Weekly Movie Reviews: Mar 5-11, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Breach (2007)

I had never heard of Breach before this week, which is a shame because it’s really good. It is based on the real-life story of the capture of Robert Hanssen (played by Chris Cooper), an FBI agent who had been spying for the Russians for decades before he was caught. Hanssen currently holds the dubious record of compromising the most American informants, a few of whom were executed because of it. Ryan Phillippe plays Eric O’Neill, his subordinate that had the task of finding enough evidence to arrest him.

I don’t think enough people talk about Chris Cooper – he’s a fantastic actor, and I’ve loved him in everything I’ve seen him in – I can think of American Beauty, Adaptation., and Great Expectations off the top of my head, but he’s been in a lot of things. He really carries this movie as Hanssen. I’m not quite sure how to judge Ryan Phillippe’s acting – ordinarily I would call it bad, but he’s playing someone in this movie that needs to act all the time and is terrified by it, so maybe it was really good? In any case, this is a great movie, it’s tight and tense and atmospheric, while focusing entirely on the characters. There are many aspects to Hanssen’s story that could have ended up being dramatized in lurid detail, but the movie doesn’t focus on those, and this restraint takes it up a couple of notches.

Other Movies Watched

Unforgiven (1992)

William Munny (Clint Eastwood), an aging outlaw who takes one last job so that he can give his kids a better life. It’s been more than a decade since his days as a killer, though, and he finds that going back to that life isn’t easy mentally or physically. Wikipedia calls this movie a “revisionist Western”, which basically seems to mean that it’s more realistic and doesn’t do the traditional clear-cut good guy vs. bad guy thing, and that’s certainly true. We’re more used to this now – being morally questionable is the norm in a lot of popular media these days (House of Cards, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, etc.), but I’m assuming this wasn’t the case in 1992 when this movie came out.

The West depicted in this movie is not one I’d want to live in – it reminded me of a bit of the TV series Deadwood. Munny is melancholy and uncomfortable, nothing like you’d expect from someone with his reputation. But by the end of the movie, you can see why the West birthed so many legends, even if the truth behind them is far more messy than we usually think about. Unforgiven is not the most fun movie to watch, but I still recommend it highly.

A Passage to India (1984)

A Passage to India is based on the E.M Forster novel (which I haven’t read) about… well, I’m not sure if it’s about any one thing, but it starts with two British women journeying to India – Mrs. Moore, who is visiting her son Ronny Heaslop, and Miss Quested, who is somewhat interested in marrying him. Miss Quested is interested in seeing the “real India”, but soon discovers that India is far more overwhelming that she bargained for, and this leads to an unfortunate situation which only exacerbates the existing tensions between the Indians and the British. This is a slow movie that seems like it was made in the 60s and not the 80s, but it is still compelling. The acting is remarkable, and it was fascinating to get a look at 1920s India. Both the Indian and British characters are treated with equal complexity. Alec Guinness playing an Indian character was a little weird, but he pulled it off pretty well.

Lincoln (2012)

As the name implies, this movie is about Abraham Lincoln. I was expecting a traditional biopic about his whole life, but the focus is entirely on Lincoln’s efforts to get the 13th amendment to the Constitution (the ban on slavery) passed before the end of the Civil War. The cast of this movie is delightful, Daniel Day-Lewis makes a very vibrant Lincoln, but even small parts in the movie are played by excellent actors. Tommy Lee Jones as abolitionist Republican leader Thaddeus Stevens and James Spader as lobbyist William Bilbo particularly stood out. I can’t find any flaws with Lincoln, but it did leave me feeling vaguely dissatisfied – maybe because it was set over such a short period of time, or maybe because I didn’t think it helped me understand what made Lincoln himself, it just perpetuated the myth.

Antwone Fisher (2002)

Denzel Washington’s directorial debut about the true story of Antwone Fisher, a young man in the U.S. Navy who works through his past of child abuse and comes to peace with himself. The screenplay is actually written by the real Fisher, who sold the screenplay after he got out of the Navy and worked as a security guard at Sony Pictures. The story is powerful, the actor who plays Fisher (Derek Luke) isn’t someone I remember from other movies, but he does an amazing job. However, the movie itself can be a little bit on-the-nose sometimes, it tries so hard to push feelings on you that it doesn’t give you any room to develop your own feelings.

Chain Reaction (1996)

Chain Reaction stars Keanu Reeves and Rachel Weisz as members of a research team that have cracked the secret to infinite cheap energy. Their excitement turns to fear when an explosion destroys their research facility and kills their professor, and they are then framed for it. This movie is a dumb action-thriller, and doesn’t pretend to be anything else, and it’s pretty fun. Keanu Reeves seems less stereotypically himself, and Morgan Freeman is pretty great as the super competent villain that you kind of root for. Even though the movie’s premise is dumb, it gets a lot of the background details right without over-explaining itself, which I found refreshing (for example, Keanu looks like he’s really soldering and machining in scenes where his.)

To Sir, with Love (1967)

This classic “inspiring teacher helps irredeemable kids” story is set in London with Sidney Poitier playing the teacher, Mark Thackeray. After he is unable to secure an engineering job, Thackeray reluctantly finds a job teaching, and discovers that his class is a bunch of delinquent young adults who are one term away from leaving school. After trying many traditional approaches, he decides to treat them like adults and wins their trust, despite racial bias. I thought this movie was too simplistic and sentimental with very little character development, although it’s still entertaining and does succeed in being feel-good.

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