Sunday, 25 April 2010

As it is in Heaven

There was lots I loved about this movie, and I definitely wouldn't have seen it if not for your recommendation, Vic. I had no idea that Swedes are so quirky and passionate (if this depiction is accurate). A lot of the depth of the movie is really only hinted at or inferred in brief glimpses, but in a way that worked - after all it is telling a lot of stories all at once. The power of the combination of relationship, honest expression and music is well-depicted. And the challenge that this power poses to organized religion (when religion foolishly lets itself be opposed to that combination) is also well-depicted, though the repressed pastor gets a little close to cliche (the one scene with his wife being a notable exception).

As a movie, the one weakness I had trouble forgiving was the invisibility of the town's professional services - does no one ever call the police or ambulance in small town Sweden? Would bringing in such services have taken away from the fable-like quality of the movie (perhaps)?

My biggest critique, however, is not with the movie as such but with the worldview it represents. As expressed by Inger, the pastor's wife, it is that "there is no sin" and therefore no need for forgiveness. I am familiar and not unsympathetic to this worldview. Like some therapeutic worldviews it also suggests that those who do great harm are still "doing their best" (as Gabriella says to Conny). Yes, I feel the pull to this idea, especially when you see it portrayed as in this movie. But I believe it is an anemic worldview. It refuses to look into one's own heart enough to see that we make real choices between vulnerable care for others and self-protective violence and apathy. We are not doing our best when we choose the latter. We often know, sooner or later - and with or without churches telling us - that we have screwed up and can't fix it. When that happens, forgiveness heals; permissive, expressive and universal acceptance does not. The latter, as I see it, simply confuses and makes meaningless our experience of suffering or over-simplistically attributes it all to ignorance. The problem is that we often know and are able to do better and still choose to hurt others.

I am pretty confident that there is a way between the self-righteous, repressed and ultimately dishonest worldview this movie sets itself against and the spineless (I mean this 'literally' not pejoratively) worldview that imagines that doing away with sin and forgiveness will liberate us.

But having a disagreement with its position did not stand in the way of liking this passionate and compassionate film. So I give it ***1/2. (I would have given it 4 if they would have ever just called the police.)

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

The Ghost Writer

Start with a quiet intelligent action-less thriller (you know the kind - one of my favourite genres), add a nice dose of contemporary film noir, spice up the atmosphere with endless rain and dark grey skies, and throw in some political conspiracy that tries to address a modern mystery: Why DID Tony Blair join Bush on that insane ill-advised invasion of Iraq? What do you get? You get the kind of film that could easily become one of my top ten films of the year, especially if it’s made by someone like Roman Polanski, who has made made some of my favourite thrillers (Frantic, Chinatown). Of course, you could mess it up with your choice of actors, none of whom I thought were particularly good (though all were competent). And your story could be as simplistically implausible as many political thrillers and have an ending that doesn’t completely satisfy. But none of those complaints were enough to prevent me from enjoying every minute of The Ghost Writer.

One of the reasons I love film noir is that few stories captivate me more than those involving a man out of his element, caught in the middle of something he does not understand, a man in way over his head who you know is about to discover something that will severely shorten his life expectancy. With its use of the grey weather and grey buildings, The Ghost Writer milks every ounce of suspense out of that background story. And it adds some subtle comic touches to the proceedings, as one would expect from Ewan McGregor, our protagonist. I didn’t think McGregor was brilliant, but he is a perfect choice for the role (like Harrison Ford was in Frantic and Jack Nicholson in Chinatown).

Adding to the intrigue of The Ghost Writer is the obvious link between the former British prime minister in the film and Tony Blair, even suggesting that Blair might have been a war criminal. To me, calling Bush and Blair war criminals is not much more revelatory than Green Zone’s suggesting there never were any WMDs. Nevertheless, Polanski’s willingness to go with a political plot like this (including using the name Hatherton instead of Haliburton) is laudable and lifts the film beyond mere escapist entertainment.

In October, 2002, three months after moving to London, a colleague with connections in the British military told me the UK was mobilizing for war and that it had already passed the point where an invasion could be prevented. After marching with over a million people in February of 2003, I went home to hear Blair tell the television audience how thrilled he was that he lived in a democracy where people were free to demonstrate in this way, but he was going ahead with the invasion anyway (regardless of how many of his people opposed it). His definition of democracy must be different than mine. That was the day I first asked the question: Why, Tony? Why would you endanger your career and the future of your party to do this? The Ghost Writer does not, I assume, pretend to know the real answer. But at least it got me thinking outside the box. Good job!

