Back to the Future

When Blade Runner debuted in 1982, it underperformed in the US and polarized critics. Director Ridley Scott had done two films at that point – the Napoleonic War story, The Duelists, followed by the seminal sci-fi film Alien. Based on Alien, hopes for Blade Runner were stratospheric, but people weren’t ready for a dystopian film noir loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” It was the first film adaptation of Dick’s work, who died of a heart attack at age 53 a couple months before the film’s release. Since then, Blade Runner has been accepted as one of the greatest science fiction films of all time. Philip K. Dick’s work has been adapted multiple times for the big screen (Total Recall, Imposter, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly, The Adjustment Bureau) and Amazon, who has a hit with their version of Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle,” will shortly premiere “Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams,” based on the author’s short stories. Meanwhile, Ridley Scott has become an entertainment conglomerate.

Now, 35 years after the original, comes the sequel Blade Runner 2049, which picks up 30 years after the first film. The years haven’t been kind to the world, or to the Tyrell Corporation that created the original Replicants. After the rebellions of the Nexus Series 6 through 8 replicants, the corporation went bankrupt. An event called the Blackout wiped almost every digital record in 2022; only partial files remain from before that time. The world’s ecosystems collapsed causing a massive famine that swept the Earth. It was solved when Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) invented synthetic farming. That made him a wealthy man, allowing him to absorb the Tyrell Corporation and introduce the Nexus-9 replicants.

The return of the corporation meant an expansion of the Blade Runner program to control the replicants, though now Nexus-9s are used for that purpose. Officer K (Ryan Gosling) is one such Nexus-9, working under Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright). He lives in a poor section of LA, which is now surrounded by a dike system because of the rising waters following the melting of the ice caps. K’s only companion is a holographic program called Joi (Ana de Armas).

When K comes to “retire” an older model Nexus (Dave Bautista) on a protein farm outside the city, he discovers a crate hidden beneath a dead tree. It contains bones of a female with marks that suggest she died during a C-Section delivery. The bones are also marked with a serial number; the woman was a replicant. Joshi is shocked since replicants weren’t supposed to be able to have children; it could cause the line between human and replicant to be obliterated if this became known. She orders the evidence destroyed and tasks K with finding the replicant child and retiring it. K begins his search by heading for the old Tyrell building to find out what he can about the replicant with the serial number on the bones. Wallace’s replicant assistant, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), leads K to a partial audio file of the female replicant. When it’s played, we hear the voice of Rachel (Sean Young) being questioned by Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) 30 years earlier.

French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve is in somewhat the same position as Ridley Scott was when he made the original Blade Runner. In the last four years Villeneuve has made several stunning films: Prisoners, Sicario, and one of my favorite films of last year, Arrival. He is a strong visual stylist like Scott who works every single shot with a perfectionist’s eye. While the images of 2049 blend with the original, he also makes use of angles so that streets and reception desks seem to run to a vanishing point. The neon and building-size screens of the original are now expanded to 3D holographs. It’s like the director has stretched the original to cover a wider canvas.

Gosling gives a restrained, interior performance as K that makes the impact powerful as he goes deeper into the mystery. Wright, Leto, and Ford are effective in their roles, but the movie is stolen by Ana de Armas and Sylvia Hoeks. De Armas was born and raised in Cuba, but moved to Spain to pursue acting. She’s had supporting roles in the Roberto Duran biopic Hands of Stone and the comedy War Dogs, but here she gives a luminous performance as Joi, a hologram who is the most human character in the film. On the opposite side is the Dutch Hoeks, who was an Elite model in her teens before attending the Maastricht Theater Academy. She’d become a leading actress in Europe before taking the role of the beautiful but thoroughly ruthless Luv in her first Hollywood film.

Villeneuve matches the pacing of the original, which here means the film runs for two and three-quarters hours. With the slam-bam pace of most movies 2049 may seem slow to some, but here it’s Villeneuve giving the audience time to breathe and process the story as the mystery is peeled away layer by layer.

