Monday, 31 March 2014

Blockbuster Weekend: Noah (new link) & Divergent

To prove that I am a nonconformist (i.e. divergent), I spent Saturday afternoon at Silver City, watching the weekend’s two biggest blockbusters. The result was not what I had anticipated, but I can’t say I’m that surprised (when it comes to film criticism, I am indeed a nonconformist as often as not). 

I have written a long review of Noah for the Canadian Mennonite and will provide a link as soon as it’s available, but I will say a few things here. First, I’m a big fan of Darren Aronofsky, who is known for making deeply disturbing and surreal indie films. I’ve loved every film he has made, and two of them (The Fountain, Requiem for a Dream) are among my all-time favourite films. Second, I know that making Noah was a long-time dream for Aronofsky and that it had nothing whatsoever to do with making a Hollywood film or making the big bucks. I can respect that, even if the film looks and feels like a Hollywood CGI thrill ride instead of the thoughtful drama I had hoped for. Third, I know Aronofsky was making a film about environmentalism and the relationship between justice and mercy. I have no doubt his heart is in the right place. Fourth, I really wanted to like this film (since people like Gareth and Jackie liked it), so I tried hard not to over-analyze or be too sensitive to the violence.

Sigh. I have to say it: ‘Epic’ fail. For me, the film’s focus on the evil in the hearts of its male figures (and humanity in general) outweighs the attempts to highlight mercy in the end. Way too much violent action (as in The Lego Movie) to allow room for a redemptive ending. Not to mention that the film only exacerbates the huge theological flaws of the Biblical account (see review). I did like Methuselah and the women and the acting of the four major actors (Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, Anthony Hopkins). But the bottom line is that I have no interest in ever seeing Noah again. I must therefore do the unthinkable and give an Aronofsky film **+. My mug is down. 

And then along comes Neil Burger’s Divergent. The critics, who generally liked Noah, panned Divergent, so I probably wouldn’t have watched it if it hadn’t been for Janelle, who had just finished reading the book (not that she loved the book; she just thought she needed to see what the film did with it). On the other hand, I have a soft spot for dystopian films, so who knows. 

Anyway, it’s easy to see why critics panned Divergent. It is a rather simplistic and uncreative filming of a simplistic story. Shailene Woodley’s acting is flawless, but the rest of the acting (even Kate Winslet’s) is uninspiring, if passable. The Hunger Games films were much classier in every way (as was Noah), featuring much better acting and more creative cinematography and music. The romance doesn’t really work for me either, though I’ve seen worse. And then of course there’s the ending, which is full of redemptive violence (as one might expect). 

And yet ... I enjoyed Divergent much more than Noah and more than The Hunger Games films (the latter is primarily because of the games themselves, which I can’t but find offensive as a viewer, though I have no trouble with the ‘concept’). Divergent’s tale of a city divided into five factions, in which teenagers must choose their lifelong faction based on a test and their birth-faction, may be simplistic, but at least it’s a captivating thought-provoking story, not just a flashy CGI action fest. At the heart of the story is Tris, whose test is unclear, thus making her divergent, one of the most dangerous kinds of people in the city (according to the Erudite faction, at least). The concept of being divergent and why it’s so dangerous (other than making one immune to conformity) is under-developed (one of the film’s many flaws). And yet ... as someone who has always been strong-willed and resistant to conforming, I had a definite affinity to both the idea and the main characters. 

So, yes, Divergent is a flawed film, full of unexplored potential. But this is a film I would gladly see again (despite the redemptive violence, thus proving that it was not just the violence in The Lego Movie and Noah that bothered me so much). I would even like to give it ***+, but don’t feel that would be justified (as opposed to being a reaction to seeing Noah just before). So for now, Divergent gets a solid ***. My mug is up.

Friday, 28 March 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel (updated again)

Despite limiting himself to a unique genre of quirky, intelligent and surreal comedy dramas, Wes Anderson has become one of the best filmmakers of the 21st century. The Grand Budapest Hotel may be his greatest film yet and is by far my favorite film of 2014 thus far (it’s early).

During a series of flashbacks within flashbacks (each with its own aspect ratio) which take us back from 2014 to 1932 (in an ‘alternate-reality’ world), we are introduced to the adult Zero Moustafa (played by F. Murray Abraham), who narrates much of the film. When he was young (in 1932, played by Tony Revolori), Zero was the lobby boy at The Grand Budapest Hotel, an enormous, gaudy, pink edifice set high in the wooded hills of the imaginary Eastern European country of Zubrowka. Zero’s supervisor, mentor and friend in those days is M. Gustave, the hotel’s concierge. It is Gustave (played perfectly by Ralph Fiennes) who becomes the focus of The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Early in the film, Gustave and Zero get caught up in the affairs surrounding the murder of Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), a woman who had frequented The Grand Budapest Hotel and had grown rather close to Gustave (who appears to be a gigolo). The question is: ‘Who killed Madame D. and who will inherit the huge family fortune?’

