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).