Monday, 21 December 2009

Avatar


Let me start by getting the standard line over with: Watching Avatar is an amazing experience and the plot and weaknesses of the movie don't significantly get in the way. This is what most people seem to be saying, and I agree. I have never seen a 3D pic before and I was surprised and impressed. The depth into the screen quickly becomes "normal" and real. When close objects move off the screen toward you, it is quite impressive but less real and more holographic - kind of gimmicky in a way that is fun but does detract from the realistic quality. The subject of the film - the exploration of a new world - is a great fit for this experience, though I would have preferred a world a little less hostile. I actually think this level of omnipresent danger is one of the weaknesses of the film and will return to that later. But first let me just say one more time - this film was a fun ride.

(Some mild spoilers may lurk herein - careful if you're touchy.)

So now let me get some weaknesses off my chest. The plot, especially in its resolution, is as cliched as many are saying. I was led astray by a reviewer who said that James Cameron will be written off by Fox News as a tree-hugging pacifist (which is probably true but then according to Fox News anyone who thinks it's better to ask someone a question before shooting them is probably a tree-hugging pacifist). This is clearly not a pacifist movie. But it could have been, which is the painful part. Instead we see the disappointing myth of redemptive violence, once again, in far too predictable a fashion.

One thing that would have helped a creative plot develop would have been bad guys who had even a little character. The colonel and the CEO are as caricatured as one could imagine. The colonel makes Chuck Norris seem like a total wimp and Selfridge is the pathological embodiment of all that makes corporations evil. Sure they're both tempting caricatures if you're making a movie critical of corporate and military evil, but a little complexity would have been nice. (And as many have asked, "How much integrity do you have criticizing corporate priorities while you're making a movie that costs $400 million?")

There's no question that there is a Gaia worldview being promoted here, but I don't feel too critical of that. I think they sold that piece okay without it being too shallow. The scene where the two main characters meet started that off well, I thought. Something that would have helped this to be more metaphorical and not quite so literal would have helped.

Maybe the hostility of the Pandoran world helps it to avoid a New Age shallowness. But it seems too hostile to me. In a way, it justifies the paranoid, fearmongering attitude of the colonel. And there is no easy way to understand the coexistence of the constant danger with the relatively peaceful existence of the Na'vi people.

The theme that I found most impressive in the movie is the exploration of the paradoxical relationship between knowledge and ignorance. The "childlike" ignorance of Jake Sully nearly kills him in the forest but his teachability transforms everything. If you take the meaning of meek in the New Testament as teachable, as I've heard said, you could say the movie demonstrates "the meek inheriting the earth" (or Pandora as it were). With a little effort and creativity this theme could have been the centerpiece of a very substantive story.

But this is not a movie that requires a substantive story to be amazing. The experience was wonderful and even if the plot caricatures the enemy, at least it's the right enemy. It will just be left to others to promote a better response to our militarized, corporate society. Still the film gets **** from me. Mugs up.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

The Brothers Bloom


Maybe it's because I was desperate to like a movie (I'd had such high hopes for Goodbye Solo but was disappointed), but I was fairly impressed with The Brothers Bloom. It has a lot of the elements that I like in a movie: quirky humour, existential themes, and intriguing plot. The final segment made it fall somewhat short of its potential, but it remained a fun, worthwhile watch.

The effectiveness of the quirky humour is mainly thanks to the wonderful acting and style of Rachel Weisz. Granted her role required little consistency, but she sold the inconsistency well. The movie took a good shot at the theme of the planned and played out vs. the unwritten life. The profundity of the result may be in question, but it was a good shot. The twists and turns are typical of a con game movie. If they had done a better job at making the ending segment coherent I'd definitely give the movie top marks. The main problem, I think, is the leave the character of the older brother too undeveloped. Certainly the movie is quite intentional about leaving much unexplained, but if they want us to accept the overall direction, they needed to give us a little more.

All in all, I'll give it ***1/2.

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

A Day with British Cinema



Dorian Gray

I went in with appropriately low expectations, so Dorian Gray did not disappoint. I’m not a horror fan, as I’ve said before, but gothic horror is better than most and this film had a wonderful dark gothic atmosphere (London is always good) evoked with brilliant cinematography and an excellent score. It also had a good story (of course it had Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece to work with), some excellent dialogue, tight editing and direction (Oliver Parker), and some good acting.

Colin Firth is, in my opinion, an underrated actor and he’s easily the best actor in Dorian Gray. When he was on the screen, I was being entertained. Ben Barnes, who plays Dorian, had his moments, but he has a way to go before I would call him a good actor. It was his acting and his character which were the biggest disappointments in the film. Since the story revolves around the fall of Dorian’s innocence and his soul, this is where the film needed to be convincing. It wasn’t, particularly in the last half hour of the first part of the film (before we jump ahead 25 years or so and the film picks up again). Too bad, because, as the previous paragraph suggests, in many ways the film deserved a better outcome.

The highlights of Dorian Gray, for me, were the thought-provoking dialogue, the character portrayed by Firth (Henry), and the potential to read more into the story than was actually shown. For example, how did the fact that Dorian grew up without a father influence his relationship with Henry and the subsequent fall of his soul? Lots of good discussion material here, which is always a good thing for me.

Enjoyable film that could have been better. It gets a solid ***.


Creation

Again I went in with low expectations and again I was not disappointed (low expectations really is the best way to go into a film!). Creation is a slow-moving quiet film that delves into the character of Charles Darwin in a way I would never have guessed. The result is a well-done period drama, with solid acting by Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly, a great score, and good cinematography.

The film also had some wonderful scenes about the religious struggles Darwin and his wife went through as Darwin became increasingly convinced of the soundness of his theory of evolution. But this is also where the film disappointed me. Two fellow scientists were introduced but barely heard from and Jeremy Northam was wasted as a vicar with very little dialogue. There were missed opportunities here for a much richer discussion between the scientists and between those representing science and those representing religion. I am grateful for the way it was handled (very tactfully, I think) but would have appreciated much more.

Another enjoyable and discussable film that could have been better - another solid ***.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Crossing Over

Well, I'm long overdue. I can't wait until I see a movie I'm excited about because it's simply been a dry season for me. Crossing Over is a movie that was distinctly disappointing. It's not badly made or acted, but it committed an unpardonable sin for me. It caused me pain and suffering without adequate payback in terms of the story.

It's not that the story didn't have any merit. Like Crash, to which it seems to have been compared often, it tells a multitude of stories - somewhat interweaving - involving the tensions and clash of ethnicities. In this case, it particularly focuses on the struggles of immigration. It is true that its portrayal may be more grimly realistic than Crash (which, of course, was not exactly cheery). But the bottom line is that it didn't leave me with anything that made me glad I watched it. I didn't learn anything - anything it had to say about immigration issues, I've already seen more interestingly portrayed in Bread and Roses, The Visitor, Under the Same Moon and El Norte. And it didn't raise any new thoughts or questions, which (in spite of some faults) Crash did a good job of doing.

So, I would not recommend this film and give it **1/2 stars. Sorry Harrison.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Inglourious Basterds


Let me begin by reminding you that I am not a big Quentin Tarantino fan. This is not what one would infer from my appreciation of most of his films (yes, most of his films get ***+ from me), but there is something off-putting about the careless way he uses graphic violence (though it is clear in many of his films that he could have used much more) and redemptive violence (revenge is a favourite theme) that prevents me from ever calling myself a Tarantino fan. Still, there is a reason I enjoy so many of his films and that reason is what happens between the scenes of violent action. And that is why, even though I am also not a fan of war movies, I enjoyed Inglourious Basterds so much.

