Tanks? No, Tanks.

Writer/director David Ayer likes things gritty. With crime dramas like the original The Fast and the Furious, Training Day, and Dark Blue, scripts he wrote, and Harsh Times that he wrote and directed, he focused on the mean streets of South-Central LA and populated them with criminals and rogue cops who weren’t any better. He ended up making the excellent slice of police life End of Watch as an apology to cops for his earlier movies. His first produced screenplay, though, was U-571, a WWII story about a mission to capture the German Navy’s version of the Enigma code machine. It had Matthew McConaughey being schooled by hard-edge sub skipper Bill Paxton that to be ready to command a sub, he had to be ready to send men to their deaths. (The film was notable mostly for re-writing history, since it was a British mission that captured an Enigma machine.) Now Ayer returns to WWII with Fury.

Ayer is aiming for Saving Private Ryan significance, but instead he winds up in the neighborhood of The Dirty Dozen with a bit of Kelly’s Heroes thrown in, without the comedic element of those two movies. Fury tells the story of a Sherman tank crew that has almost made it intact all the way through the war. It’s now April,1945, and the Allies are pushing deep into Germany. The war will be over in a month. Sergeant “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) is in command of the tank called “Fury” with a crew of Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LeBeouf), Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Pena), and Grady “Coon-ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal). In an action just before the movie starts, the crew has its first casualty when the front machine-gunner is killed. The movie does show a fair amount of gore, so it can thank Ryan for its realistic portrayal of what can happen to a body in a battle, though strangely near the end of the movie death is shown with in the pristine version of war movies from the 1940s.

Into the crew is thrust a replacement with no training. Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) is a clerk, fresh from boot camp, when he is detached from his unit to be the crew’s new gunner. It’s obvious Ayer wanted a Corporal Upham character, the role played by Jeremy Davis in Ryan, but does it in a way that strains credulity. The US Army didn’t skimp on training and would not have assigned someone like Ellison to a tank crew. They weren’t in the position of the Wehrmacht at the end of the war, having to draft schoolchildren and pensioners to fight. But Ayer wanted to show Ellison’s transformation under the almost psychotic “hard love” of Wardaddy from a callow youth into a trained killer.

There are some good parts of the movie. It does do a decent job showing how a tank crew works and gives a realistic feel for being in action in a tank. A scene where four Sherman tanks, which had notoriously light armor, take on a heavily armored German Panzer provides a view of battle strategy, and the cost involved. On the negative side are two scenes where POWs are summarily executed, which would have got those involved courtmartialed and sent to the stockade (where they could have been recruited for The Dirty Dozen). There’s also a scene that could have been a good emotional moment, similar to the pause before the final battle in Ryan, but Ayer’s heavy hand turns it into obvious manipulation. In the climactic battle, he also has a German toss a grenade with the longest fuse ever manufactured.

Pitt manages to make Wardaddy sympathetic, though the other characters are more caricatures and don’t really go below the surface bluster. Lerman plays a character who’s out of his depth, but that could also go for the actor. He did good work in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, but his role here is written as an archtype, not a realistic character.

Fury is the spiritual child of the B movies made during WWII, without their immediacy in relationship to the war. It doesn’t translate to a commentary on current warfare; if you want that, rent Lone Survivor or The Hurt Locker. So the real question that runs through your head while watching Fury is, why was this made?

Ayer may need to make another war movie, as an apology to servicemen this time.

Big Heart One

In 2004 Pixar took comic book superheroes and blended it with their trademark animation to make The Incredibles, which lived up to its name. The Brad Bird directed feature had plenty of thrills as well as the cockeyed humor the Pixar does so well. Now Walt Disney Animation, which has made a strong comeback with movies like Tangled, Wreck-it Ralph, and last year’s mega-hit Frozen, has taken a step into the Marvel Universe with Big Hero 6. This time, they blend the story with the emotional resonance of Bambi and Beauty and the Beast.

