Three brief movie reviews

The Thinker by Rodin

I’ve managed to cram in three movies these last couple of months into my hectic schedule. They were mostly from Netflix but the first review was in the theater.

The Monuments Men

This is one of those generally well done movies that tells an interesting story but still has you scratching your head about why it was made. It was made in part because it could be made and because George Clooney apparently doesn’t have enough to keep him busy, so he decided to produce and star in this movie about a small group of artists during World War II that were drafted into the army to recover the art that Germany was stealing during its occupation of Europe. No young buck privates here but instead you do get an A list of older Hollywood talent including Clooney, John Goodman, Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Bill Murray and some character actors like Bob Balaban and Hugh Bonneville. Bonneville is perhaps best known as Lord Grantham in the British series Downton Abbey.

The Germans were certainly methodical about stealing art. To me the biggest surprise was just how much of it they managed to steal and hide. The story unwinds comfortably with few surprises. A few of the men on this task get shot and die but most survive, including Clooney’s character. Blanchett’s role is as art curator at a Paris museum. She must watch as their art is trucked off elsewhere. She does not believe that the Americans will not take the art for themselves when they occupy Paris. Matt Damon spends much of the movie convincing her that he is a good guy. Blanchett’s acting is the only standout part of this movie. As for the rest of these actors, they are just there to have a good time with their pal George, which is the real reason this film got made. Still, with Clooney producing, directing and acting it’s not a bad movie and is competently rendered. It was a story worth telling but would have probably be better told without an all-star cast. Aside from the pretty faces on the screen, there is not much to see here to see aside from the art. We learn, again, that the Nazis were quite despicable. Yes, it beats yet another superhero movie, for which there were plenty of trailers, but not by much. In short, it’s easily skippable.

2.8 out of 4 stars.

Milk (2008)

I have been meaning to see Milk since it came out in 2008. It won Sean Penn, who plays the first openly gay person to serve in elective office in the United States, a best actor award. I will admit I was quite impressed by Penn’s performance and amazed by how well this temperamental and masculine actor managed to pull off acting as the effeminate Harvey Milk, who eventually wins a seat as supervisor for the City of San Francisco, representing its gay community. It was also something of an eye opener for me on the homosexual lifestyle. It’s not that I did not understand what it was about, just that I had never been immersed in its culture before, and you can’t escape it this 128-minute movie.

It was quite dangerous to be gay in the 1970s. Milk truly broke barriers, not so much by making it cool to be gay, but by being openly gay during a time when homosexuality was simply not tolerated in any place other than a few “queer” communities. Even there, as in San Francisco, the cops regularly beat up the queers.

Fortunately, Penn’s performance is not overwhelming. A fine supporting cast makes this visit into San Francisco’s Castro District feel authentic. It’s something of a nostalgic trip to go back to the 1970s with its typewriters and boxy Bell telephones. Ultimately this movie is about the courage it takes for a people to assert their fundamental human rights. It is not surprising that Milk was ultimately assassinated. He suspected he would not live to see 50, and he was right. Breaking through societal inhibitions and taboos is hard and dangerous work. It killed Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King and ten years after King’s assassination it also killed Harvey Milk. Unlike Monument Men, which is nothing special, Milk is something special because it takes us intimately into the gay world of the 1970s at the cusp of major change. Thanks in part to Harvey Milk we have come a long way indeed thirty-plus years later. Gay marriage is legal in about a third of the United States. In twenty years, but perhaps a lot sooner if the U.S. Supreme Court revisits is gay marriage ruling, it will be just another fundamental civil right we will take for granted. As Milk discovers in a lot of his failed relationships, healthy relationships are just hard work, regardless of the gender that you are attracted to.

3.5 out of four stars.

Ender’s Game

Speaking of homophobia, the author of Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card, is a homophobic bigot, which is one of the reasons I deferred seeing this movie in the theater. Card is a Mormon, so perhaps he comes by it naturally. When I first read Ender’s Game back in the 1980s, I was just really impressed by this fast moving novel about Ender Wiggins, a boy on the cusp of adolescence with a talent for leadership and directing war games. For the Earth had narrowly escaped being colonized by an alien race, so now all of Earth’s resources are focused on developing the technology and leaders to defeat the aliens that Earth believes will attack them again. No means are off limits. Young boys are thrust into leadership roles beyond their years because they can think fastest and most clearly. Ender Wiggins, played by Asa Butterfield, turns out to be the scrawny little kid that could save the earth for all time from these aliens. It is Colonel Graff’s (Harrison Ford) job to find, train and deploy Ender along with his commanders to defeat these aliens.

If you haven’t read the books, you will probably like Ender’s Game quite a bit as it is technically well done and well acted. It moves very quickly and by necessity skips a lot of detail in the book. In fact, if you have read the series as I have you realize that this movie combines not only this book but also some of the subsequent books as well including Speaker for the Dead. It also changes a lot of the plot, probably necessary for making a motion picture, but it will leave fans of the book disappointed. Card may be a homophobic bigot, but he is a good writer and his original story is much better than this movie. So fans of the book are going to be disappointed.

It’s not a bad movie, it just moves too quickly and is too superficial. It needed to be done right, and Director Gavin Hood wasn’t what this movie needed. What it needed was a trilogy with each movie focused on one of the books in this series. It needed Peter Jackson’s time and attention. There is a lot going on through young Ender’s mind. The movie doesn’t have time to go into much of it, but knowing what’s on his mind is really the key to fully appreciating it. This movie would have been better called Ender’s War, for in the book it truly was Ender’s Game. I won’t spoil the book for you if you haven’t read it. I strongly advise though skipping the movie and reading the book instead. The book is such a better experience.

3.0 out of four stars.

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