Tarantino must be a big fan of Sergio Leone, who was also a master of between-the-action scenes. Inglourious Basterds has the feel of a Sergio Leone spaghetti western, right down to what look like rope marks on Aldo’s (Brad Pitt’s) neck (Once Upon a Time in the West, my favourite Leone film). The music, the style, and especially Tarantino’s trademark slow scenes of brilliant dialogue which you don’t see anywhere else these days all owe something to Leone (though Tarantino gives a nod to many old greats in this film). Basterds is, in my opinion, Tarantino’s best film since Pulp Fiction. The acting was generally very good (I wasn’t sure Diane Kruger could act, but she can, and Brad Pitt was … well, Brad Pitt) though not consistently so. Particularly impressive was Christoph Waltz as the baddie (Hans Landa). The film is worth watching almost for his performance alone. The cinematography, always good in a Tarantino film, was gorgeous. The music was excellent. And the German was very good. Yes, most of this film is German or French, with subtitles, and I, for one was suitably impressed. The story was well-written and well-structured by Tarantino (despite its WWII setting, this is most definitely not based on any truth), and like I said, there were a number of great memorable scenes.

If the ending had worked for me, I’d have been tempted to give Inglourious Basterds ****, but it didn’t work for me. And of course the graphic violence was rather offensive, though when you go to a Tarantino film, you have to expect that. But this film was much better than I expected (thank goodness after the disappointment of District 9), so it gets a solid ***+.

See below for other new reviews.

District 9


Science fiction is one of my favourite genres, though well-made sci-fi films are not common. District 9 is one of the most highly acclaimed sci-fi films in a very long while (though Moon was highly acclaimed and deservedly so). So forgive me for thinking Star Wars or Alien or Dark City or Close Encounters or Blade Runner or Minority Report or even Planet of the Apes.

How do you turn a brilliant original opening half hour of sci-fi into a tedious same old same old violent shoot-em-up? You make District 9! Can everyone hear me say: “I’m DISAPPOINTED ! (like Kevin Kline of course)? This film had so much going for it (Neill Blomkamp, are you listening?): brilliant acting (standout performance by Sharlto Copley – bet you never heard of him before), great music, fantastic special effects, and, in the opening forty minutes, lots of wit, intelligence and pointed satire, condemning our treatment of refugees, the arms industry, racism, the media, and on and on. Great stuff! And then comes the second half of the film. Sorry, guys, you can’t successfully turn invention into a gory redemptive-violence bloodfest no matter what you’re trying to say or how sympathetic the characterisation. There were so many things wrong with the last half of this film that I wouldn’t know where to start. Of course, some things were wrong from the start. Grainy hand-held cinematography – need I say more? There’s also a disturbing, though ultimately forgivable, lack of logic in the attempt to pretend that most of the film was being videotaped live in a mockumentary style.

What is ultimately NOT forgivable is that this film is so highly-acclaimed. I just want to scream! If films like District 9 and Star Trek and The Hangover get such acclaim and are also popular (and yes, I could throw Slumdog in there too, though I liked it more than the others), then filmmakers are just going to make more of this stuff. We need more sci-fis like Moon (and all those mentioned above) and fewer sci-fis like District 9.

District 9 could have been a great film but it died halfway and gets only *** for the excellent first half.

See below for other new reviews.

The Hurt Locker


Wow! What a film! The Hurt Locker defies any quick attempt to put it into a genre. I suppose you would have to call it a war movie, but it’s unlike just about any war movie you’ve ever seen. Not that it’s an anti-war film; it defies being labelled as that as well. What it is, is an example of superb filmmaking, thanks to the direction of Kathryn Bigelow, the writing of Mark Boal (who wrote one of my favourite films of 2008, In the Valley of Elah), and the outstanding performance by Jeremy Renner (among others). I’m no fan of war movies and I’m no fan of the kind of camera-work employed in most of this film (as you all know), but I AM a fan of awesome filmmaking that is so good it makes me forget that I am not a fan of those other things. Indeed, it almost makes you forget you are watching a fictitious film. The Hurt Locker looks and feels like an amazing documentary. It puts you into today’s Iraq so completely that afterwards you will feel like you’ve been there – like you have been an American soldier or an Iraqi civilian or even an Iraqi “terrorist” (but mostly the soldier). What an achievement! Guaranteed to be in my top five films of 2009, this film gets an easy ****.

However, great as this film is, it is most definitely not for everyone (I’m talking to those of you who are not as desensitized to intense military violence as I am). Be warned.

That’s two **** films in a row, both in genres I don’t care for. Next week I go to see a highly acclaimed film in one of my favourite genres – sci-fi. Will we have three **** films in a row? Stay tuned.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

500 Days of Summer


I had to wait a whole month to get a response to my request for a good old-fashioned comedy, but the amazing thing is that there was a response at all (good comedies are so incredibly rare these days). 500 Days of Summer, directed by Marc Webb, is the exact opposite of The Hangover (see below). Instead of a stupid lewd unfunny comedy with an idiotic excuse for a plot (The Hangover), we have a wonderful, original, warm and funny romantic comedy with a real story which even gives some thought to one of my favourite subjects – coincidences. This non-Hollywood comedy features great acting, great dialogue, brilliant editing, tight direction, and an ending so good it’s worth a star by itself. The story jumps all over the place but that works perfectly in a thoughtful comedy like this (not to mention that it’s a nice original idea). There are references to other films and genres and styles, and they all work perfectly too.

But that’s not to say that the film is perfect (as a perfectionist, I demand a lot). 500 Days of Summer does drag here and there – you can’t sustain a comedy about a relationship like this indefinitely. So normally I would give this film a solid ***+, but because it’s a romcom I actually liked (romcoms is among my least favourite genres) and because of the great ending, this gem gets a whopping ****. Watch it, and stay away from the rest.

Note: I’m busy busy busy these days, so of course I’m seeing five films at the cinema in six days – that’s the way my life works. Stay tuned.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

The Hangover


When I watched the preview for The Hangover months ago, I thought: “Well here’s another stupid comedy I won’t need to waste my time on.” I was, however, forced to reconsider this opinion when the film opened to overwhelming critical acclaim (including from Roger) and huge box office success. So I finally went to see it. Just to show how wrong my initial assessment based on a preview can be, I can now say: “Why did I waste my time and money on another stupid comedy?” (Sorry about the sarcasm)

Okay, maybe there are even stupider comedies out there. I wouldn’t know because I tend to avoid anything that looks like a stupid comedy. But what on earth do people see in The Hangover? I didn’t think it was funny at all (and neither did Janelle). There was some interesting character development involving the “slow” character in the film, and, as Janelle said, at least it had a somewhat coherent plot, but that’s not enough to make a film worthwhile, especially for a comedy.

It was all just stupid nonsense, like so many of the comedies made in the past decade or two. I can’t waste any more time writing about it and encourage you not to waste your time seeing it. **+ (for the coherent plot) - my mug is down.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Public Enemies


I loved Heat and The Insider and thought Collateral and Manhunter were both superior thrillers, so I expect a lot from Michael Mann, especially when he has Johnny Depp, Christian Bale and Marion Cotillard to work with. Well, the actors just mentioned did not disappoint (Cotillard is surely one of the best actresses in the world today), but Mann did.

Public Enemies is a would-be gangster epic. With the acting, it could have been a great film. And it had things going for it besides the acting, like the kind of intelligence lacking in other films this summer. But it lacked heart instead and consistently failed to grab me. Being an intelligent honest film, I did not expect it to have a sympathetic John Dillinger (Depp) and felt the character was probably played right. But just because you have a cold bank robber, and a cold FBI man (Bale) chasing him, doesn’t mean the film can’t have some emotion. Instead, it just left me as cold as Depp and Bale.