Hiro (voiced by Ryan Potter) and his brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) live in the alternate universe city of San Fransokyo with their aunt Cass (Maya Rudoph). Yes, they’re orphans; this is a Disney flick. You could do a sub-classification for Disney Animation movies on whether the main character has lost one parent or two and almost all their movies would be listed on one side or the other. Hiro is a 14-year-old genius but is only interested in hustling at robot fights. Cass feels completely out of her depth with Hiro, so it’s up to Tadashi to play the parent. He takes Hiro to the university laboratory where he’s studying and introduces him to his lab mates: Fred (TJ Miller), Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr.), Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez) and Go Go (Jamie Chung). Hiro’s fascinated with their work, and is in awe of their professor, Robert Callaghan (James Cromwell), who created much of the technology Hiro uses in his robot. Tadashi also shows Hiro his creation, an inflatable medical robot called Baymax (Scott Adsit).

The visit fires Hiro’s drive, and he creates an incredible technology for a science competition where the prize is entrance into Callaghan’s class. The creation captures the attention of Alistar Krei (Alan Tudyk), the billionaire head of Krei Industries, who makes Hiro an offer on the spot. Callaghan denounces Krei as an opportunist who cuts corners to make money, and Hiro decides to reject the offer and take his place in the laboratory. But on the night of his triumph, a fire breaks out in the display hall and Tadashi is killed trying to save Callaghan.

Hiro retreats to his room, but he discovers that Tadashi has stored Baymax there. Hiro thinks his work for the science competition was destroyed in the fire, but then he and Baymax follow a lead and discover a kabuki-masked villain duplicating Hiro’s work.  They try to report their encounter to the police, but the desk sergeant is less than impressed. Hiro realizes the masked man likely caused the fire that killed Tadashi, and decides that he must capture him. But to do that, Baymax needs a major upgrade.

As you’d expect with Disney, the animation is astounding, especially the busy street scenes. The characterizations are sharp and fun, in particular the four lab mates who reach out to Hiro after Tadashi’s death and get recruited into his plans, thus providing the 6 in the title. But what sets Big Hero 6 apart from many superhero stories is how it takes on such deep themes as the corrosiveness of revenge, the power of teamwork, and the cost of heroism. The movie uses its super powers to tug at your heart strings.

There are no songs in the film, so for parents who have listened to “Let It Go” a bazillion times, it’s safe to go back into the theater. The script (by Jordan Roberts and Daniel Gerson & Robert L. Baird) was adapted a Marvel comic by Duncan Rouleau and Stephen Seagle, but completely reimagined might be a better way to describe what the writers accomplished. The comic book was more of a straightforward adventure in the X-Men vein, but in the film it’s the labmates’ scientific accomplishments that allow them to craft their superhero characters. The original also objectified women, but that is completely rejected in the film, amen and hallelujah! Baymax was more a normal robot, but the Baymax in the film is an absolutely brilliant creation. Directors Don Hall and Chris Williams have a gift for blending both heavy action and heart-warming humor.

It is fascinating to see the blending of Marvel and Disney, two almost polar opposites in the animation realm, but it works beautifully. There’s even a direct nod at Marvel in the tag at the end of the credits that will warm nerd hearts.

Odyssey

It’s pretty much a given that Christopher Nolan’s new film Interstellar will be compared with Stanley Kubick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey from 46 years ago. It’s about the only film that comes close to Interstellar’s vision and scale. Nolan himself gives the earlier film a nod when he has a robot on the spaceship use its humor setting to make a wisecrack about how the astronaut can get back in through the pod door after being ejected into space. But the movie actually harkens back to Homer’s Odyssey, where Odysseus must make his long trip home to save his family and his kingdom.

Nolan sets Interstellar in an all-too-possible future. Overpopulation has caused countries to focus almost solely on growing food. They tell themselves they’re a caretaker generation, to get through the crisis, and then things will be better. At the same time the climate has turned toxic. Blight has destroyed wheat as a crop, and sorghum is dying off. Corn remains resilient, but drought threatens it. Dust storms even worse than the 1930s are now common enough that communities have installed warning sirens for when the clouds approach. To keep the people focused on farming, the government has re-written history and science textbooks to negate accomplishments – they now say that the Apollo landings were faked – while NASA is officially disbanded. They can’t afford to dream big dreams anymore.

Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) was a test-pilot engineer at the end for NASA, but now he too is a farmer, living with his father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow) and his two children, Tom (Timothy Chalamet) and Murph (MacKenzie Foy). Tom looks forward to being a farmer, but Murph is already showing she may eclipse her father’s brilliance at science. But it seems Murph is going through a phase because she claims there are ghosts in her room push books off her shelves. Rather than being scared, she analyzes the dropped books to find a pattern, believing the ghosts are trying to communicate with her.

Then in the aftermath of a dust storm, Cooper and Murph find an anomaly that sends them on a journey. They discover the remnants of NASA hidden in an old NORAD bunker. It’s now under the direction of Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and his daughter (Anne Hathaway), who just goes by Brand. The professor gives Cooper a doomsday scenario for the planet that will happen within Murph’s generation. The only chance humanity has is to leave the Earth behind, and Cooper is the best pilot for the mission to find humanity a new home.

In 2001, the science is fairly bland and not really spelled out – just a cool light show at the end. Interstellar, on the other hand, is an illustrated primer on quantum physics, relativity, and holes of the worm or black variety. For instance, in the course of the mission Cooper hardly ages for a couple of reasons while back on earth Murph grows older than her father was when he left (the adult Murph is played by Jessica Chastain).

Also different than 2001, the humans in Interstellar are just that – human, with all our foibles and pettiness, even as we dream great dreams. It is one of the more emotionally resonant science fiction films. There are lies and weakness and cowardice – the stuff that drama is made of – rather than the antiseptic world of the earlier film. It’s not just science fiction; it’s science friction, as all the elements collide.

The special effects look top-notch, though it’s interesting that Nolan kept much of the movie old school. He used actual film rather than digital cameras, and for the robot TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin) many of its scenes are done with puppetry. Nolan collaborated with his brother Jonathan on the script, as he has in the past for Momento, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises. They were assisted by Kip Thorne (who has Executive Producer credit on the film) who is a famed astrophysicist who teaches at Cal Tech and is currently the Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics. Thorne collaborated with the special effects crew on visualizing a worm hole.

The score by Hans Zimmer is effective, especially since Nolan told him he’d have to strip down the orchestration. He also didn’t provide Zimmer with the script, just a page of notes. However, Zimmer’s score underlines the emotional element of the scenes and increases the impact of the film.

The focus of the movie is Cooper and Murph, and the father-daughter relationship between McConaughey and Foy, then Chastain, has an emotional resonance and validity. Caine has done excellent work with Nolan through, and with their fifth film together that excellence continues. The rest of the cast – Hathaway, Lithgow, William Devane, Wes Bentley, David Gyasi, Casey Affleck, Topher Grace, and another major actor in a surprise appearance – inhabit their roles beautifully.

This is a major movie dealing with complex issues (it’s also 9 minutes longer than the original cut of 2001) but it is also a movie with heart and soul. 2001: A Space Odyssey played in some theaters for almost three years, supported by repeat visitors, some of whom enjoyed watching the special effects with the help of some chemical augmentation. Movie distribution has changed radically since those days, but this is a movie that deserves to be seen more than once, and then reflected upon.

It may only be science fiction for a few years.

To Kill The Boogeyman

Keanu Reeves won’t go down as a great movie actor, but he can be an effective one. He could have vanished after the two Bill and Ted movies, like his costar Alex Winter, but he remade himself as an action star in Point Break, Speed, and The Matrix, and he did character work in the little-seen A Scanner Darkly and was a romantic lead in The Lake House. But then there are the Matrix sequels, The Day The Earth Stood Still, and last year’s bomb 47 Ronin, all of which could have killed the careers of actors. Somehow Reeves keeps bouncing back, this time with his new movie John Wick.