When Blade Runner 2049 was released a few weeks ago, it underperformed in the US and polarized critics. Some were put off by the pace while others felt it was more a paean to the original rather than a movie that stood on its own. But 2049 gets into your head and keeps rolling around in there as you consider the implications of the story. This also may be a movie that grows in stature as we move farther into the future.

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The Force Awakens: Discussion with Spoilers

Last week I published a review of Star Wars Episode 7: The Force Awakens though I worked hard to not give away any major plot points. One response I received, though, asked for the chance to discuss the movie, so I decided to do another post with the freedom to discuss the full film, spoilers and all, for those who have seen the movie. SO, IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE MOVIE DO NOT READ THIS! Really – trust me. You want to experience this movie without any hints.

Now, for those of you who’ve seen the movie, I’ll outline several aspects of it that struck me. Please feel free to interact in the comments sections about your own reactions to The Force Awakens.

Right from the opening scenes, you could tell this wasn’t a Phantom Menace. That one began with almost a leisurely scene between Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon (even when they’re fighting droids), and then it goes downhill as soon as Jar Jar Binks enters the scene. Instead Force matches A New Hope with the dark Star Destroyer sliding across a moon until it completely blots it out. The dark side has come. Abrams had a perfect casting moment when he had Max Von Sydow do a cameo appearance as the person who gives Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) the clue to the location of Luke Skywalker. Von Sydow is about the only active actor left who was a contemporary of Alec Guinness. Abrams also echoed the introduction of Darth Vader with Kylo Ren walking down the ramp from the space ship.

I’d enjoyed John Boyega in Attack the Block and was pleased to see him as Finn. Finn adds nuance and depth to the story. The Imperial Storm Troopers have always been as anonymous as they were bad shots. Their aim has improved a little in Force Awakens – emphasis on “a little” – but Finn gives them a humanity they’ve never had before. Instead of blind obedience, Finn’s inner decency asserts itself when he refuses to shoot during the village massacre. He at first wants to run away – as Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o) sees in his eyes – but he’s honorable enough to seek to get Poe’s droid back to the rebels. And after Ren grabs Rey, he switches from running away to running toward the danger.

Rey (Daisy Ridley) takes her place alongside Sarah Conner and Ripley (among others) as sci-fi’s kickass women. Abrams has always been talented at writing strong women, such as Sydney Briscoe in “Alias,” but he’s gone beyond that with Rey. Leia had a bit of this in the original trilogy, but she wasn’t as compelling as Luke, Han, or Darth. Here, though, Rey is front and center, and the final duel with Kylo Ren pays off the build of the plot.

Speaking of Ren, I was pleased that Abrams didn’t try to tease out his identity. From early in the film we know he’s Ben Solo, son of Han and Leia, but he’d been seduced by the dark side like his grandfather Anakin. Having the partially melted Vader mask is a great piece of imagery. The moment when he reveals his face to Rey was a shot of adrenalin. You expect the disfigurement of Anakin, but instead you have a handsome young man. It underlines that the scars of the dark side are not outwardly visible.

Using motion capture for Supreme Leader Snoke and Maz Kanata was a much better choice than the computer-generated Jar Jar Binks. Andy Serkis, who plays Snoke, is the leading actor for this effect, so it wasn’t surprising to have him cast as Snoke. Interestingly, the communication scenes that Ren and General Hux (Domhnall Gleason) have with Snoke mirror Darth Vader’s interview with the Emperor in The Empire Strkes Back, with the hologram image being enormous. As Serkis was expected, Lupita Nyong’o as Maz was a choice out of left field. You have one of the most beautiful women in film play a diminutive alien with fish-eye goggles, but she nails the character. Her scene with Rey also means that Force Awakens is the first Star Wars film (and one of the few sci-fi movies ever) that passes the Bechdel test.

