Friday, December 2, 2016

Two Movies in Three Scenes

Within the past few weeks, I've gone to see two movies in theaters.

Fantastic Beasts
On Thursday night, Nov. 15, I caught a sneak preview of the new movie from the Harry Potter universe, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Written directly for the screen by J.K. Rowling herself, it exults in the ability to get its whole story out on screen, without having to cut all the connective bits that made an original novel make sense. The critics have already done a great job of pointing out how the film welcomes viewers in with a Pokemon Go!-esque "find the fantastic beasts" storyline, while slowly warming up to a much darker and more dramatic tale about a repressed magic gone septic and how that fits into a dark wizard's agenda.

My only two complaints about the movie were that said dark wizard's final remark is so cryptic (What was that about dying a little?) and that it wasted some attractive characters, such as the newspaper editor (played by Jon Voight) and his younger son (Ronan Raftery), who after a certain point just stand there and visibly react to what's going on in front of them. There must be some important reason for including these characters in the movie; perhaps it will become clear in a sequel, of which (I hear) there will be four.

Three scenes that "make" this movie for me:

1. Newt Scamander (recent Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne) performs a mating dance to coax an erumpent (don't ask) into his suitcase, which is much bigger on the inside than it looks on the outside. Combined with the subsequent madcap chase across part of New York's Central Park, this is comedic genius with a bite of the bizarre. It's also deftly choreographed, exciting, and suspenseful.

2. Ordered to their deaths, Newt and American witch Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston, Sam's daughter) fight their way out of an execution chamber where victims are apparently supposed to be lowered, via levitating chair, into a pool of some kind of annihilating liquid. Sorry, I haven't read the screenplay, so I don't know how to describe this. It's just an incredibly creepy scene.

3. Samantha Morton, playing an anti-magic fanatic, checks out a street urchin for signs of the witch's mark, then pronounces him OK. Her menacing sweetness channeled Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Hacksaw Ridge
I meant to see this on my recent interstate vacation as well, but my plans changed on short notice (again, don't ask). Just saw it tonight. Bawled through a good deal of it. Saw an impressive amount of none-too-subtle Christian symbolism woven into its imagery. Appreciated that it was a powerful war movie about a pacifist who stuck to his convictions in the face of tremendous adversity - ultimately earning the first Congressional Medal of Honor ever awarded to a conscientious objector. It's sickeningly violent but also a moving testimony to the power of conviction and the importance of the freedom to live by it.

Three scenes that "make" this movie for me:

1. Army medic Desmond Doss (played by sometime Spiderman Andrew Garfield, almost the lone American in a mostly Australian cast) sits all alone in carnage-strewn battlefield, after trying but failing to save a buddy's life. In a rare moment of doubt, he desperately asks God, "What do you want from me?" Long pregnant pause. Then a man's voice comes to him out of the falling night: "Medic!"

2. In the opening moments of the movie, a drunk Hugo Weaving (as Doss' father), visiting his World War I buddies' graves to share a drop of whiskey with them, loses control and smashes the bottle against one of the gravestones. Blood drips on the stone. As he wraps up his cut hand, he dryly says, "Well, that's all I have for you today." It's hard not to love practically every scene Weaving is in. While I'm at it, I might as well also mention one in which his character bursts into tears at the dinner table after telling off the first of his two sons who has decided to enlist in World War II. It's not every actor who can turn an abusive drunk into a sympathetic character.

3. The scene in which Doss finally, against his convictions, touches a gun - only to use the rifle as part of an improvised litter to drag a wounded sergeant (Vince Vaughn) to safety. Vaughn's moment of disbelief was matched only by mine, since my research prior to viewing the film told me that, in reality, Doss used the stock of a rifle to bandage his own badly broken arm after being hit by multiple rounds of enemy fire, before dragging himself to safety. And this, in turn, was after he was hit, and while being stretchered out of the combat area, made the stretcher bearers leave him and take a more seriously injured man instead. What I'm saying is, although many people may have a hard time believing Doss' heroism as depicted in this film, it actually undersells it - big-time.

I'm not a Seventh Day Adventist, as Doss was. Nor is Mel Gibson, who directed this movie. I don't hold Doss' conviction about touching deadly weapons - a conviction that, according to the movie, turns out to be based more on incidents in Doss' boyhood than on the letter of SDA doctrine. But I am pretty impressed to see a movie mounted on this scale, depicting a Christian man who never compromises the tenets of his faith in spite of every shade of opposition ranging from reason to an imminent threat of prison, and depicting him as a hero who brings hope, courage, humility, and awe to the men around him. Sam Worthington asking Andrew Garfield for forgiveness may strike some as a bit too strong. But there is something admirable even about men who have the bigness to repent when they are proven wrong. And there is something utterly, movingly satisfying about this movie, all the way to the pre-credits footage depicting the aftermath of the dramatized events.

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