Friday, January 27, 2012

Departures and Arrivals: Watching Movies on Airplanes

Due to a family emergency, I recently spent the equivalent of 34 hours in the air flying overseas to Goa, India and back. Fortunately, I have no fear of flying, but when you spend that much time in airplanes there is only so much sleeping and reading that you can do. I’ve never been one to stare off into space during air journeys, so I watched a lot of movies. Jet Airways, an Indian-based airline, is a very modern service with comfortable seats, good service and individual seat-back video screens. They offer a full array of movies from Hollywood and Bollywood. I’ve never been that much of a Bollywood fan, so I really wasn’t in the mood for those long films with the out-of-the-blue ubiquitous dancing and singing scenes – don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen some of the pictures and have liked them, but there’s only one I can hands down recommend, even though it is over three hours long: Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), directed by Adiya Chopra and starring Bollywood’s Tom Cruise, Shahrukh Khan – so I brought up the list of Hollywood films. There were a lot.

In the past year, I’ve really have been remiss in seeing the new offerings out of Hollywood (I'm told I haven't missed much), so this journey became an ideal opportunity to catch up on some films I’d intended to see, but never got around to them. Little did I know until I got home that the pictures I watched actually fit two themes that reflected both my journey to Goa and back. The films on offer ranged from ‘70s classics, Chinatown, to hits from 2011 such as Dolphin’s Tale and Puss in Boots. There is a certain restlessness when you are stuck on an airplane, so as I flipped through the list, I ticked off a few I was interested in seeing. The only thing I knew was that I didn’t want to watch anything I’d already seen (bye bye, Chinatown). So I settled in to watch a number of films, some that both Shlomo and Susan reviewed in Critics at Large when they were first released.

Ciarán Hinds and Helen Mirren in The Debt
Since I’ve long admired the work of both Helen Mirren and Ciarán Hinds, the first film I decided to watch was The Debt (2011). It dealt with how the past haunts the present. The Debt is essentially a memory piece. Told in flashback, it examines the truth behind a 1965 mission conducted by three members of Israel’s Intelligence Service, Mossad, to kidnap and return to justice a Josef Mengele-like Nazi doctor. They were supposed to bring the doctor back from East Germany to stand trial in Israel. Things went wrong and the doctor was killed, or so the three agent's story went. “Present day” in the film’s timeline is 1997. In this current era, a book has been written by the daughter of one of the mission’s members, and a secret they buried for over 30 years is in danger of coming to light. Helen Mirren, Ciarán Hinds and Tom Wilkinson play the agents in the current era; Jessica Chastain (eight films in 2011 alone, including The Tree of Life), Sam Worthington (Avatar) and Marton Csokas (Kingdom of Heaven), play them in the flashback. The core mystery is revealed at about the half-way point, but skip ahead if you don’t want to know. The doctor was in fact not shot. He escaped and could still be alive. The three agents have lived with the guilt of their lie since 1965 and now it is coming back to bite them on the ass just as they are being celebrated for eliminating a Nazi monster.

Next, I chose Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It deals with how messing with medical science, even if done for good reasons, can have devastating consequences. In an effort to combat the ageing process and reverse the horrors of Alzheimer’s disease, a dedicated scientist, Will Rodman (James Franco), creates a virus that, in tests, increases the intelligence in some apes. After a few days, just as his breakthrough is to be heralded, one ape goes on a rampage and has to be killed. They mistakenly believed that the virus was responsible, so the research institute's head orders all the other apes killed. In actuality, the rampaging ape had secretly given birth and her mothering instincts clicked in causing her to lash out and protect her child. The child received the virus in utero and rapidly shows signs of high intelligence. Rodman steals the baby ape and samples of the virus. We discover why he’s so anxious to get the virus to work; his father, Charles Rodman (John Lithgow), a talented scientist and musician, is fading away from Alzheimer’s. Will takes a risk, injects his father with the virus and Charles life-ending disease is reversed – for a few months at least. During this time, Charles and the ape he’s named Caesar (well-played in performance capture by Andy Sirkus) bond. When Charles’ dementia begins to return (because his body finds a way to reassert itself and unfortunately fight the positive influence of the virus), Caesar becomes very protective of him. One day, in his confused state, Charles tries to drive his neighbour’s car. The enraged neighbour attacks Charles; Caesar attacks the neighbour. Caesar is put into a wildlife preserve (a very bad wildlife preserve with evil keepers) from where he and the other apes with him, will finally ‘rise.’

