erik lundegaard

Friday March 27, 2015

Movie Review: Of Miracles and Men (2015)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“Of Miracles and Men,” an ESPN 30-for-30 documentary about the Soviet hockey team of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, with a particular focus on its upset defeat at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, NY (“USA! USA! USA!”), opens with a quiet walk through Central Park by Soviet hockey great Viacheslav Fetisov, who, in his 50s, is about to play a little nighttime winter hockey. Soon after, we see the end of that most famous hockey game, the “Miracle on Ice,” and we hear Al Michaels’ iconic countdown:

We’ve got 10 seconds! The countdown going on right now. Morrow up to Silk. Five seconds left in the game. Do you believe in miracles?! Yes!!!!

An hour later, after detailing the rise of the dominant Soviet hockey machine, replete with incredible black-and-white training footage, and getting the “Miracle on Ice” game in detail, we see its end again; but instead of Michaels’ countdown, we hear the Soviet announcer, who says the following in a matter-of-fact tone:

But it seems it is too late. Five seconds before the buzzer. [Game ends: place goes crazy.] Team USA wins over our hockey players and now is leading with three points in the table. With that, we are finishing our commentary. The reporter was Nikolai Ozerov.

Of Miracles and MenThe best docs I’ve seen, from “Paris is Burning” to “Restrepo” to “The Act of Killing,” reveal a perspective we haven’t seen before, or maybe even considered before, and that’s what director Jonathan Hock does here. The western voice is all but muted in “Of Miracles and Men.” Al Michaels isn’t interviewed, nor Mike Eruzione or Jim Craig. It’s Fetisov, and Vladislav Tretiak and Vladimir Myshkin. It’s Sergei Makarov and Vladimir Petrov and Boris Mikhailov. They’re older now, obviously, but generally quiet and unassuming. There is, though, an attempt by some, particularly Seva Kukushkin, a Soviet sportswriter for the Soviet news agency Tass, to dismiss the Miracle on Ice. At one point, Kukushkin is asked what he wrote about the game and its drama. His response:

What’s the drama? [Pause] Look, maybe it’s a problem of Americans. You see, once a crazy kid kissed Sophia Loren, for example. And he’s telling till the rest of his life, “Oh, I kissed Sophia Loren.” Ask Sophia Loren if she remembers. Different point of view.

Now I’m not much of a chest-beater when it comes to patriotism. One of the beautiful things about America is that you can afford not to be jingoistic. But I make an exception with the Miracle on Ice. I think it’s the greatest upset in international sports in the 20th century. A bunch of college kids beating the mighty Soviet machine? Amateurs who played together a couple of months beating professionals who’d played together since they were, what, 10? And practiced and lived together 24/7? In the 1980 medal rounds, the U.S.S.R. won by the following scores: 16-0, 17-4, 8-1, 4-2 and 6-4. Hell, a few weeks earlier, they beat the U.S. in a preliminary game 10-3. They shouldn’t have lost. Yet they did. To college kids.

Plus, it really was a seminal event in American history. It helped make the country safe for patriotism (and, sadly, jingoism) again. I grew up in the 1970s when patriotism was the province of scoundrels and fools—like Maj. Frank Burns on “M*A*S*H.” We went through Vietnam, Watergate, gas crises, hostage crisis. As a country, we either seemed impotent bullies or victims of small, petty nations. We had little to be proud of.

Then this.

I came to this documentary, which is now streaming on Netflix, through Joe Posnanski, who ends his piece this way:

The Sophia Loren story is the greatest cold-water throwing I’ve ever seen. It’s utterly beautiful and brilliant. The Miracle on Ice was our seminal sports moment, the closest thing to Greek myth that we have. And he compares the U.S. to a kid kissing Sophia Loren. It’s beautiful. And it’s probably true too. The U.S. did kiss Sophia Loren. Only thing is: She remembers. She definitely remembers.

This is what makes muting the American voice in the doc so important. We are left to provide that voice. Because I would actually go further than Posnanski. Kukushkin’s line is great but the metaphor is all wrong. It was a battle, not a romantic act. But if you’re going to go there? As Kukushkin does? I would say we didn’t just kiss Sophia Loren; we went a little further than that.

Besides, all you have to do is watch the faces of the Russian players being interviewed. It’s 35 years later, but that loss still stings. It still hurts. It will always hurt.

