Thursday, 20 December 2007

Enchanted


Disney’s big hit of the 2007 Christmas season is Enchanted, directed by Kevin Lima. It’s the story of Giselle, a fairy tale princess in a stereotypical animated Disney film who gets sent into the real world of modern-day New York by the wicked stepmother/queen figure. There, Giselle’s adventures surround a lawyer named Robert who doesn’t believe in fairytales, and his young daughter, who does. Meanwhile, Prince Edward, accompanied by the hyper chipmunk, Pip, follows his bride-to-be to New York to bring her back, which causes the queen to send her servant, Nathaniel, after them, with instructions to kill Giselle (with a poisoned apple, no less).

The film’s highlight is the extraordinary performance by Amy Adams as Giselle. In fact, Enchanted is worth watching just to see Adams’ delightful performance. The rest of the actors also do well. In particular, Patrick Dempsey is a good choice as Robert and Timothy Spall shines as the royal servant, Nathaniel.

Enchanted starts very strong, with a lighthearted ironic tone that mocks Disney’s classic animated films. There are some questionable editing (or writing) choices once Giselle arrives in New York, but her early interaction with Robert is inspired filmmaking. The scene in Central Park is one of my favourite of the year. The only serious flaw in the first half of the film is Prince Edward’s sudden and unexplained appearance in New York, though for me the entire film lacked a natural flow.

The film begins to lose some of its charm and cleverness in the second half as the real world takes over and the film occasionally take itself a little too seriously. This culminates in the queen’s arrival in New York, her transformation into a dragon and her subsequent death after falling from a skyscraper. This stereotypical Disney ending is deliberate and therefore to be expected. After all, countless Disney villains have similarly fallen to their deaths over the years, including the villains in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Great Mouse Detective, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Beauty and the Beast. Nevertheless, it’s rare for villains to be thrown off buildings or cliffs by our heroes, who sometimes even make an attempt to save the villain. But in Enchanted, a central character (Pip) deliberately jumps onto the dragon with the hope that it will make the dragon fall (how Robert was to be rescued by this is not clear). If there was supposed to be a sense of irony in this violent ending, aside from the reversal of roles as the armed princess tries to be the rescuer, my daughter and I failed to detect it. In a lighthearted film that was otherwise full of ironic moments, there was an opportunity here to redeem the villain (through the love of her servant, for example). Instead, we get just another purely evil black and white villain who is apparently beyond redemption. The only way to counter such evil is to eliminate it and so the queen must fall to her death so the children can cheer at the villain’s necessary demise.

In a world where children grow up in fear of terrorism, environmental disaster, war and poverty, it’s not such a bad thing to have an optimistic children’s film that suggests dreams can come true, wonderful things can happen, and people can live happily ever after. But do we really need to include the worst element of fairy tales – the redemptive violence at the death of the villain – before we can get to an ending where everyone lives happily ever after? Let’s face it; the queen did not live happily ever after. Is she not included in “everyone” or has she been so dehumanized (as depicted in her transformation into a monster) that she has left the human race? Doesn’t this ending only reinforce our tendency to see the world as black and white, where evil is always located “out there” instead of also within us, and where the only way to fight evil is with violence? It is precisely this tendency which has brought the world to its present state.


Enchanted is a slightly flawed but enjoyable film for the whole family and I do recommend it, but it gets only ***.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Once


In the midst of my busiest week of the year, I saw Once, which was exactly the kind of break I needed. If you haven’t seen it yet, make sure you do (don’t wait for the DVD).

Once is an amazing film. Like another amazing film I saw in the past month (Silent Light, which I have reviewed elsewhere and therefore cannot yet share on the blog), you feel like you are a voyeur watching an actual story unfold before you. The low budget hand-held filming (which I normally have little appreciation for) works perfectly when I’m almost convinced I’m watching a documentary; a documentary about two lonely souls, inhabiting the poorer parts of Dublin, who meet and make beautiful music together.

As you can gather from the above, the acting was incredibly natural, so any amateur-like mistakes just added to the film’s eerie feeling of reality. The same can be said for the cinematography, which also had an amateurish feel. It almost makes you think you could have done it yourself. But don’t believe it!

The story was simple and brilliantly told. And the music? Well, there would be no Once without the music (though I would not call it a musical, as some have) and it was fabulous. And the fact that the actors really did write and sing the songs themselves adds to the overall feeling of verisimilitude.


I’m too busy to write more and this is all I need to say: Don’t miss it! **** My mug is up once again.

Monday, 22 October 2007

Stardust


Stardust, directed by Matthew Vaughn, is one of those average fantasy adventure films which could have been much better. In particular, the writing and editing needed to be tightened so that the film could flow instead of stutter. As it is, we are left with some very funny scenes [especially those involving Robert De Niro, who steals the film (as he did with Brazil)], some gorgeous cinematography, above average special effects, uneven acting, and an occasionally interesting adventure.

If that was all there was to say about this film, I could recommend it to those who enjoy this genre. Unfortunately, however, the film ventures into a very bizarre form of the myth of redemptive violence, which, at the least, needs to be challenged, if not condemned outright. The bizarre form to which I refer could possibly be described as humorous redemptive violence. In a violent black comedy, such humour can at least be understood, if not condoned. In a film aimed at children, treating murder as something to laugh at is positively inexcusable. One prince is pushed out of a window, another is made to drown, another is poisoned and the fourth has his throat cut. Most of these murders are treated in a lighthearted manner designed to elicit laughter, especially when the dead princes immediately become ghosts who make silly comments to each other and represent the primary running gag in the film. Perhaps the film is trying to satirize redemptive violence by treating it as a joke. If so, the film should not end in the way all such films typically end, namely with the horrific death of the “bad guy(s)”. In this case, we are treated to the horrific deaths of three bad guys (all women). The last death (using the power of good and beauty to destroy evil) was particularly gruesome and should never have been allowed in a PG film (actually, most of the violence in the film was inappropriate for a PG audience). Any chance of a favourable review from me was dashed by this callous use of violence. Very sad.

My mug is down for this gorgeous adventure film. **+

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Eastern Promises

The first thing that I'll say about Eastern Promises, since it seems to set itself up for such comparisons, was that it struck me as being much more solid and consistent than A History of Violence which did not impress me much. The latter movie had its moments, but when Mortensen's character went back to take care of business, it struck me as just plain silly.

When I read a review about what they're promoting as the instant-classic knife fight in the bath house in Promises, I feared it would happen again. But I had no real complaints here. Long fight scenes simply bore me regardless (wish I could fast forward), but people seem to like them for some reason. I guess I would have to add that I don't appreciate Cronenberg's emphasis on hitting you in the face with the graphic brutality, but I suppose a case could be made that it's better than white-washing the violence as if it's not messy at all.

The strength of the movie was the juxtaposition of the relatively innocent world of Anna (Watts) and the dark world of Nikolai (Mortensen), and the way that Anna courageously and with realistic struggles impacts that dark and powerful world. Both worlds come across well, though they both also appear pretty grim and lifeless. London does not come across looking like a very joyful place.

As this all happens, the sense of mystery and intrigue unfold well and keep you interested. In the end, the relative realism (not that I would have a clue about the accuracy of the Russian mob life) which is a strength also ensures that it's an hour and a half of living in a dark, dull, brutal world that is, understandably, just no fun to experience. So I'll give it a *** and a grudging mug up. Vic, there's little question that you'll like it more.

Monday, 15 October 2007

Flags of our Fathers/Letters from Iwo Jima


Many months too late, I finally watched Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima (on the same day). It was not worth the wait. Both films were disappointing to me, though not in the same way or to the same degree.

