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?