Still, it felt like a well-made film and I would have been tempted to give it ***+ even if it didn’t grab me, were it not for the cinematography. You know the drill by now. Keep me away from jerky hand-held camera work, especially the kind that’s supposed to feel super-real (like an amateur is filming it live, which is exactly what it feels like to me), like the camera work in parts of Children of Men (which I would have liked so much more without that camera work). Public Enemies intermittently employs precisely the same style throughout the last hour of the film, distracting me during key moments. No doubt some critics will particularly applaud this camera work and style, but I do not like it at all. So Public Enemies gets only *** from me. My mug is up but the stuff inside is pretty bland.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Music Within


Okay, people are starting to wonder if I ever watch movies anymore. The sad answer is - not enough. And it's summer. Not to be too negative, but part of the reason is that on a couple of occasions when we had the opportunity to go to a theatre, I couldn't find anything playing that I wanted to see.

It's also easier to reflect on a movie that was either great or lousy, and the dvd's I've been watching have usually been neither. So here are a few thoughts on one of those in-between kind of movies. Music Within is an interesting movie and the viewers and reviewers seem to have been relatively kind to it. It's a true story about a man, Richard Pimental, deafened by the war who becomes an important advocate of disability rights. It's a good story worth knowing.

For the most part, however, the movie doesn't do anything to be more than ok. The one exception is the relationship between Richard and a man with CP he becomes friends with at college, which is a highlight. Otherwise it oversimplifies the story and falls into some predictable traps. One of those is focusing on a couple of jerky reactions to disabled individuals - both undoubtedly true stories - but they hardly seem to be representative reactions even in those days. The scene in the restaurant is one example, but if you're listening closely you realise later that they had eaten in this restaurant on many occasions in the past, apparently without incident. This is misleading for a true story in a way that I do not grant license for effect. Another complaint is that when you watch the special features and listen to the real Richard Pimental tell his story (which is worth doing), you see that he is way funnier than in the movie. Why not use that?

So I'll give it *** just to signify that it's worth watching, but it was something of a disappointment.

Monday, 29 June 2009

Katyn


I’m on a roll, having seen my third excellent film in a row in a year which had previously not been very inspiring (and I’ve said enough about the summer blockbusters).

Katyn tells the true story of the massacre of Polish military officers during WWII. The story is told in original ways and from various viewpoints but is nonetheless what I would call a great old-fashioned epic with brilliant acting and amazing cinematography. The director is Andrzej Wajda, whose father died in the massacre, which makes it all the more amazing that this powerful drama is not at all sentimental. Wajda is one of the most influential filmmakers in Poland and yet I have never seen anything he made. Obviously that was a mistake. At the age of 83, he is still capable of making what may be my favourite film of the year thus far. Note: While not having seen Wajda’s films, I have seen the results of some of his influence, having seen all of Kieslowski’s films (Kieslowski is one of my favourite European directors).

At its heart, Katyn is about truth-telling, about exposing one piece of the true history of a nation which suffered so much in the last century and whose people were constantly forced to bury the truth, or to re-remember the truth in an Orwellian sense. For me, such truth-telling is, like humanization, one of the most important roles film can play in our time. When it is done with the almost flawless craft of Katyn, we have filmmaking at its finest. And when the nation involved is one which is part of my ancestral history both in terms of location and blood (ancestors named Sawatzky), it is particularly meaningful. **** My mug is held up high.

Friday, 19 June 2009

Looking for Eric


Ken Loach is one of UK’s best filmmakers and once again he has made a gem. In a summer full of thoughtless action and comedy flicks, it’s so nice to have something intelligent and beautifully acted to watch. By turns sad and funny, dark and genuinely heart-warming, Looking for Eric is a very different kind of film that suggests there may be something redeeming about being a British football fan (even a Manchester United fan). It’s the story of one man’s difficult journey out of years of depression and it is full of quiet wisdom. North Americans may not get a chance to see this, but if you can, don’t miss it. This will almost certainly make my top ten films of the year. **** My mug is way up for the second film in a row.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Anything For Her











While the masses are chowing down on Hollywood junk food like Terminator Salvation, Night at the Museum 2 and Angels & Demons, the really good films are being made here in Europe and being watched by only a few – those who prefer great acting, tight direction, intelligent thought-provoking screenplays, and real atmosphere to brainless action and silly humour.

Let the Right One In (made in Sweden; photo on right), which I saw last week, had all of the good qualities mentioned above. But it is an incredibly dark (in every way) horror film about 12-year old kids. I’m not a big fan of horror or films about kids, so this will not rank among my favourites of the year, but there is no question that this is a brilliant film and far better than what’s coming out of Hollywood.

Anything For Her, directed by Fred CavayĆ©, also has all of the good qualities listed above. It’s a French thriller unlike any thriller I have ever seen (what a huge compliment right there). What do you do if you’re an ordinary school teacher whose wife has been sentenced to twenty years in prison for a murder she did not commit and you have exhausted all avenues of appeal and are left taking care of the two-year-old son and worrying about a suicidal wife. I can almost see myself doing exactly what Julien (played magnificently by Vincent Lindon) does, contemplating sacrificing everything that we mean by a decent settled life in order to save his wife. This film works best as a drama rather than a thriller and has my favourite dramatic scene of the year in it, but the thriller part works for me as well (though it’s really quite implausible and there is one very violent scene). With a series of coincidences constantly helping or hindering him, it plays out like some kind of war in heaven and the tension is non-stop, with some great suspense near the end. Unlike the many other implausible films I have seen this year, I generally felt that it was the protagonist, not the film, that was being stupid.

Anything For Her is a fairly short film and yet only feels rushed near the end (when it’s supposed to feel rushed). It has time to give us a real sense of Julien’s desperation as well as the family dynamics which play a key underlying role in the film. It’s an example of what thrillers and films in general can be if they are not aimed primarily at fifteen-year-old boys.

Anything For Her is so far my favourite film made in 2009. Finally, finally a film that did not disappoint me (as almost everything else I have seen this year has done). **** My mug is up.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Angels & Demons


Okay, I was obviously too hard on Star Trek. After watching Angels & Demons and another summer blockbuster I am not yet allowed to name, and hearing about Terminator Salvation, it could very well be that Star Trek is by far the best action film this season will offer, in which case I should have spent a little more time singing its praises instead of primarily expressing my disappointments. Sorry, J.J.

It won’t take long to sing the praises of Angels & Demons (sorry, Ron). The score was better than the one in Da Vinci Code (though Hans Zimmer used the same basic themes), the setting and cinematography as strong as in Da Vinci Code and the acting as mediocre as in Da Vinci Code (though Armin Mueller-Stahl was as great as ever in a supporting role). But the story, the all-important story, was a snooze-fest (I’m so glad I didn’t waste my time reading the book, which I’m sure must have been even worse than Dan Brown’s poorly written though at least occasionally fascinating Da Vinci Code). I found the Illuminati church-chase an interminable bore. And the surprise ending was one of the most predictable (and telegraphed) in the history of film. Unlike the critics, I actually rather liked The Da Vinci Code, but Angels & Demons ranks among the worst films I’ve seen in the past year.

What about its “message”, namely that science and religion (or faith) can coexist? Yeah, okay, but a nice obvious message conveyed in a very simplistic way doesn’t do much for me either. I prefer the crazy religious ideas of The Da Vinci Code, which are at least a little thought-provoking.

NEVERTHELESS, Angels & Demons did have one redeeming factor: it had a few marvellous quotes (I’m not sure whether or not this is a sarcastic statement). To begin with, in the “truer words were never spoken” category, we have the killer telling our hero: “Be careful – these are men of God”. If only he had been listening to himself talk! Then, in the “if only it were true” category, we have Ewan McGregor (who should try another musical) saying the Catholic Church is “a simple brotherhood who want nothing more than to be a voice of compassion in a world spinning out of control.” And finally we have the best line in the film, which is also in the first category above, with the added “if only people believed it”. The line goes something like: “Religion is flawed. Because men are flawed – all of them!” Amen!