There’s an interesting connection with the cast in that Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleason were two of three main actors in Ex Machina earlier this year. If you want to see how good they are, take a peek at that movie and then compare it to Force Awakens. Here, though, they never have a scene together.

I did enjoy BB-8, who is a worthy successor to R2D2 – and also a much faster droid. With all the running in the movie the stately pace of R2 wouldn’t have worked. A great moment was when Finn flashes BB the thumbs up sign and the droid responds with a lighter flame.

Abrams referenced the original trilogy in ways that both paid tribute to it as well as twisted our expectations. The first appearance of Kylo Ren, the removal of his mask, the attack on the planet killer, all mirror earlier scenes, but nowhere was that used to better effect than Han’s final scene with Ren. It takes place on a bridge over a chasm, just like the scene in Empire where Darth reveals he’s Luke’s father. Instead of the perverse paternal plea of Vader – “We can rule the universe side by side” – you have Han pleading for the restoration of his son. When Ren runs his lightsaber through his father, it’s a gut punch for Star Wars fans.

The very end of the movie could have been trimmed a bit – how many steps can a person climb and keep the interest of the audience? – but the wordless moment of connection between Luke and Rey is perfect. The indicators in the script point to Luke being her father, which means Rey experienced a similar fate as Luke, being separated from her family for most of her young life. (There are other theories out there about Rey, but until the next movie is released I’ll go with this one.)

Those are my thoughts. Please feel free to post your own responses and ideas below, or engage in a discussion. I’ll try to check the blog as often as possible to approve comments to facilitate the discussion. Go.

 

A Renewed Hope

In 1977 I was in Los Angeles for the 4th of July and I went out with a group of friends to a late-night showing of a new movie – Star Wars. It was just before the movie went into hyper-drive at the box office, so we didn’t have to stand in a long line and the huge theater was about half full. The moment when the Imperial Star Destroyer flew over our heads and kept on going and going and going was when I knew the world of movies had changed forever. After the success of the first movie, Lucas said in an interview that he envisioned three trilogies, with the original as the centerpiece (leading to it being renamed Episode 4: A New Hope). When the second trilogy came along, it was a disappointment until the last movie. Revenge of the Sith was enough to make Attack of the Clones bearable, though it still couldn’t improve The Phantom Menace. The best viewing order for the two trilogies is what’s called the Machete Order: 4,5,2,3,6 (so The Phantom Menace becomes the phantom movie).

Because of this, I was concerned when Disney bought Lucasfilm and announced that the final trilogy would be made. The concern was somewhat alleviated when it was announced that J.J. Abrams would helm and co-write Episode 7. He resuscitated Star Trek when it was pretty much dead, and Super 8 was one of the better straight sci-fi movies to come along recently. Abrams also brought back Lawrence Kasdan, who had penned The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, as well as Raiders of the Lost Ark, to co-write the new movie along with Abrams and Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3, Hunger Games: Catching Fire). There was a chance that they could capture the magic of the first trilogy again.

Happily, that’s what has happened. The Force Awakens gives you the feeling of the original trilogy while twisting the story so it’s fresh. To prevent spoilers, I won’t go into the plot here, but there are several general points about the production that stood out to me.

Casting: It’s hard to remember that before Star Wars Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher were unknowns. Ford had a small role in Lucas’ American Graffiti while Hamill had been cast in a TV series that he got out of after Star Wars took off. Fisher, the daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, was as a princess of Hollywood though she’d only had a small role in Shampoo (where she seduced Warren Beatty) before she became Princess Leia. The three main newcomers in The Force Awakens are in a similar position, although the career of Adam Driver (Kylo Ren) had taken off in the last three years with him appearing in a dozen movies, among them Frances Ha, Lincoln, and Inside Llewyn Davis. John Boyega (Finn) was in 2011’s Attack the Block, the story of an alien invasion of the council flats in London. Daisy Ridley (Rey) had only done some TV in England and a couple of short movie roles before The Force Awakens. But just like the original three, Driver, Boyega, and Ridley are perfect for their roles and capture the audience – Ridley in particular. It’s so good to see a competent, smart woman who handles whatever comes up before anyone can “save” her.

