Posted by: John Adams | January 27, 2009

Movies I’ve Seen Recently

Spending the last few weeks at my grandparents’ house, while entertaining in many respects, has left me with more than a little time on my hands. I’ve been killing much of it with a temporary subscription to Netflix, a movie-rental company that mails you new DVD’s every time you return the old ones. I’ve been enjoying this arrangement quite a bit. Some movies I’ve rented:

The Godfather

One of the greatest movies of all time features Marlon Brando playing Vito Corleone in the role that lent a sinister edge to the phrase “an offer they can’t refuse.” With his idiosyncratic slur, Vito Corleone may be one of the most distinct and mimicked characters in Hollywood history, but director Francis Ford Coppola devotes the bulk of the film to Vito’s son Michael (played by a heretofore unknown Al Pacino), whose descent into his father’s footsteps becomes the tragic, inexorable destination to which the entire story is driving. A memorable final scene intersperses a baptism scene–in which Michael “renounces the works of the devil” in his infant son’s stead–with clips of murderous hits simultaneously being carried out under Michael’s orders against his enemies. The irony, of course, is that by the end of the film, Michael Corleone and the devil he renounces are barely distinguishable.

The Lives of Others

My interest was piqued in this fantastic German film, which was awarded an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, by Marvin Olasky’s well-written review in World magazine. Set in Communist East Germany in 1984, the film centers on the bugging of Berlin playwright Georg Dreyman’s apartment by the Stasi (German secret police). Dreyman has never spoken out against the government, but the Stasi commander has ulterior motives for wanting dirt dug up on him.

Gerd Wiesler, the unsmiling, gray-jacketed agent assigned to monitor the flat, is the picture of puritanical zeal for the Communist system. At first, he approaches the job with zeal, keeping meticulous notes that follow Dreyman’s every move. Over time, however, cracks in the dike begin to appear. A piece of piano music that Dreyman plays nearly moves Wiesler to tears, and the gentleness Dreyman shows his girlfriend upon discovering that she has been sleeping with a Stasi commander in exchange for the right to keep acting on the Berlin stage finally moves Wiesler decisively onto the right side.

When Dreyman, moved to action by a friend’s suicide, finally does begin speaking out (via an article smuggled to a Western magazine and printed under an alias), Wiesler begins helping him evade the system by deliberately neglecting to include certain crucial details in his report. Eventually, the plot is discovered, and the film quickly segues through the fall of the Berlin Wall to one of the best climaxes I have ever seen on film.

The power of the film rests in its ability to show how what Francis Schaeffer called the “mannishness of man”–the image of God resident within him, which still finds ways of shining through the darkness of a system seemingly designed to crush men’s spirits. A piece of beautiful music, an act of kindness, a knee-jerk reaction of anger in the face of obvious injustice–all of these things are rumors from another world, flowers sprouting through the gray concrete of Communist ideology, which ultimately move Captain Wiesler to reject the lies that he has believed in all of his life.

Casablanca

“Here’s looking at you, kid.”

“Play it again, Sam, for old times’ sake. Play ‘As Time Goes By.'”

I had never seen Casablanca before last night, but since many quotes from the film have worked their way into popular jargon, I already knew some of the key lines. It’s difficult to believe that this film–ranked 2nd greatest American movie of all time by the American Film Institute–was one of 50 films Warner Bros. produced in 1942. (At its height, the golden age of Hollywood saw studios producing a movie every week.) Still, this one has routinely stood out from other films of the period due to its handsome lead actors, whip-smart dialogue, and intriguing storyline. (The inclusion of the nostalgic ballad, “As Time Goes By,” didn’t hurt either.)

Humphrey Bogart plays Rick Blaine, a cynical American running a nightclub in wartime Casablanca, a city full of European expatriates trying to buy, barter, or bribe their way to America. While Rick lets on that he’s the kind of guy who won’t stick his neck for anyone besides himself, his life changes significantly when his old flame Ilsa walks through the door on the arms of another man.

Rick and Ilsa have a history–they had a brief fling in Paris a few years earlier which ended when Ilsa stood him up at the train station (it was the last train out of Paris as the Nazis marched into the city). Now, Rick is in an interesting position–he holds transit passes that could get Ilsa and her dissident husband out of the country, but he’s not so sure he wants to give them to the woman who broke his heart–not to mention the man who took her away.

While the ultimate goodness of its protagonists is never in question, the movie’s characters live under the cloud of encroaching Nazi oppression–Rick and Ilsa flee a Nazi-defeated Paris and reunite in Casablanca–only to find that the Nazis are invading there, too. The darkness of the film is easily understood once you remember that at the time of the film’s release, the Allies were still three years away from winning the war.

Despite the darkness of war, however, the love story is what makes Casablanca shine. Rick and Ilsa’s happier moments in Paris are among the most celebrated scenes in cinematic history. For both protagonists, however, and for Rick especially, love involves making some very difficult choices, a welcome plot twist in a generation whose films routinely bend plot to serve the needs of the characters’ personal happiness. “As time goes by,” it’s good to be reminded that love sometimes involves not getting what you want.

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Responses

  1. John, you write well-written reviews. What’s your secret?

  2. High praise coming from a writer like yourself, Matt. Inasmuch as I have a “secret,” it’s that I just read a lot of better writers’ work and try to imitate them.

  3. This is great, John. I only hope you blog half this much when you’re at seminary.

  4. What to take with you to seminary? “Leave the gun, take the canoli.”


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