Other miracles
Fetisov is the closest thing the doc has to a protagonist. We follow him not only into Central Park, but back to his childhood apartment in Moscow, and on a return visit to Lake Plaicd with his (gorgeous) daughter. “In America,” he says, early in the doc, “people always want to talk about the Miracle on Ice. But we made our own miracles.”

The doc gives us some of these. After an impossibly long bureaucratic battle in the 1980s, Fetisov became the first man to leave the Soviet Union for work in the states. He didn’t defect. The Soviet government just let him travel. That’s a kind of miracle, and it presaged the bigger one of walls coming down, governments changing, the world changing.

Another miracle is the rise of Soviet hockey in the first place. Before the Cold War, Russians didn’t play hockey; they played bandy, an ice game with shorter sticks, a ball, and eleven men per side. But bandy wasn’t an Olympic sport, and Stalin wanted dominance in the Olympics to prove to the world dominance in economic/political systems. And so it was ordered. And so it was done.

The Soviets began competing in Olympic hockey in 1956, and won six medals over the next six Olympiads: gold, bronze, gold, gold, gold and gold. But the big breakthrough was competing against, and beating, western professionals in the Canada Cup and against teams of NHL All-Stars.

Watching, we’re reminded that every enemy that seems like a monolith isn’t; it’s always fraught with internal strife. For Soviet hockey, that battle was between Anatolie Tarasov, who essentially invented the Soviet version of the game, and who is seen here with a poet’s spirit and a great love for the sport that he passed on to his players; and Viktor Tikhonov, who took over in 1977, and is called an accountant by his former players. They say he had little love for the game. He was the coach of the 1980 team. Meaning he was the coach who pulled Vladislav Tretiak, generally regarded as the best hockey goalie in the world, after Mark Johnson scored with one second left in the first period to tie the score.

“It was shocking,” Tretiak, now in his 50s, says matter-of-factly. Mikhailov adds, “For the Americans, it was like a life-saving gulp of air.”

There’s a great moment when Hock tries to dig deeper. Did the players object? Did the team captain object? “We’re Soviet people,” Petrov says. “[We] follow all the orders set by those in charge.” Even today, no one points a finger until Tatiana Tarasova, Anatolie’s daughter, and a figure-saking coach at the 1980 games, is prodded again and again by Hock and finally throws up her hands. “Yes, it was a mistake!” she says with almost a laugh. Tretiak, more serious, adds, “The situation never sat easy on my soul.”

Reminder: the Soviet team still went ahead in the second period, 3-2. It was in the third period that the U.S. scored twice in two minutes to go up 4-3. But there were 10 minutes left.

Alexei Kasatonov: “Everyone [on the team] still believed we would win. Nobody panicked or grew desperate.”

Mikhailov: “To the very end, we thought we’d tie the score.”

Tretiak: “It was like an out-of-body experience. Like I wasn’t there.”

Other Siberias
Hock gives us the rise of the Soviet hockey machine but not its fall. Too bad; it’s interesting. Canada was the dominant force in Olympic hockey from 1920 to 1952, winning six gold and one silver in seven Olympiads. Then the USSR took over and won gold every year but 1960 and 1980 And now? Now, it’s Canada again. It’s like the Cold War was a housing bubble, or the PED era in baseball. It was a fevered period, but the fever is over, and normal life—Canadian hockey on top—resumes.

“Of Miracles and Men” is a much recommended and much humanizing movie. I remember our jokes in Minnesota after the “Miracle on Ice” victory. Me and my high school friends talked about how the first goalie, or maybe that second goalie, or certainly the coach, would wind up in Siberia. We thought that’s how things worked in the Soviet Union. But that didn’t happen. The coach strengthened his position, the team kept winning. The loss to the U.S. was the banishment; that was Siberia.

With that, we are finishing our commentary. The reporter was Erik Lundegaard.

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Posted at 06:11 AM on Mar 27, 2015 in category Movie Reviews - 2015
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Thursday March 26, 2015

Happy Anniversary, Mr. President

Barack Obama, Obamacare anniversary

The President at the presser, joking and not. 

Technically it was yesterday—five years for Obamacare. Here was my friend and colleague, freelance writer extraordinaire Candice Dyer, yesterday on Facebook:

Happy birthday to the Affordable Care Act. Without it, I still would be very sick and also mired deep in debt for the rest of my life in my efforts to get basic medical care. To those of you who want to take away the health insurance of me and millions of others, a pox—and I mean an unsightly, incurable, venereal one—upon your houses! (That's about as polite as I care to be on this subject.)