While The Grand Budapest Hotel is darker and more serious than most of Anderson’s films (allowing for a greater depth of feeling and character), it contains many hilarious scenes as the suave Gustave tries to use his charm and quick wits to avoid spending his life in prison. Meanwhile, Madame D.’s eccentric son, Dmitri (Adrien Brody), uses his sinister agent, Jopling (Willem Dafoe), to hunt down the only witness to the murder. There are a few brief scenes of shocking (and out-of-place?) violence along the way, but it’s all incredibly clever (the dialogue is brilliantly-written) and great fun.

The acting in this perfectly-cast film is superb. Besides the actors already mentioned, The Grand Budapest Hotel also features Bill Murray, Jude Law, Tom Wilkinson, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Owen Wilson and more. The film’s cinematography is likewise outstanding, with an endlessly creative use of colour in each perfectly-framed scene. Many of those scenes are stolen from classic films, especially 1930’s and 40’s film noir and Hitchcock, which makes the film extra fun for film buffs. Indeed, The Grand Budapest Hotel as a whole feels very much like a 1930’s comedy mystery, a feeling enhanced by the wonderful old-fashioned score (by Alexandre Desplat).

Besides being an extraordinary work of cinematic art that exudes the joy of pure filmmaking, I also think The Grand Budapest Hotel has some thoughtful things to say (despite Anderson’s refusal to admit that the film has anything to say other than whatever a viewer may take away from the film).  For example, there is the repeated quote: “There are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity.” For all his faults as a supercilious snob, Gustave is a good, courteous and loyal man who represents one of those glimmers of civilization. The adult Zero says of Gustave: “I think his world had vanished long before he ever entered it. But I will say he certainly sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace.The Grand Budapest Hotel is, in many ways, about the desire to return to the glory days of a vanished past that never existed.

In my favourite scene in the film, Gustave questions Zero’s motives for coming to Zubrowka from some ‘barbaric’ Middle-Eastern country. This conversation clearly satirizes present-day attitudes toward immigrants, the Middle East and the question of which parts of the world are really more civilized. The film as a whole also satirizes authority and governments of all kinds.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is an extraordinary film that I would recommend to all if it weren’t for its R rating (brief scenes containing language, sexual content and violence). If you’re an Anderson fan, you should have seen the film by now. If not, this film is a good place to start. I am giving The Grand Budapest Hotel **** and it will almost certainly make my top ten films of 2014. My mug is up.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Son of God

I like to watch Jesus films during Lent, so I took advantage of the fact that a new one was actually playing in the cinema this year. My review of Son of God can be found at the Third Way Cafe website (link below), but I should add something from my notes that didn't make it into my review:

If Son of God was meant to do more than make money (i.e. if it was meant to attract more than just Christian audiences), then my assessment is that it will be judged a failure. Reports from secular viewers would suggest (as does my review) that the film was not compelling enough or understandable enough to attract secular audiences.

Here is my review:

Monday, 10 March 2014

The Monuments Men

The critics didn’t like this film any more than August, but this time it’s more understandable, as The Monuments Men has its fair share of flaws.

The Monuments Men is based on the true story of seven WWII soldiers who were assigned to find (and rescue from the Nazis if necessary) and protect pieces of important art so they would not be forever lost to Hitler’s personal collection. The soldiers are led by Lieutenant Frank Stokes, played by George Clooney, who also co-wrote and directed the film. Clooney is joined on the mission by Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville and Jean Dujardin. It’s an interesting choice of excellent actors, hinting from the outset (along with the film’s score) at the lighthearted nature of The Monuments Men.

That lightheartedness has its strengths but may also be one of the film’s major weaknesses. How do you make a serious and sometimes tragic war film in a consistently lighthearted manner without leaving the audience wondering exactly what genre of film they are watching? You can have a serious war film with the occasional laugh or an adventure-comedy like Kelly’s Heroes with the occasional serious moment, but a consistently lighthearted war drama feels awkward.

Another awkward part of The Monuments Men is Stokes’ various opportunities to debate the value of art. Is the protection of works of art more important than human lives? The argument of the film seems to be a strong “yes”, that it was all worth the cost. I would have appreciated either more or less debate on this question (i.e. either characters in the film have a greater chance to debate the issues or the point is made without a sermon).

