named in the film. Much of the supporting cast (re: teammates) are briefly acknowledged by a first name, if we’re lucky, and they all just blur together. While it’s nice to know Ralph Branca played for three different teams in his career, why should the audience care when he was given maybe a few lines in the movie?

42 [2013]

Regardless of these head-scratching end notes, it should be stated that the entire cast did a hell of a job with their roles. Chadwick Boseman perfectly nails Jackie’s baseball mannerisms, and Harrison Ford hits one out of the park with his scenery-chewing performance as the cigar-chomping old codger running the Dodgers. An impressive array of character actors fills out the supporting cast, led by John C. McGinley as the legendary announcer, Red Barber, and Alan Tudyk as the racist manager, Ben Chapman.

42 is a serviceable biopic, and it hits all of the proper emotional notes. It is an important film, one that deserves to be seen, even though it may be too “Hollywood” for its own good. Jackie Robinson’s legacy is undeniable, and at the very least this film has deservedly brought him back into the forefront.

7/10

Movie Review: Lincoln [2012]

Lincoln [2012]

Lincoln [2012]
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Tony Kushner (screenplay), Doris Kearns Goodwin (book)
Genre: Biography/Drama
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones and John Hawkes
Running Time: 150 minutes

Steven Spielberg is back, folks.

After a decade full of less-than-impressive efforts, Spielberg’s Lincoln delivers the goods. It doesn’t hurt to have one of the most stellar casts in recent memory, but there’s still quite a bit of substance in this historical biopic.

Lincoln [2012]

Rather than serve as a biography of Abraham Lincoln’s entire life, the film focuses on the President’s push to pass the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, an act which would formally abolish slavery in the entire country. Naturally, with a nation already divided due to the Civil War, passing this amendment is no easy feat. The Democrats are almost entirely against the idea of abolishing slavery, and the prospects of getting the 20 extra votes needed are dire. Yet Lincoln is a stubborn, but passionate, man who will not give up until his mission is complete, even against the wishes of his advisors.

This is such a critical moment in our nation’s history, and it’s remarkable to see this played out on screen. A tremendous amount of detail went into recreating this time period, with extra emphasis on the faithfully reconstructed costume design. The casting is also near perfection. Daniel Day-Lewis, of course, has been on the receiving end of constant praise for his portrayal of Lincoln, and he deserves every accolade thrown his way. Soft-spoken, intelligent and charismatic, Day-Lewis embodies the 16th President in a way that makes it incredibly clear why he was so beloved. In a career loaded with memorable performances, this may very well be his best, and it would be shocking if he didn’t win the Oscar.

Lincoln [2012]

The rest of the cast is stacked, to put it mildly. Just take a look at some of the names involved: Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones, John Hawkes, Jackie Earl Haley, Tim Blake Nelson, Lee Pace, Jared Harris. This is basically character actor heaven. Field and Jones have both earned Oscar nods for their performances as Mary Todd Lincoln and Thaddeus Stevens, respectively, and rightfully so. The trio of Hawkes, Spader and Nelson are especially entertaining as a group of chief negotiators who will go to any means necessary to sway/bribe the Democratic voters.

Lincoln isn’t a perfect film — Spielberg still has a habit of spelling things out for us (i.e. Mary Todd and others writing down notes such as “8 votes to win” just in case we didn’t know) — but it is a wholly engrossing one. With a heavy reliance on dialogue, the acting needs to be top-notch, and in this regard the film does not disappoint at all. Lincoln will likely clean up at the Oscars this year, and for once I will have little to complain about.

9/10

Movie Project #48: Lawrence of Arabia [1962]

Due to the surprising success of my initial Movies Project, I decided to do a part two for 2012. This time around I put a greater emphasis on directors I am not familiar with, but I also tried to compile a mix of different genres and eras. This will be an ongoing project with the finish date being sometime this year.

Lawrence of Arabia [1962]

Lawrence of Arabia [1962]
Director: David Lean
Writers: T.E. Lawrence (writings), Robert Bolt, Michael Wilson
Genre: Adventure/Biography/Drama
Starring: Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn and Omar Sharif
Running Time: 216 minutes

The word “epic” is thrown around a lot these days, especially when it comes to film. Just this year alone, Cloud Atlas, The Hobbit and The Dark Knight Rises were recipients of this buzz word. But if there were one film to truly deserve the “epic” moniker, it would be Lawrence of Arabia.