Favorites: When it was announced that Hamill, Ford, and Fisher would be back (as well as Peter Mayhew and Anthony Daniels – Chewbacca and C-3PO respectively) the first thought was cameo roles, but that’s not the case. The Force Awakens truly is a continuation of the story years after the original, allowing the actors to play their actual ages now. Ford is a main character here, but Hamill and Fisher have their parts to play that loom large in the next episodes.

Revelations: A New Hope and most of The Empire Strikes Back lead up to the revelation of Luke’s father. In The Force Awakens there are several revelations about the characters that are laid out with a wonderful sense of pace and timing. Withholding them until later would have been detrimental and frustrating to the audience. Yet there are still more revelations to come. When the Force does awaken, it pushes the story to a higher level. Abrams balances the story perfectly so the movie is a satisfying story while at the same time setting up the next two films, rather than trying to cram everything into the one movie or tease the story out. He had to walk a tightrope but he stayed in perfect balance all the way across.

The Force Awakens not only rekindles the feeling of the original movie for old fans, it lets new fans share a wonder similar to Star Wars when it first came out. In a way, it’s like fans have been waiting in line for 32 years for a worthy new movie. Now it’s out and it was well worth the wait. Merry Christmas to movie lovers everywhere.

As Time Goes By

Filming a romantic fantasy is like skipping a rope on a high wire: it’s not easy to do and most who try it fail, but when it works it’s impressive. An example of a failure in the genre, last year Winter’s Tale managed only a 13% rating from Rotten Tomatoes. The good news is that the new release The Age of Adaline pulls off the balancing act, despite a couple of wobbles.

We’re introduced to Adaline (Blake Lively) on New Year’s Eve 2014 as she takes a cab from San Francisco to Sausalito across the Golden Gate Bridge. An omnipresent narrator intones that it’s this day will be the last day of her past life, and the first day of her new one, which sounds pompous until we discover she’s buying a new identity from a teenage forger. Adaline demonstrates a Sherlock Holmesian gift for observation that makes the forger fear she’s with the police, but she explains she’s just using her experience to help him.

She returns to San Francisco and her job at a historical preservation society. While cataloguing newsreel footage of the 1906 earthquake, Adaline drifts back through moments in her life starting with her birth, the first baby born on New Year’s Day in San Francisco in the year of the quake.  Her husband was an engineer who helped build the Golden Gate Bridge until an accident claimed his life and left Adaline a widowed young mother. Then, when she was 29, a freak accident freezes the aging process in her body.  (The narrator intones a pseudo-scientific explanation, which is one of the wobbles.) As her daughter grows to college-age in the 1950s, Adaline remains the same. When she comes to the attention of the authorities during the days of Red Scare paranoia, Adaline goes into hiding, regularly changing her identity.

At a New Year’s Eve party that night, Adaline meets Ellis Jones (Michiel Huisman), and even from across the room there’s an immediate attraction. But then it appears he’s with someone, so Adaline walks away. Ellis follows her as she leaves the party and tries to get her number – he felt the attraction as well – but she refuses to give it and leaves. The next day she meets her daughter Flemming (Ellen Burstyn) for a birthday lunch. Adaline mentions Ellis, but she dismisses the idea of romance and love; there’s no future in it if they can’t grow old together. Flemming knows how much her mother has sacrificed in her long life and hopes she’ll have a chance to be happy. Then the fates conspire to bring Ellis back into Adaline’s life.

