Braced for immediate impact, they are then surprised again: it doesn’t crash into earth, it lands. And what emerges is a brilliant orb. What is birthed out of the orb is a humanoid, who, at first, is barely able to speak. He calls himself Klaatu. Gaining strength rapidly, he soon breaks free of his restraints, and eludes all attempts to capture him. The military’s feeble attack of the orb is easily repulsed by a gigantic Ironman-looking defender who can reverse the impulse of any missile or projectile, controlling all electricity, radio waves, sound waves, and, of course, computerized guidance systems. The humans just cannot believe that all their weaponry is useless.
When they order Dr. Benson to drug the alien by injection, she uses saline instead, which makes him trust her only, and thus she wins his confidence. He tells her that he has been sent not to destroy the earth itself, but the people on it. It seems that the galaxy is in short supply of life-sustainable planets, and the humans are so rapidly deteriorating the environment that they need to be removed so other life forms can have a place to safely inhabit. Dr. Benson, of course, pleads for another chance — we can do better with the environment, really, we can! But Klaatu must be convinced not so much by her earnestness as by her love for her stepson, Jacob (Jaden Smith), whose parents are both dead, and Helen, as the widow of Jacob’s Dad, winds up taking care of the boy. Klaatu sees a sensitive side to humans, that makes him think there might be something redeemable there, after all.
Since the unstoppable desolation has already been unleashed (good special effects here), Klaatu must decide whether to halt the destruction, and thus allow the remaining humans to start over. The dynamics are kind of like God deciding to destroy the earth by flood, but saving Noah in order to give the humans another chance, or destroying Sodom and Gomorrah because of their wickedness, but deciding to save Lot and his family, giving them another chance. Of course, we don’t exactly want to think of an automaton like Keanu Reeves as God, or even the avenging angel. And the “Save the Earth” point is a bit heavy-handed. But “The Day The Earth Stood Still” seems like a timely re-presentation of a science fiction flick with a message.
OK, we’ve all seen the Clint Eastwood tough guy persona, and yes, now he’s so old it almost seems like he’s caricaturing himself. But this movie has some other things going for it besides his patented glare and his irksome growl.
He plays a man named Walter Kovolski, Korean War vet, who’s always been haunted by something that happened there; and now time is running out. He’s coughing blood. We begin with a funeral service for his wife, where he stares disdainfully at his teenaged granddaughter, who he feels is not appropriately attired for the occasion. It doesn’t help when his grandson, upon genuflecting and making the sign of the cross, mutters the old “spectacles, testicles, wallet, glasses,” smirking and snickering into the pew. Not that Walt cares about respecting religion all that much. In fact, he tells the over-earnest young priest that he doesn’t need to talk to him. When the boyish-looking padre persists, finally Walt looks him in the eye and says, “Look I think you’re an overeducated, 27-year-old virgin who holds hands with little old ladies and tries to make them feel better by promising them eternity.” And that’s one of the nicer things he says to the eager, freckle-faced clergyman. But give the cleric credit, he persists, because he promised Kovolski’s wife, before she died, that he would get her husband to confession. Kovolski asks him why he goes around promising things that he can’t deliver. And we laugh nervously at the edge on their relationship, even as we celebrate every curmudgeonly old man who shakes his head at young people, barks at neighbors, and saves his only kind words for his dog, who, of course, never crosses him.
His two grown sons always seem to want something from him, and indeed, we learn from eavesdropping on the conversation between the two of them that they’ve given up trying to please the old man, who seems determined to brush them off no matter what they say. The truth is, he has no idea what to say to them. Never has. It was his now-sainted wife who did all that. Here’s a man’s man who keeps his classic Gran Torino car polished, possesses in his garage every tool imaginable, neatly hung in order, stubbornly does his own yard work, and rarely has anything decent to eat. So, he sits out on his front porch and smokes cigarettes and drinks beer, and if he spots an intruder, runs upstairs and loads up his Army rifle. Can anyone break through the macho persona?
Well, it turns out that the neighborhood is changing, and there’s an Asian girl next door named Susie, who figures out how to speak to our irascible Mr. Kovolski. Her younger brother, Tao, is kind of a lost little boy, and a pest besides, but Kovolski senses something important: a teenager on the brink. His gang buddies are trying to get him to ride with them, to break the law as an initiation, and Kovolski knows that there is no return from that dark place of escalating violence. So he tries, in his feeble way, to mentor the boy, cussing him and castigating him; but even Tao can tell that there’s some developing affection behind all that constant gruffness.