Arguably the most intimidating entry in my project — largely due to its nearly four hour running time — I waited until just the right time to finally see the film. Thanks to this year being the 50th anniversary of its release, a fully restored version has been making its way around select theaters nationwide. As such, I spent my Christmas evening at my favorite cinema, the Music Box Theatre, taking in Lawrence of Arabia on the big screen as it was meant to be seen.

Lawrence of Arabia [1962]

The film tells the story of T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole), a man who I knew little about beforehand. Set during World War I, we follow along as Lawrence rises from being an eccentric British Army lieutenant to an improbable leader of the Arab revolt against the Turks. The journey there is anything but conventional.

Lawrence befriends a number of desert leaders along the way, including Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) and Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness). He earns their trust and respect thanks to his noble actions. In one pivotal moment, the Arab group notices a man has fallen off his horse quite a ways back. While the general consensus is that it is too risky to go back for him, Lawrence takes matters into his own hands and rides back alone. He emerges, a small blip in the seering desert horizon, no longer alone, but with the man clinging to his back. This response cements Lawrence’s status as a leader, and soon the Arabs become even more accepting of him.

Lawrence of Arabia [1962]

The fact that Lawrence is able to emerge as a crucial figure in the Arab revolt is nothing short of fascinating. He is anything but a traditional military hero, and it’s easy to see why director David Lean wanted to film his story. Peter O’Toole, in his first leading role, delivers an unprecedented performance as Lawrence, bringing about an unusual form of charisma. He is enigmatic, a rebellious figure who is also a bit effeminate. He’s a man of action, and some of his behavior near the end of the revolt is startling.

The supporting cast is phenomenal as well. Omar Sharif plays a key role as Lawrence’s main compatriot in the desert, with Alec Guinness and Anthony Quinn also performing admirably as important Arab leaders. On the British side of the spectrum, Donald Wolfit and the always reliable Claude Rains play military and political leaders, respectively. Arthur Kennedy makes an appearance as an American war correspondent, looking to make Lawrence out to be a hero. Special mention should be made of José Ferrer, who is only in the film for five minutes but is a driving force in one of the most memorable scenes.

Lawrence of Arabia [1962]

Perhaps the most important figure in Lawrence of Arabia is the desert itself. The cinematography by F.A. Young is simply amazing, and the landscape is used to maximum efficiency. Several scenes show the sun beaming down on those below, with long, sweeping shots that show just how minuscule humans are in the grand scheme of things. An especially memorable moment happens when Sherif Ali is introduced. At first, we see a tiny dot in the distance. In the hazy heat, it’s difficult to tell if there is actually something there or if it is an illusion. Slowly but surely, the small dot grows bigger, and it isn’t too long before Ali enters the scene. What happens next is unexpected, but this moment perfectly encapsulates just how daunting these massive deserts truly are. I can’t recall another film that so effectively uses Earth’s own natural beauty.

Lawrence of Arabia was nominated for ten Academy Awards, winning seven of them (including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Cinematography). It’s one of the most widely recognized films of all time, with unanimous praise from most. The accolades are more than deserved, as this is a near flawless work of art. As of this writing, the film is still being shown in a handful of theaters. If it’s playing anywhere near you, this is a cinematic viewing experience you must not miss.

10/10

Movie Project #45: The Pianist [2002]

Due to the surprising success of my initial Movies Project, I decided to do a part two for 2012. This time around I put a greater emphasis on directors I am not familiar with, but I also tried to compile a mix of different genres and eras. This will be an ongoing project with the finish date being sometime this year.

The Pianist [2002]

The Pianist [2002]
Director: Roman Polanski
Genre: Biography/Drama/War
Starring: Adrien Brody, Thomas Kretschmann and Frank Finlay
Running Time: 150 minutes

It’s always difficult to watch films about the Holocaust, and it’s especially challenging to write about them afterward. What can be said about one of the most horrifying events in all of mankind? Because of this, it has taken me ten long years to finally see The Pianist, Roman Polanski’s film based on the World War II memoir by Polish-Jewish musician Wladyslaw Szpilman.

Adrien Brody stars as Szpilman, and the film begins with a German bombing during one of his popular radio station performances. It doesn’t take long for Germany to defeat Poland, and they quickly begin pushing the Jews into ghettos with extremely poor living conditions. This only gets worse as the Germans linger in the country, with Jews being executed randomly, and many of them being sent to concentration camps.