Angels & Demons proves that this is also true of filmmakers, actors and writers. This film is, unfortunately, one of many this season which will prove my point below about mindless action. I’m not planning to waste my time on most of them, so I should be careful not to call Angels & Demons one of the worst. But I really can’t give this film more than **+. My mug is down.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Moon


Who would have thought that just a few days after asking for a quiet intelligent science fiction film, I would actually get to see one. Moon is a low-budget indie film (rare enough for science fiction) starring Sam Rockwell as a man working alone on the moon for three years, overseeing a largely automatic mining operation. Strange things start to happen and Sam begins to suspect that his robot/computer sidekick (voiced by Kevin Spacey) knows more than he’s telling.

Moon reminds me of Solaris and 2001 and Silent Running but the story is unlike any of those. The story does remind me of another sci-fi film, but I can’t mention it without giving away a major surprise element in the plot. Moon is a very quiet film, with only one actor on the screen for most of it, but there is a consistent level of suspense, a thought-provoking story, a strong sci-fi feel and, thankfully, a good acting job by the one actor, Sam Rockwell.

Still, Moon is not perfect. The one-man show doesn’t always work and the plot is neither as tight nor as intelligent as it could be. But for a low-budget film from a first-time director (Duncan Jones), this is an excellent effort and, for me, just as entertaining as Star Trek, which probably cost hundreds of times more. ***+

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Star Trek


I first fell in love with Kirk, Spock and Bones back in 1966 (What’s that? No, of course I’m not that old! I was watching from my crib.); I was among the earliest generation of Trekkies. The original Star Trek series filled me with a sense of wonder and with optimism about the future of humanity. It engaged both my mind and my heart on a regular basis. Despite the laughable sets and special effects (no doubt very innovative for their time), Star Trek felt like sci-fi – like I really was in a future world where interplanetary travel was commonplace. It regularly sent tingles up and down my spine. And despite the hokey acting and plots, the characters quickly became like family to me. Star Trek (The Original Series) remains one of my all-time favourite TV shows.

When Kirk, Spock and McKoy were translated to the big screen back in 1979, I was slightly disappointed by the way the more polished sets and special effects actually diminished some of the sci-fi feel (though the first, and least popular, film was the best in this regard), but I very much enjoyed those first four Star Trek films. Then things started to go downhill.

I would love to report that the new Star Trek film by J.J. Abrams (writer/director of Alias and LOST) is a return to form, especially since it has been getting such great reviews. But sadly that is not the case.

Yes, the filmmakers have done a great job of casting lookalikes of all the Star Trek regulars and of making them completely believable as the younger versions of the original characters. The interaction between these characters is certainly the highlight of the film, though I would have wished for more of Bones (maybe in the sequels). When the film focused on the characters and the often humorous dialogue between them, it had my complete attention (I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Leonard Nimoy). Unfortunately, the film was not dominated by characters or dialogue but by action. This was clearly a Star Trek made for the 21st century – all action and great special effects for those with short attention spans and very little substance. Just as I prefer quiet, intelligent thrillers, I prefer quiet intelligent science fiction films. This was not one of them. The action, violence and overwhelming soundtrack (sound effects and score) so dominated the film that I found little room for wonder and rarely felt that I was watching a real sci-fi film. And there was almost nothing to engage my mind; instead of interesting philosophical ideas, all we were given was the usual Spock/Kirk engagement on emotions versus logic. This was an interesting part of the plot but hardly anything new.

I won’t comment much on the time travel/alternate reality plot. This clever if illogical device allows the filmmakers to disregard the Star Trek timeline and do their own thing with our beloved characters. I don’t mind if this allows for some creative new storytelling. But that’s not what we get here.

I mentioned that the original series filled me with optimism about the future of humanity. This film does not do that. Instead of convincing me that humanity has basically set aside the need for wars and violence (and yes, I know the original series was often very ambiguous and hypocritical in this regard), it left me with the feeling that not much had changed during the intervening centuries – it’s still all about who has the biggest weapons or at least the most clever use of weapons. This is a dark film about what still seems to be a dark time. The careless and insulting way that the demise of the Romulans is depicted (almost as a joke between Kirk and Spock at the film’s darkest minute) shows how little the filmmakers have thought about their message in this regard.

Star Trek, the 2009 film, is an engaging bit of pop entertainment by one of the big pop entertainers of our time, J.J. Abrams. Does Abrams, who clearly has his fingers on the pulse of the masses, represent the direction of entertainment in the 21st century? His LOST TV series is the most popular TV show of the century. I watch LOST. I enjoy LOST. The intriguing plot and well-made flashbacks give hope that this series is intelligent and humanizing and worth watching, but far too often I get the feeling that the show makers are just manipulating the audience and do not have a clear idea of where they are going. It’s not about making us think or care but about making us come back week after week. And, like Star Trek, it relies far too much on violence as a necessary part of what constitutes entertainment. I, for one, am not entertained by violence or by action, but by the engagement of my mind and my heart. The offerings at the multiplexes this summer fill me with despair. Is mindless action and toilet humour really what we want our children to grow up with? Let’s demand more from those who make our films and TV shows (Aaron Sorkin, how are you at sci-fi?).

I give Star Trek an objective rating of ***+ because I think that is what the film deserves as a piece of fun entertainment but a subjective rating of *** because of my disappointment. My mug is up but the stuff inside, while spicy, lacks any real flavour.

Friday, 8 May 2009

State of Play


Do I love subtle sophisticated intelligent political thrillers involving a well-played protagonist trying to fight the system and expose the truth? You know I do. And if you add a decent level of characterization, an intriguing script in which Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton, Duplicity) was involved in the writing, the sure direction of Kevin Macdonald (Last King of Scotland), a wonderful gritty film-nourish atmosphere, an excellent score, and some great acting by most (Ben Affleck should stick to writing/directing) of the cast (including Russell Crowe, Rachel McAdams, Helen Mirren, Jeff Daniels and Robin Wright Penn), you surely must have a winner.

Yes, indeed, State of Play had all the makings for being one of the best films of the year. The failure of the ending to deliver the goods therefore comes as a very bitter disappointment. The ending is so important to me (and, I assume, to most people) and if it doesn’t work, the whole movie can die. Maybe it’s because there were three writers and Gilroy should have done it by himself. Or maybe he was the one responsible and everyone thought he would know best. Whatever, the ending did not satisfy me at all and I am tempted to demote the film to an average three stars.

But I loved the atmosphere, I loved the controlled use of action, I loved the suspense and I loved the interaction between Crowe, McAdams and Mirren so much that I must give State of Play ***+ for effort and set my anger aside. My mug is up but there are some bitter dregs near the bottom.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

A Day at the Movies




It’s been a long time since I got to watch a double-header and I was not disappointed, enjoying both films more than the average critic.

Knowing
Sure, the plot is rather preposterous, a combination of a bizarre disaster flick and horror/science fiction. It can’t help but remind one of M. Night Shyamalan films, which is not always a good thing (though I also enjoy his films more than the average critic). And the acting is not very impressive, though the critics are too hard on poor Nicolas Cage (I’ve seen much worse). But you have to keep in mind that my top priority is neither the plot nor the acting – it is the WOW factor, something that was desperately lacking in the films of 2008. Both the recent The International and Knowing, neither of which are that good in other ways, get high marks for the WOW factor and that makes them very much worth watching in my book, especially on the big screen.

The other thing that made Knowing so intriguing for me was the theme of randomness versus determinism. This theme is introduced and then largely evaded, but it is still fascinating to consider. The ending, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and appreciated on many levels, begs more questions than it answers, but WOW endings are all too rare and therefore precious to me. Then of course there is the religious element (specifically referring to Ezekiel’s vision), also interesting to consider and making this a very discussable film. Finally, the cinematography was, for me, perfect throughout, and the music, while occasionally over the top, also worked well for me.