Perhaps the biggest flaw of the film, however, is the chaotic disjointed nature of the writing/editing. While the over-arching story is there in the background, The Monuments Men feels like a series of vignettes involving the seven men searching for art rather than a story that flows from one scene to the next. Some of the vignettes are brilliant and precious (I particularly liked the scene with Murray, Balaban and the young German soldier as well as the final scene between Damon and Cate Blanchett (who plays a member of the French resistance who is asked to assist), but others fall flat. And even the scenes that work would have benefitted from more development.

Nevertheless, despite its many flaws, I actually enjoyed The Monuments Men. The actors were fun to watch and did a commendable job with what they were given. The cinematography was very good. There were thought-provoking scenes to discuss. It just could have been a much better film. I will give The Monuments Men a solid ***. My mug is up.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

August: Osage County

Once again, the major critics and I do not agree. They largely panned August: Osage County, noting primarily the exhausting, nuance-sacrificing melodrama involving too many characters whom we don’t care about. I understand these comments and agree that the film has numerous flaws. But I would argue that the film’s strengths far outweigh those flaws and that if you come in knowing that you are watching a two-hour film version of a three-hour play, August: Osage County is a thoroughly satisfying experience.

It is not a happy experience, to be sure, and there is very little by way of redemption, but it is nowhere near as dark as something like Happiness. Because the film is based on a play, it is full of intelligent dialogue, which I can never get enough of. True, the dialogue is often very loud and lacking in nuance, and some scenes fall flat. But for every scene that falls flat, there are three scenes featuring incredible acting and thought-provoking dialogue (some of it is even very funny).

August: Osage County tells the story of a very dysfunctional family, overseen by Violet Weston (played marvellously by Meryl Streep), whose husband commits suicide at the beginning of the film. Violet is a prescription-drug addict whose doctor acknowledges that the drugs may have caused some cognitive impairment. Sometimes she’s sharp, other times she is flying high, but always she says whatever is on her mind. Violet and her sister, Mattie Fae, had a traumatic childhood which no doubt contributed to their overbearing and spiteful personalities. Violet has three daughters, who suffer from their own problems, no doubt partially as the result of poor parenting. All of these people and their spouses, children and boyfriends show up for the funeral and things start to get ugly, with not a few secrets revealed along the way.

Despite Streep’s dominance, August: Osage County is an ensemble film, with a great cast at the top of their form (including Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Juliette Lewis, Sam Shepard, Julianne Nicholson and Benedict Cumberbatch, among others). Streep and Roberts were nominated for Academy Awards. They deserve the nominations but my previous votes were not altered by having watched this film.

I won’t argue that August: Osage County (which is directed by John Wells) is the most profound and moving film about family dynamics that I have ever seen. I suspect the play (written by Tracy Letts, who also wrote the screenplay) is better in that regard and I hope I have a chance to see it sometime. But the film offers a very good score and excellent cinematography, which a play can't do. For me, this film is far more interesting and entertaining than The Lego Movie, which the critics liked so much more. August: Osage County gets a solid ***+. My mug is up.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Broken Circle Breakdown

This is a film of contradictions – and as a Flemish bluegrass film, why wouldn’t it be? I loved it and was wasted by it. It is simultaneously a bit slow and intensely passionate. The central couple is intimate and supportive but they have trouble connecting when it counts. But mostly the contradictions live in the central character (played by the co-author of the original play the film is based on). 

This character, Didier, is a contemporary European atheist who comes alive most deeply in his love of spiritual American bluegrass music. When tragedy strikes (the film, which weaves back and forth in time quite effectively, begins with their daughter being treated for leukemia), Didier’s inner battle emerges in his anguish. His rant against religion (mostly fundamentalism but his critique is broad) is about as intense as you’re ever going to hear. (So don’t watch this unless you’re ok with your faith getting kicked in the head now and then.) But can you have that much passion unless you’re actually desperate to believe that the music you love is more true than you know? And what the heck are the filmmakers' trying to say in the last couple of scenes? 

This is a very impressive film – beautifully filmed, with great acting, laced through with awesome music (and I’m not normally a huge fan of bluegrass). And so I would love to recommend this film. But the last contradiction is that I can’t. I’ll give it ***+ and a mug held high, but don’t watch this unless your emotional seatbelt is fastened and you don’t mind no-holds-barred attempts to sort out a world of pain, reason, and faith.