The Pianist [2002]

Eventually Szpilman becomes separated from his family, and he is forced to live in hiding from the Nazis. He must rely on the hospitality of others, but this becomes increasingly difficult as the war goes on. Jews begin turning on each other, and the Nazis start wiping out entire areas for no reason. Soon many ghettos are looking like post-apocalyptic war zones.

This destruction makes for an exceedingly arduous viewing. The punishment is relentless, and quite frankly we do not need to see most of it. The devastation and tragedies just keep getting piled onto Szpilman with no end in sight. There is no humanity or compassion at all, except for a brief glimpse at the end. It’s harrowing to watch, a painful look at an absolutely darkest time.

The Pianist [2002]

The attention to detail in The Pianist is astounding, and this is to be expected given Polanski’s own Holocaust survival tale. This is an extremely well-crafted film, one brought together by Adrien Brody’s well-deserved Oscar-winning performance. Szpilman’s physical and mental deterioration over the years is hard to watch, but Brody’s dedication to the role is admirable.

While watching The Pianist, I wondered what separated Szpilman’s story from thousands of others during the Holocaust. Was it the fact that he was a well-known musician? Or perhaps that he received a rare moment of compassion as the Nazis left Warsaw? Ultimately, this question does not matter. At the end, this could have been the story of any number of survivors, and The Pianist is an exemplary portrait of this.

8/10

Movie Review: Argo [2012]

Argo [2012]

Argo [2012]
Director: Ben Affleck
Genre: Biography/Drama/Thriller
Starring: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Alan Arkin
Runtime: 120 minutes

It’s always a joy to watch a film that is based on a true story so unbelievable that it just couldn’t be a work of fiction. Ben Affleck’s latest directorial effort focuses on one such tale, a CIA case that was not declassified until nearly 20 years later in 1997.

Argo begins in 1979 during the Iranian Revolution. The film faithfully reenacts the depiction of a large group of Iranian revolutionaries protesting outside the U.S. embassy in Tehran. The protests grow larger and more violent, and eventually the mob swarms the embassy, taking 52 Americans hostage. A group of six men and women manage to escape before this happens, and they are eventually taken in by the Canadian embassy.

Argo [2012]

Faced with an international crisis, the U.S. State Department begins looking for ways to extract the escaped six before the Iranians realize they are missing. This is where CIA specialist Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) comes in. Faced with a number of unfeasible extradition suggestions (one of which entails giving the group some bicycles and telling them to bike 300+ miles to the Turkey border), Mendez comes up with one of his own: pretend to be a Canadian film scout who is visiting Iran as a possible shooting location. In return, he will bring back the six Americans as members of his film crew.

As the “best bad idea” the CIA has, Mendez gets approval from his supervisor, Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston), and heads to Hollywood to set up a fake studio. With the help of John Chambers (John Goodman), a master makeup artist, and Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), a film producer, the trio set up a phony office to lend credibility to the project. They even invite the press to their fake shooting in order to get additional publicity. It’s a wild idea, no doubt, but Mendez is determined to see it through, and he flies to Tehran in hopes of accomplishing his goal.

Argo [2012]

Now, since this is based on a true story, many will already know the outcome of the film. Pay no mind to this — knowing what happens does not lessen this film in any way possible. As a director, Affleck knows how to ramp up the suspense, creating a number of tense, memorable moments that will leave viewers doubting their recollections of the actual events.

Affleck also nailed the 1970s setting. Everything here is expertly portrayed, from the absurd fashion choices — complete with shaggy hair, thick moustaches and large-rimmed glasses — to what looks and feels like authentic archival footage of the revolution. Seriously, the man did his homework.

Argo [2012]

It helps to have a strong, witty screenplay, especially one that is delivered by an impressive arsenal of top Hollywood stars. Affleck shines in the lead role, but it’s especially fun to watch the group of character actors attached to the project. Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Alan Arkin (who gets to deliver the film’s most memorable line), Kyle Chandler, Philip Baker Hall and others all turn in memorable performances, even if they are ever so small.

It’s hard to find fault in Argo. Perhaps more emphasis could have been placed on character development when it comes to the American Six, but they are just pieces in what is a large, encompassing operation. As far as historical films go, this is a great one, and it is one of the year’s best. Don’t be surprised if Argo comes up in quite a few categories in this year’s awards season.

9/10

Movie Review: The Imposter [2012]

The Imposter [2012]

The Imposter [2012]
Director: Bart Layton
Genre: Documentary/Biography
Starring: Adam O’Brian, Frédéric Bourdin and Carey Gibson
Runtime: 99 minutes

In 1994, a 13-year-old boy named Nicholas Barclay left his San Antonio home to go play basketball. He never returned, eventually assumed to be dead.