Here was Time Magazine:

Obama took the opportunity to take a few shots at Republican critics of the law, joking that “death panels, doom, [and] a serious alternative from Republicans in Congress” have all failed to materialize and challenging candidates campaigning for repeal to explain how “kicking millions of families off their insurance” will strengthen the country.

He also took the opportunity (video here) to say that before it was his plan it was a GOP plan—a Heritage Foundation idea supported by Republicans in Congress in the 1990s—which is why they've had a tough time coming up with an alternative. While trumpeting its success, he added, “If they want to take credit for this law, they can; I'm happy to share it.” Love that. Love him. 

Oh, and Ted Cruz, who once shut down the federal government over Obamacare, will now be going on it. The hypocrisy boggles the mind. 

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Posted at 01:14 PM on Mar 26, 2015 in category Quote of the Day
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Wednesday March 25, 2015

How Many Teams Have Won More than One World Series in a Row?

First, a few tears for victims of high expectations: the early 1950s New York Yankees:

“You would think we would have had one of those ticker-tape parades after all those years,” said Whitey Ford. “But we never had a single one. People just expected us to win, and we did, and then it was on to next year. We had our victory celebrations, we got our rings, but there was never a parade. It would have been fun! I would have liked to have been in at least one!”

That's from Marty Appel's book, “Pinstripe Empire: The New York Yankees from Before the Babe to After the Boss.” Appel was PR for the Yanks, but there's still good stuff here. Ammunition, you might say.

So from 1949 to 1953, the Yankees won five World Series in a row, and only one time ('52, against Brooklyn) did it even go seven games. Otherwise: five and out, four and out, six and out and six and out. 

That Yankees team was the only team to ever win five World Series in a row. But another team won four in a row. Can you name them?

Right, it's still the Yankees: the 1936-39 version. When DiMaggio was starting and Gehrig was finishing. 

As for three in a row? Only two teams have ever done that:

  • 1972-74 Oakland Athletics
  • 1998-2000 New York Yankees

Even two in a row is rare:

  • 1907-08 Chicago Cubs (dry patch since)
  • 1910-11 Philadephlia Athletics
  • 1915-16 Boston Red Sox
  • 1921-22 New York Giants
  • 1927-28 New York Yankees
  • 1929-30 Philadephia Athletics
  • 1961-62 New York Yankees
  • 1975-76 Cincinnati Reds
  • 1977-78 New York Yankees
  • 1992-93 Toronto Blue Jays

That's it: only seven of the 30 franchises. And no team has gone back-to-back this century. The Giants have won three of five, but they keep spacing them out.  

Interesting footnote: for all of their postseason triumphs (11 titles, most in the NL, and second-most in the Majors), the Cardinals have never gone back-to-back. My Cardinals friends blame Mickey Lolich. 

The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant/ The Kid Who Beat the Oakland A's 

The 1949-53 Yankees inspired Douglas Wallop's novel, which became the Broadway/movie musical “Damn Yankees”; the 1972-74 Oakland A's inspired the DC Comics story “The Kid Who Beat the Oakland A's,” which kind of inspired the Thomas Ian Nicholas movie “Rookie of the Year.” So far, the 1998-2000 Yankees have inspired nothing.

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Posted at 03:33 AM on Mar 25, 2015 in category Yankees Suck
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Tuesday March 24, 2015

Movie Review: Violette (2013)

WARNING: SPOILERS

In 2008, Martin Provost directed and co-wrote “Séraphine,” a movie about an acclaimed but relatively obscure French female painter in the early part of the 20th century. It was nominated for nine Césars and won seven, including best picture, screenplay and actress. I thought it one of the best movies of the year.

In 2013, Martin Provost directed and co-wrote “Violette,” a movie about an acclaimed but relatively obscure French female writer in the middle part of the 20th century. It was nominated for zero Césars, and no, it won’t make my retroactive list of the best of that year. It's not bad but doesn't resonate.