The last lesson that Kovolski has to teach Tao is the toughest of all: when to stand up, when to escalate, when to back down, and when to arrange a confrontation with your tormentors, and with what expectations. Along the way, Kovolski develops a kind of grudging respect for the well-intentioned but wet-behind-the-ears seminary graduate, who, at the very least, seems capable of learning, and, to his credit, really does care.
“Gran Torino” is not for those who want their characters saccharined, their language sanitized, their intercultural interaction pristinely politically correct, and their endings happily ever after for all. It is a grousing, baleful, awkward, but ultimately hopeful sketch of a singular character, brought to swaggering vividness by Clint Eastwood, the master of the vulnerable, venerable old rascal.
Here’s another twist on World War II: a guard at a concentration camp, Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), emerges in post-War Berlin as a tram conductor, taking tickets. She lives by herself, quietly, in a small apartment. One afternoon, arriving home from work, she encounters a teenaged boy who appears to be very ill. She not only cleans up after him, she offers to take him home. As it turns out, he has contracted scarlet fever, and is bedridden, and isolated, for weeks. When he finally returns to thank her, they begin a torrid affair.
It’s the first sexual experience for young Michael Berg (David Kross), and he’s both mesmerized by Hanna’s beauty and confused by her sudden change of moods. Sometimes she’s very tender, sometimes rough and harsh, but always seems to have a deep anger simmering just below the surface. She inquires carefully about his literature classes at school, and then insists that he bring the books and read them to her, as a kind of ritual foreplay: Goethe, Chekhov, Homer — nothing but the classics.
They have their first, and last, argument when he arrives late, and distracted, by his friends at school organizing a birthday party for him. Sensing (correctly) that he is now interested in someone his own age, she commands him go see his friends, and then, when he returns, she is gone. Vanished without a trace, or even a note.
It turns out that there’s good reason Hanna didn’t leave a note; Michael finally figures out, recalling several isolated incidents, that she was illiterate. Heartsick but unable to talk about it with anyone — his family life stilted, his relationships with his siblings mean-spirited, and his friends awkward and distant — he gladly enrolls in the university, and then law school, immersing himself in his studies. A brief encounter with a fellow student only reminds him how much he is still grieving.
A small senior seminar embarks on a field trip to a war crimes trial, where he encounters, you guessed it, Hanna Schmitz, and five other guards, accused of allowing 300 prisoners under their care to burn up during a bombing rather than open the building and allow them to escape. Hanna openly admits that they chose, together, to not release the prisoners, because they couldn’t then control them, and decided together to falsify the SS report, claiming that they didn’t know until later that the prisoners were locked in. [Earlier in the trial, when asked how they were able to identify ten prisoners a month who would be removed (and sent to the ovens), the other guards pretend they didn’t know what was happening, but Hanna replies simply, “Others were always coming. We had to make room for them.”] The other guards turn on her and make her the scapegoat, claiming she was in charge, and that they were only following her orders, and that she alone falsified the report herself. When asked in court to write something so that they could compare the handwriting, she confesses instead. It seems she was even more embarrassed about being illiterate than in admitting her culpability in an incident 10 years before, that has just now come to light because a survivor wrote a book. Everyone else, from the hounding press to the haughty judges to the howling bystanders, is obviously looking for someone to blame, wishing to expunge some of their own guilt in their silent assent. Michael, for his part, agonizes about whether to come forward and admit his affair, and also state his certainty that Hanna, being illiterate, would not have been able to write the report. Finally, he decides to do what he has always done: withdraw.
The adult Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes), not surprisingly, is a quiet loner who seems to suffer from inner demons. We first see him ending a relationship that was obviously physically intimate, but about which he possesses no feeling of attachment. Then, as a barrister, he is also detached, distracted, disheveled, and almost dissolute with constant brooding. We never meet his ex-wife; we know only that the relationship was short-lived. We eventually discover that he has a grown daughter, but he isn’t close to her, either. Agonizingly and painstakingly, he comes around to the realization that we’ve known all along: he’s never come close to the passion of his first close encounter. Perhaps he’s idealized it, but his guilt persists enough for him to begin sending Hanna cassette tapes, in prison, of entire books that he reads aloud. It’s a catharsis for him, and a soothing balm to her. For years they correspond, he sending books on tape, she returning brief thank-you notes, from painstakingly self-taught literacy, but he still can’t bring himself to see her.