Alex Proyas, the director of Knowing, made one of my all-time favourite films ten years ago (Dark City). Knowing contains some similar themes, though it is inferior in almost every way. Still, the fact that critics panned this film while I quite enjoyed it (leaving believability at the door) shows that Proyas has an ability to connect with me and I will look forward to what he does next (maybe he should stick to having a single writer next time).

I will take the risk of losing some credibility and give Knowing ***+.


Duplicity

As I have said before, I am a fan of calm, intelligent, sophisticated thrillers, so I also very much enjoyed Duplicity. While not quite up to the level of Tony Gilroy’s last outing, Michael Clayton, which was one of my favourite films of 2007, Duplicity nevertheless flowed very nicely, with beautiful locations and cinematography. It featured some good acting by Clive Owen, Julia Roberts, Paul Giamatti and Carrie Preston (in a small scene-stealing role) and it managed to thwart all my efforts to anticipate the ending (it felt like a bit of a cheat, but fooling me is the important thing). ***+

All in all, a very good day at the movies. More reviews coming this week.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Henry Poole is Here


This is a movie that I saw too late to add to my top ten list. It definitely would have been on it. It's the style of quirky comedy drama that I'm always on the lookout for, and in this case I think it's an effective parable on the risks of faith and hope.

Some, no doubt, will not like the positivity of the movie (but they are probably taking it overly literally), while others might find the consistent undertone of sadness and isolation difficult. The fact that both of these are possible is part of why I love it. They make a brilliant decision of not providing much information at all on the characters (an odd reference on imdb to a backstory that is not at all referred to in the movie makes one wonder if there were some late deleted scenes, but they are not included on the dvd). This minimalist style enhances its parabolic feel. You could almost imagine a Jesus-like teacher telling the story..."There was a man lost in hopeless sadness...." We don't need to know all the reasons for his sadness - we all know plenty enough to know it happens to people.

The acting, the tone, the composition, the pacing - these all work very well for me. Somehow I didn't find the comic moments and the depth of sadness were at all at odds with each other. The only place I felt needed tweaking were the last five minutes. It felt like some of the skillful nuancing was lost. But a wonderful movie - **** and a full mug up from me.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Frost/Nixon


Ron Howard’s film is excellent, with an amazing performance by Frank Langella as Richard Nixon, a beautifully-written screenplay, fine camera work and an incredible ability to turn a television interview, with a known outcome, into a work of nail-biting suspense. The last 45 minutes are marvellous.

Still, the film is not perfect. For me, using “live” interviews of various lesser characters to make the film feel like a documentary was unnecessary and distracted from the rest of the film (which is not filmed like a documentary). A great effort, worthy of a solid ***+ and a mug full of the good stuff.

I was worried that Frost/Nixon might have made it into my top ten of 2008 if I had been able to see it a week earlier, and I was right to be worried. But at least it would not have broken into my top seven.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Vic's Top Ten Films of 2008











It was another good year for films, though not outstanding. In particular, it was a good year for animated films. There are two animated films in my top ten of 2008 and they don’t even include WALL-E (sorry Walter and Gareth). WALL-E is a great film and I thoroughly enjoyed it – it’s probably my eleventh favourite film of the year – but it was just a little too lightweight (and had just a little too much Disney redemptive violence) to make my top ten. If I hadn’t been forced to include two 2007 films which were released in the UK in 2008, then maybe WALL-E would be number nine. Of course, there are major 2008 films (e.g. Frost/Nixon and Revolutionary Road) which still haven’t been released in the UK, so this is a problem that comes up every year.

I do want to mention one other film that should be in my top ten films of 2008. I left it off of my list because it was never officially released in the UK (or even in the U.S.). It’s a French-Canadian film, originally released in 2007, called Days of Darkness (Canada’s English title). This is the latest film by Denys Arcand, my favourite Canadian director, who has made classics like Jesus of Montreal and The Barbarian Invasions. I loved this film (it was the “wow” film of the year for me), which takes place in Montreal in some very near future. It’s hilarious, thought-provoking and perceptive, with a great lead performance by Jean-Marc Leblanc. What a shame that so few have had the opportunity to see it (though I already own the DVD, so the opportunity is out there).

Most of my top ten films have been reviewed on this blog, with my full-length review of my favourite film of 2008 just below the list.

Anyway, here are my top ten films of 2008, counting down:

10. My Winnipeg
This only made my top ten because I grew up in Winnipeg at exactly the same time that Guy Maddin grew up in Winnipeg, so the film connected at a deep level, even though it wasn’t generally my kind of film. It is, however, a gorgeous, surreal, insightful and funny docu-fantasia that I am eager to watch again.

9. Persepolis
With the attempted demonization of Iran in 2008, what could be timelier than a film which humanises Iranians and tells us about the country they live in. Based on her graphic novels, this black and white animated film from Marjane Satrapi is a moving and beautifully-told story of a fascinating young life.

8. In the Valley of Elah
My favourite thriller of the year, this is a subtle, quiet and intelligent film with an outstanding performance by Tommy Lee Jones and superb understated performances by Charlize Theron and Susan Sarandon.

7. Happy-Go-Lucky
Mike Leigh does it again with this wonderful life-affirming film which provides us with an inspiring role model who makes us ask how our attitudes and actions affect the lives of those around us.

6. Milk
Fuelled by Sean Penn’s terrific performance as Harvey Milk, a gay activist in 1970s San Francisco, Milk is an incredibly well-made and inspiring political drama based on real-life events.

5. Waltz With Bashir
Another timely, brilliant animated film based on real-life events, Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir is about an Israeli soldier in the Lebanon War of 1983 and combines deep psychological insights with a strong anti-war message. This horrific but humanising story is gorgeous to watch.

4. Doubt
With brilliant performances, magnificent scenes and the most intelligent thought-provoking screenplay of the year, this film by John Patrick Shanley probes deeply into questions about doubt, progress and human nature.

3. The Visitor
Profoundly moving without being sentimental, this incredibly subtle film by Tom McCarthy is the most humanising film of the year, and it looks gorgeous.

2. The Edge of Heaven
Fatih Akin’s film about people learning to see things differently by encountering those “on the other side” (the original German title) features marvellous natural performances and beautiful cinematography.

1. U23D
This passionate plea for the world’s religions to lead the way in making the world a more just and peaceful place is the most inspiring and hopeful film of the year and, just for good measure, it throws in some of the best rock songs ever written. Arguably the best concert, and concert film, of all time.


U23D Review
Back in the mid-eighties, someone told me about a unique Christian rock band from Dublin with a passion for peace and justice. This sounded distinctly promising to me and from my first exposure to the albums War and The Unforgettable Fire (followed by the magnificent The Joshua Tree), I have been a huge fan of U2.

Arguably the greatest rock band of all time, U2 has maintained its passion for peace and justice and some of its Christian roots and is sharing these with a new generation of fans. This is clearly evidenced in U23D, a filmed version of U2’s 2006 Latin American concert tour released earlier this year.

U23D is, as its title states, a 3D film, requiring 3D glasses and a digital cinema, and, from a technological standpoint, the film is brilliant. The filmmakers have done a marvellous job of editing the concert footage into what seems like just one concert and of making each member of the band (Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen Jr.) stand out in his own special way. More importantly, you are frequently placed in the audience in such a way that you feel you are there, in Buenos Aires, bouncing up and down in the midst of the undulating crowd. This would be a great film experience even if you were not watching one of the best concerts ever given, but you are doing exactly that.

The concert opens with “Vertigo”, a song about temptation and about God (“I can feel your love … teaching me how to kneel”), and closes with “Yahweh”, a prayer for each of us and for the cities we live in. Between these recent songs, which show the ongoing influence of U2’s Christian/spiritual roots, we have a collection of U2’s very best songs conveying a passionate plea to the world’s religions, the world’s nations, and the world’s people to work together for peace and social justice - to make the world a better place.