Emmanuell Devos (“Kings & Queen,” “Read My Lips”) plays Violette Leduc, a novelist and memoirist who ... Here. This explains a lot of it. It’s the first time Leduc's name appears in The New York Times:

Fame Through Confession
Roger Straus Jr., president of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, re­cently acquired in Paris the American rights to “La Ba­tarde,” by Violette Leduc, an autobiography. The 57-year‐old author has previously written five novels that won her the approval of such literary peo­ple as Jean‐Paul Sartre and Al­bert Camus but brought small financial return. Then, with what Simone de Beauvoir de­scribes in a foreward to the book as “intrepid sincerity,” she confessed her way to literary fame, to sales that have passed 50,000 copies and to contracts for publication in Britain as well as the United States.

That was from 1964 but the movie begins in the middle of World War II, when Leduc survives by selling goods on the black market. VioletteShe’s enamored of and living with a writer, Maurice Sachs (Olivier Py), who, as portrayed here, is a bit precious with his talent. When she turns up days late after being imprisoned, he shushes her so he can finish a sentence. “Where did you get to?” he says finally. “I was worried sick.” He doesn’t sound like it.

She, on the other hand, is all id: pungent and needy. “To think I washed my hair for you,” she says, and when he doesn’t react, she leans forward and tells him, “Smell.” Later, she deals with his disinterest (he was gay) by showing even greater interest. “Take me in your arms. Touch me. Shut your eyes. Imagine I’m someone else.” It’s almost a relief when he’s out of the picture, since we think it’ll stop her from embarrassing herself so.

It won’t. Raised an orphan, and without a filter, she will always be recklessly needy. But she is also brutally honest, which is what you want in a writer. "Spit out on paper everything that makes you so miserable,” he tells her; and since he tells her, she does. We see her hold the pen over the page, and hold it, and then write, “Ma mère ne m'a jamais donné la main” (“My mother never gave me her hand”), which will be the first sentence of her first book, “L’Asphyxie.” Good first sentence. And very Violette.

In Paris, she thrusts the manuscript into the hands of Simone de Beauvoir (Sandrine Kiberlain), who is the opposite of Violette in most respects: successful, intellectual, cool to the point of chilliness. But she knows talent, and one evening sits Violette down and says the following:

First, I must apologize. I was expecting dull childhood memories by a frivolous snob. You’ve written a fine book. Powerful, intrepid. That’s what matters. Have you been writing long?

When Violette says Maurice Sachs is the real writer, de Beauvoir is blunt:

Sachs is the opposite of you. He hides his true self—behind words especially. But he urged you to write, that’s the main thing.

“He hides his true self—behind words especially” should be a warning issued to every writer.

With Sachs out of the picture (apparently he died at the end of World War II), de Beauvoir, in effect, replaces him, becoming both spur to Violette’s career and that unattainable thing that makes her needy. Violette wants into the inner sanctum of de Beauvoir, Sartre, et al., but gets only their distant encouragement. She wants their success but only achieves her own. She deals miserably with her mother. Eventually, per the above Times clip, she writes her way into popularity.

But it’s not a great movie. Why does “Séraphine” work and this not? Is it the difference between the art of the writer and painter? Painting is at least a visual medium, which suits the cinema better.

In the end, I think it comes down to personality. Seraphine was quiet, uncomplaining, and expected little; we were drawn forward to wonder over her. Violette is needy, loud, forever complaining. For all the art of the picture, and there is art, we can’t wait to get away from her.

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Posted at 03:35 PM on Mar 24, 2015 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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Monday March 23, 2015

How Many M's Team Records Will Fall to King Felix This Season?

Felix Hernandez

Felix on the mound last September: It's good to be the King.

This weekend, I was doing the kind of thing you do while waiting for Opening Day—looking over the Mariners team records—and it occurred to me that King Felix is poised to break many of the M’s career pitching records this year.

He already owns two: ERA (3.07), which he could obviously lose with a string of bad seasons, and wild pitches (116), which I found surprising. I always thought of him as a control pitcher, yet he’s led the league in this category (in 2009), and already has more WPs than Randy Johnson did during his entire career: 109.