Clint Eastwood, who directed the fantastic Mystic River in 2003 and the very good Million Dollar Baby in 2004, directed, in 2006, these two depictions of the battle of Iwo Jima during the later stages of World War II. The idea of showing the war in two parts and from the point of view of the two opposing forces is a brilliant one and certainly worth celebrating. Unfortunately, he could have done so much more with these films.

Flags of our Fathers concerns the soldiers who were in the famous photograph of the planting of an American flag on Iwo Jima. It is a well-made war film, with strong acting and great cinematography. But that’s really all it is. Sure it’s realistic and it’s cynical about using the soldiers for a fund-raising drive and it’s honest in its depiction of racism. These are all good things. But at an academic conference in July on Peacemaking in Film, Flags of our Fathers was presented as an anti-war film. It is most definitely not an anti-war film. Like Saving Private Ryan, it celebrates the heroes who died in this most necessary of wars and is just rather schmaltzy Hollywood as it does so. The only problem is that this war (like every other war in history) was not remotely necessary – it’s just that we have been trained for millennia to think that wars are a legitimate way to respond to international crises when they are only a way to exacerbate all such crises.

Letters from Iwo Jima is a much better film than the first and comes much closer to being an anti-war film. Showing the war from the point of view of the “enemy” (and the losers) is a brave undertaking, and generates powerful results. It is rare indeed for filmmakers to try to show what it might have been like on the other side, and to show the Japanese in WWII as humans. For this attempt at humanization, and for the way the two films together show both the bravery and compassion as well as the brutality and coldness of the soldiers involved, I applaud Eastwood. And, again, the acting and cinematography are outstanding in Letters from Iwo Jima. But there is still a lot of Hollywood schmaltziness as well as a huge hole where something more was needed; perhaps more of the context of this battle that would bring into question why all these lives were lost. Most disturbing, however, was the way the film depicted two Japanese soldiers who had lived in the U.S. before the war. These two men were shown to be far more compassionate than their fellows, as if to say that all the Japanese would have needed to be decent people was enough American influence. Tsk-tsk.

Good effort, Mr. Eastwood, but still flawed. *** for Flags; ***+ for Letters.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Michael Clayton


This film from Tony Gilroy, starring George Clooney, is everything that The Bourne Ultimatum (also written by Tony Gilroy!) was not, namely an intelligent complex thriller with great dialogue and real drama. In other words, it's my kind of thriller, and the fact that I'm a George Clooney fan doesn't hurt, especially when his acting in this film is oscar-worthy.


I'm not going to say any more, because I don't want to spoil it by giving away even a glimpse of the well-scripted story. It's simply great entertainment you will not want to miss. If only there were more thrillers like this out there instead of all that "action"!


This one gets **** - the aroma in my mug is saying this is going to be in my top ten for 2007.

Monday, 24 September 2007

And When Did You Last See Your Father?


This British gem is a film that impacted me in a way that it will not impact most people and this no doubt influenced how much I enjoyed it. And When Did You Last See Your Father?, directed by Anand Tucker, is a film about a man’s relationship with his dying father (terminal cancer). I saw the film only three weeks after my own father died of cancer and to say I could identify with the protagonist would be an understatement (though I am not comparing my father with the character played by Jim Broadbent).

Colin Firth plays the son, and is the film’s protagonist, but we don’t see that much of Firth because much of the film is taken up in flashbacks of his childhood and teenage years. Through the flashbacks, we see how the son’s perception of his father changes over the years and how Firth, playing the adult son, thinks back on the similarities and differences between his own life and character and that of his father. I won’t say the film handled this perfectly, skipping through some scenes in a way that felt rather superficial, but it cleverly showed how members of a family hide things from each other (and know more than they let on) in order to keep the family from imploding.

The story worked for me, but the real highlight of the film was the acting. Jim Broadbent, who is always a joy to watch, is perfectly cast as the father and does a great job. Juliet Stevenson is also great as his wife, and her role could have been much bigger. Colin Firth is solid as the son, as are the actors who play his younger self.

For me, the timing of when I saw the film was incredible and difficult to describe as coincidence. I can’t imagine any other film coming close to touching so profoundly on what I was processing at the time. As a result, my assessment of the film no doubt carries a particularly heavy subjective weight, but, like I said at the beginning, I think this film is a gem and gets a solid ***+.

Saturday, 15 September 2007

The Fountain


The Fountain, by Darren Aronofsky (who directed the incredible Requiem for a Dream) was just released on video and needs to be highlighted here because it’s the best “missed it at the cinema” film I have seen in a very long time. It is not, however, a film that’s easy to understand or to describe. Is it a science fiction film? For those of us watching it here, the film worked at a variety of levels and our conclusion was it didn’t matter whether it all took place in 2006 or not. That’s the most amazing thing about this film. It is a haunting beautiful love story that works brilliantly regardless of how you understand what happened. But only if you leave the left side of your brain at the door; if you are expecting a piece of linear storytelling that you can figure out, stay away.

Hugh Jackman has never come close to an acting performance as good as his leading role in The Fountain, and the ever-engaging Rachel Weisz does a very fine job as his wife. But the film’s real stars are its stunning and gorgeous cinematography and the absolutely spot-on score. The combination of these with a story that looks at life and death and love in an incredibly thoughtful and intelligent and passionate way makes for a film that can be watched and enjoyed and discussed again and again.

This film was Gareth Higgins’ favourite film of 2006 and would certainly have made my top five had I seen it last year (which I deeply regret not having done on the big screen).

The Fountain was panned by many critics because it was deemed to be incoherent and I think they were expecting something different, something that made sense. So they just didn’t get it and treated it as a silly mess. In my opinion, it’s the same reason most critics failed to appreciate my favourite film of 2006: Perfume. You’ve got to appreciate films for the amazing stories they are, not for what you want them to be. This remarkable film can only be described as a great work of art and deserves no less than ****. My mug is up and filled with the very best (with cream).

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

Atonement


I just returned from watching the hot (critically) new British film, Atonement. Based on a novel by Ian McEwan, this story of the horrific results of a teenager’s spiteful action is magnificently filmed by Joe Wright (who previously did such a great job with Pride and Prejudice).

James McAvoy (who performed so well in The Last King of Scotland) and Keira Knightley do a superb job of acting in the lead roles, making us feel the emotions of the characters in just the right way, though Saoirse Ronan as the thirteen-year old Briony outshines them both. The cinematography and music are likewise perfect for the film, which is primarily set in England between 1935 and 1940.

The film begins and ends brilliantly, with the first 50 minutes providing an example of near-perfect film-making. In fact, the film’s only real flaw is that it didn’t continue that opening day’s scene a little longer, because once the action shifts to the war, it begins to drag a bit and we could have used more background on what happened “back at the house”. Still, the cinematography in the middle of the film is breath-taking.

So how do you atone for a vicious mistake that hurts others so badly? The film’s clever ending (and presumably the book’s) provides an interesting answer. It also movingly conveys the perpetrator’s lifelong suffering.

Atonement is a great film. Don’t miss it. ***+ (verging on four). My mug is raised high on this one.

Friday, 7 September 2007

Pattern Recognition

I thought it was about time to write about something other than a movie. For the first time in a while I've read a novel worthy of note. It's the first novel I've read from William Gibson, though I hope to read a few others at least now. Like Coupland (who appears to be a friend of his), Gibson is one of those writers who does a great job of getting a handle on the changing feel of contemporary culture. Two things drew me to this novel: a reference in Scott Bader-Saye's Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear (also a good book) and a general sense that the idea of pattern recognition is an important element in contemporary notions of what it means to search for truth. The novel didn't disappoint as an exploration of that theme.