In 1997, his family received a phone call from someone in Linares, Spain stating that Nicholas was there, shaken up but alive. How did Nicholas get overseas?

We know the answer to this question right away — this isn’t Nicholas at all. This is a 23-year-old Frenchman named Frédéric Bourdin, an imposter posing as the long-lost teenager. In an effort to appear believable, Bourdin goes to great lengths to cover-up his appearance. He wears a hoodie, ball cap and shades as often as possible, and his timid demeanor goes in line with someone who underwent a traumatic experience. He dyes his hair blond and acquires crude renditions of the same three tattoos Nicholas had. Somehow, remarkably so, the Barclays take in Bourdin, fully believing (or at least wanting to believe) that this is actually their missing family member.

The Imposter [2012]

If that sounds too crazy to be true, well, it gets even more ridiculous. I won’t get into explicit details because it truly helps to go into this movie without knowing much, but the film takes a total 180 about halfway through. All of a sudden, all of my preconceived notions about the people we were introduced to were thrown out the window. My emotions were turned inside and out, and I was left wondering just who to believe.

In order to figure out just what the hell happened in this bizarre true story, we hear from a variety of talking heads. Bourdin himself tells his side of the story, very bluntly stating that he wanted “love and affection” in his life, even if that meant stealing another person’s identity. He is an enigmatic character, one who has a strange type of charisma even as we learn of his despicable deed. We also hear from many members of the Barclay family, as they stumble over their words to try to explain how they let this stranger into their home. Surely they must have noticed that Nicholas’ eyes suddenly changed from baby blue to brown?

The Imposter [2012]

Interspersed with interview clips are home video shots (including Bourdin’s U.S. arrival into open arms) as well as re-enacted moments using actors. The transition between all three formats is flawless, particularly when dialogue remains perfectly in sync while switching amongst them. This is an expertly crafted documentary from seasoned TV veteran, Bart Layton.

The Imposter asks a lot of questions, and it is almost certainly the most ‘thrilling’ documentary I have ever seen. It’s damn near impossible to write a story like this, and it’s mind-boggling that this could have ever happened. As a case of “stranger than fiction”, this is simply unforgettable. Folks, this is easily one of the best films of the year and it is an absolute must-see.

9/10

Movie Project #8: Into the Wild [2007]

Due to the overwhelming success of my initial Movies Project, I decided to do a second round for 2012. This time around I put a greater emphasis on directors I am not familiar with, but I also tried to compile a mix of different genres and eras. This will be an ongoing project with the finish date being sometime this year.

Into the Wild [2007]

Into the Wild [2007]
Director: Sean Penn
Genre: Adventure/Biography/Drama
Starring: Emile Hirsch, Vince Vaughn and Catherine Keener
Runtime: 148 minutes

I was skeptical upon my viewing of Into the Wild. I have friends who swear by this movie, ranking it among their favorites, but I was worried that it would be too similar to Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, a similarly true tale that did very little for me. While both films have similar concepts — a man giving up everything to live in the wild — I felt that I could empathize more with Into the Wild’s lead character, much to the credit of director Sean Penn’s adaptation.

Emile Hirsch stars as Christopher McCandless, a middle-class kid who promptly gives up everything after graduating from college. He donates his savings (approx. $24,000) to Oxfam, ditches his car near a beach, and proceeds to live as a vagabond, happily drifting across the continental United States. His reason? He doesn’t agree with society, and the feeling of being trapped by its expectations. His ultimate goal is to live alone in the Alaskan wilderness.

This is an admirable notion, to be sure, but his lack of care and respect for his family is appalling. He doesn’t like his parents (Marcia Gay Harden and William Hurt), a stuck-up couple that are abusive to each other, but his little sister (Jena Malone) adores him. He shuns all of them, opting to go on his own personal journey.

Into the Wild [2007]

Christopher’s selfishness is disturbing, but it’s hard to stay upset at him thanks to Hirsch’s fantastic performance. He is charming, intelligent and has a strong set of morals when dealing with stranger (i.e. passing up on the chance to fornicate with a 16-year-old Kristen Stewart).