John Lithgow and Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes
I found the film entertaining (though airplane copies of movies always cut out violence, so all the action was oddly truncated), but in the days that followed, what I realized I was actually reacting to was the Lithgow subplot. Though my family member who was very ill did not have Alzheimer’s, he had been seriously restricted from three strokes over the last decade and now was stricken with pneumonia. To witness this once-vibrant man decline over the last decade, I understood Will Rodman’s attempts to push back the ravages of time. Eventually, we cannot succeed, but we never stop trying.

There were two more films I tried to watch, Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011) and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011), but in the case of the Soderbergh, I hastily shut it down the second I saw Gwyneth Paltrow’s character suffer and die in a hospital. That struck way too close to home and I remember thinking “what am I thinking? I don’t want to watch that right now.” And Drive? Perhaps it has promise (Ryan Gosling’s watchful performance as The Driver seemed interesting and to see Albert Brooks play a villain could have been fun), but unfortunately it was one of those murmured dialogue movies, so even when I tried to push the headset practically through the side of my head to hear what they were saying, with a jet engine screaming away right near me, it was almost impossible, so I gave up.

After sleeping for a bit (on the way there I was just too restless to sleep much), and reading for an hour, I flipped through the list again to find something else to watch. I finally picked In Time (2011). Probably the only reason I decided to watch it was that author Harlan Ellison had launched, and then withdrew, a lawsuit last fall against the filmmakers (including writer/director Andrew Niccol, who had helmed the underrated Lord of War). Ellison believed they had borrowed too much from his short story, “’Repent Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman.” Ellison had been right before (he successfully sued James Cameron over The Terminator, and also the creators of the pilot for a short-lived TV series, Future Cop), but this time he changed his mind after seeing the picture. The plot of In Time? In the 22nd century, people are genetically altered so that they stop ageing at 25, but once they turn 25, they have to earn more time in order to keep living. If they allow the time (which is indicated by a counting-down numerical clock on their arm) to run out they are instantly killed. Everything costs time. A cup of coffee is 2 hours; to move into the inner city where the elite live costs anything from a few months to several years. You can earn time through work, gambling, illegal means or you can exchange it with whomever you wish. This is a great premise for a film, and its star, Justin Timberlake, has shown he can do more than sing (see The Social Network), but he’s no action actor. The filmmakers play with the Bonnie and Clyde notion a bit with Amanda Seyfried as the Bonnie to Timberlake's Clyde, but it's not enough. The acting is generally weak throughout including a surprisingly bad Vincent Kartheiser (Pete Campbell in Mad Men) and a very ordinary Seyfried. But there is one truly moving sequence. In fact, it probably belongs in my Mini Masterpieces Within Mediocre Movies pantheon.

People who live in the lower strata of society, including Timberlake and his mother played by Olivia Wilde (yup, it sure gets disconcerting when one twentysomething actor calls another twentysomething actress “Mom”), have it the worst. They have limited resources to gain extra time, so must constantly live on the edge of extinction. One evening, with her time on her arm running dangerously low, she heads home from work hoping to meet up with her son. She approaches the bus only to be told she doesn’t have enough time for the ride. She’s forced to walk, or rather run because unless she can get to her son, who can transfer a bit of his time to her, she will die. Timberlake is waiting for her bus, but when she isn’t on it he begins to worry and starts out on foot towards her. As her timer clicks remorselessly down, she sees him. They run for each other and just as their fingers are about to touch her time hits zero, her head snaps back and she collapses dead on the pavement. It’s a wonderfully staged sequence and I cannot think of a better metaphor for the things we do to keep the loved ones in our life as long as we can.

It was only once I got off the airplane back in Toronto that I realized, in retrospect, all the movies I saw on the way there, dealt with how time so often runs out before we can finish the things we want to do or to say the things we need to say. I didn’t pick any of these films consciously. I cannot say any of these are great movies, but I think on a subconscious level my brain pushed me towards films that looked at either how the past can remain unresolved or how time is not, contrary to The Rolling Stones, on our side (perhaps that's why I stopped watching Drive as it didn't fit, and Contagion was too obvious).

Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill in Moneyball
If during the trip there I picked movies that examined how time plays with our lives, on the way back, with my family member still seriously ill, but remarkably seemingly on the road to some sort of unexpected recovery, I found myself once again facing a long flight. After I slept for four hours (the plane from Bombay to Brussels did not leave until 3AM, plus I had a 10-hour lay over in Bombay after getting off the plane from Goa), I awakened, tried to sleep more, but then gave up. I again flipped through the films available. Except for one picture, which I’d not been in the mood for on the way there (not sure why not, but perhaps my brain had decided it wasn’t ‘about time’ enough), there didn’t seem to be much I wanted to see, but I still couldn’t sleep, didn’t want to read, so I had to watch something. Moneyball (2011) was the one film I’d passed on that I wanted to see, so I decided on the return to start there. The film was about second, if not third chances. And as it turned out, every film I picked, again without thinking about it, dealt with variations on second or third chances.

The Oscar-nominated Moneyball is the real life tale of Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), the General Manager of the small-market American League baseball team the Oakland As. In 2001, Beane put together a team that managed to make it into the playoffs, but were quickly eliminated in the first round. In the off season, he loses three key players, meaning their chance of returning to the playoffs is slim because they have no money to replace the lost players. Until that is he meets number whiz Peter Brand (Jonah Hill). Hill proves to Beane that he can build a winning team with lesser-known players because, though they may not be Hall of Famers, they all have the ability to get on base in a remarkably consistent manner. It fails at first because many, including the team's manager, Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), don't buy in. Beane seems to be headed for a colossal failure until he forces Howe's hand to play the players as he and Brand have determined (including a broken-down catcher who has been turned into the first baseman) are best. What is also at play here, as we discover in flashback, is that Beane had been drafted in the first round when he was a young player only to have completely failed to live up to expectations. So this gambit became a way to redeem himself if only in his own eyes.

The picture is very good, and Pitt essays the role well. And as with all the best films about baseball (particularly the great Bull Durham), it's not really about baseball, but the lives of the people who happen to work in the world of professional ball.

Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling in Crazy, Stupid, Love
The other two films were really not good: Crazy, Stupid, Love. (2011) and The Devil Wears Prada (2006). Crazy, Stupid is about a long-married couple (Steve Carrell and Julianne Moore) who seem headed for divorce court because Moore has admitted to an affair and Carrell has lost his spark. Enter Jacob Palmer (Ryan Gosling, again), a Lothario who has no problem attracting the ladies, who decides to take Carrell's Cal Weaver under his wing and teach him the techniques to bed many women. Things go wrong. Gosling is very good at the start, but as my colleague, Shlomo Schwartzberg, said in his astute review last year, the script neuters him about halfway through as the picture becomes more and more conventional. Prada is loosely based on the exploits of Lauren Weisburger who got caught up in the world of Vogue magazine and its fierce, draconian managing editor, Anna Wintour. In the film, Vogue is fictionalized as Runway magazine and Wintour as Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep), with Weisburger morphed into Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway). Prada is the usual redemptive nonsense about how Sachs almost loses her soul trying to fit into a world she really doesn't belong (High Fashion and their magazines). With the help of a good man, and a fine but brief bit where Streep's Priestly drops her mask and reveals some of her true self to Sachs, Sachs recovers her soul and is reborn.

All three films are, as I mentioned, about second chances. And as I returned from Goa, my family member had been given a second chance himself. His struggles were titanic compared to the little problems in these films, but something drew me to them. It was almost like these pictures were laid in front of me as a way to come to terms myself with the struggles my family member faced.

Long journeys are often good for allowing time to reflect on what lies ahead or what you just experienced. Sometimes you need to do the work on your own, but sometimes a few good (and sometimes just adequate) movies can help you along your path. The 12-odd hours I spent watching films during that long 34 in the air sure helped me, unconsciously, come to terms with what I had to face and then what I had just experienced. That is sometimes the power and magic of even the most indifferent motion picture.

– David Churchill is a critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information. And yes, he’s begun the long and arduous task of writing his second novel.


  1. The problem with these airplane movies is they have a very limited selection available. I think it is time that they implement their plan to issue their passengers iPads while on the flight. In this way you can have more movies to select, and you can even bring your own movie files.

    1. I think this is very cool. This is the kind of airport that my little daughter will enjoy!