The theme of pattern recognition appears in multi-layered ways throughout the story. There's the cynical view of pattern recognition as a technique that is exploited and commercialized; there's the acknowledgement that it's sometimes wasted on attempts to find patterns and meaning where there is none; and then there's the more authentic and human need to use art as a means to express hope and create community among those looking to find truth in a potentially meaningless world.

While the context is a fast-moving, mobile, technophile, young culture, I was pleased to see the writing was not annoyingly dense, confusing and aimless. Sorry postmodern lit lovers but I just like a good story, and Gibson doesn't shy from the good old beginning-middle-end method. It's not just his form, but it testifies to a point that I think he's making. Pattern recognition, seeking after truth, is not just about the search, but it's about the real possibility that there is a goal - a search can actually reveal something significant. Best read in many months.

Monday, 20 August 2007

The Bourne Ultimatum


Over-Rated Film of the Year?

Apparently, the average film critic loves shaky hand-held camera work, desaturated colours, one-second (or less) cuts and non-stop action. How else to explain the huge critical acclaim for The Bourne Ultimatum (and for Children of Men last year)? I’ve had high expectations dashed before, but this was one of my biggest disappointments in a long time. I am NOT a fan of any of those things mentioned above. In fact, I consider shaky handheld camera work and instant cuts to be the work of lazy filmmakers trying to cover up the fact that the plot is so thin you could filter coffee through it. As was the case in The Bourne Ultimatum. The potential for turning this into an intelligent thriller with complex characters, as also with The Bourne Supremacy, was generally wasted (it was clever at times, but rarely intelligent). I am capable of enjoying good action thrillers, but only when the action comes in relatively short bursts and is not the only focus of the plot. In films like the last two Bourne thrillers, the action just bores me after a while (if you want a good “running” film, try The Fugitive). Even the last Bond film was better than this.

Not that the film was a complete disaster. The actors and acting were all above average, with Damon doing a particularly fine job. And let’s face it, Greengrass knows how to keep a story moving – there’s no let-up time here. And I really appreciated the ending, even though I did not find it remotely credible. I’m referring to the fact than after Bourne spares the life of an assassin, the assassin begins to question the dehumanizing brainwashing he has received from the U.S. government and decides not to shoot Bourne. I wish it were that easy to counter such thorough training, but I suspect that in reality, the assassin just blows Bourne away without thinking about it. Nevertheless, the fact that Bourne was beginning to recognize that killing (and assassination) is wrong was a good start.

I happen to be a fan of conspiracy spy thrillers, especially those filmed in Europe, so I did, in fact, enjoy The Bourne Ultimatum, but it could have been so much better (like Children of Men) if it had tried to fill out the plot and give us intelligent dialogue instead of focusing on action. If this is as good as an action thriller gets, then maybe it’s time for us to stop dumming ourselves down and begin demanding strong intelligent plots and deep characters even in our action films instead settling for a theme park ride. *** (my mug is up, but the stuff inside is “instant”).

Sunday, 29 July 2007

Black Snake Moan

I'm a bit torn by this interesting movie. It was a different kind of experience. The world it creates has been criticized by some as southern cliche, but it felt like an intriguing and somewhat believable world, even if it's necessary to grant some poetic license. The music helps makes the movie and the casting seems perfect. At the same time, I want to be consistent and point out that it's probably worthy of some of the same criticism that I aimed at Perfume, even though I didn't find it as disturbing.

(Mild spoiler warning). When I first heard about the basic premise of the movie, I wasn't sure how they could pull off such a crazy plot (decent old black man - Lazarus played by Jackson - chains up hot young nymphomaniac - Rae played by Ricci - to save her from herself). But they do work at making it somewhat believable. It's rural enough to believe there aren't eyes watching every move. He feels he's already at risk simply by the fact that he's a black man on his own finding a scantily clad, beat up, spaced-out white girl. They're both crazy enough, passionate enough and impulsive enough to somehow make you think it could happen. In another words, it's not like either character is meant to have much good judgment, so why wouldn't you think they would do something stupid?

What's a bit of a tougher sell is that the chains could accomplish for a sex addict the equivalent of what going cold turkey accomplishes for a narcotics addict. Bringing in the pastor helps provide a little more context for a believable healing. And the pastor is an excellent character - fearless and earthy as Lazarus is, but with a little more good sense.

But I criticized Perfume:Story of a Murderer for combining naked female bodies with murder in a way which could too easily stimulate some sick connections in some viewers. The sensual aspect at least could have been easily avoided. In a somewhat lighter way, Black Snake Moan could be guilty of the same thing. In fact, judging by the poster which I've included in this blog, they're even guiltier of being intentional about using the erotic appeal to sell the movie (based on the layout and the caption, 'everything is hotter down south').

It's hard to applaud the movie-maker's obvious exploitation of the scantily clad girl in chains, even when it's pretty clear that Lazarus is not doing it for his own gratification. (And I think they played his own temptations at just the right level.) Yet, somehow - perhaps because it is so obvious - it comes across as a more forgivable and less twisted exploitation than I felt was true of Perfume.

Maybe, the difference is also that in this film the element of exploitation is over-shadowed by the theme of redemption. As a viewer, instead of being drawn into the darkness of murder, you vicariously experience the resistance of temptation leading to the life-giving possibilities of self-control. Or, maybe I'm just trying to justify enjoying the movie.***

Wednesday, 4 July 2007

Keeping Mum


Here’s a kind of movie I haven't seen for a while – a black comedy version of a Mary Poppins story. A somewhat dysfunctional vicar’s family is given a dose of Grace (the character’s name) in a rather unusual form. They pretend to play up the thriller dynamic just enough not to take away from the overall light comic tone. In fact, it could almost work as a family picture for older kids, if it weren’t for some language issues and double entendres that the brighter kids might not miss. Oh, and some nudity. OK – maybe not really a family movie, but at least you probably wouldn’t be embarrassed watching it with friends.

The character of the parents is developed enough to give the story some substance. They are also well-acted by Kristin Scott Thomas and Rowan Atkinson. Thomas really does a great job with her character’s ambivalence and Atkinson mostly restrains his Mr. Bean side in order to play the nice but absent-minded vicar. The kids’ characters are left pretty shallow, which is unfortunate. There probably would have been enough time in the movie to make their stories a little more plausible and less cliché, but they let the opportunity pass by.

As far as the other roles, Maggie Smith is, of course, wonderful, and Swayze is at least in the right kind of role.

The quality of the changes that turn the family around are somewhat questionable, but that’s hard to criticize given that the new housekeeper is hardly an example of perfection. Metaphorically, you could say that it makes the point that niceness doesn't always work and sometimes you have to put something to death to bring some real change. Still, especially for Grace’s intervention in the boy’s problems, one might have hoped for something a little more creative. With plot as with character development, the children just didn’t seem like they were given the attention that the parents’ plot was given.

This movie was not all that widely distributed, and I could barely get a copy in St. Stephen, but it was definitely worth watching. A little better writing for the children’s roles and it could have been wonderful. ***

Monday, 2 July 2007

Shooter


Well, I'm finally breaking my silence. I'm not sure why I haven't written in so long, though part of it was not seeing anything that inspired me to write. Now, I wouldn't say that Shooter was inspirational, but I did feel like writing a few words after seeing this movie.

If existential comedies are my favourite genre of movie, then revenge movies are just about my worst. Extreme violence is bad enough in itself, but manipulating the viewer into longing for that violence is just plain disturbing and that, of course, is what revenge movies do. There are a few elements of this movie that are cheap examples of exactly this kind of manipulation. Without that element it could have been a good action/fugitive movie to waste a bit of summer adrenaline on.