The Lego Movie

I have noted with grave concern that for many years now Lego has steadily increased its production of violent toys, so the idea of sitting through a 100-minute commercial for Lego toys was not remotely appealing. On top of that, going to the opening-day screening of an animated blockbuster was also not my idea of a good time. But three factors made me take the plunge anyway: 1) the major critics have given The Lego Movie rave reviews; 2) I could tell this film was destined to be one of the highest grossing films of 2014; and 3) it was my only chance to watch the film before my next Media Matters deadline.

Unfortunately, most of my worst fears were realized. I can’t remember the last time I saw a film with so many mixed messages. What do you call a film that makes attempts at satirizing consumerism, the business world and even its own products and yet is obviously promoting the sale of those products with every single scene (virtually nonstop product placement)? And what do you call a film that beautifully challenges the myth of redemptive violence so prevalent in Disney animated films (and animated films in general) while feeding us an endless display of violent Lego toys in action, including multiple scenes of decapitation and of Lego people exploding or being crushed? The word ‘hypocritical’ comes to mind.

The Lego Movie tells the story of Emmet, an ordinary Lego builder who is focused on following instructions every minute of his life because he literally doesn’t have a single thought in his head. He is a lonely, unpopular and forgettable figure until one day he meets Wild Style, a woman who thinks he may be the ‘special’, someone who can save the world from the evil Lord Business, who is determined to make sure every Lego toy is permanently stuck in its perfect place. This is an opportunity for Emmet to be a superhero, joining the ranks of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and many other heroes in the film. But the prophecy says the ‘special’ is supposed to be a super-creative master builder, not the empty-headed Emmet who only knows how to follow instructions, so what went wrong? 

From this brief description, one can see how The Lego Movie is trying to convey positive messages to children, messages like: everyone is special; being creative trumps just following instructions; life isn’t about everyone doing the same perfect thing every day (diversity is good); and so on. Amid those positive messages are many gorgeously-animated fast-paced scenes full of clever, wise and very funny dialogue. Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?

Without going into detail about how each of the positive messages in The Lego Movie has its confusing counterpart, I will simply note that for every piece of intelligent dialogue there are inane and sophomoric attempts at humour in a rather weak chaotic story (until the end). I suppose if you are aiming the film at eight-year-olds, this may be appropriate, but I found it frustrating.

But let me take you back to the opening scene, which I watched in a sold-out theatre full of eight-year-old children. In that scene, Lord Business kicks an old blind prophet (voiced by Morgan Freeman) off what amounts to a cliff, presumably to his death (or at least serious injury). The children around me laughed uproariously, as they did for a scene in which another ‘baddie’ (Bad Cop/Good Cop, brilliantly voiced by Liam Neeson) kicks a heavy metal object into the air precisely aimed to crush one of his fellow officers as he flees to avoid injury. Hearing the laughter of those around them, my own children, had they been watching as eight-year-olds, would have run out of the theatre in tears at that point. And rightfully so.

The graphic violence in The Lego Movie is, of course, plastic violence. Many will argue that I need to get a grip and understand that this is just about toys. They may also point to the ending, which shows that there are other, and better, ways of dealing with evil than violence. Taken in the context of the ending (which I cannot reveal), all that has gone before can be viewed in a new light, showing how we grow as we build our stories.

Such arguments are valid, but for me they don’t address the bottom line: Lego makes violent toys and The Lego Movie is a 100-minute ad for those violent toys (and the violence is definitely meant to entertain, not to make children cringe). While I would like to hope that children who view the film will see that violence is not the way to solve our differences, the realist in me sees children demanding that their parents buy more violent Lego toys so they can experiment playing all the violent scenes in the film.

In other words, I think it far more likely that The Lego Movie will fuel consumerism and violent play in the children who watch it than it will promote peace, justice and self-worth. But let’s try an experiment to verify this.

If you have children, you will almost certainly have to take them to see The Lego Movie because all of their friends will be watching it and telling them how wonderful it is. And you and your kids will laugh and smile and nod appreciatively at all the funny and poignant moments in the film. You will enjoy The Lego Movie because it’s a well-made joy ride and you may think it only creates problems for people who over-analyze films; people like me.

Fair enough. But do me a favour. Discuss some of this stuff with your kids after the film and observe their actions the next time they play with their Lego toys. Are they shooting each other, blowing things up, decapitating the Lego people and begging you to purchase all the different figures and sets depicted in the film? Or are they getting the message that they are special, that God wants them to be creative as God is creative and that violence is not the answer? I await your responses.
In the meantime, despite the much-appreciated ending, The Lego Movie gets **+. My mug is down.