The film has an unusual combination for its creative team. Director Lee Toland Krieger has mostly worked with independent films, following in the footsteps of his mentor Neil LaBute. The original story and screenplay were written by Salvator Paskowitz and J Mills Goodloe, neither of which who were known for this type of film. But the trifecta of producers – Sidney Kimmel, Gary Lucchesi, and Tom Rosenburg – have together or on their own produced some excellent films, such as Million Dollar Baby, Moneyball, and The Lincoln Lawyer. Paskowitz and Goodloe manage to juggle the plot so all  the aspects of it stay airborne, while Krieger gives the film a bit of an edge that serves it well. Cinematographer David Lanzenberg captures San Francisco beautifully on the screen. With its blend of old and new, it’s the perfect setting for this story. The score by Rob Simonsen is exceptional, both in its romantic themes as well as the wise use of period music to match the ages of Adaline shown on the screen.

But it would have been a wasted effort without an actress who can project an old soul within a youthful body. Blake Lively is known mostly for the TV series “Gossip Girl” and as the spouse of Ryan Reynolds, with who she starred in the unsuccessful superhero movie The Green Lantern. She gave a surprisingly effective performance in Ben Affleck’s caper movie The Town as an addicted young mother. Here, though, she steps to the center of the stage and casts a spell as Adaline with a gracious and nuanced performance. The camera captures each subtle reaction or flash of memory that whispers across Lively’s face.

She’s assisted by a strong supporting cast. Dutch actor Michiel Huisman has become a major presence on TV recently, with roles in Game of Thrones, Orphan Black, Nashville and Treme, as well as in the movies Wild and World War Z. He’s handsome enough you don’t question Adaline’s attraction, though he also projects a depth that allows the relationship to grow into love. Along with the previously mentioned Ellen Burstyn, the movie also stars Harrison Ford and Kathy Baker as Ellis’ parents.

If you are a romantic, I suggest you bring a supply of tissues with you when you view this film. If you’re not a romantic, bring along someone who is so that you can experience the emotional power of the story.

10 Best Mystery Movies of the 1980s

I’ve been busy after my last post in this series (including writing a novel manuscript) so I’ve just kept up with the movies I’ve seen. I’ll try to finish the final three posts in this series before Christmas. First up, the 1980s. This was not a great decade for mysteries and a couple of the movies listed below wouldn’t have made the cut if they’d been made in a different decade. Each, though, do have their good points and are worth watching.

The Long Good Friday (1980)

For a country that has minimal violence outside of football stadiums, England has produced some great crime movies, and The Long Good Friday is one of the best. In the course of the titular day, London crime boss Harold Shand, who’s about to complete a major deal with an American syndicate, finds his enterprises under attack by an unknown group. The movie made a star out of Bob Hoskins, whose performance as Shand is electric. You can also see a young Pierce Brosnan in a small role.

Witness (1985)

One usually doesn’t think of a mystery as being lyrical and pastoral, but with Peter Weir as the director anything’s possible. John Book (Harrison Ford) must protect a young Amish boy (Lukas Haas) and his widowed mother (Kelly McGillis) from a trio of bad cops. The movie’s portrayal of the Amish is highly stereotypical, but the chemistry between Ford and McGillis is palpable, and Ford’s final stand against the bad cops (including Danny Glover) is thrilling.

A Soldier’s Story (1985)

Two decades before this movie, Norman Jewison filmed In The Heat Of The Night, which blended racial tensions and mystery. In 1985 he filmed A Soldier’s Story which featured the same blend but in a completely different way. A lawyer officer (Howard E. Rollins Jr.) is sent to a Southern military base during WWII to investigate the murder of a black sergeant (Adolph Ceasar). At first local whites are the suspects, but as the lawyer digs deeper he finds the case is much more complex. The cast also included Denzel Washington, David Alan Grier, Robert Townsend and Patti LaBelle.