What I found interesting about the movie was watching it in the middle of the Washington Post revelations about Cheney. Can anyone help but see Cheney's face in the place of the senator in the movie? In that sense, it seems to me that this movie is indicative of the increasingly intense frustration at the powerlessness we feel in the face of corporate and political evil. Is Cheney not a classic example of how they're not even subtle about their evil power anymore? It's right in your face. And, unless one gives in to despair, it makes one desperate to find a way to fight back.

The disappointment of Shooter is that it doesn't even point to any self-awareness of the paradox of this desire to fight back with violence and lawlessness. Could the characters not even have caught a glimpse of how they were becoming the very thing they hated? Would that kind of glimpse really be too much to ask?

So, while enjoying the fugitive vs. evil conspiracy theme, I give it a frustrated **.

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Zodiac


For the second time this year, I have seen a film that approaches perfection in filmmaking, although the subject matter of this film was not as appealing to me as that of The Lives of Others. Zodiac is about the search for a serial killer in California and I’ve never particularly appreciated serial killer films, though David Fincher’s Seven was certainly one of the better ones and Silence of the Lambs is a classic.


Fincher’s latest film is not so much a thriller (though it is suspenseful) as an intelligent absorbing drama about obsession and the need for answers and closure. In fact, it’s not really about the serial killer at all – it’s about the men tenaciously following every conceivable trail to find him and how this hunt affects their lives and the lives of their families. The characters are very well drawn and the acting is flawless throughout. The cinematography is also outstanding, especially given that it’s a low-tech movie that looks like it was filmed in the 70s. The setting authentically places you in the California of the 70s, and the writing is very sharp. It’s an excellent haunting film and my only question is whether it needed to be quite so long.


A solid ***+ verging on four stars.

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Jindabyne


Jindabyne is the latest entry from Australian director Ray Lawrence., whose last film, Lantana, was in my top ten films of 2002. Based on the short story “So Much Water So Close to Home” by Raymond Carver, Jindabyne explores the relationship between the sexes and the relationship between the races (white and Aboriginal) in the small town of Jindabyne in New South Wales, Australia in the aftermath of an unusual weekend fishing trip. The four men involved make a shocking find and are faced with a sudden moral dilemma, the kind of dilemma that gains much more weight and tension in retrospect, leading to a variety of relationship crises.


This is a slow-moving and intense film, more a collection of scenes than a straightforward narrative, in which the issues are explored in excruciating but often unsatisfying detail. I don’t mind slow films but the pace here was just a little too slow and I kept waiting in vain for scenes and plot themes to be developed more fully, though I appreciated the aura of mystery with which the film was imbued.


What really saves the film, though, is the incredible performances of Gabriel Byrne and Laura Linney in the lead roles. As a result of their acting and the great cinematography, I may have given the film 3.5 stars (out of four) if it were not for one factor, namely that I had seen the story on film before, in Robert Altman’s brilliant Short Cuts. I found this very distracting as my mind couldn’t help comparing the two films. And even though in Short Cuts this story is one among many as opposed to the central plot, I think Short Cuts dealt with the moral dilemma in a more satisfying way (though I do think Jindabyne has a very satisfying ending, which is a very important criterion for me, and it was interesting to see the cultural clash involved when the story was set it in an Australian context). ***

Tuesday, 17 April 2007

The Lives of Others


What an absolutely fantastic film! It’s the first film I have seen since I put together my top ten films of 2006 which should have been in that list. In fact, I think it would have come in at number two! I have mentioned elsewhere on the blog how rare it is for me to give four stars to any film. This film gets four stars without any hesitation. The reason? It is as close to perfect as films get these days.

The acting is impeccable throughout (by everyone concerned), the cinematography is amazing, the settings always provide exactly the right feel (East Germany in 1984), the screenplay is extremely intelligent and tight, the editing is flawless; it’s like watching a work of art that falls into the masterpiece category. And much of the film is about the role of art, and people, in challenging or collaborating with the unjust and oppressive systems in our societies.

Given the incredible critical praise for Pan’s Labyrinth, I was wondering how this film could have won the day at the Academy Awards. Now I know; The Lives of Others leaves Pan’s Labyrinth in the dust. It is one of the very best films ever to come out of Germany.

More I need not say here. Go out and watch this film as soon as you can and we can talk about the endless array of fascinating characters in this film and how they tried to survive in a totalitarian world. Unfortunately, there is much here that transfers too easily to our own supposedly democratic societies in 2007.

A mug of Colombia’s very finest straight up! ****

Friday, 6 April 2007

Reign Over Me

When I first started watching, I thought this was a one of a kind film I'd have to write about on its own. A serious comedy (is that a new genre? - I just heard it used to describe an upcoming film - The Savages) about two guys breaking through their isolation - not exactly typical movie fare. Then I realised that there is a close cousin to this release in the old Robin Williams/Jeff Bridges film, The Fisher King. Both movies are largely set in the context of empty urban nights. Both have a traumatized man (played by a comic actor) making an important connection with a lonely man. Both are not good for teaching on PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) as they are very atypical and extreme responses. However, as I haven't seen The Fisher King in a long while, I'll limit my commentary to Reign Over Me.

Reign Over Me is the more serious of the two, and for this reason draws the viewer in on a more intimate level. I might as well say right from the start where my frustration is with this movie - they focused too much on the wrong story. There is the broken loneliness of the man who lost his family and the paradoxical loneliness of the man with the lovely family. Did the filmmakers not see that the second story is the more important one to tell here?

Certainly the key is the meeting of the two stories and the two characters. And this meeting is done very well. Great mis-steps on both parts. Mutual caring mixed with hesitations. Slowly developing intimacy in the typical male style of being free of much intimate talk.

But then the film gives in to the temptation of going for the bigger drama and loses the time and energy to deal well with what I have just described as the more important story. It's the story of the lonely guy with the perfect family that has so much real potential. That part of the story seems to be dealt with in a few quickly tossed-in scenes that just do not satisfy.

One can only blame a movie so much for lost potential, though, and overall it was a great movie. The therapist (who probably shouldn't have been made to be a psychiatrist as her therapy style was not very typical of that modality) is well-played by Liv Tyler. This therapist was good but not perfect, which is just as it should be. (One day a movie will be made which actually shows a good marriage counsellor, but I digress - it has long been a pet peeve of mine that Walter's and marriage counsellors are both consistently ill-treated in films. Just look for it if you've never noticed that before.) And the judge played by Donald Sutherland - sure, he's on a power trip but you gotta love him.

I thought their might be more hints of God's presence in this movie with it's title, but nothing apparent. But the music at least plays a strong role.

Good movie - should be seen and talked about. Definitely worth ***+

Wednesday, 28 March 2007

The Science of Sleep


Just a few quick comments on this one. It certainly is a unique film, warm and quirky - favourite film descriptors for me. It poses definite challenges for the left-brained, however. Some left-brained types will never bother to see it or if they do, won't get past the first half hour. While it's not my natural world, I appreciate right-brained material enough to make it through and enjoy it, but not enough to deeply get it or love it.

So there are some great moments in it. I was struck by how much I felt the vulnerability when the two neighbours entered into the creative process together - thrilling on one level, but you can feel how much they're risking by sharing this private world and playing/creating together.

But alas - my poor left brain couldn't stop asking unhelpful questions: Is he mentally ill? What was really happening and what was imagination/dream? Questions that really add little or nothing to the film.

So, the creative and non-linear will love it much more than I, but I'll give it a middle of the road **+

Friday, 23 March 2007

INLAND EMPIRE


Unless you're a hardcore David Lynch fan, I would not recommend seeing INLAND EMPIRE. I am not a hardcore Lynch fan, but I have appreciated a number of his films and The Straight Story is one of my favourite films of all time, so I thought I'd check it out.