It helps that the first-time director of Wick, David Leitch, was a stuntman who doubled for Reeves. He knows his actor and gives Reeves a chance to shine, and Reeves delivers. The movie’s plot itself is derivative, going back to John Boorman’s classic movie from almost 50 years ago, Point Blank (which was later remade as Payback with Mel Gibson).

Wick (Reeves) is a hitman who retired for love of his wife Helen (Bridget Moynahan in a criminally short role). When she dies from an illness, he’s left to try to deal with his grief, though after her funeral a gift arrives for him from her as a way to overcome his mourning. Wick has a classic Mustang muscle car, and while out for a drive one day the car grabs the attention of Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen), the spoiled son of Russian mob boss Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist). He tries to buy the car, but Wick refuses to sell.

That night Iosef and his posse break into Wick’s house. They beat Wick unconscious before they take the car, and they also destroy his gift from his wife. When he wakes up and finds what Iosef did, Wick is devastated. He learns Iosef’s identity from Aureilo (John Leguizamo) who runs the chop shop where Iosef tried to sell the car. Aureilo had recognized the car and refused to have any part of it. Tarasov use to employ Wick, and when he learns what his son has done he makes his displeasure very clear to Iosef. Iosef says sarcastically, “What is he, the boogeyman?” “No,” his father responds, “he’s the man you call when you want to kill a boogeyman.”

This movie could be classified as a thriller subgenre called “Crime Fantasy.” The crime bosses and assassins are wealthy and live upper-crust lives. They go about their business in tailored suits (dark colors only). They even have their own hotel, the Continental, on whose premises a strict safe zone is enforced. It’s also a world where there are no cops. One does show up early in John Wick, but he knows who John is and quickly leaves the scene. In a Crime Fantasy, style replaces substance, and John Wick does have plenty of style.

It also has plenty of violence. The first thing Tarasov does when he discovers he’s up against Wick is to send a large hit squad to Wick’s house to take him out. Needless to say, it’s Wick who is the only one left standing in the end. An example of the style of the movie is that Wick lives in a modernist home where many of the walls are windows, allowing the director to compose an exciting sequence. The old phrase might be re-written: People who live in glass houses shouldn’t shoot guns.

Reeves handles the dry wit of the role as well as he does the action as he fights his way through Tarasov’s army to exact his revenge. The supporting cast is outstanding, with Willem Dafoe as a fellow assassin who has an agenda of his own, Lance Reddick (“The Wire” “Fringe”) as the phlegmatic hotel manager at the Continental, and Ian McShane as the Continental’s owner and enforcer of its safe zone. There’s also Adrianne Palicki (currently on “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”) as an assassin who doesn’t mind bending the rules.

If you like the crime fantasy genre, John Wick is a good example of it and it has its pleasures. While Wick is gravely injured during the movie, it takes a lot to kill him. You could say the same for Keanu Reeves.

Local

In 1976, Paddy Chayefsky wrote Network, a poison pen letter to network news that was also prescient in its predictions of where the medium was headed. In 1976 it was a satire; today it’s very close to history. A bit of the spirit of Network is present in screenwriter Dan Gilroy’s first project that he’s also directed, Nightcrawler, which casts a jaundiced eye at local news. Rather than satire, Gilroy has crafted a creepy thriller. Like the proverbial train wreck, Nightcrawler is mesmerizing so you can’t turn away, even as it turns your stomach.

Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a walking/talking compendium of self-actualization programs. While he has huge dreams, he lives in a tiny studio apartment and watches TV by splicing into a neighbor’s satellite signal. He makes what money he has by stealing copper wire, manhole covers, and chain-link fence that he sells to scrap metal companies. By chance one night he happens upon an accident just after it occurs and watches as two CHP officers save a woman from a burning car. Within seconds a van pulls up and Joe Loder (Bill Paxton) hops out. Loder is a stinger for local LA news who chases down police radio calls to get footage that he then auctions off to the local outfits. Louis is entranced by Loder’s work and tries to talk himself into a job, though Loder shuts him down and races off to a new call.