My favourite parts of the film are the close-ups of the youngish crowd, in stadiums in Mexico City, Santiago, Sao Paolo, and Buenos Aires, passionately singing along. You can see in their faces, in the tears streaming from their eyes, that they not only adore U2, they also have broken hearts which desperately long for the peace and justice which U2 is crying for. This is all the more poignant when one considers how these Latin American countries have suffered in the past forty years, with countless millions driven into poverty by what Naomi Klein, in her new bestseller, The Shock Doctrine, calls corporatism, a form of capitalism very popular today that always results in the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. Personally, I can imagine few more inspiring and hopeful things in the world than seeing young people literally crying for a better world and being encouraged to expose and challenge the Domination System which is standing in the way.

With a global reach which includes at least a billion people, U2 has the taken up the challenge of inspiring generations to struggle for a better world where human life is properly valued. U23D is a marvellous, moving and life-affirming film.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

The Wrestler


The Wrestler does not start in a way that’s likely to impress me, with grainy hand-held camera work and wrestling (I don’t hate wrestling as much as Who Wants to be a Millionaire or highwire walking, but it’s close). But then the grainy cinematography became the perfect way to show the real and ordinary and depressed life of this troubled and desperately-lonely man in the midst of a real and ordinary lower class environment full of real and ordinary people. That worked very well for me indeed, especially with Mickey Rourke’s magnificent performance (his performance in Sin City was one of my favourite of a few years ago). And no one watching a Darren Aronofsky film is likely to think they are going to see a feel-good film, so the relentless misery of The Wrestler is hardly surprising. Still, my enjoyment of the film stops at a deep appreciation of such a real-life honest story. A solid ***+, but it won’t make my top ten of 2008, which is coming tomorrow.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Slumdog Millionaire


What am I missing? EVERYONE loves Slumdog Millionaire. The critics love it (my favourite critic, Roger Ebert, called it a masterpiece). Walter loves it. The masses love it. So why didn’t I love it? Could it be because I hate Who Wants to be a Millionaire even more than highwire walking? Quite possibly, since that game show is a core plot element throughout and my hatred for the show had to interfere with my objectivity.

I certainly agree that Slumdog Millionaire is a brilliantly-made film. The cinematography is outstanding, the acting is very good, the direction and editing are almost flawless and I loved the Mumbai setting and the insight it gives us into lives of people in India. It also has moments of great humour, enough for most comedies these days, even though this is most certainly not a comedy. And perhaps that is where the film loses me. One critic wrote that this is the “feel-good film of the year”. I was appalled by this. I didn’t feel good at all. I found it to be a very dark film and far more violent than I ever would have guessed it would be. I like to be surprised by a film (which is why I go in knowing absolutely nothing) but most of the surprises in Slumdog Millionaire left me cold.

Too many little parts of the story just didn’t work for me. For example, this is a film about serendipity, or the “mystical flow” as I call it, and that alone might have suggested this would be one of my favourite films of the year, but this plot element involved that incredibly stupid game show and so I could not appreciate it at all.

My review is harsh because this film has been so popular and won the Golden Globe. I just don’t think it’s that good. Nevertheless, I do think it deserves ***+, though it will not make my top ten of 2008.

My mug is up but the stuff inside is a tad too bitter for me.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Waltz With Bashir


Could any film be more timely? Waltz With Bashir is a brilliant animated film in the tradition of Richard Linklater’s Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, both of which rank in my favourite films of all time. This film is about an Israeli soldier in the Lebanon War of 1983 and combines deep psychological insights with a strong anti-war message (how could I not love it). Specifically, this film tells the story of an Israeli soldier trying to remember his participation in a horrific massacre of Palestinians in 1983. It does not go into the political issues, which is possibly wise in that it was made with Israeli government support and will probably get a much more sympathetic viewing in Israel as a result, but it is this wishy-washy ending (politically) which kept Waltz With Bashir out of my top three films of the year.

But I still loved it. The animation is absolutely perfect for this kind of film and gorgeous to watch, even as it concerns such a horrific story. What happens at the very end of the film is also spot-on. The psychological journey on which we are led by Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman is likewise spot-on. This is a film that wowed me and kept me absolutely glued to the screen throughout.

For those of us who have been appalled at the Israeli oppression of Palestinians, and who see this oppression as one of the key factors in world violence in the past forty years, it is important to be put into the shoes of an Israeli soldier from time to time. This is humanisation at its best, and although the film doesn’t show much of the Palestinian people who are the victims of the massacre, it nevertheless tries to humanise them as well. By concentrating on the psychological tragedy and humanisation, the film becomes clearly anti-war. It also (like The Reader) asks about the guilt of those who allow genocide to happen, whether it be the Germans in World War II or the Israelis in the 20th century. Bringing the Nazis into this kind of film was a bold move indeed, for it invites thought/comparison about how the Jews who suffered so much oppression at the hand of the Nazis could now inflict so much suffering on the Palestinians. If the film had gone just a little farther in its consideration of this, it might have said more to the current situation in Gaza, but it is still unbelievably timely (though it hasn’t had much impact on the Israeli government as far as I can tell). I still give Waltz With Bashir **** and it may still make my top five of 2008.

My mug is way up

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Three Recent Viewings




The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Long, slow, gorgeous, mesmerizing. By the end of this David Fincher film, I had completely forgotten where I was, so either the film had drawn me in so completely or it had put me to sleep. Let’s be generous and go with the former. It was an absorbing old-fashioned epic that makes you believe the unbelievable. I particularly enjoyed the first half of the film, when Button is still an older man, and the fantastic period detail throughout. The cinematography is outstanding. Brad Pitt does a fine job as Button, and Cate Blanchett is always good. But the film was just too long for me (i.e. the story just didn’t have enough strong content to sustain it for that long). There is a discussion to be had here about the meaning of life from a B.B. point of view, but it needs to be done in person. Maybe it would help if I watched it backwards? ***+

Vicky Christina Barcelona

Strange little film by Woody Allen somehow got the critics loving him again, but I, who am a huge Allen fan, did not think it was one of his best, though I certainly enjoyed it. The acting is very good, the cinematography is gorgeous, the setting is one I like, and I particularly enjoyed the constant voice-overs. But the plot didn’t really work for me. I think the story could have been much tighter (I couldn’t always tell if it was trying to be silly or just being silly) and the dialogue could have been more intelligent (for an Allen film). It won the Golden Globe for best comedy and I am happy for Woody, but I thought Happy-Go-Lucky and In Bruges were better films. ***

Man on Wire

This critical favourite was certainly a brilliantly-made and inspiring documentary, but my phobia for heights prevents me from giving it an objective viewing. While I respect the film and all who were involved with it and I respect highwire walking as a metaphor (the last lines of the film were great), I simply have no respect for the actual act of highwire walking (or mountain/rock climbing, or most death-defying activities). Because of that, I simply could not enjoy the subject matter of this film in a way that most people (including my friend Gareth, who ranked this as his favourite film of 2008) apparently could. I give it ***+ because it was such a lovely and brilliant film, but it will not make my top ten.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Top Ten for 2008 - "The Year of Vindication"

I thought I'd beat you to a top ten list, Vic. If I don't do it soon, it will keep changing because there are several key films for the year that I haven't seen yet. But that's life in St. Stephen, and that's why a few of these should probably have been on last year's list. So here goes:

10. The Bank Job. This was a surprise for me. I don't remember it all that well anymore, but I seem to recall that it was entertaining and intelligent - had all the kind of ingredients that one would want in a heist movie, which is pretty good for one based on a true story.

9. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. One of the leftovers from last year. What really impressed me about this one was not the realistic and grim appraisal of abortion in Eastern Europe, but the fact that the friend was the protagonist. It was a good, if minimalist, story about the friend's battle within herself to help someone who was both desperate and frustratingly, continually irresponsible (not an uncommon combination for someone who often needs the help of a responsible, caring friend).

8. The Dark Knight. As I've said earlier, not perfect, but a very solid follow-up to Batman Begins. Plenty enough has been said about this.

7. Happy-Go-Lucky. Very unique kind of movie based on a very unique kind of character (Poppy). Thought-provoking and impressive right to the end. I appreciated how I would almost get annoyed with Poppy, but then that feeling would get sidelined by some solid respect for her.

6. The Band's Visit. It helped my impression of this movie that I saw it soon after watching Offside, which I found a little difficult to make it through. I loved the tone of this movie and the way it was acted and directed - the timing of many scenes worked perfectly for me.

5. No.1 Ladies Detective Agency. I expected something more made-for-TV out of this film, but for some reason watching this just made me very happy. I've always found reading McCall Smith reminded me a little of listening to Bach - something about the ordered contentment of Precious' thinking, I guess. The movie did the same with the significant added bonus of beautiful cinematography and amazing music.

4. Welcome to the Sticks. Not since The Castle have I appreciated the warm-hearted depiction of the backwards life this much. This one caught me totally off guard on a plane trip and it reminded me a little of newcomers warming up to life in St. Stephen. I suspect this is why I am ranking it higher than it probably deserves based on its quality alone.

3. Slumdog Millionaire. Just saw this last night and I felt it was deserving of the critical attention it has been getting. Great story, strong themes, strong visuals, life-affirming - the only problem was that there were a few too many music video-like moments where I suspect you have to be under 30 to follow what is going on.

2. The Visitor. Now we're approaching the reason for this being called the Year of Vindication. It has long been a pet peeve of mine that movies do a great disservice to the name of Walter. As a name that was apparently outlawed for new children a few years after I was born, moviemakers seemed to think it was fair game to use this name for such purposes as the boring guy who loses the girl or the overweight security guard who is duped. In The Visitor, it's true that Walter starts off in somewhat typical Walter fashion, but he is such an excellently portrayed character that I want to play djembe like him. Beautiful film.

1. Wall-E.
And continuing on the theme of vindication (I was often called Wally in high school), here is a name that seemed almost too easy to make fun of that is given to the most wonderful little droid around. Lots, again, has been said, but probably the best film of the year.

My honourable mentions for the year include: Lions for Lambs, War, Inc., Chaos Theory, Iron Man and The Valley of Elah.


Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Australia


Most critics panned Australia. I can sort of understand why, but anyone who has seen Baz Luhrmann’s films should know what they are walking into. If you don’t like Luhrmann, don’t watch his films. If you like his films, Australia will not disappoint you.

Australia is a quirky old-fashioned epic, the kind they used to make before 1970. After half an hour or so, Gone With the Wind will come to mind and not long after that I thought of The Wizard of Oz (appropriate for an Australian film). Seconds after thinking this, The Wizard of Oz became a central part of the plot. That’s when Luhrmann had me.

Sure, the film is entirely predictable. Sure the CGI is obvious. Sure the music and some of the acting are way over the top, giving us the kind of over-sentimentalized melodrama that could be quickly condemned if this were not a Baz Luhrmann film. But it is a Luhrmann film and you have to believe that this is exactly the kind of film he was trying to make, something that would have been treated very differently in 1939, or even 1959.

Besides the Oz theme, a highlight for me was the way the Aboriginal people of Australia (the best actors in the film, especially Brandon Walters as Nulla) featured so prominently in the film. This could have been used to even greater effect, and the ending could have been much more imaginative (if it had been, I might have given Australia four stars), but there were so many gorgeous memorable scenes that I could overlook the plot’s failings. The grand romance between Nicole Kidmann and Hugh Jackmann doesn't always work (Kidmann is not at her best here), but it works well enough to overlook the problems here as well. I enjoy watching the great epics of the 30’s and 50’s and I thought Australia was grand entertainment of a kind we rarely see anymore.

I give Australia ***+. My mug is up.

Monday, 5 January 2009

Iron Man


Part way through Iron Man (this spring’s biggest hit), Obadiah Stane reminds Tony Stark that Stark Industries built its innovative energy device, called the “Arc Reactor”, to “appease the hippies” (i.e. it is an instrument of peace designed by a company which specializes in designing and manufacturing the world’s most advanced and deadly weapons). The fact that the Arc Reactor itself becomes an instrument of death in Iron Man is therefore “pretty ironic, man”. But even more ironic is how the filmmakers fill their film with irony and yet don’t seem to realize it themselves.

Iron Man, directed by Jon Favreau, is full of clever writing and wry humour, with many wonderful lines superbly delivered by its two central actors, Robert Downey Jr. (who plays Tony Stark to perfection) and Jeff Bridges (great as the “baddie”, Obadiah Stane). Some examples will show how these lines challenge us to think critically about the weapons industry.

Before his “conversion” experience in a cave in Afghanistan, Tony Stark is naively casual about his role as a weapons designer, saying things like: “My old man had a philosophy: Peace means having a bigger stick than the other guy,” to which a journalist responds, " A lot of people would call that war-profiteering.” Stark’s answer: “I guarantee you the day weapons are no longer needed to keep the peace, I'll start making bricks and beams for baby hospitals.”

This is good stuff, and it continues when Stark returns from captivity in Afghanistan as a new man: “I saw young Americans killed by the very weapons I created to defend them and protect them. And I saw that I had become part of a system that is comfortable with zero-accountability… so, effective immediately, I am shutting down our weapons program”. Wow! And when Stane reacts to this news with comments like: “Your father, he helped give us the atomic bomb. Now what kind of world would it be today if he was as selfish as you?” we can surely be forgiven for thinking that we are watching a film that is using irony to condemn the American weapons industry and the whole military-industrial complex. Unfortunately, such thinking would be premature.

For no sooner has Stark stated that he is shutting down his weapons program when he begins work on Iron Man, the ultimate weapon. Again, there are hints to suggest the film’s writers see the irony here. When Stark’s assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), sees the “iron” suit, she challenges Stark, saying: “I thought you said you were done making weapons”. He responds: “This is a flight stabilizer. It's completely harmless.” A funny scene follows, showing how untrue this statement is, but the fact remains that the Iron Man suit is full of weapons, as recognized by Stane later in the film, when he tells Stark: “Isn’t it ironic that you who wanted to destroy weapons have built the world’s deadliest weapon?” Indeed, it is very ironic. And all the lines quoted above suggest the writers are aware of the irony. But to say the film itself sustains little of this irony would be an understatement.

Quoting my daughter: “On the surface, Iron Man seems to be the tale of a man who discovers the error of his ways, repents and starts on a journey of redemption.” But Stark’s journey is short-circuited by inconsistent writing (I understand there were two sets of writers), which prevents him from seeing the irony of his own deadly use of weapons. The audience, likewise, is expected to applaud Stark’s use of redemptive violence. And a film that begins by challenging the weapons industry is left suggesting that weapons are okay in the right hands; the problem only arises when you sell them to the wrong people (guns don’t kill people; people kill people). Not only will Iron Man not cause anyone at the Pentagon to lose sleep, by the end we are wondering whether Iron Man will soon be working for the Pentagon.

Contrast this film with the brilliant The Iron Giant (animated film from 1999). The costume, powers and weaponry of the “iron man” are almost identical, but The Iron Giant really does challenge the military-industrial complex (along with the myth of redemptive violence), and it does so consistently. If only Iron Man, which is otherwise a well-made, well-acted, funny and enjoyable superhero film, hadn’t allowed the final irony to be that the most ironic film of the year was not ironic enough.