I'm not sorry I watched it, which is a rare comment from me on a film I will probably never want to see again, but it was just too obscure for me (and I enjoy obscure arthouse films). It's impossible to spoil a film like this by telling you what happened, but since I don't know what happened in the film, I won't bother trying to describe it. If any reader of this blog has seen the film and would like to enlighten me, I would welcome this. In the meantime, I'll just say that I did enjoy certain scenes and Laura Dern was terrific. But three hours is way too much time to spend on watching a film with no discernable characters, let alone a plot.

Sorry, David, I kinda liked Mulholland Dr., but my mug is down on this one. **+

Thursday, 22 March 2007

The Family Friend


A thoroughly fascinating little gem from Italian director Paolo Sorrentino, this is a dark tale about a pathetic miserly loan shark (everyone’s “friend of the family”, who really seems to believe he has a heart of gold) in a small Italian town. Giacomo Rizzo is absolutely brilliant as the unlovable and lecherous old man at the film’s centre, and the film gives us just the right level of characterization to make him utterly believable and yet not quite sympathetic.

The film is rather cold, which would normally irritate me, and none of the characters are particularly sympathetic, which I often find problematic, but the many moments of subtle and ironic humour offset some of this. More importantly, I didn't leave the cinema feeling cold or feeling like I had been exposed to graphic violent or sexual images that often accompany cold European films.

The Family Friend is a beautiful film full of fascinating characters and even a bit of a plot. The town is a character in itself, brilliantly filmed to evoke bleak lifelessness, a perfect setting for the film’s wonderful core message of hope and joy (and I quote): “Everyone steals, and everyone is unhappy. Everyone!” Okay, I lied about the hope and joy, but exploring the theme of unhappiness within the context of this film (and of European cinema as a whole) provides much food for discussion, especially if we look at it from a Christian point of view. When I have time, I might try to explore this theme on the blog, but for now I am too busy being a part of the bleak European lifestyle to do it.

My mug is up on this one: ***+

Saturday, 17 March 2007

Stranger than Fiction & Joe vs the Volcano



Next to the quirky dysfunctional family comedy, one of my favourite genres is the quirky existential comedy. Stranger than Fiction is a great example of the latter and reminds me of one of the great movies of all time: Joe vs the Volcano.

Both of these films start with ordinary, lonely guys trapped in a bland existence working in the midst of mind-numbing meaninglessness (and both presented as dramatically soul-crushing by some of the visuals of their workplace). Both are struck by the possibility of impending death and have their lives shook up as a result. It's a great theme and both do a good job with it.

Joe vs the Volcano is, of course, in a league of its own. For a comedy, it has a unique ability to bring out strong reactions in those who see it. Check it out on imdb and you see an amazingly even range of votes from 1 through 10. I constantly lend this movie out to friends as one of the best movies made and have them bring it back either agreeing or totally confused about my taste in movies. Some of them watch it a couple of times to try to figure out what I could have possibly seen in it.

First of all, the opening scene set over "16 Tons" is worth the price of a rental by itself. Once you've seen that and the next sequence with its faulty flourescent lights, cold stale coffee, insane boss and deadening relational climate, you can't help but beg God to protect you from ever ending up in Joe's shoes.

From there it's a non-stop movement of right-brained comedy moments and existential awakenings that work brilliantly together except for those who can't enter into its dream-like absurdity. It's a cheezy romance, of course, but it makes plenty enough fun of its own cheeziness that you can't fault it for that. And in the process of facing his fears, the possibility of heroism, and the reality of death, Joe opens himself not only to romance, but to God and to relationships in general.

Stranger than Fiction doesn't quite sustain the same level of right-brained, absurd brilliance, though it gets pretty close. His wait for the plot to find him in his apartment has just that quality, and the lit prof (Hoffman) is perfect. The computer graphics that are creatively overlaid throughout the film give you glimpses into his obsessive compulsive brain, the watch adds some existential symbolism and, of course, the main plot feature of finding his life narrated adds a wonderfully novel element (sorry for that, it just slipped out). The occasional scenes with apparently irrelevant characters add a touch of mystery. And like in Joe, the romance is a part but doesn't overly dominate the bigger picture of a man coming to life.

There are a few weak details (the one that stuck out the most for me was the witty, flirtatious character seeming to come out of nowhere for who Crick seemed to be before that). A few other elements seemed like they maybe could have used a bit more development (like Emma Thompson's author character). But, overall, a pretty great movie.

Existential therapists have said for a long time that helping people to face the reality of death instead of denying it is central to living a good life. As a therapist, these movies leave me wondering how to provide the diagnoses of brain clouds or narrate someone's impending death in order to encourage that powerful awakening that just might be able to free someone from their fears.

P.S. I just saw Stranger than Fiction again with friends, and found it to be at least as enjoyable the second time around - a good sign of lasting quality. It even made me question my comment above about Crick's wittiness which fit better than I had thought. And I also appreciated how the potential for interest on so many fronts with this movie - for example, I can't believe I didn't comment on the discussion potential for how we "story our lives." And I forgot to rate this (as I have tended to do). So I'm going right for the top on this one. **** (and I await your viewing, Vic, to see if we can award our first "Two Mugs Up.")

Tuesday, 13 March 2007

300


Why, you ask, would a pacifist even want to go see a film like 300 (in an IMAX cinema, no less)? The answer: I am doing a presentation on violence in film at the end of the month and thought I would need to see this to be truly contemporary. Besides, I had a free ticket.

Make no mistake - 300 is a work of art. It is surely one of the most visually stunning films ever made. The only downside to its cinematography was the way it copied some of the feel of Gladiator. This is a gorgeous film. But the seductive beauty of 300 only serves to make the film more dangerous - a hook to draw in and entertain the masses with a tale of redemptive ultraviolence. And this is a very dangerous film indeed.

To start with, we have 300 Spartan soldiers (all perfect beautiful specimens of humanity) facing a vast horde of monsters, magicians and mystics fighting for the Persian king Xerxes (the one Spartan who is a deformed hunchback becomes a traitor). That one fact alone makes the film dangerous; the film is an ode to dehumanization and there is not much worse I could ever say about a film. The fact that the beautiful heroic Spartans are westerners facing Persian monsters is also very dangerous in a time when the country that fabricated an excuse to justify the invasion of Iraq is now trying to fabricate excuses to invade Iran. Of course, in this case it is the U.S. which represents the invading Empire of its time, so perhaps the film is a work of irony (do the Spartans then represent terrorists?). But the real danger lies in the hugely excessive display of virtually non-stop graphic violence. Sure the violence is stylized, with countless slow-motion scenes of spear thrusts and sword thrusts and heads being sliced off, etc. But don’t try to tell me this makes the bloodfest okay. On the contrary, it just makes people think it’s okay to watch hundreds of people mercilessly butchered. It’s not okay.

I confess that I thought 2005’s Sin City, also based on a violent graphic novel (novels) by Frank Miller, was a work of genius. I wasn’t a fan of the endless violence in that film either, but at least that violence could accurately be described as comic book violence, even cartoon violence. The violence in Sin City had nowhere near the impact on me that the violence in 300 did. I was numbed and horrified by the cold and grisly deaths of the Persians, all the more so because they were so “beautiful”.

In a world at war, what kind of message does a film like 300 send to the millions who are apparently flocking to the cinemas in the U.S.? The glory of war, of fighting for freedom, of not showing weakness, of not negotiating, of showing no mercy: this is Sparta. Let’s try to have a world full of Spartans, shall we? If the writers and filmmakers were trying for some irony in their heroic beautiful depiction of the Spartans, I fear it will be lost on the masses, especially the young men toward whom the film is clearly aimed.