While he has no experience, Louis has a singular focus on a goal and no restraints on doing whatever he can to accomplish it. He manages to hustle up a camera and a police scanner to set himself up as a stringer. At first he’s pathetically bad, but soon he get bloody footage of a carjacking victim. He takes it to Channel 6, where he meets Nina Romina (Rene Russo), the overnight news editor. Nina buys the footage and gives Louis some suggestions on how to improve his work.

Louis becomes an exclusive stringer for Nina and Channel 6, which has been mired in last place in the ratings. He takes on an intern, Rick (Riz Ahmed), to help with directions while driving and filming the stories. Louis isn’t above moving a body to make a shot more compelling, and as he becomes more successful he takes greater risks. His success causes friction with other stingers like Loder. But you really don’t want to get on Lou’s bad side.

Writer/director Gilroy is the son of Frank D. Gilroy, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and screenwriter who wrote “The Subject was Roses” and “The Only Game in Town.” He’s recently had successes with Real Steel and The Bourne Legacy. Working with Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood, Good Night and Good Luck, Magnolia), Gilroy gives the viewer the best view of night-time Los Angeles since Collateral. The movie is a family affair, as Dan’s older brother Tony, a screenwriter and director himself (The Bourne Legacy, Michael Clayton; screenwriter for the other three Bourne movies), serves as a producer, and Dan’s twin brother John edited the movie. John had also edited Miracle and Michael Clayton, among others.

Another family connection is that for 22 years, Dan Gilroy has been married to Rene Russo. After an incredibly busy 1990s, Russo had only done a couple of minor projects in the 2000s. She came back as Thor’s mother in 2011, and got to kick some butt in Thor: The Dark World last year, but with Nightcrawler she’s back in the form she demonstrated in Outbreak, Lethal Weapon 3, and The Thomas Crown Affair. Her scenes with Gyllenhaal are wonderful, especially as she slowly realizes she’s made a deal with the devil.

But the movie belongs to Gyllenhaal. He lost twenty pounds for the role so that Louis Bloom would physically look like a hungry predator. At first he’s the socially awkward hustler, but as the movie progresses you see the sociopath beneath. Yet you can’t look away. Gyllenhaal is an actor who took risks in early films like Donnie Darko and Brokeback Mountain. After a one-time misstep with the failed big-budget Prince of Persia, he’s been on a roll with his roles, with solid work in Source Code, Prisoners, and End of Watch, among others. Nightcrawler shows the earlier risk taker is still there, and the result is mesmerizing.

As the local anchors in the movie often say when introducing Bloom’s footage, viewer discretion is advised. This is an intense and often bloody thriller. It’s also a fascinating character study as well as a cautionary tale. As Bloom points out in the course of the film, local news now devotes about 20 seconds on average to community news, politics, etc., but crime stories – preferably in nice neighborhoods where homeowners are threatened by outsiders – now command 5 minutes of every local news half-hour broadcast. Take out the commercials and that’s about a third of the available time.

Maybe it is time to turn away from the train wreck – if we still can.

 

Family Fare, Family Good

In the 1950s, the Walt Disney Company was known for producing a regular supply of family films for theaters, after which they were shown on television as part of “Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” (later retitled “The Wonderful World of Disney”). Movies like The Absent-Minded Professor, The Incredible Journey, Old Yeller, Pollyanna, and Swiss Family Robinson brought laughter and tears to children and their parents. They weren’t major releases, but they were solid B pictures and very good at what they did – anyone who tells you they didn’t cry at the end of Old Yeller is either lying or they didn’t see the movie. Later in the 1960s and ‘70s, the studio lost its way and contented itself with endless sequels to The Love Bug as well as Don Knox comedies. Young Adult films have become popular these days, but while movies such as The Fault in Our Stars, The Perks of Being A Wallflower and The Hunger Games series are excellent films, they definitely skew to the Adult side of YA. Now Disney has brought out a movie that harkens back to their ‘50s films, even though it is comfortably entrenched in the 21st Century: Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.