Because I enjoyed the film and especially the lines quoted above and the acting of Downey, Jr. and Bridges, I gave this film a very lukewarm ***+, but I was probably feeling too generous. My mug is up, but the stuff inside could taste a whole lot better.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian


This was one of my 2008 reviews, first published elsewhere.

Prince Caspian, Disney’s second film in the Chronicles of Narnia series, was one of the biggest hits of 2008, which means you’ve probably seen it already (if such films interest you). And if you have read some of my other reviews, you already know why Prince Caspian was such a huge disappointment for me, though it wasn’t all bad.

Actually, I think Prince Caspian is a better film than its predecessor (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), if measured by the usual standards of filmmaking achievement. I particularly enjoyed the darker somber atmosphere (though this contrasts markedly with the children’s book on which it is based) and the gorgeous cinematography. The score was appropriately grand and the acting was adequate, though by no means outstanding. The direction by Andrew Adamson was tighter the second time around and the film had its entertaining and funny moments (especially those involving Reepicheep, the mouse).

But the film also has many flaws. The plot was much too thin for an adventure film (perhaps that’s because it was turned into a standard medieval battle film), the character development was minimal (and rather boring) and the last half-hour capped the story in a way that is surely making C.S. Lewis (the author of the book) want to cry out from heaven in protest.

The story, such as it is, concerns the return of the four Pevensie children (Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy) to Narnia, where they discover that 1300 years have passed since their previous visit. During their absence, the Narnians have been all but wiped out by a race of humans called Telmarines, and Aslan (the lion who represents Jesus in Narnia) has not been heard from. Thus begins the grand battle to retake Narnia for the Narnians, led by the Pevensies and Prince Caspian, a Telmarine who is sympathetic to Narnians and whose uncle wants to kill him.

Early in the film, Prince Caspian tells his new Narnian friends that they need soldiers and weapons. Like the world in which certain contemporary politicians live, Narnia is apparently not a place where diplomacy is an option. It’s an evil vs. good, us vs. them world and the only option is to use violence to wipe the dehumanised enemy off the face of the earth.

The film is absurdly inconsistent in its attitude toward war and violence. Scenes in which Edmund describes the war and killing as abominable and Caspian tells his uncle he (Caspian) is not a killer like him are followed by a scene in which Edmund and the prince charge gleefully into battle, shouting “For Aslan!” as they begin slaughtering the enemy. The film is also inconsistent in its vain attempt to avoid black and white depictions of the Telmarines (who look dangerously like Arabs). The shades of grey are evident but make no sense whatsoever.

But the most disturbing thing about Prince Caspian is that it will be seen as a good Christian family film because it is the work of a Christian author. I am a huge fan of C.S. Lewis and the Narnia books, which I read to my children before they were ten. Prince Caspian is a light-hearted book in which Reepicheep hurts no one, the final battle lasts just a few short pages, and Aslan brings the battle to an end without violence. In contrast, in Prince Caspian (the movie), Reepicheep kills many with his two-inch sword, the final battle is long and climactic, and Aslan calls upon the forces of nature to help wipe out the enemy to end the battle. This ending completely undermines the only spiritual plot development, in which Lucy argues with her brothers about putting their faith in Aslan and her brothers ignore her and put their faith in their heroic military might. In the end, the brothers need Aslan to save them but there is no sense that Aslan disapproves of their lack of faith or their use of violence.

While Lewis was certainly not a pacifist (indeed, some of his early writings seem to glorify war), I cannot but believe he would be horrified to see how Disney has created a war movie out of his children’s book. And, aside from Lucy’s struggle with her and her brothers’ faith, I saw nothing I would call Christian in Prince Caspian. But I saw much which I would call the opposite of Christian, like the message that the peaceable kingdom is only achieved through war.

Yes, I am, of course, talking about redemptive violence again. I wish we lived in a world that wasn’t so blind to the way violence permeates global politics and where the majority of Christians didn’t so easily accept the necessity of that violence. Then I would believe those who say that children are not negatively influenced by the redemptive violence in children’s films. Until I live in such a world, I will continue to say: If we want future generations to live in a violent world, where war is the norm, where people are dehumanised and there can be no diplomacy, where might makes right, where killing and death is preferable to surrender and compromise, then by all means let’s keep feeding our children on redemptive violence. If that’s not the kind of world we want, then I believe that we must be willing to expose and challenge what others do not see, as Jesus did.

In the meantime, if your children have not yet seen Prince Caspian, don’t let them go alone (i.e. you’ll want to talk with them about it afterwards).

I gave Prince Caspian **+. My mug is draining fast.

Saturday, 3 January 2009

The Reader


Kate Winslet gives an excellent performance (though not as good as Streep in Doubt) in this story about a German boy/man (boy played by David Kross, older man by Ralph Fiennes) and his relationship to a mysterious woman with a dark past. Directed by Stephen Daldry , The Reader is an engaging film with a very European (specifically German) feel to it. For me, that’s a good thing. Aside from Winslet, Fiennes, and Lena Olin (who all speak English with a German accent), the actors are Germans speaking English. Kross and Bruno Ganz (in a supporting role as the law professor) are the stand-outs. The acting and German atmosphere were the highlights for me. Unfortunately, the screenplay doesn’t quite measure up. In particular, the pacing is too slow and doesn’t take advantage of the story’s more dramatic moments.

Nevertheless, the story does venture into some fascinating moral issues, especially with regard to scapegoating and the question of how wide the blame for the Holocaust might be extended. Ultimately, the film may even be asking how wide the blame for the Iraq invasion, etc. may be extended (though it is hard to blame the millions who protested). There is much here to think about and talk about and many questions to consider, but the film doesn’t give us quite enough to work with (at least not as much as I would have liked). The Reader could have been a great film, but it falls a little short. Still, I give it a solid ***+ for effort. My mug is up once again (I’m going to have to watch some duds so I can empty it).

Friday, 2 January 2009

Doubt


Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman give us two of the year’s best performances in this brilliant intelligent drama. Based on a play by John Patrick Shanley (who also wrote and directed the film), Doubt takes place in a New York Catholic school in 1964, where Sister Aloysius (Streep) is the stern and greatly-feared principal (the "dragon"). Aloysius is full of certainty and desperate to protect the ways of the past. Father Flynn (Hoffman) is the voice of progress, who wants to lighten things up a bit. Aloysius is suspicious of Flynn from the start and circumstances lead her to the conclusion that he is a child molester. But Sister James (played well by Amy Adams) has her doubts. The boy in question is the school’s only African-American and so the film also deals with racial issues. One of the film’s most powerful scenes (and there are many) is between the boy’s mother (Viola Davis) and Aloysius.

In the end, the film leaves us with many doubts, as it intends to do. But there is no doubt that this is a film worth watching more than once. Besides the Oscar-worthy performances from the lead actors, who give us one memorable scene after another, we have the always thought-provoking dialogue, the eerie atmosphere (the wind is a major character in the film) and a perfectly-realised setting. This is a film that provides hours of discussion-material (and you all know how much I like talking about films) on themes like change/progress versus conservative values, inflexibility versus openness and, of course, doubt versus certainty. With its endlessly fascinating dialogue, Doubt moved so quickly that its end completely surprised me (I thought it was barely half-over).

Doubt is not perfect. Some of the scenes, especially involving Sister James, seem unnecessary or misplaced and I hesitated at first to give it four stars because I so desperately wanted to know more about each of the main characters. We come into their lives in the midst of a story and hear almost nothing of what went before. In a play/film like this, it is perhaps expecting too much to provide the kind of history I was looking for and certainly the dialogue and acting give us well-developed characters even without the history. So I have decided to give the film **** after all, with my mug held high, and this is no doubt going to be another of my top ten films of 2008 (I may even be inspired to write a theological review).