Blood Simple (1984)

The Coen brothers burst onto the movie scene with this tight and nasty thriller. A club owner (Dan Hedeya) believes his wife (Frances McDormand) is having an affair with one of his employees (John Getz). He hires a disreputable detective (M. Emmet Walsh) to get evidence of the affair, but instead the detective tries a scam to extort money and then covers up that crime with another. It doesn’t turn out well. This movie may be the only one to have a director’s cut run shorter than the original movie. When they got the chance to tweak the film, the Coens made it even tighter

Body Heat (1981)

The movie that defines steamy love affair. This neo noir story of obsession and murder had twists and turns and, most importantly, Kathleen Turner channeling Veronica Lake and Lauren Bacall (without having to worry about the Hays office). Written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan, it kept you guessing about what was actually happening until the very end. Kudos also to Richard Crenna’s portrayal of Turner’s husband, and a pre-Cheers Ted Danson as the dancing D.A.

The Verdict (1982)

This is the movie for which Paul Newman should have won the Oscar. His portrayal of alcoholic, funeral-crashing lawyer Frank Galvin, seeking redemption by taking on the Boston Catholic diocese in a medical malpractice suit, is riveting. It helped having one of the best directors of crime drama, Sidney Lumet, in the director’s seat, and David Mamet adapting the screenplay. All of the supporting actors (Jack Warden, Milo O’Shea, James Mason, Charlotte Rampling, Ed Binns) are at the top of their games, and that strong support helps Paul Newman shine brighter.

To Live and Die in LA (1985)

This film slipped through the theaters without making much of a ripple, which is a shame. Based on a book by former Secret Service agent Gerald Petievich, William Friedkin adapted the screenplay and directed. It stars a young William Petersen as a Secret Service agent who will do anything to catch a counterfeiter (Willem Dafoe) after the man kills the agent’s partner.

Manhunter (1986)

This was another underperforming movie starring William Petersen, though this time it was adapted and directed by Michael Mann. It’s based on the Thomas Harris novel “Red Dragon” and features the first appearance on film by Hannibal Lecter (called Lecktor in this movie). This time, though, it’s Brian Cox in the role. It also has Joan Allen in her first major role. The book was remade under its original title in 2001 with 5 times the budget of Mann’s movie and an all-star cast including Hopkins as Lector, but director Brett Ratner couldn’t match the original’s style.

F/X (1986)

This movie is fun for cinemaphiles since it shows how special effects were done in the 1980s – rather quaint in comparison to today’s computer-generated magic. It also plays off the conflict between real life and the movies. Bryan Brown plays a New York-based special effects man who’s hired by the Feds to fake the assassination of a mobster (Jerry Orbach). But Brown is double-crossed and finds himself on the run from police detective Brian Dennehy. Brown has to use his skill at manipulating reality to expose the corrupt feds. This movie was a financial success and spawned a sequel as well as a television series.

Sea of Love (1989)

Novelist Richard Price (Freedomland, The Wanderers) wrote the original screenplay for this movie, about two cops (Al Pacino and John Goodman) investigating a string of murders of men who answered personal ads in the paper. They go undercover to meet the women who placed the ads, and Pacino finds himself becoming obsessed with one of them (Ellen Barkin) who may be the killer. While it doesn’t match Body Heat’s steaminess, it is a decent mystery.

The Ender of War

In 1985, Orson Scott Card published “Ender’s Game,” an expansion on a short story he’d published in “Analog Science Fiction and Fact” magazine in 1977. The novel was a success, winning both the Hugo and Nebula awards for best science fiction novel and being named to the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels. It’s also become part of the U.S. Marine Corps Professional Reading list for its “lessons in training methodology, leadership and ethics.” Now the novel has been adapted for the big screen.

Ender’s Game takes place years after an invasion of earth by the Formics, a bug-like race. That invasion was defeated by the selfless act of Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley), but earth’s International Military knows that the Formics will be back. They create a series of schools for gifted children, whom they find can master the gaming skills needed to fight the Formics easier than adults.

The commander of the training, Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford), has his eye on a cadet with high skills. Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is a third child whose older siblings Peter (Jimmy “Jax” Pinchak) and Valentine (Abigail Breslin) have already washed out of the school, Valentine for being too sensitive, Peter for being too violent. Graff’s assistant, Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis) is concerned about Ender’s mental state, but they go ahead with a final test: expelling him from the program and sending him back to his family. While humbled and humiliated, Ender manages to maintain his dignity while apparently losing. After a short time, Graff and Anderson arrive to take Ender to Battle School.

