Three Good Movies

Linda was gone for a few days recently, so I took the opportunity to Netflick (that’s the verb, right?) some movies that I thought she wouldn’t mind missing. Now I’m not so sure.

I’m somewhat surprised that I missed Ridley Scott’s KINGDOM OF HEAVEN, which is now more than five years old. He’s one of my favorite directors, and has been ever since his first feature, THE DUELLISTS. But sometimes a movie will just fly under my radar. (For example, I still haven’t seen Scott’s Columbus picture, which is unavailable from Netflix and hard to find, but I need to complete the set – nope, drat, his newest one, ROBIN HOOD, opens today!)

Sir Ridley comes from advertising, as do I, but we’re both from a time when MTV was just a curious infant, before its kinetic influence came to dominate visual style, leading to the rat-a-tat, almost subliminal assault whose poster boy today is Michael Bay. Scott made his bones shooting commercials – i.e., very short films – but he knows how to pace a story, give it enough room to become epic without forcing the issue. Still, I knew this was gonna be the late 12th century for three whole hours, which I guess is why it was never at the top of my list. Bad, ill-informed call.

The film made a poor first impression on me. As we sweep over the gorgeous (mostly Moroccan, as it turns out) backdrop, the opening sequence alights at a French gravesite where it’s lightly snowing. For five minutes or so, I couldn’t shake the visual resemblance to Scott’s brave but failed attempt at fantasy, LEGEND. One of the main aspects which constantly pulled me out of that story (and there were plenty) was that somebody (Sir Ridley?) decided there would be particulates in the air in every major scene: dust motes, leaves, dandelions, etc. I suppose it was meant to be a visual cue: “This is a fantasy,” but it didn’t take long to become tiresome. Now with the snowflakes! But this time, they represented nothing more than falling snow, and vanished after the first scene, by which time I was already hooked.

A buff Orlando Bloom takes the Russell Crowe chair as a widowed blacksmith whom circumstances (which I’ll leave for you to discover) bring to ancient Jerusalem, a hundred years after the first wave of Crusaders occupied the city and slaughtered its Muslim population. Now, certain forces within the Christian ruling elite want to eradicate area Muslims altogether by taking on their great sultan and military strategist Saladin, even to the point of provoking him with a cruel attack on a trade caravan. Saladin’s response triggers the rest of the movie.

These gentlemen are not happy.

KINGDOM OF HEAVEN plays fast and loose with history, for which it’s been criticized (it never claimed to be a documentary), but the film really affected me by getting one essential thing right: the nobility and humanity of the best people on both sides when faced with the impossible task of keeping the peace in this tinderbox. Jerusalem is a place held holy by three great world faiths. When we visited, about ten years ago, we took a day trip hosted by an Israeli guide, then another the next day with a Palestinian (in order to pass through their checkpoints). During the course of the tours, each prideful guide gave us a calm, rational explanation of why the other side was fully and intractably wrong. Throw Christian Crusaders into the mix, and you can see why this spot has been battled over for weary centuries.

Saladin is portrayed as a wise, just leader, which probably scandalized some viewers when this picture was released near the beginning of George W. Bush’s second term. There are such honorable men on the Christian side as well, and each combatant also has its faction of savage hotheads. The allusions to Bush’s contemporary “crusade” (the president used this very term in public, probably without knowing any better, and you can understand how it must have unnerved the Muslim world) seem to be deliberate. We are presumed to begin with knee-jerk sympathy for the Crusaders, then to learn how tragic and wasteful this clash is and has been, through astonishing (sometimes graphic) battle scenes set against heartbreakingly beautiful vistas, until we can only bemoan the senseless loss on both sides. I’m being deliberately vague so that you can enjoy it too. For me, the three hours flew by. For you, here’s an enthusiastic recommendation.

The second movie that unexpectedly knocked me back, I rented as a goof: JCVD, starring the Muscles from Brussels, Jean-Claude Van Damme. He’s the middle-aged kick-boxing specialist whose action-movie career is in decline, relegated now to direct-to-video cheapoids. He plays a character called Jean-Claude Van Damme, a middle-aged kick-boxing…in decline…direct-to-video. The film opens on an action sequence from a new movie. Bullets fly, things explode, as Van Damme and fellow action heroes fight their way toward camera and it continues to pull back, forcing them ever onward. First, it’s typical action. Then you start sneering: how can these geezers barely survive hundreds of rounds? Finally, you realize that though it’s being taken seriously in the movie, this is actually a sendup of scenes like itself, and Van Damme and the guys keep coming, shooting, slashing – I think in one unbroken shot, though I’d have to see it again to be sure. Finally, a wheezing Van Damme reaches the director, a bored, terminally hip Asian (John Woo?), who calls through an interpreter for another take!

