Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Double Feature: I go to the movies

Believe it or not, I haven't seen a first-run feature film in a theater since 2011, when my Mom and I (still dealing with the loss of my Dad) saw the massively disappointing Bridesmaids. Seriously, we both spent the whole time wondering when it was going to get funny. We needed cheering up, which is why we went to this movie. But I found it crass and unfunny, with an unsympathetic protagonist who's life was one big pity party.

Another thing that has kept me out of theaters is that so much of what Hollywood releases is crap, and even the good ones could usually stand to be 15-20 minutes trimmer. Not to say there haven't been a few I wish I'd caught in theaters - Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and JoJo Rabbit immediately spring to mind. But there aren't too many others and over the years low quality, excessive runtime, and the high price of admission eased me out of the habit of seeing movies in theaters. Add to that how quickly they become available on cable and streaming, you have to be quick to catch them on the big screen. Blink and you'll miss. In fact, I first saw Once Upon a Time in Hollywood on an airplane, on the flight back from Bouchercon Dallas in 2019.

It's not like I haven't been in a theater, just not for first run films. So far this year I've seen Casablanca and The Big Lebowski on the big screen thanks to Fathom Events, and will be checking out A Christmas Story in theaters in December. The Brother and I also went to a very cool Twilight Zone screening shortly after returning from the aforementioned Dallas trip. 

So it was a bit of culture shock for me to go to the movie theater not just once, but twice in the past week. But there were two that I just had to see in person, on the big screen.

First up: Sound of Freedom. I had discovered Operation Underground Railroad online a couple years ago and have donated ever since. Their work echoes a situation I had heard about in a class at Writers' Police Academy when the instructor mentioned how human trafficking skyrockets during the Super Bowl. Apparently traffickers descend on host cities in droves. The instructor mentioned that rescuing victims is just the beginning, that they need a significant amount of aftercare. You can't just send them home and expect them to pick up where they left off. OUR not only assists in rescue operations, but also provides aftercare.
Tim Ballard was an agent with Homeland Security busting lowlife scum for possession of child pornography when a fellow agent pointed out that while nailing consumers was fine, they weren't rescuing the victims themselves. This prompted Ballard to do so, and it began a journey that saw him make a career out of it. 

This film is life-changing. It's terrifying - and not gonna lie, hideously depressing - to realize how easily man's inhumanity to man comes to some people, and not just a few, and not even when children are involved. I couldn't talk after the film ended; I had to go into the restroom to compose myself. Tim Ballard is a rare hero and the world could use many more like him. 
Jim Caviezel gives a quietly solid performance as the heroic, driven Ballard, and while all the performances are solid, special props go to child actors Cristal Aparicio and Lucas Avila as the abducted siblings who prompt Ballard's journey. The film does a great job of not showing actual abuse of children, but inferring how they are groomed and abused. It gets the point across without becoming unwatchable. It also, unfortunately, shows how easy it is for these animals to find and take their victims.
Sound of Freedom should be required viewing for every man, woman, and child, regardless of political or religious bent. The film also pointed out a couple of horrifying stats: One, that criminals are increasingly choosing trafficking over selling drugs because drugs can only be sold once, while trafficking victims can be sold five times a day for a period of years (also mentioned in the WPA class), and two, that more people are enslaved by traffickers today than were enslaved back when slavery was legal even in otherwise civilized parts of the world. It's mind-boggling how widespread it is. 

Oppenheimer: I was a huge fan of the 2014-2015 WGN series Manhattan, which unfortunately only lasted two seasons (and season two ended just as they were getting ready to explode the first bomb), so I was looking forward to this take on the subject. Also, based on what I saw last night, both Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor Oscars are locked up (Cillian Murphy and Robert Downey. Jr.)
Oppenheimer is the proverbial triumph of filmmaking. J. Robert Oppenheimer was a genius, a gifted physicist who was tasked with creating a weapon of horrifying power to be used against his fellow man. But any moral qualms (well represented in the film) he may have felt in creating the atom bomb were offset by the need to develop it before Nazi Germany did so. The film does a great job of balancing the need to outpace the Nazis with the decimating power of the weapons created by Oppenheimer and his fellow scientists in the Manhattan Project. The devastation the bombs inflicted was counted in the loss of thousands of lives, but had the Nazis triumphed and Oppenheimer and his team failed, one can only wonder what world we would be living in today.

In addition to the visual magic he's put onscreen to represent the science in creating the atom bomb and immense power behind it, Christopher Nolan has stacked this film with great actors. Murphy and Downey own the screen, melting into their characters, but there is an embarrassment of riches throughout the cast. Matt Damon shines as the Army general who recruits Oppenheimer to head the project. Others include Aiden Ehrenreich as a naive Senate aide who gets a sobering education in politics, a sinister Casey Affleck, Rami Malik in a deceptively important role, Tom Conti as Albert Einstein, Gary Oldman as President Harry Truman, Kenneth Branagh, Josh Harnett, David Dastmalchian, Dane DeHaan, James Remar, James D'Arcy, David Krumholtz and in a nicely ironic turn, Christopher Denham, who was in the cast of Manhattan, as an ominous member of Oppenheimer's staff.

Major female roles are sparse. Emily Blunt delivers an expectedly solid performance as Kitty Oppenheimer. Florence Pugh as Jean Tatlock is only really required to get naked and simulate sex; one has to wonder why she bothered with this role. On the other hand, the film does show how many women populated the Manhattan Project, although none of them feature heavily in this version of the story.
One thing that really affected me about Oppenheimer's experience was how badly he was railroaded by his own government when he tried to renew his security clearance post-Manhattan Project. Vile corruption in our government is a sad fact these days, but it was depressing to realize that it isn't a recent development, that it goes back at least as far as the 1950's. That a genius who was hugely responsible for America coming out of World War II on the winning side was so horribly treated is inexcusable. I'd expect it today, but it was kind of a shock to see it back then. Power does indeed corrupt, and apparently always has.

I highly recommend both of these films. In fact, I may need to go see both of these one more time before eagerly awaiting the DVD releases. I'd like to see Oppenheimer in IMAX, but the only two theaters anywhere near me with IMAX are both located at malls (The Grove and Del Amo in Torrance) and given the mob looting that's been going on at Southern California malls these days, I'm trying to avoid those places. But both films were well worth returning to the world of first-run films in theaters.

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