But there is yet another danger, related to the last: the religious symbolism which looked to me like it was trying to make the Spartan king (Leonidas) into a Christ-figure. There is the scene, for example, where Leonidas is tempted by Xerxes (who sees himself as a God): “Bow down before me and I will give you the world” and of course the seemingly irresistible crucifixion scene at the end. I fear that some Christians will think Leonidas indeed stands for Jesus, leading his perfect beautiful followers into a battle against Satan and his hideous deformed minions, a small army of Christians who will stand firm against the horde of Muslims and atheists (traitors) who are trying to attack the only true faith. That Leonidas is the exact opposite of Jesus (a man of compassion and mercy who saw it as his mission to humanize those who were seen as less than human and to love his enemies, not brutally slay them) will be missed by too many.

Gorgeous cinematography aside, 300 get’s a mug down for its dangerous assault on the mind, the senses and humanity. Can’t wait for the video game (how many Persians can you slice in half in ten minutes?)!

Saturday, 3 March 2007

Little Miss Sunshine & Running with Scissors


My favourite movie reviewer is Frank Pittman who always does his reviews in sets of twos or threes. Last night, I just watched Running with Scissors and I thought it would make a good pairing with Little Miss Sunshine - two examples of one my favourite genres: quirky comedies about dysfunctional families. And they demonstrate a contrast of how 'humanization' sometimes works with me and sometimes doesn't (so that you can get some ammunition, Vic, to successfully figure out what's wrong with me on this score).

A few years ago I gave a sermon on "Celebrating Imperfection." Little Miss Sunshine is a movie that does a great job at the same idea. Early in the movie, it's hard to believe that you'll be rooting for this family by the end. By a lot of current standards, they're losers across the board. The biggest loser, of course, is the one who thinks his positivity is going to make him a winner. Somehow, by the end, all of their foibles (even the dad's) become part of the unique gifts they offer to make their road trip a success.

It seems to me there are a lot of mistakes they could easily have made that would have made this movie flop, but they manage to get the tone just right and it allows them to mix the absurd with the serious leaving you glad they included both. I assume that many people would feel, as I did, that the movie takes them on a journey of their own, partly through the way that the beginning draws out such a natural sense of judgment towards at least a few of the characters, and then heals you of your judgment. It seems to me that's exactly what they intended.

The opposite journey seems to happen in Running with Scissors. At first it's possible to have some sympathy for the characters, but then the film works hard at making you forget any positive feelings. It doesn't help that Running with Scissors is promoted with a well-made but deceptive trailer that highlights its comic potential while neglecting to give clues that it is actually a depressing tragedy. This movie is both darker and more absurd than Little Miss Sunshine. The comedy actually works some of the time, but the life of the humour comes from the false hope that the absurdity brought into the life of one kind of dysfunctional family from another kind of dysfunctional family might provide some kind of breakthrough. However, this is a movie about dead ends not breakthroughs.

As a result, it's an example of one of those movies where the attempt at humanization leaves me cold. If this is our common humanity, it simply makes me sad to be human. Where Little Miss Sunshine heals you of a judgmental spirit, Running with Scissors creates one.

As you said, Vic, the scene on the dock in Little Miss Sunshine is a classic, with its timely bit of wise advice, and it gives a great focal point before the grand finale. It is exactly the kind of wisdom absent in Running with Scissors.

Wednesday, 28 February 2007

The Good Shepherd


This is not a film you want to watch after a short night’s sleep. It is very long and incredibly slow-moving (perhaps slow-paced says it better) and some might indeed call it a snorefest. But there was something that drew me in and kept me engaged from start to finish. I have always had a soft spot for films which show how a man is drawn into a life and world he never wanted and can’t seem to find his way out (thus my love for the film noir genre). In this case, the protagonist in the film, played fairly well by Matt Damon (though all he had to do for most of the film was play a dull soft-spoken bureaucrat), is drawn into the world of espionage. We see his life in flashbacks and see how he started his adult life with much more emotion and promise before the world of espionage sucked the life out of him.


The Good Shepherd felt like something based on a novel by John Le Carre or even Graham Greene and that's a major compliment. Eric Roth’s script is very intelligent and subtle and I’ll take intelligence and subtlety over action anytime. The film is also peppered with great actors like Michael Gambon and William Hurt and includes a strong appearance by its director, Robert De Niro. The problem is that most of the actors are as soft-spoken and methodical as Damon and the entire film suffers from a general lack of emotion. Maybe the world of the CIA is an emotionless world – how else do you deal with all the lies, the betrayal and all the devious games played with the enemy – but it does make it hard to get emotionally drawn into the film or to any of its characters. So when I began my review by saying I was drawn in, I meant intellectually rather than emotionally. And this lack of emotional connection is my big complaint with the film. It seemed to want to be an epic, like Once Upon a Time in America, but the deliberate pacing worked against this and left me too distant.


Still, there are a number of themes to chew on about how our childhood traumas and mistakes affect us later in life and how our well-meaning decisions can lead us down the wrong path if our priorities aren’t clear. And then there's the fact that this is based somewhat on a true story and a very real CIA, shown to have on its wall the incredibly ironic statement: "And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free". This was a thoughtful fascinating film and gets a solid mug up from me. ***+

Sunday, 25 February 2007

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer




Every time I enter the local cinema, I hope it will be one of those rare times when a film not only moves me but also surprises me and perhaps even blows me away. This hope was fulfilled for the first time in 2006 when I watched Tom Tykwer’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, a long film that seemed almost too short and left me captivated throughout.



There are at least three ways to approach this film. If one has read the bestselling novel (by Patrick Süskind) on which it is based, one can compare the film to the book. Or one can watch the film as a straightforward narrative of a fascinating story. Or, finally, one can watch the film as a work of poetic art, as a mixture of fairy tale, allegory and black comedy. I have not read the novel and chose from the beginning to view the film as a fairy tale (aided by the magnificent narration of John Hurt). I believe this is the best approach and that viewers following one of the other approaches are likely to be disappointed.



Warning: If you, like me, prefer to be surprised by films, do not read further until you’ve watched the film.



Perfume tells the story of a young man (Grenouille) in eighteenth-century France who is born with a remarkable sense of smell. Abandoned by his mother at birth (in a Paris fish-market), and possessing such a unique gift, Grenouille’s life is a difficult and isolated one in which love plays no part (we do not know if his inability to love or feel empathy is a consequence of his gift or the result of being deprived of love). One day Grenouille is transfixed by the smell of a beautiful girl and he can’t help but follow her. After her “accidental” death, Grenouille tries desperately to capture her smell and preserve it. His failure causes him to begin a desperate search for a way to preserve the smell of a person, which in turn becomes part of an even more desperate quest for the ultimate scent, a scent so beautiful and powerful that it can control all those who smell it.



Grenouille is aided in his quest by the perfumer Baldini (played by Dustin Hoffman), and by studying the practice of enfleurage (extracting the essence of flowers) in the town of Grasse. It is there that Grenouille becomes a serial killer (only beautiful virgins need apply) in order to do his experiments and produce the ultimate scent. We don’t get to know his victims, except for one, Laura, whose father (played well by Alan Rickman) knows instinctively that the murderer is after his daughter and does everything to prevent her death.



Ultimately, Grenouille succeeds in his quest only to discover that it was meaningless; having control over others was not what he wanted. Was he hoping to find love or to finally connect with other people? If so, he did not find those either. In the end he returns to the place where love was first denied him to make a connection in the only way he knows.