The Battle School is located on a space station, where combat simulations can be done in zero gravity. From the start, Graff puts Ender at odds with his fellow trainees, to challenge Ender to develop leadership skills. Ender comes up against Sergeant Dap (Nonso Anozie), a drill instructor who’s the spiritual descendant of Sgt. Foley in An Officer and a Gentleman, but he also meets Petra Arkanian (Hailee Steinfeld), a more experienced cadet who helps train him.

The adaptation of the novel by Gavin Hood, who also directed the film, edits out some of the broad scale of the book to focus on the elemental story.  Hood had begun his career as an actor, appearing in mostly forgettable films, but then switched to writing and directing. He did the South African film Tsotsi, which won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar at the 2006 awards. His first big budget Hollywood film was the poorly received X-Men Origins: Wolverine, though he didn’t write the script for that mess. With Ender’s Game he has full control, and it pays off.

Asa Butterfield is the spiritual child of Paul Newman, not just with his ice blue eyes but with his skill at letting his thoughts flow out of them to the audience. It’s not easy to perform a role that is essentially a treatise on leadership, but Butterfield pulls it off. Harrison Ford’s craggy visage is a perfect counterpoint to Butterfield’s youth, and they capture the complex interrelationship between Graff and Ender. Moises Arias delivers an impressive performance as Bonzo Madrid, the Salamander Platoon leader to who Ender is assigned. Bonzo is a tightly-wound martinet, and the performance could have veered into comedic parody, but Arias walks a fine line to make him both flawed and threatening.

There have been negatives surrounding the production. Orson Scott Card was active with a group fighting marriage equality in several states, which has led to a backlash against the film. The book has also had its critics who object to its justification of violence, some even comparing Ender to Hitler. However, the story’s central twist puts the lie to that.

Science fiction has always been a way to view today’s world. The original novel was prescient, predicting drone warfare as well as computer-simulation gaming for training for battle, especially since it was written during the age of Donkey Kong and Pac-Man. In the movie, one can easily see why the Marines value the story for leadership training. But the movie goes beyond that, to challenge attitudes and assumptions about wars in a way that resonates in our current world. This is a movie worth seeing and then discussing.

The Courage To Change

Many times arts and sports have paved the way for change in this country.  Part of the reason Barack Obama could be elected president was the public had already seen Dennis Haysbert (“24”) and Morgan Freeman (Deep Impact) play that role on TV and in the movies.  One moment that changed the equality landscape for women was when Billie Jean King defeated the loudly chauvinist Bobby Riggs in tennis.  The fight for racial equality in the 1950s was brutal and violent, but the path had been if not smoothed at least tramped down a bit when Jackie Robinson slipped on his Brooklyn Dodger uniform with the number 42 and became the first black baseball player in the major leagues on April 15, 1947.  That historic change in the United States has now been beautifully captured in the movie 42.

In the fall of 1945, shortly after the end of the Second World War.  Brooklyn Dodger owner Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) tells a couple of his executives that he’s decided to desegregate baseball.  When asked why, Rickey says that the money that blacks and whites use is all the same color – green.  (He’ll explain his motivation two more times in the course of the movie, with increasing honesty.)  To make his plan work, he needs a very special player.  They look through the roster of Negro League players, dismissing several (including Satchel Paige with the comment that he’s too old; Satchel would have the last laugh though).  Finally they come to Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), who was playing for the Kansas City Monarchs that year.

Robinson had been born in Georgia, though his mother moved the family to California when Jackie was still young.  He attended UCLA, where he was the first athlete to letter in football, track, basketball and baseball.  Financial concerns made him drop out of school, and instead he enlisted the Army, rising to the rank of second lieutenant.  His time in uniform was cut short when he faced a court martial because of incident of racial prejudice.  He eventually received an honorable discharge, and later joined the Monarchs.