The movie is based on Judith Viorst’s excellent 1972 illustrated children’s book, which was part of a series dealing with Alexander’s trials and tribulations. First-time screenwriter Rob Lieber captures the theme of the book, while updating it to cover what can be terrible, horrible, no good and very bad these days.

The story actually takes place over two days. The first day, the day before his 12th birthday, is a normal one for Alexander Cooper (Ed Oxenbould), which is to say crappy. He comes out of his house to catch the carpool to school and sees the girl he’s entranced by, Becky Gibson (Sidney Fullmer), standing by the car. But as Alexander runs across the lawn, he manages to trip on a sprinkler head. Becky’s brother takes a cell phone picture of Alex and then uses an app to put his face on the bodies of women in bikinis – then emails it to the entire school body. Alex also discovers the most popular boy in school has decided to move his 12th Birthday party to the next day, so no one will be attending Alex’s party. Even Alex’s best friend Paul (Mekai Matthew Curtis) is planning on going to the other party. In science class, Alex manages to get partnered with Becky, but then he accidentally catches her lab book on fire and nearly burns down the science room.

While Alex’s day is horrible, his family has a great one, and the next day looks even better. His mother Kelly (Jennifer Garner) is in charge of the nationwide debut of “Take a Jump,” a new children’s book, including a celebrity reading by Dick Van Dyke. If it goes well, she’s up for a vice-president position with the publishing house. His father Ben (Steve Carrell) is an engineer who’s been out of work for six months, but he’s asked to come in for an interview with a game design company. Alex’s older brother Anthony (Dylan Minnette) is dating Celia (Belle Thorne), the hottest girl in the high school. He’s planning to take his driver’s license test that next day so he can drive Celia to the junior prom that night. Alex’s slightly older sister Emily (Kerris Dorsey) has the lead role in “Peter Pan” at the junior high in the afternoon before Alex’s party.

At midnight, Alex treats himself to a birthday bowl of ice cream and wishes that his family could understand the kind of days that are normal for him. When the next day goes spectacularly wrong for everyone else, Alex wonders if it’s all his fault because of his wish. To make him feel even worse, his day turns into a wonderful one.

Director Miguel Arteta is not someone you’d think of first for a project like this. His movies have been more adult comedies such as The Good Girl and Cedar Rapids, and he’s done extensive TV work with shows like “Six Feet Under,” “Nurse Jackie,” and even “American Horror Story.” However he shows a sure hand with the set pieces and a fine sense of comedic pace within the movie’s swift 81 minute running time. Spiritually it’s a descendant of screwball comedies like What’s Up Doc, The Out-of-Towners (the Jack Lemmon original), and Noises Off. While some of the comedy is of the potty variety, it’s the experiential kind that any family with babies has likely lived through. The movie also manages to go its entire length without a noticeable swear word.

Carrell’s comedic chops are well-established, but Garner keeps up with him beautifully. The kids all do well, especially Ed Oxenbould. One fun part of the movie is that Alex is obsessed with all things Australian, while Oxenbould actually hails from Down Under. Rounding out the cast is Megan Mullally as Kelly’s tightly-wound boss, and Jennifer Coolidge as a driving test examiner from Hell.

It’s enjoyable to see a family portrayed positively without schmaltz or bathos. The terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day brings them closer together, in spite of all that happens. I saw the movie as part of a party of 14, with ages ranging from Pre-K to grandparents and everything in between. They all laughed out loud and enjoyed the movie. That’s a remarkable accomplishment.

A Faith Full Story

This year has seen the release of a cascade of movies with religious themes. They have a Sergio Leone spread: they go from the Good (Heaven is For Real) to the Bad (Noah) to the Ugly (Left Behind). However, no one would call any of this year’s religious films devastating in their beauty and power. For that, you need to go back 28 years to a movie called The Mission.