This year, and barring problems, four more M's team records should fall to him. In each, the number he needs to break the record is less than the number he put up last season:

Stat Pitcher Record Felix's # To break F's '14 #
Wins Jamie Moyer 145 125 21 15
Losses Mike Moore 96 92 5 6
Strikeouts Randy Johnson 2,162 1,951 212 248
Innings Jamie Moyer 2093 2060 34 236
Games started Jamie Moyer 323 303 21 34
Walks Randy Johnson 884 572 313 46
Hits allowed Jamie Moyer 2,100 1839 262 170
Complete games Mike Moore 56 23 34 0
Shutouts Randy Johnson 19 9 11 0

And could it be five records? He needs 21 wins to break Jamie Moyer's career mark. That doesn’t sound like an impossibility but would in fact tie Moyer for the M’s single-season record; 19 is Felix’s career high. But he could do it; he’s pitching for a better team now; wins should come easier. If the creek don’t rise.

Hits allowed will also be his by 2016. He’s crawling, not running, to walks, so that one may forever stay Randy’s. So will shutouts. Meanwhile Mike Moore gets to keep his name in the Mariners record books for all eternity, since no one in our current era will pitch 57 complete games again. 

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Posted at 05:48 AM on Mar 23, 2015 in category Seattle Mariners
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Sunday March 22, 2015

‘Insurgent’ Duplicates ‘Divergent’ Box Office; ‘Do You Believe?’ Converts Few; ‘Gunman’ Slain

Insurgent with Shailene Woodley

Here's a thought: Let's give Shailene Woodley a haircut so she looks like a 38-year-old woman.

A year ago, “Divergent,” despite poor reviews (41% on Rotten Tomatoes), opened to $54.6 million domestic and topped out at $150 ($288 worldwide). This weekend, its sequel, “Insurgent,” despite poorer reviews (32%), opened to about the same: $54 million. That doesn’t exactly hurt but it doesn’t exactly help, either. Sequels to good products are supposed to do better than the original. But “Divergent” isn’t a good product.

Of note: the top four openers so far this year have all been women- or children-centered:

Movie Opening Domestic Worldwide Weeks
Fifty Shades of Grey $85.1 $163 $558 6
Cinderella $67.8 $122 $253 2
The SpongeBob Movie $55.3 $158 $274 7
Insurgent $54.0 $54 $101 1

(I know: $558 million worldwide for “Fifty Shades”? Don't we have a safe word to make it stop?)

“The Gunman,” with Sean Penn, Javier Bardem and Idris Elba, fared poorer at the box office than “Insurgent” ($5 million, fourth place), which was expected, but also poorer with the critics (14%), which wasn’t.

The other big opener, “Do You Believe?” which attempts to redo “God’s Not Dead” without the culture-war nastiness (pairing old TV stars with heavy religious themes, but with a focus on the positive works of Christ rather than the negative works of atheistic professors), didn’t exactly knock the socks off Christian moviegoers: It grossed $4 million in 1,320 theaters, which is worse than “GND” ($9 million) and “When the Game Stands Tall” ($8 million), but better than “Left Behind” and “The Identical” ($2 and $1.5). Question: How many of these crappy Christian movies have to open before Hollywood is no longer viewed as Sodom and Sodom by the Christian right? I’m guessing no amount will change that mindset.

Last week’s #1, “Cinderella,” dropped 50% but still grossed $34 million. The second weekend of “Run All Night” with Liam Neeson finished third with $5. It’s now at $19.7 and officially toast. “Kingsman” added a bit to its $114 domestic total ($295 worldwide), while the rest of the top 10 is the dregs of spring: “Marigold 2,” “Focus,” “Chappie,” “McFarland.”

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Posted at 11:31 AM on Mar 22, 2015 in category Movies - Box Office
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Saturday March 21, 2015

Welcome to New York, Ya Schnook

A week ago Saturday I landed at JFK Airport after our flight circled for 45 minutes. Visibility issues. We didn’t come out of the clouds until we were maybe 40 feet from the ground.

Last time I landed at JFK—a year ago—I had to wait around for more than an hour before my luggage showed up, so on this flight I didn’t check baggage. Did the overhead compartment thing that everybody does.

(Sidenote: I don’t really get the economics of airlines. Why should passengers have to pay to check bags, which seems to inconvenience no one but yourself, but get to carry on big honking things, which inconveniences everyone? It makes boarding take longer, exiting take longer, requires more work from flight attendants. Shouldn’t airlines be doing the opposite of what they do?)

Anyway I was practically whistling a tune as I was wheeling my luggage through JFK. Before I knew it I was outside, spotted the taxi cabs, and was heading in that direction when a voice interrupted my thoughts. “You want a cab?” I looked over. “Yeah,” I said. “Follow me,” he said. I assumed we would head toward the yellow cabs, but we went past them toward the parking lot. Were there cabs there, too? I wondered. But we didn’t stop at a yellow cab. We stopped at an SUV-type vehicle.