Rickey brings Robinson to New York City where he explains his plan.  He says that he needs someone who won’t let the prejudice get to him because, regardless of the provocation, if the black player retaliated he’d be viewed as the one in the wrong.  It leads to this exchange which mirrors the historical record of the meeting: Jackie: You want a player who doesn’t have the guts to fight back?  Rickey: No, I want a player with the guts not to fight back.  Jackie: You give me a uniform, you give me a number on my back, I’ll give you the guts.

The contract with the Dodgers allows Robinson to propose to Rachel (Nichol Behaire), his long-time girlfriend.  They marry early in 1946, just before he reports to the training camp for the Dodgers minor league farm team in Montreal.  Unfortunately the camp is in Florida and the Robinsons are almost late for spring training because of prejudice they encounter in New Orleans, where Rachel, having been raised in California, encounters her first “Whites Only” bathroom.  Rickey arranges for black sports writer Wendell Smith (Andre Holland) to act as chauffeur, guide and mentor to Jackie.  The challenges on and off the field only increase as Jackie enters the big leagues the next year.

Chadwick Boseman had mostly worked in television on shows such as Brooklyn Heights, Castle, and Fringe, before getting the role of Jackie Robinson.  His performance is mesmerizing.  He captures Robinson as a real person, with fears and foibles but also courage and honor.  Nichol Behaire matches Boseman with both intensity and grace.  You feel what it must have been like for the real Robinsons, and you wonder how they persevered in the face of it all.

Just as Robinson broke barriers, so did Wendell Smith.  One excellent aspect of the movie is that he gets his due as well.  Holland is excellent in the role, and the scene where Wendell tells Rachel Robinson what Jackie means to him gives you goose bumps.  Harrison Ford’s portrayal of Rickey is a revelation.  After years in heroic leading man roles, 42 gives him a chance to shine as a character actor.  And shine he does.

The rest of the cast is just as stellar, including Christopher Meloni as Dodger manager Leo Durocher and Alan Tudyk as Phillies manager Ben Chapman.  Tudyk’s role calls on him to be a completely obnoxious example of racism.  He plays the role beautifully, which means he’s horrendous and hard to watch.  It’s especially strange to see him in such a role after his classic turn as the gentle pilot “Wash” Washburne, married to Gina Torres’ Zoe, on the series “Firefly.”

A pivotal role in the movie is Pee Wee Reese, played by Lucas Black.  Reese was the acknowledge star of the Dodgers, who had to face down his own prejudices when Jackie joined the club.  Director and screenwriter Brian Helgelund uses him in a sense to stand in for baseball on the whole and its coming to grips with the change brought about by Robinson.

One would not think of Helgelund first as the one to make this movie.  He came to prominence adapting L.A. Confidential, and later he did the scripts for movies such as Mystic River, Man on Fire and Green Zone.  He’d only directed a couple of movies, all that he also scripted, such as Payback and A Knight’s Tale.  (On Payback he’d fought with star Mel Gibson, who was producing the movie; Gibson ended up firing him and finishing the directing himself.)  Here, though, he shows a strong visual style and marshals the story so it’s both compelling and thrilling.  Especially good is the action on the field, since he captures the feel of the game, such as what it’s like to face a major league pitcher.

Special kudos to the visual effects department for recreating the era, including Ebbets Field, as well as to the costume department.  This is a finely detailed film, which adds to its evocation of the time.

This is not an easy film to watch, though, since it doesn’t shy away from presenting racism as it was then, deeply ingrained in the nation’s psyche.  A friend had wondered whether it would be appropriate to take children to see this movie.  My answer would be, this is a movie that every young person in this country should see, and older people as well.  Recently there have been incidents that show the racism of the 1940s still lies beneath the surface in this country.  But just as Jackie Robinson broke through prejudice at that time, 42 exposes how prejudice diminishes all who practice it, and the beauty that can be seen when prejudice is overcome.