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


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


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.