Perfume is a dark and tragic fable which somehow also manages to contain moments of light and wonder. Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), in another brilliant directing job, tries to use the outstanding cinematography and an inspired soundtrack to evoke the sense of smell and I did sometimes think I could actually smell the fish or the flowers. Ben Whishaw, a British actor with limited experience, does an excellent job in a very difficult role, somehow enabling us to feel both sympathy and disgust for him at the same time. The rest of the acting is also good (though Hoffman’s accent seemed out of place and unconvincing).



Not only does the film allow you to sympathize with its antihero (a sociopath incapable of love or empathy), I found myself actually wanting Grenouille to kill, to succeed in his quest. I even felt ambivalent about the life of the one potential victim we are allowed to care about (Laura). To lose one’s moral compass in this way is scary and resulted in feelings of guilt but also of awe at the remarkable achievement of the filmmakers. And it led me to ask one of the countless questions which this film generated: Is this the feeling that allows some scientists and politicians to pursue their quests for ultimate knowledge or technology or control without worrying about the consequences of their actions on the lives of individuals along the way? If so, we are all capable of understanding what drives these people and maybe we are all guilty of blindly going along with this headlong pursuit of technology, truth or power. Do we really know where our pursuit of knowledge is taking us and the sacrifices we are making along the way? Do we stop and consider the future we are creating with computers, gene modification, cloning, satellites, weapons, etc.? Perfume suggests that when our quest for ever greater knowledge is not grounded in love and compassion, it can be dangerous, meaningless and ultimately suicidal. Now where have we heard that warning before (hint: read the first chapters of Genesis)?



Is this a film about an anti-Messiah whose gift to the world (founded in violence, without a hint of compassion) is a glimpse of heaven that results in a deterioration of the receivers’ humanity (a complete loss of control, embarrassment, emptiness) as opposed to the glimpse of heaven provided by Jesus, grounded in compassion and nonviolence, that leads to a fuller humanity (regaining control, happiness and fulfilment)? Or is it a film about how we live in a hedonistic world increasingly dominated by our senses, with so much effort going into how we look and smell and what we taste that we miss out on the human within, on real connections of the heart? Or perhaps the film is suggesting that we each possess our own smell, revealing the true heart of its owner, which is why Grenouille only pursued certain smells and seemed to lack a smell of his own? If so, then we need to enhance our sense of smell so we can smell out the truth behind the facades. Or is the film encouraging me to think alliteratively and suggest that it is really about loneliness, longing and love?



In the end, it’s not clear whether the filmmakers even had a message in mind or, if they did, what that message might be. I spent hours discussing the film after watching it and each person saw different things and came away with different questions. That alone makes this a great film worth watching. Which is not to say that it’s flawless. And it isn’t a film for everyone. But don’t let the title deter you from seeing an extraordinary and thought-provoking work of art by one of the most original filmmakers of our time.

Friday, 23 February 2007

On Mugs, Cuts and Moral Dilemmas

Perhaps this should also come under “comments” to your previous post, but as it contains a key decision and begins a new conversation on a particular moral dilemma, I have decided to create a new post.

First, let me address some grievous errors in your post. Given our recent time together, during which I drank a cup of coffee every morning, and given my statement to you at the time that I have started almost every day of the past six months with a cup of java, and given that I have loved coffee since I was a teen (despite my sensitivity to caffeine), I was surprised to read that I didn’t like the black brew. So “mugs” it is! I think it’s a great idea - you can be much more creative with mugs than with thumbs (compare “two big thumbs up” with “two mugs of Colombia’s finest straight up”).

The second error, much more grievous than the first, was suggesting that Altman’s Short Cuts is not a masterpiece. I can see how some people, put off by Altman’s unique style, might think that a number of classic Altman films, like M*A*S*H, Nashville and McCabe and Mrs. Miller, are overrated. I like all three of those films but don’t think they come close to Short Cuts. This is Altman’s best work and it is anything but cold. It is a dark film, yes, with lots of nastiness, depressing situations and unsympathetic characters, but it is wonderfully humanizing in its own way. In fact, three of my ten favourite films of the past ten years (Magnolia, Crash and American Beauty), which are all about humanization, owe a great deal to Altman’s masterpiece. The story of the boy hit by a car is alone worth the price of admission (and I am not an Andie McDowell fan). Jack Lemmon (one of my five all-time favourite actors) has a wonderfully moving role and even Lyle Lovett’s non-acting is spot-on for this little story of family, rage and forgiveness. And then there’s the way the songs in the film relate to the stories, many of them about love. Short Cuts is all about how our lives connect and intersect with others and how we usually give no thought to what has been happening in the lives of those we encounter during any given day (and yes, even in the lives of those near to us). If we only knew, we would be much more inclined to greet everyone we meet with a smile and a knowing nod (“We’re all in it together” as Robert De Niro says in the great Brazil) and maybe even drop some of the masks we wear each day to hide our true selves; in other words, we need to recognize the broken imperfect humanity that lies within each of us and longs for true community. Short Cuts is what great cinema is all about!

Regarding my four-star rating system: Any film that I give at least three stars to is a film that I thought worth watching (as opposed to a film which gets less than three stars). To get 3.5 stars, a film has to have something special that makes me eager to see it again. A 3.5 star film is one I thoroughly enjoyed, whether it be for the writing, the acting, the cinematography, the score or any combination of these. Four stars are reserved for the chosen few films which approach perfection in all the categories or which seriously wowed me. I am very stingy on handing out four stars (only four or five films a year). Short Cuts, and the three related films mentioned in the previous paragraph, all got four stars. The other three Altman films mentioned above only got 3.5 stars. Regarding my previous post, Jindabyne was not a snorefest for me and was intriguing enough (and had enough good acting) to come close to that 3.5 mark (and were it not for Short Cuts, it might have made it).

As for the moral dilemma: Okay, you and the boys travel many miles from civilization for a weekend fishing trip. You discover the body of a young woman in a remote river. What do you do? Do you rush back to civilization (or at least to cell phone reception range) to report the body? Or do you keep fishing for another 24 hours, knowing the woman has been dead for quite awhile and cannot be saved by anything you do or don’t do? Do you touch the body or move the body, knowing it might drift downstream if you leave it where it is? Does it make a difference if it is the body of an Aboriginal woman? Well, you know what the guys do. And while they may not have broken any laws, wow, do they ever live to regret their decision. The difference in how the men and women react to this dilemma is key here, and needs to be discussed in a mixed group of people who trust each other. I’m not sure I’m willing to discuss my own reaction in a public setting, except to say that I don’t fully sympathize with the actions and reactions of any of those involved in either film, but I can understand some better than others.

Readers: Stay tuned for my review of Perfume, my favourite film of 2006, coming up during the weekend.

Tuesday, 20 February 2007

Two Mugs Up?

Oh dear. Jindabyne? Is that even a movie? Are you wanting to start things off by showing off that you can see movies that won't be heard of in St. Stephen until 2009? I have seen Short Cuts, and not even that long ago, but Altman pretty much always leaves me cold, and I can't say it left any impression on me other than my thinking it was another Altman film. He strikes me as caring more about trying some artsy angle for the sake of newness than he is about adding any substance that communicates to normal human beings. If you tell me which storyline you're referring to, I might be able to remember. But if you want some immediate gist for the conversation how about defending nearly giving a movie 3.5 stars after making it sound like the one of the biggest snorefests since, say, an Altman film.

In the meantime, I’m thinking that before we start being asked by countless distributers to provide blurbs for movies, we need to clarify what we’re going to give two up for movies we like. Thumbs being taken. I’d say Two Mugs Up - in a kind of coffee salute - if you liked coffee more. Since you don’t, I’m not sure what people would think was in your mug and this might distort the meaning. I was also thinking of Two Big Toes Up, but you’ve been living in London long enough you’re probably wearing socks in your sandals. So I'm stumped. I'd solicit our many readers for suggestions, but I suspect we don't have any yet.