“This isn’t a cab,” I said.

“It is a cab,” he insisted.

“How much?”

“Seventy-nine dollars plus tunnel fee.”

I was thinking, “I thought Patricia said there was like a flat fee of $50 for cabfare from JFK.” But for some reason I let the momentum carry me along.

That could be the mantra (or lesson) of my life, by the way: For some reason I let the momentum carry me along.

To be honest, I didn’t fully realize what I’d done until we were in traffic. That’s when I looked around, noticed no meter, no official anything, and realized, “I just got into the car of a complete stranger at JFK Airport.”

The dude got me where I needed to go but for almost double what it should have cost me. I don’t know if he was a different branch of cabdriver or if I just got took like a schnook. I assume the latter. It was so disheartening it took me three days to share the story with Patricia. 

NYC souvenirs

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Posted at 04:00 PM on Mar 21, 2015 in category Travels
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The Final Poster for the Final Season of 'Mad Men'

I saw it while I was in New York last week:

The Final Poster for the Final Season of 'Mad Men'

Nice, no? The All-American man, with the All-American job, smoking a cigarette and driving the All-American car into the sunset. Because it's all about to go away, Don. 

Series creator Matthew Weiner offers his own clues (or obfuscation) on Vulture.com.

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Posted at 07:52 AM on Mar 21, 2015 in category TV
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Friday March 20, 2015

Quote of the Day

“The Baseball Hall of Fame celebrates the survivors, the bulletproof, the fortunate ones who found themselves in the right place at the right time. Al Rosen is not in the Hall of Fame. He never got to be a young player. He never got to be an old player. The war, the team, the role of being a pioneer, the body shortened everything. But for five years, Al Rosen was about as good as anybody who ever played third base in the Major Leagues.”

-- Joe Posnanski, “R.I.P. Al Rosen”

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Posted at 12:07 PM on Mar 20, 2015 in category Quote of the Day
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Friday March 13, 2015

Movie Review: The Salvation (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“The Salvation,” a Danish film set in the American west of the 1870s, is a purer western than most Hollywood westerns.

An Easterner (way east: Denmark) and war veteran (the Second Schleswig War, 1864) winds up in the Old West, where he loses wife and child in brutal fashion and seeks revenge. The town is full of cowards, the mayor/undertaker and sheriff/minister are either weak or collaborators, and the villain who runs things is surrounded by henchmen, bullies and rapists.

Each trope is slightly skewed yet powerfully realized. The film’s foreign pedigree helps with both. Hollywood westerns are all about revenge but the work of prolific Danish screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen (“In a Better World”) is about the consequences of revenge; the consequences of standing up to a brutal world. What happens when you match the world’s brutality with your own? Doing so, in Hollywood’s version, is necessary and clean and usually the end of the movie; for Jensen, it’s necessary but never clean and usually the beginning of the movie. Sunsets are a Hollywood contrivance.

The Salvation with Mads MikkelsenThere’s a moment 60 minutes into this 90-minute film that’s indicative of why it works. Jon, the Dane (Mads Mikkelsen), has been strung up in the courtyard of the villain, Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), but rescued by his brother, Peter (Mikael Persbrandt), and both are pursued through the countryside by Delarue’s brutal men. Does Jon even know he’s been rescued? He’s out cold for most of it, and his brother has to leave him behind with a rifle. When Jon wakes, he crawls to a pond, drinks, then hears horses approaching. He crawls behind a rock again, grabs his rifle, waits in a panic. The horses go past. He sees that. He also sees they’re dragging something behind them. Peter. Dead.

At this point, the camera closes in on Jon’s face, and on the pain he feels. The music doesn’t well up; it’s quiet, soft. There’s no sudden determination in his eyes at the end, either. Just pain. The whole scene makes you wonder what our westerns would’ve been like if men like Clint Eastwood had been better actors, or had a touch of humanity in their performances.

Stagecoach II
The first 20 minutes are tough to take, by the way.

