Director Hector Babenco starts his 1985 film off on the right foot, in a deceptively simple opening shot that sets up everything that will follow. It’s a slow panoramic shot, moving around a South American prison cell and gradually introducing the two central characters that share the small space. These characters are Luis Molina (William Hurt, who won a deserved Academy Award for his performance) and Valentin Arregui (Raul Julia, equally impressive). The two of them have both been imprisoned, Valentin for his actions with a revolutionary group, Molina for his sexual relationship with a young boy. The rest of the film will detail the evolution of their relationship, from initial discontent to admiration and love. While an entire film set within the confines of the cell sounds like a somewhat tough ordeal, the filmmakers find a clever way to combat this. To distract themselves from the nature of their situation, Molina recounts to Arregui the story of one of his favorite films, a romance/thriller which Arregui is quick to point out is actually a Nazi propaganda film. As Molina narrates, the film moves outside of the cell to visually enact the story. At first, you wonder what the true purpose of this diversion is. It’s not until about halfway through the film that another layer is added to the relationship between Molina and Arregui, giving new meaning to past events, while also providing the realization that the relationship in the story between a Nazi officer and a singer working covertly for the resistance mirrors the relationship in the real world.
Every once in awhile you’ll stumble upon a film that employs familiar elements and creates something that is unlike anything you’ve quite seen before, and this is one of those films. Both the direction and the script are excellent, balancing out both serious and playful moments with ease. The two main performances hit all the right notes too, with Julia effectively conveying the transition in his character’s feelings and Hurt taking on a role that you’d never expect from him and nailing it. And for a film almost thirty years old, it is surprisingly forthright yet sensitive about the relationship at its center. If I were to make one criticism, it’s that the script separates Molina and Arregui for its final half hour, and the material in this section is never quite as compelling as when the two of them share the screen together. Still, the film finishes just as strongly as it opens, with an uncompromising end and an escape into fantasy. This gets a high recommendation from me. 8/10.
The new film from Terrence Malick opens in an unconventional way, with shaky cell-phone footage of a couple recording each other as they travel through Europe. It’s something of a fake-out of course, and it’s not long before the film returns to the type of visual grandness you usually associate with the director of Days Of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, but it’s a nice early indicator that Malick is perhaps operating on a smaller, more personal level than his more recent work, including his last entry The Tree Of Life. That was a film that, among other things, attempted to tie together a family tragedy with God and the creation/evolution of the universe and of life, and while it worked on a deep level for many viewers, it never did for me. To The Wonder at times feels like a direct stylistic continuation of The Tree Of Life, featuring many of Malick’s trademarks that have at this point become almost clichéd. There’s the near-constant use of voiceover, the stately Steadicam shots, the unconventional editing that gives off the impression of someone recalling snapshots of distant memories rather than attempting to assemble any kind of strong narrative progression.
His approach can inspire both awe and exasperation, sometimes within the same film and in the span of a few minutes, and that is still the case here. Certainly by the end of the film you’ll have seen more than enough of people wandering aimlessly through fields of grass. But in part because the film is more grounded in nature, I found it to be more effective than The Tree Of Life. The film spends most of its time chronicling the good and bad times in a relationship between characters played by Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko. The spiritual component is kept mostly to the side, relegated to a tangential subplot with Javier Bardem as a priest, who questions the silence of God as he tours through areas of poverty and depression. Eventually these separate threads tie together in a subtle way. Unlike The Tree Of Life, which presented a vision of the afterlife and had moments where characters exhibited divine qualities, any spiritual presence in this film is kept within the realms of reality, and for me that’s a good thing. If there is a God somewhere watching over us, that is all He’s doing. We’re left to our own devices down here, to continue on in our flawed kind of way, and left to wonder by ourselves about the big questions. That’s a sentiment I can understand and get behind. 7/10.
At this point every year, professional baseball honors Jackie Robinson, the first person to break the color barrier in the sport, when he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. That type of story is perfect for a film, and yet there haven’t been many attempts over the years to get that story onto the screen (maybe after The Jackie Robinson Story, where Robinson played himself, came out, another film seemed superfluous). Now there is this new film about Robinson and the adversity he had to face to play ball in the majors, directed by Brian Helgeland, who’s known more as a writer (particularly for L.A. Confidential, another film where the issue of racism plays a large role). Unfortunately, 42 as a film is not in the same league as that ’90s classic; everything proceeds much in the way you’d expect things to proceed, with little in the way of surprises.
That’s not necessarily an entirely bad thing, but the film is hurt by some unfortunate production choices. An overbearing score plays over everything in the first half, giving the oftentimes awkwardly-scripted film a heavy feeling even in scenes of more inconsequential material. Harrison Ford, as Dodgers owner Branch Rickey, stands out a little too much; he’s not the most comfortable in this kind of role, although he does have a few redeeming moments in the later stages of the film. As Robinson, Chadwick Boseman is effective, showing both his determination and, in one crucial moment, his doubts and fears about his inability to keep going. The film is actually the most interesting though when showing the changing attitudes of the white people around him, as they come to accept that attitudes are changing and that they need to revise their stances. One area where the film does deserve a lot of credit is for not censoring the vitriol that was undoubtedly directed towards Robinson at the time. When Alan Tudyk, normally a warm and relatable screen presence, briefly comes onscreen as Phillies manager Ben Chapman to launch a long tirade of racial epithets at Robinson, it has a real impact, with the use of language hitting home harder than any point in Django Unchained. It’s a real standout moment, and it’s somewhat of a shame that the rest of the film doesn’t quite hit on that same level. 42 ends up being a fairly unremarkable film about a remarkable person, but it at least is a solid reminder of why his uniform number is retired across baseball. 5/10.