After 20 years, she’s eligible for parole (the other guards got four years, she got life.) A prison official calls Michael to inform him that Hanna has no relatives and no visitors, and he is her only contact with the outside, so he needs to come visit her, and then help her with finding a job and a place to stay. Reluctantly, he goes to see her, but discovers that she has aged dramatically, though she still calls him “Kid.” Can her life be restored? Can his be redeemed? Is there hope for any kind of normalcy after such heart-numbing long-term angst?
“The Reader” is a moving story featuring fine performances; a cinematic experience with strong physical visuals, and even stronger visceral impact.
“The Tale Of Despereaux”
This is an animated feature suitable for the whole family, about a long-eared mouse who would rather read books than eat them, but doesn’t want to cower like the other mice, and a rat who prefers light to darkness, and doesn’t want to hate humans — and mice — like the other rats. An all-star cast lends their considerable voice talents, but the screenplay is a bit complicated, and unnecessarily confusing for the smaller children.
In “Yes Man,” Jim Carrey is back to doing comedy, and it’s a happy occasion. He plays a sad sack kind of guy who is persuaded to say “Yes” to everybody, and to really start living life to its fullest. Of course, not everything goes according to plan, or we wouldn’t have a plot. But we can’t help but root for him, and his unguarded enthusiasm. Yes, the moral to the story is the ol’ “seize the day,” which has been done before, but this is a fresh approach. Guitar lessons, learning to fly, taking Korean classes, racing a motorcycle through the city streets, attending the dorky boss’ Harry Potter dress-up party, painting your body for a college football game — it’s all part of opening up and having some fun. Because of the language and mature themes, “Yes Man” is not really suitable for small children.
“Waltz with Bashir”
“Waltz with Bashir” is a really unusual film in a couple of ways: most of it is animated, but it’s not about cartoon characters. These are modern Israeli middle-aged men, talking to each other about their traumatic experience in the Lebanese War twenty years before, and how it still haunts their dreams. You would expect that in a movie in the Hebrew language, when the subject of wartime atrocity arises, to be reminded of the Holocaust. And they do. But then they reluctantly admit that they may have cooperated with the Christian Phalangists in looking the other way during a slaughter of Palestinian civilians, and then ignoring the fact that it happened. Yes, the irony is palpable.
And so is the guilt. Director Ari Folman freely admits that the film is autobiographical, and says that it was therapeutic for him to talk to other veterans about their difficulties in dealing with their wartime experiences. The Israeli government, it seems, is more than glad that the film reminds everybody that the atrocities of the Lebanese War were not their own.
“Valkyrie” is about a lot of German officers who were having difficulty dealing with their experiences during World War II. Many became convinced that Adolf Hitler was the arch-enemy of Germany and needed to be removed, forcibly if necessary, before their beloved Fatherland was plunged into utter ruin.
Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) became convinced as early as the African campaign, and after the debacle at Tunisia, decided to join other radical sympathizers. They planned even down to the detail of mobilizing the Berlin reserve in order to prevent the SS from taking over the government after the assassination. Von Stauffenberg personally placed the satchel-bomb in the conference room where Hitler was conferring with his generals, but the valise was moved after Claus left the room, and the explosion wounded several, but didn’t kill anybody. Von Stauffenberg, seeing the explosion from a distance and believing the plot to be successful, managed to spread a false rumor of the Fuhrer’s demise, mobilize the reserves, and temporarily, at least, control the SS headquarters, as well. But after Hitler went on the radio that afternoon to assure his listeners of his well-being, the plotters were quickly hunted down, and then summarily executed.
Of course, we’ll never know if the war could have been stopped and more bloodshed avoided; the Allies were already in France, and the Russians had already pushed the Germans back over the Polish border. Who knows whether Stalin would have even considered stopping short of marching all the way to Berlin? But “Valkyrie” manages to maintain the suspense, despite the fact that we all know what happened before we ever begin, simply by telling the story well. The German government, no doubt, is more than glad to remind everyone that not all Germans blindly followed Hitler.