Hmm - I wondering about the best approach here - should we keep conversations about one movie under the comments so that it's easier to track conversations? I suspect so, but I'll leave this one as it is.

Monday, 19 February 2007

Vic's Top Ten Films of 2006

Vic’s Top Ten Films of 2006

To introduce my Top Ten films of 2006, I need to explain that my Top Ten lists are not lists of what I consider to be the ten best films of any given year. They are lists of my favourite ten films of any given year. Whether acknowledged or not, I think most film critics do this, though perhaps they equate the two. I do not equate the two. I believe The Queen and Pan’s Labyrinth were two of the ten best films made in 2006, but they did not impact me enough for either to make my top ten of the year. The impact a film has on me personally is the most important criterion for my favourite films. This can be an emotional or intellectual impact (both of which are influenced by, for example, the handling of favourite themes like humanisation, peace and social justice), but it normally involves what I call the “wow factor” or “captivation factor”. The first four films listed below were, for me, utterly captivating “wow” films and that’s why they are first on my list (i.e. not because of the acting, direction, score or cinematography, though of course these all contribute to the “wow factor”).

Here are my top ten films of 2006, followed by my honourable mentions. Who would have ever believed that Leonardo DiCaprio could have the starring role in two of my five favourite films of any year? I’m not a fan of his, but I must admit he does well in these films. Not surprising is that two of my top ten films are about Africa. You can never have too many good films putting a face on this most troubled of continents. Escapist entertainment has its place, but films which educate, expose, provoke, challenge and humanise follow a higher call.

1. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer – Another brilliant film by Tom Tykwer, one of my favourite directors. Not for everyone, but it sure “wowed” me. See my review elsewhere.
2. A Scanner Darkly – Amazing animated film by the director of the brilliant Waking Life (Richard Linklater) based on an intelligent, thought-provoking science fiction story by Philip K. Dick. At times disturbing and very serious, it is also the funniest film of the year.
3. Babel – A sprawling ambitious film telling a number of fascinating stories which are “almost” directly connected. Not all of it worked for me, but it had so many brilliant scenes that it kept me “wowed” throughout and it was, for me, the most humanising film of the year.
4. The Departed – Fast-paced brilliantly-edited film from Martin Scorsese, one of the greats, though it was much too violent for my taste (why do directors think they need so much graphic violence to tell a violent story?). This one gripped me from the opening scene and never let go.
5. Blood Diamond – Surprise of the year for me. It’s another film that feels the need for too much graphic violence, and the plot is rather thin and contrived, but its heart is in the right place and it is fascinating on many levels, including its exploration of good and evil and the way it takes the violence (especially child soldiers), exploitation and suffering in Africa very seriously. I’d rather have the message be a little heavy-handed than missing completely, as it is in most adventure thrillers.
6. Little Miss Sunshine – Good intelligent comedies are not easy to find these days, so this was a real treat. Alan Arkin was amazing, there were some wonderful family dynamics and it had some of the year’s best scenes (the scene on the pier near the end of the film is my favourite scene of the year).
7. Notes on a Scandal – Judi Dench is absolutely magnificent (I know, that’s nothing new) in this dark passionate drama (verging on psychological thriller) about, of all things, school teachers. An excellent study of loneliness and obsession - I loved it.
8. Little Children – Fantastic acting in this subtle little gem about broken people trying to find happiness. Another great film about humanisation.
9. Volver – My favourite foreign-language film of the year, by the great Almodovar. This is a magical beautifully-told tale about mothers and daughters and death. Penelope Cruz has never been better (actually, until now I never really thought she could act very well).
10. The Last King of Scotland – What a performance from Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin! And James McAvoy is perfect as the film’s protagonist: Amin’s personal physician. The film suffers from a ludicrous plot twist in the second half, but it has a great feel for the time and the place and it’s about opening our eyes to what’s really going on around us – something we all need to do.

Before turning to honourable mentions, I should say that I have little doubt that Letters from Iwo Jima would have made my top ten, but the film has not yet been released in London and I have not seen it.

My first honourable mention goes to two of the most purely entertaining films of the year, both about magicians: The Illusionist and The Prestige. I liked The Illusionist slightly better because it was lighter and more subtle while The Prestige tried a little too hard to provide twists, surprises and popular actors (Jackman, Bale, Johanssen). Then there are my two favourite documentaries of the year: The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema and An Inconvenient Truth. The first is a thoroughly fascinating film on the thought of philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek. Using clips from many of my favourite films, Zizek, in his very personal, informal and entertaining style, tells us why film-watching is good for us. Sounds right to me. An Inconvenient Truth is a great film about the dangers of global warming, though it was a little too political (i.e. too much Al Gore, whom I otherwise admire) for my taste. Honourable mention also goes to Casino Royale, my favourite Bond film in at least nineteen years – it’s good to know that they can still make intelligent Bond films. And then there is Children of Men, Gareth Higgins’ favourite film of the year. What can I say? It’s my kind of story and I wanted it to be one of my favourites and I loved the first half of the film and Clive Owen was brilliant and the long “takes” were amazing, but the “realistic” battle scenes, which some people may have particularly appreciated, didn’t work for me and I felt let down by the “fight and flight” scenes that dominated the last half of the film (especially as the first half had enough for me). My review of Children of Men can be found elsewhere.

Vic Thiessen
January, 2007

A sign (Half Nelson)

So there I was - in the middle of giving a sermon - when someone asks me to explain how a certain movie (Amistad) fit in with what I was talking about. I had never seen it and was struck speechless! I asked the congregation to give me a rousing Amen that this was evidence that I did not, in fact, watch enough movies. It wasn't as rousing as I'd hoped -but I heard something.

If that were not enough of a sign that it was time to start this blog - a place of reflection on movies and other cultural offerings from perspectives hopefully informed by theological and psychological backgrounds, offered dialogically between two brothers on different continents - then the very next day, a friend and colleague (thanks dan) emails a challenge to several of us to get out there in the blogging world. Where the action is. Where real life happens. (OK some of my cynical ambivalence about this enterprise is showing through.) Could that possibly be coincidence - Never! It has to be a sign. So here I am, God.

And perhaps also part of the good timing - I have actually seen a movie recently worthy of comment - Half Nelson.

Normally, I prefer my movies a little less grim than this. Hope is there, but this is not a bright, shiny movie. But I loved some of the juxtapositions that the movie creates so well. In fact, it really does everything very well. Perfect blend of a central story surrounded by so many stories just well-enough hinted at to matter and make you think without being told more than you need to know. The acting is great. If, like me, the preview almost scared you away either because it was one more cool teacher in a ghetto movie, or because of other implications (I don't want to give a spoiler) - don't let it.

The philosophical foundation of the movie is handed to you in Mr. Dunne's teaching - History is the study of the change that results from two opposing forces. Dialectic tension. While there is some sense of the Enemy being The Man or The Machine, that Enemy is really not a character in the drama. The heart of the film is the tension and relationship between two worlds that are both victimized by the The Man. The despairing world of whites who aren't inspired enough to face the scale and complexity of the issues, and the African-Americans who in their own ways are trying to survive. More specifically in this case - the drug users and the drug sellers. The scene that plays back and forth between Dunne's night with his alcohol-loving family and Drey's evening with "family" (her brother's pusher friend who is looking out for her) is one of the brilliant perspective-shifting moments. A lot of thought gets opened up by this kind of movie. Of course, my good old moralist self kept wanting someone to actually name that drugs were a central part of how The Machine kept people down - but I'm not sure why I still wanted that when the movie made the point so clearly.

So, Vic, what do you think? Are you ready for this?