My mug is way up. ****

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Walter's Top 25(6) of the Decade

I’ll start (like you did, Vic) by clarifying what kind of list this is. It is certainly not a list of the best films. Nor do my criteria match up with Vic’s. These are simply my favourites. It was quite a surprise to me to realise which films I felt needed to be included and which great films simply didn’t feel right. A big factor for me were questions like: Which movies would I love to see again anytime someone wanted to join me? Or which movies would I most enjoy recommending to others? In other words a lot of it had to with personal staying power. A few near the bottom of the list don’t quite have that enjoyability factor, but they had an intellectual impact on me that made me feel a need to include them. I realise some of these choices may be painful to lovers of fine film, but to them I would say, “Go ahead and watch films like Ghost World and A Squid and a Whale if you want to (two films I’ve seen on several lists that I considered among the worst films I ever began watching), but that’s not my idea of a good time.

25. Memento – not a pleasant film but incredibly intriguing.
24. The Shipping News – I don’t understand why this isn’t more popular. A good story about Newfoundland with interesting atmosphere and a great score.
23. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days – also not a pleasant film, but a very unique and well-made glimpse into Eastern European life. I especially appreciated the study of the tired helper.
22. Wall-E – I felt I had to include one of the many great animated pictures made this decade.
21. Paris Je t’aime – A varied mix of film shorts on the theme of love in Paris. Several of them were impacting and memorable. The whole made a great experience.
20. Crash – I understand those who don’t like this and it moved lower in my list than I would have thought, but I think people aren’t being entirely fair to the type of movie that is artificially crafted to create a specific kind of experience. No it’s not realism, but it was very thought-provoking and moving.
19. O Brother Where Art Thou? – I haven’t seen this for too long and almost forgot to include it. Great music and fascinating twist on the Odyssey. Time to see it again.
18. Chocolat – Ditto on the too long since I’ve seen it, but great memories of this film.
17. Bourne trilogy – In spite of the annoying shaky cam, this was plain fun spy excitement from first to last.
16. The Constant Gardener – A great example of how the best kind of spy thriller transitions seamlessly to corporate thriller. Michael Clayton, of course, is another example that just didn’t make my list.
15. Danny Deckchair – A quirky comedy we stumbled across that I’ve enjoyed watching several times and keep recommending to others for an evening of feel-good entertainment with a nice light encouragement to live better.
14. Welcome to the Sticks – A couple annoying silly bits, but otherwise the same goes for this as the last one. Not quite sure why I placed it higher.
13. The Seduction of Dr. Lewis – A Quebecois film with a unique setting that tells a warm tale.
12. Henry Poole Is Here – One more quirky comedy – this one with a sad tone and thought-provoking story.
11. Joyeux Noel – Moving and true(ish) story and the end packs a nice punch.
10. Bella Martha – Original German version of No Reservations. Good food, therapy, drama and quirky comedy – what could be better?
9. The Visitor – A professor named Walter who is a good guy and learns to play the djembe – this would have been enough to make my list. But it’s also a great movie with a great title.
8. Once – Such a unique experience. Just saw it again for about the 4th time and I expected to like it less, but I didn’t. The best kind of low budget realism.
7. The Interpreter – The critics didn’t like it, but it combines an interesting thriller (with one unfortunate implausible bit) with a thought-provoking study of forgiveness and a great score.
7. Stranger than Fiction – (Excuse 2nd number 7 – last minute insert) Another example that silly comedic actors can play some of the best serious roles. As someone relatively enamoured with narrative psychology, I loved the play with the idea of story. Creative and well-acted all around.
6. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – A creative and unique comedy drama. Of the picks I saw near the top of a lot of people, this was the one I most agreed with.
5. The Lives of Others – Drama/thriller about East Germany – it’s good in so many ways it’s hard to know where to start.
4. Lars and the Real Girl – At first I thought I was one of the only ones to have discovered this gem of a movie. It’s a much needed story about how a family and community provide a humanizing context to deal with mental illness. And it’s fun at the same time. Suddenly I seem to see it referred to in a lot of odd places for the same reasons. Good to see it get the recognition it deserves.
3. Amelie – A work of art. Wonderful story about an unforgettable character, brilliantly filmed. Vic, I can only assume that you forgot this one.
2. Phone Booth – I use this a lot for classes and every time I watch it I appreciate it more. That’s certainly a sign of a film with lasting merit. A creative idea as a simple literal thriller, but also filled with deep meanings. Works amazingly as a parable about law/conscience/grace/confession. As you watch the movie and the final confession you feel purged and amazingly reminded that a self-centred jerk might actually have a real human being inside (so there’s hope for us all).
1. Lord of the Rings – Truly amazing that they pulled off the whole trilogy with the kind of grandeur and power one might have hoped for. I actually don’t like it as much as some of my other top ten films but it seems to have too much majesty about it to be placed lower.