The actor is meanwhile fighting for child custody in L.A., a very expensive proposition, and takes a trip back home to Brussels, where he’s a national hero. (His celebrity will actually become a plot point later.) He poses for some photos and walks into a post office, where he’s expecting a wire transfer. We hear gunshots. A security guard goes to investigate. Van Damme sticks his head out the window and yells, “Get away!” More shots, and some phone conversations, and soon all Belgium – and we, the audience – believe Jean-Claude Van Damme has snapped, and is holding hostages for ransom. After all, the news media discover, he does need money for those legal fees!

The truth will be uncovered like the layers of an onion as the movie plays with time. It shows us the reverse angle from inside the post office, rewinds for Van Damme’s taxi ride from the airport, also significant, etc. I think you’ll probably call this film a comedy once you’ve seen it, but it’s very dark, and the shadow of Van Damme’s former career is all over it. Many surprises, and again I will not spill the beans, but two things I must note. One, of course the real Van Damme is plenty brave to open what may be actual wounds for our entertainment. Two, at one point inside the post office, he’s sitting on the camera step as it softly booms up, up, over the set, into the rafters with the movie lights, and he looks us straight in the eye and delivers an impassioned monologue. He never loses eye contact during the move, which I’m certain is a single shot. Yet the boom takes us away from the “movie reality.” If this had been a clip on an audition reel, you’d be admiring it: “Man, I had no idea Van Damme could act.” But I have to vote thumbs down on this single aspect. I too was surprised by the star’s heretofore unknown thespic range, but the stunt literally lifts us out of the story at a very tense point, and there’s plenty of artificiality to otherwise remind us, it’s only a movie.  Still, in a moment the camera booms down again, we re-acquire the set, and we soldier on, after a remarkable monologue. Other former actors might relate to this: I loved the speech, hated the context.

JC in soulful mode.

This is my favorite Jean-Claude Van Damme movie of all time, by leaps and bounds, by the frickin Flash doing the leaping and bounding! I heartily recommend it.

Finally, I saw HARVARD BEATS YALE, 29-29 in a wholly new way: I streamed a movie onto my TV set from Netflix for the very first time. So the screening was historic, just like the football game.

In 1968, an existential moment in American history, a thoroughly outmatched – however, as yet undefeated – Harvard team goes toe-to-toe against the far superior, nationally ranked, and similarly undefeated Yale squad, which includes future NFL star Calvin Hill and a quarterback named Brian Dowling, the inspiration for “B.D.,” the DOONESBURY character who’s so cool that he wears his helmet to class and everywhere else. For most of the game, Yale chews up the Harvard yobbos like so many pieces of popcorn. But well into the second half, angels seem to descend upon the Harvard squad, in the form of fumbles, interceptions, referee calls, etc. As the title informs — it quotes the very clever headline which the Harvard Crimson ran after the game — we already know the outcome before we’ve settled into our seats. But this film has much more to offer.

The format is simple. It’s just a replay of the famous game, done in only two or three angles, cf. 1968 Ivy League coverage, interspersed with recent interviews with players from both teams (including Tommy Lee Jones, a Harvard guard). As the film begins, while Harvard is being smeared, we pay more attention to the interviews than to the actual game. We also get a very clear time-setting and cultural comparison: students were angrily protesting at Harvard, not so much at Yale. A Harvard Vietnam vet describes his aching return home, happy to simplify life by just playing on the football team, where all political points of view were kept in the locker room. We come to know many more of the gladiators (or at least their contemporary versions; the passage of time is also touching) and what happened to them as the result of participating in what was certainly the most storied football game in Ivy League history, and one of the most thrilling played by any two college teams.

The poster really communicates how much fun this movie is.

Nothing more: football-game footage intercut with the remembrances of those who took place in the immortal game. But the pace, tone, and frequency of the intercutting arrive at something else, like all great docs do. It’s the soul of Harvard/Yale 29-29, and what this amazing game taught everyone who participated: the ultimate lesson being, “it’s nothing but a football game,” which we hear more than once. But as this beautiful film instructs, it’s more than that too. One more thing: football knowledge is not required. This movie is really about a profundity hovering just above the actual game, which anyone, sports fan or not, can easily apprehend.

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