The movie was the last one written by Robert Bolt, from his original story. Bolt was a former schoolteacher with his degree in history who began writing radio plays for the BBC on the side. He eventually left teaching and moved to writing for the theater. His major theatrical hit was “A Man For All Seasons,” for which he won a Tony award for best play when it was produced on Broadway. Later Bolt wrote the screenplay when it was adapted for the screen with Paul Scofield and Robert Shaw in the main roles and Fred Zimmerman in the director’s chair. Before that, though, Bolt began a three-film collaboration with David Lean. In 1962 he wrote the screenplay for Lawrence of Arabia, followed by Dr. Zhivago and Ryan’s Daughter.

In 1979, Bolt suffered a severe stroke that affected his speech and partially paralyzed him. He worked hard to recover, and returned to screenwriting with 1984’s The Bounty, starring Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins. Two years later came The Mission. Bolt’s background in history made him the perfect person to tell the story of colonial South America in the 1750s. Robert Bolt passed away in 1995 at age 70.

Robert Bolt

Roland Joffe, who directed the movie, had started in television in his native England, including working a few episodes of “Coronation Street,” the BBC soap opera that’s been running for 54 years. In 1984 he directed his first film – The Killing Fields, for which he received an Oscar nomination. The Mission was his second feature film. The movie was produced by David Putnam, who’d also produced The Killing Fields as well as another movie that dealt with faith, Chariots of Fire.

The movie begins with a short preface as Cardinal Altamirano (Ray McAnally) dictates a letter to his secretary, to tell Pope Benedict XIV that the cardinal has completed his assignment. Altamirano isn’t pleased with the tone and begins again, starting with the first Jesuit who climbs a waterfall to reach natives living in the highlands above the falls, known as the Guarani people. When they see the crucifix the priest is wearing, they create a wooden cross, tie the Jesuit to it, and then send him down the river to be martyred when he plunges over the falls. That iconic image was used for the movie’s posters.

Rather than stay away from the escarpment, the head of the Jesuits in the area, Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons), climbs the falls himself. He can feel the natives in the forest around him, but rather than speaking to them, he sits on a rock and begins playing his oboe. The natives are drawn out of the forest by the music. Most of them are entranced, though some are angry at Gabriel. One takes the oboe and breaks it, but Gabriel knows he’s made a connection when another native picks up the two pieces of the oboe and tries to fix it.

Soon Gabriel learns why the Guarani are so hostile. A mercenary and slaver, Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro), has also penetrated the area above the falls to kidnap natives and sell them to plantations. Mendoza is an intense man who takes laughter as an affront. When not on raids to capture slaves, he lives in the Spanish capitol of the colony with his half-brother Felipe (Aidan Quinn), close to his fiancée Carlotta (Cherie Lunghi). Mendoza loves Felipe, but when he returns from a raid to discover Felipe and Carlotta in bed together, Mendoza kills Felipe in a duel. While he’s excused of blame by the authorities, his grief over his actions almost drives him to madness. The head of the hospital where Mendoza is confined sends for Father Gabriel, who presents the slaver with a suitable penance. He must climb the falls, dragging a bundle filled with all the armor he wore as a soldier, and then let the Guarani decide his fate. What follows is an incredible sequence that ends with the most powerful and realistic depiction of repentance and salvation ever put on film.

Mendoza embraces the life of a Jesuit, serving those he once enslaved. But when Cardinal Altamirano arrives, Gabriel and the Jesuits learn that the area where their missions are located is to be transferred from Spanish control, where slavery is outlawed, to the control of the Portuguese, where slavery is still allowed. Gabriel tries through a series of debates as well as a tour of the missions to convince the Cardinal to prevent the transfer, but while Altamirano is deeply moved by all he sees, he can’t change the decisions made across the ocean. Altamirano warns Gabriel that the Jesuit risks the suppression of the whole order, as the authorities in Catholic Europe have grown tired of their independence. Three choices of action remain, none of them good: 1) capitulation to the authorities, 2) non-violent resistance, and 3) war against the Spanish and Portuguese. It’s a question of conscience for each man to decide which path he’ll follow.

