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7 Great Survival Stories

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This has been a banner year for stories of survival, including the excellent film “All Is Lost,” starring Robert Redford. These tales, whether in movies or the printed word, bring us to the brink of what it means to be human. Are we reckless? Resilient? Reflective? Yes to all three. In any case, here are seven terrific stories of trying to survive. No spoilers here, but I will point out that some of the protagonists live and some of them die. What they have in common is that all of them put up a fight.

GRAVITY

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A dazzling, seat-of-the-pants adventure, “Gravity” has grabbed tons of attention – and deservedly so. The special effects are stunning, the central performance by Sandra Bullock is perfect and there’s not one wasted moment in the film. Like many survival yarns, it offers something beyond the notion of trying to stay alive. In this case, Bullock’s plucky astronaut is grieving the loss of her daughter as she tries to dodge shards of floating space debris.

TO BUILD A FIRE

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This classic short story by Jack London was published in 1908, and it is as riveting now as it must have been back then. With no frills and an almost clinical attention to detail, it is the story of a man who sets out with his dog near the Yukon Trail on a day much too cold for safe travel. The temperatures are 75 degrees below zero, and dropping. Every decision, good and bad, has immediate consequences, which gives the story a chilling clarity.

CAST AWAY

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Here we have survival as transformation – a common theme in this List. Tom Hanks is his usual, charismatic self as a guy stranded on a desert island. He endures only to the extent that his knowledge and will allow him – but is that enough? Why does survival matter? What is the point of existence? If only there was a bloody soccer ball around to tell us.

127 HOURS

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Based on a true story, “127 Hours” stars James Franco as a fun-loving adventurer whose hand becomes wedged between immovable rocks during a solo climbing trip. The inner journey takes center stage, as this man takes stock of his young life and considers what he is willing to do to stay alive.

LEININGEN VERSUS THE ANTS

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To some extent, hubris is the subtext of many of these stories. That’s certainly the case with the short story, “Leiningen Versus the Ants,” written by Carl Stephenson and published in 1938. Leiningen is a swaggering plantation owner in Brazil, who decides to stand his ground against a miles-long army of hungry ants. His true enemy, one he valiantly combats, is panic. If the plot sounds familiar, it may be because the story was made into a 1954 movie, “The Naked Jungle,” starring Charlton Heston.

BURIED

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Unlikely premise, but an interesting movie. Ryan Reynolds plays a man buried alive in a coffin, trying to get out. He’s got his cell phone, so it should be no problem – except that he doesn’t know where he is. Gulp.

ALL IS LOST

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I can’t say enough about the extraordinary work Redford does in “All is Lost.” All alone on a sailboat on the Indian Ocean, Redford lets his iconic face do the talking as a freaky accident sets in motion a brutal chain of events. The movie is heartbreaking and inspiring, without caving in to unnecessary sentiment.

I limited myself here to singular survival tales. Any good ones I left out?

5 New/Old Movie Double Features

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Sometimes when you watch a movie, you get a sudden, happy flashback to another film you enjoyed years ago. It might have a similar theme, locale or situation – but it makes you want to see that old film again for comparison’s sake. Here are five such double features that have come to mind recently.

FRIENDS WITH KIDS (2012)

AND…

WHEN HARRY MET SALLY (1989)

They’re both smart, they’re both funny and they’re both romantic comedies about best friends who become more intimate. I greatly enjoyed Jennifer Westfeldt’s “Friends With Kids,” which features a winning cast that includes Adam Scott and Maya Rudolph. My one problem was its unbelievably clunky ending. It seemed to grasp at elements from several earlier films – including “When Harry Met Sally.” That’s a movie I liked a lot, as well. Its ending was schmaltzy, but it worked. And it had classic performances by Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan. But something it didn’t do was bring children or grandparents into the mix; Harry and Sally existed in this sort of unrealistic bubble.

SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN (2012)

AND…

LOCAL HERO (1983)

Here are two quirky, wonderful films. “Salmon Fishing” is about a crazy plan to bring salmon fishing to a desert; “Local Hero” is about an oil company attempting to purchase a town in Scotland for a refinery. Different as those stories are, they share a common sensibility. They feature isolated main characters (Ewan McGregor and Peter Riegert) who find something magical and invigorating during a business trip to another country. They also encounter charismatic authority figures (Amr Waked and the great Burt Lancaster) and a host of oddball supporting characters.

WANDERLUST (2012)

AND…

LOST IN AMERICA (1985)

Times and technology may change, but young married couples will always need to negotiate their personal version of the American dream. Albert Brooks explored this theme with hilarious results in “Lost in America,” one of the funniest films ever made. He turns the words “nest egg” into something sublime and his scenes as a school crossing guard are brilliant. “Wanderlust” offers smart performances by Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston in their own journey of discovery, via a hippy-dippy commune. It’s not on a level with “Lost in America,” but it has very witty moments and a solid supporting cast.

SAFE HOUSE (2012)

AND…

MIDNIGHT RUN (1988)

Bear with me on this one. You’ve got two branches of the action movie genre here, but they both feature one guy tasked with bringing another guy to justice. That other guy, meanwhile, is trying to get into the hero’s head and find a way to escape. A road trip and lots of bonding ensues. In “Safe House,” Denzel Washington is a tough, rogue spy being escorted to authorities by young spy Ryan Reynolds. Washington is rakishly sly and intimidating, and the film boasts all the quick-cut, hand-to-hand combat scenes that today’s audiences crave. Yet its greatest strength is the easy chemistry between Washington and Reynolds. The same is true for action-comedy-buddy movie “Midnight Run.” Robert DeNiro is a bounty hunter taking embezzler Charles Grodin to Los Angeles. Grodin masterfully nags, jokes and irritates tough guy DeNiro into submission. Again, chemistry is the key.

THE HUNGER GAMES (2012)

AND…

BATTLE ROYALE (2000)

Full disclosure: This one is based on sage observations by friends of The Jimbo List. “The Hunger Games” and “Battle Royale” are both about dystopian futures in which teens are forced into deadly battle with each other by authoritarian governments. The difference is cultural. “The Hunger Games” takes place in a version of North America, while “Battle Royale” is set in Japan.

So that’s five. Now let’s hear your suggestions for new/old double features!