On the road, Christopher dubs himself Alexander Supertramp, and he meets a wide variety of characters, all memorable in their own way. There’s an old hippie couple (Catherine Keener and Brian H. Dierker) that he develops a strong connection with. In South Dakota, Alexander gets a job with a harvesting company owned by Wayne Westerberg (Vince Vaughn). In California, he meets an old retired veteran (Hal Holbrook, in an amazing performance) who begins to feel as if “Supertramp” is his own grandson. In different ways, Christopher makes an impact on all of their lives, then quickly goes off on his own, seemingly never to be seen again.

Into the Wild [2007]

The film is presented in nonlinear fashion, showing us glimpses of Christopher alone in Alaska, then showing us segments from his road trip leading up to that point. This connection is masterfully created by Sean Penn, who also wrote the screenplay. The cinematography is simply stunning, beautifully showcasing the glorious splendor that can be found in a country as large as the United States, even in places that might not be expected (i.e. South Dakota).

Special mention must be made of the movie’s soundtrack, performed by Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder. I am not a big Pearl Jam guy, but damn if this score doesn’t hit all the right spots. A perfect fit for the vast, expansive nature of the movie’s central theme.

Perhaps Into the Wild runs a little long, and yes, the main character is decidedly selfish, but this film is emotionally stirring in ways that I was not expecting. I felt a connection to this young man and his idealistic beliefs. He had a great message (and could have redeemed himself), it’s just a shame that he took it to such an extreme.

8/10

Movie Project #10: Hotel Rwanda [2004]

The 50 Movies Project is a personal “marathon” of mine. In June, I compiled a list of 50 movies that I felt I needed to see by the end of the year. Old, new, foreign, English — it doesn’t matter. These are all movies that I have heard a lot about and have been wanting to see for some time. This project gives me a way to stay focused on the goal.

Hotel Rwanda [2004]

Hotel Rwanda [2004]
Directors: Terry George
Genre: Biography/Drama/History
Language: English/French
Country: USA

Going into Hotel Rwanda, I kept hearing the same things.

“That is a real tearjerker.”

“That movie is so sad. Make sure to have a box of tissues nearby.”

Well, after watching it, I can certainly understand these sentiments.

The movie is about a horrifying time in the African country of Rwanda. The year is 1994, and a major civil war has broken out between two ethnic groups: the Hutu and Tutsi. The Hutus have pushed the Tutsi out of power and are now concentrating their efforts on mass genocide of the Tutsis.

Caught in the middle of this brutality is Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle) the manager of the four-star Sabena Hôtel des Mille Collines. He is Hutu, his wife Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo) is Tutsi. As the violence worsens, his hotel becomes something of an oasis for nearby refugees. Paul’s role quickly becomes that of a diplomat, carefully negotiating with rebels and military figures in order to obtain rations and maintain the safety of those staying with him. This becomes a thin line, as he struggles to maintain a balance between all of this.

Hotel Rwanda [2004]

Paul’s appeals for help reap little rewards. The UN has peacekeeping forces in the area led by Colonel Oliver (Nick Nolte), but they can offer little help. They have guns, but are ordered not to fire them. Oliver and his men do all they can, mainly by attempting to transfer refugees to “safe” locations, but it is clear that they have little support from those outside of the warzone. The president of Paul’s hotel chain, Mr. Tillens (Jean Reno), is mortified by what is going on, but again, his hands are pretty much tied. It’s a giant clusterfuck, as everyone is aware of the atrocities being committed but nothing is being done about it.

This is all very much a true story, and the end result shows that nearly one million people died during this genocide. Paul was able to save over 1,200 people with his hotel, which is absolutely remarkable.

Rather than focusing on showing us the countless murders, Hotel Rwanda demonstrates the power of men who want to do good. As a respected man in the area, Paul has chances to leave with his family, but he opts to stay and try to save some lives. I was pleased that the movie took this route, as it was not necessary to show endless moments of brutality in order to convey its message. This is about the power of humanity, and those who did everything they could to help in a terrifying situation.

Hotel Rwanda [2004]

Not enough can be said of Don Cheadle’s performance here. He is absolutely fantastic, perfectly portraying the despair and anguish his character is feeling, while at the same time showing the strength necessary to help his fellow people. His Oscar nomination was well deserved. Sophie Okonedo is excellent as his wife, and the rest of the cast is strong as well, even including a small role from Joaquin Phoenix as a news cameraman.

In short, Hotel Rwanda is a powerful and moving film that sheds some light on a massive genocide that most people either didn’t know about or didn’t care enough about. It’s depressing, yet also uplifting in a way thanks to the fact that one man was able to help save so many lives. Just incredible.

9/10