Much of the movie was filmed on location, and the film recruited indigenous people to portray the Guarani people. Rather than write lines for them, they were given the thrust of scenes and then allowed to speak whatever they wanted in their own language. The waterfall that is a central part of the movie is one of the most beautiful in the world: Iguazu Falls, on the present-day border between Brazil and Argentina.

The story of The Mission is roughly based on fact. In 1750, the Treaty of Madrid was signed by Spain and Portugal to end a border dispute between their colonies in South America that had led to armed conflict. As part of the treaty, a portion of Paraguay where the Jesuits had missions was transferred to Portuguese Brazil. The transfer meant that all of the natives who were living at the missions could now be enslaved. That action started what was called the Guarani War, with the indigenous people fighting against the soldiers of both Spain and Portugal from 1754 to 1756. The suppression of the Jesuits mentioned in the movie happened a little later, in the 1760s and lasted into the 1800s. During that time the Jesuits left Catholic Europe and its colonies and worked in other nations and mission fields.

Altamirano was a real person, though rather than being a Cardinal he was a Jesuit himself, sent by the general of the order to enforce the Madrid treaty. Father Gabriel is based on Paraguayan saint and Jesuit Roque Gonzalez de Santa Cruz. One of the consultants on the film was Fr. C.J. McNaspy, S.J., who wrote the book “The Lost Cities of Paraguay” that deals with the history of this period.

Iguazu Falls

Music is an integral part of the movie, and the producers were fortunate to get Ennio Morricone to compose the score. It is one of the best ever written, from the beauty of “Gabriel’s Oboe,” to the native instruments blended into “Falls,” to the raw, discordant power of “Penance,” to the liturgical chanting in the “Main Theme.” It’s one of those scores that brings the images of the movie rushing back into your mind when you listen to the music.

The casting was excellent. Irons was respected for his work in “Brideshead Revisited” and The French Lieutenant’s Woman, but it was still early in his career. It was four years after The Mission when he had his breakout role as Klaus von Bulow in Reversal of Fortune. De Niro had had a string of unsuccessful movies after 1980’s Raging Bull, including The King of Comedy, Brazil, and Once Upon A Time In America, which as released in such a truncated form that it lost its coherence. (It wasn’t until it was released years later in a 4 hour version that its brilliance was recognized.) With his work in The Mission along with The Untouchables the next year, De Niro’s career was back on track.

Ray McAnally was an Irish character actor who was revered for his stagework, though he had a run of successful movies in the late 1980s (Cal, White Mischief, and My Left Foot) and did  the miniseries adaptation of John Le Carre’s “A Perfect Spy.” Sadly, he passed away in 1989 at age 63. Fielding, one of the Jesuits helping Father Gabriel, was played by another Irish actor just beginning his career – Liam Neeson. An interesting piece of casting in light of the theme of the movie is that of Sebastian, an elderly Jesuit. The role was played by Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J., who was a protester against the Vietnam War in the 1960s and nuclear arms in the 1980s. At the beginning of the credits it is noted that priests still fight for the rights of indigenous people, along with a verse from the first chapter of the Gospel of John: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

The Mission was premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it took the grand prize, the Palm d’Or. At the Golden Globes, Morricone won for his score and Bolt for the screenplay. The movie was nominated for 7 Oscars, including Best Picture, Score, and Director, but it ended up winning only one award, for Chris Menges’ cinematography. In 2007 it was selected as #1 on the list of top 50 religious movies by “The Church Times.” This is a movie that wrestles with powerful themes: redemption, obedience, the conflict of Christianity with temporal power – and the danger of merging those two.

At the time it was made, adding a final tag to a movie after the credits had just become popular. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, with its famous tag, was released the same year as The Mission. The tag at the end of the credits in The Mission is only a few seconds long, without any dialogue, and it is devastating.

This year’s quantity does not equal the quality of The Mission. If you want to watch a powerful movie about Christianity, start here.