A prologue tells us that Jon and his brother Peter (Miakel Persbrandt), following the defeat of Denmark to Prussia/Austria in the Second Schleswig War, left for America, and created a life in the town of Black Creek. Then Jon sends for his wife and son. He first mistakes a woman alighting from the train as his wife but she’s actually behind him; we see her first. On the stagecoach, she tells him in Danish, “You not only look like them, you sound like them.” “You will, too,” he replies consolingly, but she doesn’t mean it as a compliment. And in the stagecoach, two men will prove her right. If John Ford’s stagecoach was a microcosm of civilized society, the version by Jensen and director Kristian Levring is the opposite.

Later in the movie, imprisoned in town, Jon will be chastised by the Sheriff/Minister of Black Creek, Mallick (Douglas Henshall), thus: “If you’d just shown a little compassion for Delarue’s brother instead of killing him, then Mrs. Borowski and Mr. Whisler and Joe No Leg, they’d still be here.” Except he does show compassion. That’s the problem. Even after the two men pull a gun on him and try to rape his wife in front of him (and her son), and Jon gets the upper hand on them, he doesn’t kill them immediately. He shows that little bit of compassion, little bit of civilized behavior. And because of that, it all goes wrong. Lester (Sean Cameron Michael) puts a knife to the boy’s neck, Paul (Michael Raymond-James) grabs the wife again, and Jon is forced to put down his gun. Then he’s kicked out of the stagecoach and into the black night.

He tries to catch the coach, but nobody can outrun horses. Even so, he’s able to follow its tracks to a deserted area, and finds bodies along the way: the stagecoach driver; his son. And there’s the coach next to the woods, with Lester standing guard, rocking back and forth.

Welcome to America.

The revenge is swift. That was unexpected. Lester gets it in the forehead, Paul runs out of the stagecoach, pants between his legs, is shot down. He pleads for what he didn’t truly appreciate before: mercy. “She’s not dead!” he cries. “She’ll be fine!” But Jon keeps pumping his rifle until there are no bullets, and no life, left; then he goes to the stagecoach. We don’t see what he sees; just that he sees it.

This should be the end, right? Twenty-five minutes in. Instead, there are consequences: As alluded, Paul is the brother of Delarue, who runs the town, and who exacts revenge (until the true killer can be found) by taking two lives for his brother’s life: an old woman and a drunk. Not content, he also kills Mr. Whisler, husband and father. The town elders simply watch. The Mayor/undertaker, Keane (Jonathan Pryce), is actually in collusion with Delarue, who, it turns out, isn’t bullying the town simply from pleasure; he’s driving people out so Standard Atlantic Oil Company can buy up all the land. There’s a reason the town’s called Black Creek: the stuff bubbles up from the ground. “It’s that sticky oil,” Jon says later in the movie, by way of explanation for all the bad that’s happened. “Delarue believes it’s gonna be worth thousands.”

I love that. Thousands.

Ancient ruins
It all plays out the way we expect but it’s really well-done. The sheriff/minister not only captures Jon for the murder of the two men, not only chastises him for his lack of mercy, but justifies his own collusion in the name of the Lord. “Your death is going to bring us some time,” he says. “Sometimes you have to sacrifice a single sheep to save the rest. I’m just a shepherd guarding the flock.” In an Eastwood movie, Mallick would’ve been brought low in some way; he would’ve realized the error of his ways; he would’ve embarrassed himself. Here, even to the end, he’s allowed to see himself as the shepherd, the hero. He’s even given the last line of the movie.

In the end, Jon leads an assault on Delarue’s place with the grandson of Mrs. Borowski. The kid tries, but he’s no soldier. But Jon has another partner: Madelaine (Eva Green), the mute widow of Delarue’s brother. Except despite all the fine feelings he has for his brother, Delarue rapes her, and after she tries to flee, he gives her to his men to rape and kill. That’s about when Jon begins his assault and kills everyone but (of course) Delarue. And he’s about to be (of course) killed by Delarue when (of course) Madelaine puts a big hole through Delarue. And in the smoldering aftermath, the Sheriff/Minister arrives to survey the damage and praise the survivors. Except he’s rebuffed, and so offers these parting words to our two heroes: “May the Lord have mercy on both your souls,” he says.

That’s the last line of the movie. Well, last spoken line. As the movie ends, the camera pulls back, and we see all the wooden oil wells on the property, looking like ancient ruins, or newfound gods.

Question: What exactly is the salvation of the title?

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Posted at 05:29 PM on Mar 13, 2015 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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